Rebooting… The annual new year’s post

It’s 2022. In many ways, I am massively relieved that 2021 is over. It was a hard, hard year. Some amazing things happened – dream job meaning big career boost and much-appreciated validation for years of hard work; moving abroad for said dream job. But, these amazing things have also meant hard changes, like leaving one of my children behind because he is now too old for a family visa, leaving my dream house near the beach in the best city in the world, having to adjust to a whole new country, people, job, house, everything, really. And I lost my mum, which I haven’t even really begun to process. And Covid, which I don’t think I need to really say too much more about this stage of the pandemic. But, because it was such a Year, I am Tired. Like on a Never-been-this-tired-before-ever-that-I-can-recall scale. I know I am not alone here. Many of us are burned out. Done. Tired to the bones. Over it all. And it feels like no amount of holiday or rest or time off can really take that level of tired away. It’s not just physical or even mental; it’s a deep emotional and psychic weariness, I think.

This pandemic is a big thing, a huge thing, really, because we have no idea when it will actually end (still assuming it will). But, climate change, political strife, war and unrest in many parts of the world, the ongoing awfulness of Internet trolls and mean, narrow-minded people who just don’t seem to care at all about anyone except themselves – all of these things may also feel like they are draining us. They’re there in the background all the time and sometimes in the foreground, and if we actually think about it all it just adds to the tiredness. You could say ‘well don’t think about it then’ and that can work for periods, but then you probably also have to take a very long break from newspapers, Twitter, and/or anything that feeds you information about the world around you, which would also disconnect you further from the world. Probably not the best idea at a time when disconnection is a significant concern, and when we actually do need to be informed and knowledgeable about what is happening around us.

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So, we’re Tired, we’re still disconnected, we’re not exactly rested and raring to go just yet, and the year is beginning. We need to get back to work, back to the doctorate, back to research and writing: we need to get back to Being Productive, whatever that means for us. My question for myself now is ‘How?’ I could really do with more time for country walks, knitting, and Netflix, to be honest. There’s a small part of me that’s starting to get a bit excited about my research, but feels pretty tired at the idea of all the reading and writing; I am starting to look forward to going back to my teaching, but feel pretty meh about all the admin. This is all normal, of course. I refuse to feel any kind of bad for not being super-excited about 2022, about my work, about all the writing I have committed to, about anything. I am grieving, I am tired, I am weighed down by sadness and stress, really. I am allowed to feel my feelings at my own pace. I am also saying this out loud in case any of you need to hear this and say something similar to yourselves.

But, I am also a Doer and part of a team. I am no longer just me, working all by myself at home online with no office or immediate colleagues or projects and workshops kicking off a week into the new year. This is a big change from previous years where, partly because of my contract role and partly because of the university calendar, work only got going in late January/early February. I had more time to ease myself into the year and into Being Productive. Here, the university year has started and my active teaching starts next week. I am part of a team. I’m still working at home thanks to Omicron, but not alone. So, I’m getting going but I’m giving myself permission to ease myself in this week. Start with email: clearing the inbox, replying where needed, turning off the auto-replies. Then the calendar: look at what’s coming up, make some small-and-achievable goals to get going with the writing and research, make some to-do lists for things that need to start happening. Then work: meetings that need to happen, workflows that need to kick off, tasks that need to be completed now, people that need to be connected with. That seems like a manageable plan to reboot my work-self and get things going in a non-overwhelming way.

