Activating holiday mode: how to take a break from your writing and research

It is summer, at last (at least it is here in England). I have been here almost a year and am slowly getting used to the different rhythms of the academic year and the upside-down seasons. At home – in Cape Town – it is cold and wet. Here – in Nottingham – it is warmer but still quite wet, although climate change is definitely being felt in the warmer and drier weather of late. At any rate, it is officially summer, the undergraduates are all on holiday and the academic year is slowly but surely winding down to the August break. I am most certainly going to be taking some time away from my research and I am encouraging the doctoral students I work with to do the same, but this is not as easy as it sounds for many researchers. A question many doctoral researchers may be pondering is a version of ‘can I take a break from my research?’ and if so, ‘how’?

Image by Sherran Clarence

I have written before about taking breaks and the ups and downs or pros and cons of taking time away from your doctorate (here, here and here). Taking breaks is essential – I cannot say that enough. We are not built to work ourselves into the ground, and even if we were, that would be a very bad plan. It is quite likely that you would end up burned out, exhausted, cross and resentful. Being resilient is not about being able to just keep going and going; we build and sustain resilience through balancing work and rest; focus and relaxation; pushing forward and falling back. We also build and sustain resilience through community, through asking for and receiving help and through offering help to others. There’s this saying that I am sure is familiar to many of you: you cannot pour from a jug that is empty. If you have worked yourself to a standstill, how will you pick things up again? How will you be there for others – your family, friends, peers, yourself? Breaks are essential for building and sustaining resilience, for restoring your soul, your energy levels, your sense of purpose.

As researchers, writers, supervisors, students/candidates, we are engaged in hard work – thinking, writing, getting feedback and working on revisions, giving feedback and supervising revisions, re-reading things we don’t want to read ever again, listening to others talk about their work and engaging thoughtfully. This work is at the core of doing research and being researchers, and it can be energising, interesting, challenging, exciting – but the flip side of that is that is can also be exhausting, draining sometimes, hard to maintain for long periods of time without rest and respite. So, we need breaks – we accept this. But then the question becomes how long is too long for a break? How short is too short? What’s the ‘Goldilocks’ break – just the right amount of time to recharge, regain some perspective, find a bit of balance?

I don’t have an answer for you because we are all quite different, and much would depend on other circumstances, such as whether you have been unwell, whether you are caring for other people, how long of a break you can afford to take if you are not funded or on a fixed income, whether you can or want to travel (staycations are not relaxing if home is not a relaxing or nurturing space, and travel is expensive and very stressful at the minute). For me, three weeks is the maximum I can take away from any reading, writing or focused thinking work. I can, I think, loaf around for much longer than this, but if I do then I find it really hard to get back to my research and writing work. But a week or two doesn’t feel long enough at the moment: I feel a bit cross having to go back to things because it takes me a least a week to start relaxing and stop worrying. You can think about this for yourself: factor in all the life stuff you have going on – family commitments, commitments to friends, things you have to do, things you can delegate, how much money you have to spend on a holiday, how much time off you have access to, etc., and then think about how long it does actually take you to start enjoying the break, how long it takes your mind and body to get into a slower gear. If it takes a week, then a week off will be pointless in a way because just as you start to slow down you’ll have to gear up again and you won’t actually feel rested. This, for me, is step one: how long do I need and how long can I actually take?

Step two, then, is all practical. Delete the email app off the phone. You can add it back again after your break, but a break is not going to be a proper break if you have access to work email and people who don’t respect your boundaries can send you endless messages that stress you out. Power down the laptop and put it away (unless you need it for Netflix or similar). Put the Out Of Office email on. Make sure people at work or in your research groups who are not going on leave when you are know you are off limits for the time you are taking, and ask them to please respect your need to rest and recharge. If there are urgent things that will need to be done before you get back, delegate them and brief colleagues on what needs to be done so you can draw a line under that and not fret over it. Give yourself boundaries to respect: no checking email; no obsessing over writing and research you are not doing. That will all be there when you get back, and you will be so much more ready for it all if you take the break you are offering yourself.