I can’t end on one of those gung-ho, ‘we can do this!’ notes for this New Year’s post. I don’t really feel that so it would not ring true. What I do feel is an increasingly urgent need to take care of myself, to put acts of self-care higher on my list, to not push-push-push until I cannot actually move forward another step. I want to reach the end of the year, for starters, and when I do I want to look back on a year that has been full of enriching interactions with students and colleagues, a year that is more settled at work and at home, a year that has been full of really exciting and interesting reading, writing, conversations, and research. But I also want to look back on a year of time spent walking outdoors with my husband, drinking wine, dancing, and laughing with friends, hanging out with my boys, gardening and knitting, going on holidays with my family, exploring our new country (and hopefully one or two others as well). I want to feel I have grown both personally and professionally, that I have done meaningful work, that I have given back to and really been part of my different social and professional communities. I have to make that the balance between work and life and work and me happen and I hope I am finally learning how: to take it a task, a day, an interaction at a time; to slow myself down when I get ahead of myself; to surround myself with people who support and encourage me; to be that person for my students and colleagues – my students especially, who definitely need to see more examples of this in academia.

I hope you all are able to create your own intentional and meaningful paths through the year ahead, in whatever ways and spaces you can. I hope you will take care of yourselves and others this year, and that you will feel purposeful, useful, supported, challenged, and also stimulated and joyful in your writing, your research, your teaching and supervision, and in the things you choose to give yourself to outside of work and studies. Happy new year to you all, truly.

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“Take my advice but don’t follow my example”

I have not done very much writing recently unless you count many emails and feedback on other people’s writing, mainly students and peers whose work I have been examining, being a critical friend on, and reviewing. I have been pretty terrible at being any kind of example to my students of how to make time to write, basically. I am currently supervising a few part-time students with full-time lives and teaching a new round of my writing for publication course. As such, I have a great deal of advice for my students about how to carve out time, make reasonable, achievable writing goals, and generally put their writing closer to the top of their ‘to-do’ lists. I pretty much insist that they do this so that they have writing to send me for feedback. Am I taking my own advice, though, and being an example? Nope. Not even a little bit.

Now, I could argue that this is fine, actually. My time is quite justifiably taken up with supervision and teaching, and the ever-present admin and emails that come with that. This online life is nowhere near to being over, and being present in all these online ways takes up more energy than it seems like it should. So, I can have and dispense advice about all sorts of academic things I do not actually need to take or use myself (because I have taken it in the past, which is where it comes from). Right? Well, I am thinking lately the answer may not be so helpful if it is ‘yes’. I think I probably need to start taking some of my own advice and putting it into practice, rather than making excuses for not doing so, however reasonable these may seem or be at the time.

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See, I have learned over the last few years especially that too much time spent on other people’s writing means less and less energy for my own writing. And the less time I have for that, the less time I spend reading and thinking and generally feeling stimulated as a scholar. The more I start to feel like a workhorse for others and after a while I start to feel a bit resentful and cross that they are all writing and I am not. Let me be clear: this state of affairs is no one’s fault and this is not about blame. But, I think many academics – teachers and supervisors – feel like this: like they are there for everyone else but not so much for themselves. And it’s easy to say that this is on us, that we have agency and power and can change this and make more time for ourselves, our own writing, thinking, reading and scholarship. I have said that. But the reality is harder.

Without going into too much detail, the last four months have been intense on a personal and professional level to say the very least. I have been offered and have accepted a ‘dream’ job but that means I have to move countries; my mum has had unexpected medical issues that have meant a complete change of lifestyle for her. There has been so much noise in my head caused by all of this and the admin has been unreal – hours on phones and email and the Internet, asking questions and finding answers and filing complaints and claims. And on top of all that, the marking and teaching and examining and reviewing keeps coming in and needing to be done. And, of course, parenting and daughtering and partnering has to happen, too, and in very present ways. So, my brain goes: ‘Where am I supposed to make time, let alone find the emotional and mental energy, to write things that contribute to knowledge’? And it answers: ‘There is none right now, let it go, dude. That can come later, just survive now’.