Caveat, though: if you are working on a doctorate or a Masters thesis, especially, this may be hard – not thinking at all about your research. It’s always bubbling away on the backburner, isn’t it? So, if you are out walking, or swimming, or lying in the shade with a novel and a good idea or thought comes to you, make a voicenote of it on your phone or write it down in your research journal. Park it there and go back to your resting and relaxing. You can then come back to it when work-time resumes. This reduces the stress of worrying that you won’t remember it, and helps to keep you from going back to work before you’ve actually balanced yourself out with some time off.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I hope that many of you have taken or are about to take some time off – that this is not a luxury for you but something that those around you see and appreciate as a necessity and a vital part of maintaining physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. I am activating holiday mode next week and am making my plans so that my time off is really proper time off and not half time off and half worrying about work. I want to go back now to the saying I mentioned earlier, which helps me when I start to feel guilty about wanting and needing down time: you cannot pour from a jug that is empty. This reminds me that while my work matters to me and to others, I matter more: if I am empty and burned out, I cannot do my work well. I cannot be the teacher, mentor, supervisor, researcher, writer, mother and partner that I want and need to be. I hope that you be find this encouraging if you are struggling a bit to give yourself permission to activate your own holiday mode, that you can see time off not as an indulgence but as a necessary form of care for yourself and those who depend on you. Happy holidays in whatever form they take for you – see you in September!

“No is a complete sentence”: How do we make it okay to quit?*

Quitting is a dirty word in academia. You’re not really allowed to quit: a paper you are writing, a project you have signed on for, a job, a doctorate. Quitting can be seen as implying weakness, giving up, dropping out, slacking off, flaking out – all things no one wants to be accused of. However, over the last two years especially, I have been reading more and more social media posts by people who have quit, who have said: ‘No, thanks, this is no longer for me’. Many of these posts express sadness and shame, but many also express liberation, relief, joy even. These posters have grappled with the seemingly inevitable shame of saying ‘I can’t/don’t want to do this anymore’ and have pushed through it to actually say ‘No’. I wonder what the process was to get there – how did they make it okay for themselves to quit?

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I have been thinking a lot about quitting: less about actually doing it per se and more about why and how we might need to quit something and how to make it okay to do that and move on. For myself, I have been reflecting, firstly, on whether and in which situations I allow myself to say ‘no’ or ‘not anymore’, and secondly, what happens before I get to that point. Historically, a ‘No’ or an ‘I can’t do this anymore’ email or conversation has come directly on the heels of crisis. I have taken on so much – for a range of reasons; things I am interested in, things I feel guilted into, things I am scared to say no to, things I have to do because they are part of my role – that I literally cannot do it all and some things have to be stopped, let go of, quitted.

But because I wait until crisis point, I inevitably feel I have failed. I have not been able to do All The Things and I should have been able. I should have been Wonder Woman and not Ordinary Human Woman. On the converse, I tell myself I should have known better than to sign up for all those things in the first place. Because now look what you have done: all those people and projects counting on you and you have let them down. For a lifelong people-pleaser, that baggage gets heavy and creates all kinds of internalised expectations and pressures that are hard to see, let alone let go of. That word ‘should’ can be pernicious: it has been behind many of my less wise ‘Yes’ answers to requests to get involved in work things (you should do this, it will be good for your CV; you shouldn’t back out of this, it’s bad form). It has also been behind too much of the pressure I have put on myself to do and be too many things. Crisis is then created where perhaps there didn’t need to be one.

Hindsight, though, is 20/20 and it is easier to look back on a different part of your career from where you are now and see what you should have done but probably didn’t do. However, I do believe in learning from crises and mistakes (or at least missteps). I have, therefore, been thinking about how to take more accurate stock of my energies, interests, must-dos versus can-dos and would-like-to-dos, all the other things I need to do (like mothering, partnering, self-caring). I’m trying to pay better attention to the shoulds: is that word pushing me into energising territory or the opposite? In taking more accurate stock, I am hoping I can become better at saying ‘No’ earlier in the process so that crises and negative self-talk and feelings can be mitigated or even avoided altogether. Or, if I cannot say ‘No’, working out how to do the Thing without it leading to everything becoming too much and then collapse.

The other thing, alongside working out what to say ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ to, and how to manage my own time and energy and others’ expectations and demands of me, is wondering how to actually make ‘No’ a complete sentence. This means, for me (the people-pleaser and overachiever), not apologising for not being interested in, or ready and able to take on a project, paper or task that I just cannot do right now. This means not over-explaining myself. It means not obsessing about what I should have done instead and rewriting the script of the conversation or email over and over to change the outcome. It also means allowing other people to feel their own feelings without making those something else I have to take on and worry about to the point where I undermine the energy-savings of saying No in the first place. I don’t have to be disappointed in myself because others may be. I can be proud of myself, let this go and move on to the next thing.

This sounds very healthy and wise as I write it, and the truth is, I am sometimes these things in how I make decisions about what to give my time and focus to and what I bow out of. I’ve been doing this career for a while now and I am a bit better at working out what I can do, what I have to do, and what I can get on without doing. Having signed up for the wrong things, missed out on some great things – if you’re keeping track and reflecting periodically on where you are, what drives you, and where you want to go, you can get better at managing your own and others’ expectations and your choices. But that doesn’t mean you don’t get pulled into things you may not actually want to do or have time to do: when you work in academia you always have to manage the ‘game’ – papers to publish, grants to write, funders, line managers and VCs to appease, students to consider and care for, and on and on. If you have chosen this career, chances are good that at least some or much of that will be what you actually care about. I have learned, though, that to get the time I want for the things that really matter to me, I have to give some to the things that matter to others. Compromise, negotiation.

Sometimes you can’t say ‘No’, and maybe the trick to being okay with that is to work out how to make the things you have to say ‘Yes’ to matter to you enough to not mind them. But when you can say ‘No’ and that is the best choice for you, try making it a complete sentence. You don’t owe anyone lengthy explanations and hours of worrying about whether you’ve done the wrong thing or burned a bridge. Chances are they have already moved on. So should you.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Pexels.com

* Jane Fonda said this in the documentary, ‘Feminists, what were they thinking?‘ on Netflix (UK).

Fast and slow: can we manage the pace of academic scholarship?

I am a knitter. I used to mostly knit scarves and blankets made up of squares, and I have a large-ish collection of Outlander-inspired arm warmers. The benefit of knitting these kinds of items is that they knit up quickly. You can make a scarf in a couple of days, and a blanket in a week, depending on the size of the squares. If you use less complex patterns and stitches, you can go even faster because you’re less likely to need to pull out your mistakes and start over (sometimes a few times) before it starts looking like it should. But recently I have challenged myself to start making larger garments – pullovers and cardigans. These take time: several weeks. Not all of the stitches are fancy and complex, but it certainly is not fast fashion. It is a slower form of fashion, which can be both rewarding (and soothing to make) and also frustrating at times when you just want to wear it already and you haven’t even made the sleeves!

I am going to parlay this metaphor into reflections on the pace of academic scholarship, especially my own need at the moment to work out a different approach to managing the external and internal pressures to publish my work even as I am not yet ready to do so. These reflections, and pressures, connect out (or in) to other related issues that are spoken about quite a bit at the moment, here in the UK and around the academic world: work-life balance, mental wellbeing, mental and physical health, and (the lack of) pleasure in research, writing and publishing. In short, I am struggling perhaps more than I ever have to find a balance and advocate for myself. I know I am not alone in this.

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There is huge pressure to publish in academia: “publish or perish” is a well-known maxim in higher education. If you want to get ahead as an academic, you have to do research and you have to publish it, often and preferably in “high impact” publications. Whether these are journals, books or other forms of media usually depends on the field you are working in and where its researchers tend to share the knowledge they make. There have been reformulations of this maxim in attempts to reframe this culture that pushes many academics to the brink, especially those in early career trying to get onto the academic ladder (or hamster wheel) “Publish and flourish” is a well-known counter-maxim, with several books and papers being written about how to grow your productivity as a writer and enjoy doing it (see here and here for examples). I haven’t read any of them, but the titles and blurbs don’t seem to suggest a push back against the neoliberal, audit culture tide that is sweeping across academia, creating a culture in which everything, and everyone, can be measured, weighed, found wanting (or succeeding). The focus is still on productivity and efficacy as a scholar, but perhaps with more of a focus on enjoying the process and finding meaning in it as opposed to seeing it as a box to tick or a chore to do. I wonder, in all this talk of “productivity” and “increasing your outputs” where the talk is about creating a research pace and plan that is personally meaningful and sustainable. Many researchers usually have to find a way to carve out a pace and plan that works within and against this “publish or perish” (or “publish and flourish” as a super-productive researcher) culture, feeling all the while powerless to actually change it.