There’s a lot of wisdom in knowing your limits, creating boundaries, saying ‘no’, caring for your mental, emotional, physical, spiritual wellbeing. Overworking yourself to the point of burnout helps no one, least of all you. I can’t help my mum or my family with zero energy on any front. But, see, this pandemic life has created quite a few of these moments of ‘Leave it for now, try again later’. And the thing that I most enjoy about being an academic is the thing that is constantly at the top of the ‘Leave for Later’ list. My writing, my scholarship. What is taking up the Now is admin (so much admin), emails (don’t get me started) and other people’s writing. I am not on the list. My work, my ideas, my writing, is not on the list. And, actually, that’s not cool with me. It’s not good for me and it is not good for my students, because being a good teacher and supervisor is bound up in and shaped by being an active thinker, reader, writer and researcher. I don’t think I can really be either; I need to be both.

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But, how to be both right now in this time and space where there is too little time and not enough space? How do I work on being more of an example and less of a cautionary tale? How do I feed my scholarly soul so that I have more energy for other people’s writing and ideas, which is actually a big part of my current and also new job?

I think this has to be my focus now. I tell my students not to start the week saying ‘I’m going to write all the things!’ I tell them, ‘Start with 25 minutes today on something productive: some freewriting, some planning, a bit of reading, some editing – whatever gets you a step closer to your writing goal. Cross it off for today, pat yourself on the back and tomorrow, try that again. Make small achievable goals you can reach to build your confidence and momentum. Be as encouraging of yourself as you would your friends and peers. Don’t be mean to yourself but don’t take it so easy that you get nothing done day after day and then sink into a pit of despair, feeling stuck and too scared to write’. I think this is actually pretty good advice and it is widely shared by writers who know their stuff.

I can take this advice. I can try this tomorrow, before all the marking and examining and emails. I can put myself in the Now and leave some of that stuff for Later.

Life, me and the PhD: learning to ask for, and accept, help

I have bronchitis, and for the last 2 weeks climbing out of bed to have a shower and change my pyjamas has left me breathless, heart pounding, and just exhausted. I’m getting better, but as this morning’s trial showed, hanging out one load of laundry is very tiring and I’m not at all back at normal speed yet. I have to let people help me do all the things I usually do, like laundry and tidying and managing the kids’ homework. I even have to ask for help with work stuff, or at least for extensions and extra consideration. This is really hard for me. I do not like asking for help, and I quite like doing things a certain way. Letting go of this ‘stuff’ is not easy. So, I have been prompted to reflect a bit on why I find this so hard, and how I could make this easier on myself going forward. Even when I am all better and stronger again, it would probably be good for me to ask for, and accept, help at home and at work.

This is not unlike what my life was like when I was working on my doctorate, or, more recently, my book. It was just not possible to work all day, and then be home and do all the ‘stuff’ – tidying, cooking, kids’ homework and baths and bedtime routines, and then have enough space in my head and energy left over to work on my research and writing, and be effective at all of it and happy. Trying to do it all made me feel so cross and resentful and over it all. Why couldn’t these people just see that I was struggling and HELP ME (preferably without being told to, please and thank you)? Why did I have to tell them I needed help? Wasn’t it obvious?

At the time, I didn’t stop to think much about all of this. I just revelled a bit in my long-suffering crossness and soldiered on. But I got very sick for a long time when I finally submitted my PhD thesis – it was months before I really felt like myself again. And, given my current health situation, I can’t help but wonder at the link between not actually asking for, and accepting, help during the PhD – at work and at home – and the severity and duration of my illness in early 2014. Was there a causal link, and not just a correlation, between trying to be and do everything myself and my resultant health crisis? I think there was, in hindsight. And, I think now that I could have helped myself enormously by not being so bloody-minded about being Wonder Woman.

Photo by Ricardo Esquivel from Pexels

There’s a lot I could say here, with help from feminist scholars, about the gendered nature of academic and domestic labour. About how many women academics carry a significant portion of the care burden with students, and spend more time actively worrying about their students’ wellbeing and trying to do something about this; about how many women academics carry a double burden, with a heavy workload at work and at home, filled with expectations about what they ‘should’ be doing and caring about; about how many women academics burn out trying to prove that they are just as worthy of titles and accolades as their male counterparts, in some fields having to work twice as hard to win the same grants and publish in the same journals as men in their labs and departments. I could say so much more, really. The point is that as a woman academic I experienced this odd mix of wanting (needing) help but not wanting to accept it because accepting it meant I couldn’t do it all – especially at work – and doing it all was what I felt I was expected to do to be taken seriously, by myself as much as by my peers. So, I just pushed on, and I burned out.

So, sitting here in bed, trying just to take normal breaths without pain, I am asking myself: how do I not go there again? How do I figure this out a bit better, and actually give myself a freaking break? I think some of this is personal – how I was raised and who I am – but some of this is definitely systemic. A lot of what I expect of myself and what others seem to expect of me is gendered (at least). As a woman and a mother I ‘should’ be doing the cleaning and cooking and caring. At work, I should be focused on teaching and publishing and committee work and engagement. And I should not be complaining about it because that is my job, all of it. And I chose to be a working mother-scholar-teacher-wife, right? I should be able to have it all and do it all, and if I can’t, what’s wrong with me?

I have bought into this in various ways over the years, especially around the mothering stuff. I don’t really cook – Lovely Husband has that covered thank g*d – but I have taken on a lot of the parenting and household stuff I could just as easily have shared, or given over. Silly things, like being the one who had to pack the school lunches and sort out the homework and wash all the laundry, etc. as well as bigger things to do with actually raising our boys. I didn’t share because I worried far too much that things wouldn’t be done exactly the way I wanted them to be done, or the way I would have done them. Now, unable to clean or do laundry without feeling faint, I am having to teach my boys how to sweep a floor or run the washing machine without getting up to correct them or do it ‘properly’. Very little, if any of it, is being done ‘properly’ (i.e. my way), but you know what? We have clothes that are clean, even if they are folded weirdly. And the floors are not super dusty, even if they were swept differently. And the boys are keeping up with their schooling, even though Lovely Husband’s idea of homeschooling is not mine. Things are getting done, even though I am not doing them.

As Lovely Husband said recently, when we were talking about this, the things will get done differently, and sometimes differently is probably worse rather than just different, but you have to think of the trade-off. Have ‘stuff’ done, however it is done, or run yourself ragged trying to do everything ‘properly’ including your research, only to be left feeling invisible, resentful, tired, unhappy? I have to think, now, that I would rather work on letting go of (some of) the ‘stuff’ rather than end up feeling like this both at work and at home. I would rather keep trying to just let people help me, and say thank you instead of correcting their help, than end up feeling alone and put-upon. This is hard work, I think, for many of us. It might mean that your kids leave the house in non-colour coordinated clothes, or with a skew ponytail or weirdly brushed hair; it might mean that the clothes are folded differently or the pillows on the bed are skew, or the chicken dinner tastes different. But, your kids will be fine. Your pillows and clothes will be fine, and your tummy will be full.

Photo by Sirirak Boonruangjak from Pexels

Learning to let go is not just about making more time in your head and your life for your PhD or whatever research you are working on. It’s about learning to make space and time for yourself, and to put your own mental and physical health higher on your list of priorities. Not asking for help and flogging yourself to the point of exhaustion is not actually a sign of strength. It just hurts you, and for many women, perpetuates a very gendered division of labour, both at home and at work, that I think we all need to be conscious and critical of so that we can challenge and change this. This is perhaps especially vital now as this pandemic has thrown so many imbalances and injustices into sharp relief, and so many women are battling to get space, and support, and time for themselves and their work.

So, this is my current learning: how to just let Lovely Husband and our boys help in whatever way they are able to, appreciate that help, and let go of the ‘stuff’ that, at the end of the day, is not as important as I am, and as my health is. This frees me up to expend what energy I do have on things that I think are important right now, like student feedback, revising my book, writing a report that is due soon, and cuddling the boys when they’ll let me. I hope that when I am stronger I will not revert to being this Wonder Woman-person, trying to do and be and have it all. The search for that balance is ongoing though, so who knows? But, I’m optimistic :-).

Taking a holiday from your research

My brain is tired. I am sure your brains are all tired too. It has been one hell of a year, in global terms. I am sure many of us are really ready for 2016 to be over already. And, given that the festive season is almost upon us, many of us will be seeing out this year with a well-earned holiday. Leave from our day jobs, kids on holiday so less frantic mornings, and time to catch up on sleep, novels, movies and whatever else you do when you are on holiday. It’s also, for researchers, an opportunity to take a break from your reading, writing, thinking and data crunching.

I am a firm advocate of having a holiday from your research. I know, though, that many postgraduate students who are also working while studying see their end-of-year leave from work as a big chance to crack on with the writing and research without the usual disruptions of work. However, as a lovely friend who is coming to the end stages of her PhD said recently, ‘why am I assuming that I will be able to crack on, when I am pretty much on empty now?’ I, too, have been assuming that, once I go on holiday, all the energy I don’t have now will suddenly and miraculously appear and I’ll be zipping around doing crafts and making cookies and finding my desk under the piles of rubbish that it is buried under. I will more than likely be horizontal, with a book, in my pyjamas, bribing my husband and kids to bring me tea and snacks so I don’t have to move.

Copyright image Belle Kim, Zachary Elgar, and A Prolific Source, 2015.

Copyright image Belle Kim, Zachary Elgar, and A Prolific Source, 2015.

I have much writing waiting to be done – primarily for a book project I am way behind on. But there is just no way I am going to be able to do any of it now. And anything I did write now would most likely have to be deleted and rewritten in January anyway. I am, quite simply, on empty. I need to see this for what it is: not as some kind of inability to Get The Things Done, but as a sign that I have actually done many of The Things this year, and now my body and my mind need to rest. Too often, on the hamster-wheel of academia, we don’t appreciate the need for rest, and down-time, and we put so much pressure on ourselves to just keep going. But if we do, we risk damaging our health, both mental and physical. I know I am guilty of bullying myself into keeping going, telling myself that I don’t need down time; I need to be productive.

There is a balance to be struck here. Down time is necessary and useful – it can recharge your creativity, productivity and work mojo. But too much down time can be counter-productive, as it can be really tough to get going again if you have too much time off. I don’t think this is necessarily the case with a regular job, but I have certainly found it to be the case with research, and a PhD. I never really got the balance right during my PhD – I either took too long a break or not enough of one, and I pretty much bunny hopped my way through my PhD in fits and starts of progress and productivity. I always found it difficult to get back into my PhD after each of the end-of-year breaks, largely because I was starting up my writing centre again, with all the attendant busy-work that entailed, and my PhD kept being relegated to ‘tomorrow’ or ‘next week’. I don’t have that excuse anymore, but starting up again, especially on a project for which you are making the deadlines, and that requires intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, motivation and drive, can be a challenge.

I do not, sadly, have the magic solution to finding this balance. I do, however, have the advice I give myself. Rather than telling myself I am not allowed to think about my research, I tell myself I don’t have to. I can read, and potter around, and read, and bake and swim and lie in the sun, and not feel guilty about any of it. And I can do that until my kids go back to school. This gives me about 3 weeks off. But, what usually happens while I am pottering and baking and lying in the sun, is that my mind-at-rest will still be percolating away about the book I am working on, or this blog, or the paper I want to write before March, and I will be inspired or have a useful idea that I need to jot down. So, I do. I scribble it into my research journal, or voice-note it on my phone, and then I put it down and go back to the holiday. That way, all the ‘work’ I might do is a bonus, and it doesn’t come with the usual anxiety and stress because I am not expecting myself to do it. This way, I keep things ticking over just enough to be able to pick up the pace when the holiday is over, but not so much that I don’t allow myself the rest I need.

holiday-mode-activated

I wish you all a very happy, safe and festive holiday whatever your chosen celebration, and¬†hope your down time with family, friends and yourself is properly relaxing and rejuvenating. The blog will be back in January with fresh ideas and posts, and hopefully even more! Thank you all for your support this year. ūüėÄ

Making the most of an hour a day

I have realised, looking through recent posts, that there is a bit of a theme emerging: that of a slightly aimless and depressed writer trying to get off the couch. I feel I should break this theme with a different kind of post, a more optimistic one. Although I have no regrets sharing this low patch of feeling aimless and stuck and unable to get off the  couch Рthe downs are as much a part of working on a PhD or research project as any other part of it, and an important part to talk about РI do need to get going again. And the only person who can really get me going again is me. So, this post is really about how to make the most of the time you have, and be as productive as you can be.

Many of my readers, and colleagues, are part-time writers and students. Writing and reading and thinking about research is squeezed into the odd hour here or there, or if you are lucky, a research day a week, a weekend, or even a sabbatical from work. But, for the most part (and this was the case for me during my PhD), research has to be fitted into everything else, and not the other way around. For much of my own PhD I had, at most, about an hour a day, most days. Then I had to put the PhD down and do my real job, and be focused on other things. After work, there were extra-murals to fetch and carry from, kids to spend time with, suppers to cook, pets to feed and so on. So, these brief hours here and there were precious and I needed to learn to make the most of them.

From commons.wikimedia.org

From commons.wikimedia.org

This is ¬†not easy. I have written here about finding time to write, and about what that means: less physical hours in the day, and more space in your head to actually think and write productively when the physical time is created. It’s no use making time to write and then having to spend that time just getting back to where you were the previous time you set aside an hour or two to work on your research or writing. You’d just be treading water, becoming increasingly frustrated, and struggling to move forward. Each hour, ideally, needs to move you one step further to a finished thesis, or paper. Thus, you need to make the most of these hours that you can create AND, very key, create as many of them as possible in a consistent manner. Think of these hours as stepping stones: too far apart and you’re stuck in the middle of the river, looking for a place to put your feet and finding the leap a bit scary. Ideally, they need to be fairly evenly spaced, so that you find each step in front of you manageable.

I have also written here and here and here about things you can do to manage your research time effectively, and work on creating a balance between time for your PhD/MA and the rest of your professional and personal life. What I am working on now is creating links between the hours and minutes I set aside to work on specific projects. I read recently that when you are working on a piece of writing you should end off such that your thought is not quite finished, so that you can pick it up again and keep going. The problem with this, for me, is that I might not come back to that piece of writing for a few days, or even a week, and then that thought may have left me. This writing time then becomes about trying to get back to where I was before I left off, rather than picking up the thought and carrying on with it usefully. My trick now is to end off a block of writing time with some brief notes to myself in the form of a holding text, pointing ahead to what I want or need to think, read or write about next time. Thus, when I do pick it up, whether the next day or the next week, my time will be used moving my writing forward. This is one way I create a link.

Another way I am creating links is by getting better at managing my physical time week in and week out. I am learning to keep much more detailed writing TO DO lists, breaking projects into more realistic pieces (such as ‘Read three papers and make notes’ set aside for three or four pomodoros in a morning; ‘draft introduction’ set aside for an hour or two one morning, and so on), and then working out, along with the kids’ stuff, and my other work and home stuff, exactly how much time I can set aside for these pieces and when. Then (mostly), I stick to this, and find that (when I can get it to work) the stepping stones connect together quite well, and I move my writing forward quite productively. A bonus is that I enjoy writing like this more, because I am moving forward with each step, and not going sideways or backwards.

Finally, a common theme in many of my posts about writing: I practice self-kindness. I do not beat myself up (too much) when I can’t quite make it all work out. But, without structure, some organisational skills and planning, and a way of holding myself accountable, I would do very little. Thus, in order to make the most of each hour you can set aside, you do need clear goals, consistency – whether you can make this an hour a day or a few hours over a week or so – and good planning. The more¬†you can get to your writing and research, the more the writing comes and the research plods on, and the more productive and enjoyable that time will become.