I have worked for a long time now with postgraduate and early career researchers, helping them turn their thesis research into publishable journal articles and book chapters; helping them to find a place within the ranks of publishing scholars so that they share their important and worthy research, and so that they can start to carve out their space and work out the shape and size they want, or need, it to be. One of the tensions we deal with in our work together is between getting a paper (or papers) out so that there are beans for the university to count, and making a contribution to knowledge that is meaningful/useful/relevant to readers. This doesn’t have to be a tension, of course: you can publish a paper which makes a useful contribution to knowledge – that is the point, after all (right?). But, because of the pressure to publish, often before we even know what knowledge we are contributing or what we want or need it to say and to whom, there is sometimes a real tension between ‘getting a paper out’ and writing something that may take more time and thought and revision than we feel we have.

This is where I feel I am right now: caught in this tension. I have had a productive few years by my own reckoning and in terms of the metrics of the universities that count my research and claim it against government funding. This is largely thanks to rich practice-based work I could reflect on and write about, really rich collaborative work that has resulted in co-writing, and my own PhD and postdoctoral research, which provided quite a bit of material to work with. It is much less challenging to meet the demands of the university you work for to publish, publish, publish when you have material to work with and things to say. But, I am now in an ebb of sorts in my own publishing/knowledge-making work, starting a new research project that is connected to my previous work ontologically, but is engaging with new theories, new methods, new data, and therefore new knowledge entirely. This takes time. It’s not a quick knit. There are new stitches to learn, new patterns, new yarns – the whole shebang.

But, and this is where I feel the tension, I don’t have a 2022 publication on my CV yet. If I don’t get something out this year there will be a gap in my publications list for the first time in several years, and I worry about how that will look. I have to worry about getting onto the radar of those who have to worry about ‘productivity’ and ‘outputs’ at an institutional level, who may then begin to exert pressure on me to ‘get a paper’ (or three) out, which may then be at odds with the time I need to learn, think, write some rubbish, think a bit more, generate and make sense of data, grapple with theory. I’m not ready to write for public consumption, as the unfinished and half-baked words and rejected abstracts attest to. What do I do? I don’t think I can just say ‘Leave me alone, I’m thinking. Come back later’.

And really, very few scholars/researchers can get away with that (usually those who can have big grants and funding, established credibility and enough institutional standing to push away that kind of pressure if they need to). Lower down the ladder, especially in early career (including now doctoral and even Masters levels), those who want an academic career have very little if any room to ask to be left alone, and feel the pressure to publish intensely. But writing a paper when you are not sure yet whether you have anything to say – anything you want to say or can say – is really hard. It takes a long time, and it’s painful; many revisions, critical feedback, rejections. Ironically, it is easier to publish when you’ve done a fair bit of thinking and scribbling, when you’ve got ‘stuff’ to write about. But, this also takes time to accumulate and organise.

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Another apparent push-back to the publish or perish culture and the ‘fast scholarship’ hamster wheel is the ‘slow scholarship’ movement. (You can read the manifesto here, and an excellent critique here). The idea, as I understand it, is to take time to really work out your ideas, to write many drafts, not to be pulled in by the pressures of the publish or perish culture, but to push back against it; to become a more effective scholar by taking your time, by tweeting slowly, blogging slowly, thinking and writing slowly. Slow scholarship seems to have emerged from the slow food movement; I think slow fashion is an offshoot too. But, and this is a big but, this slowness does privilege some and not necessarily many others. Not everyone has all day to shop for local, organic ingredients and prepare slow meals; not everyone can afford pricey yarn and needles and take the time to knit their own clothes in front of Netflix in the evenings; not everyone can afford to have years where they don’t publish anything because they are busy thinking and writing drafts no-one but a few critical friends may see.

Critiques of slow scholarship have pointed out that this is not actually the radical push back it may at first seem to be, because very few researchers can probably pull it off successfully, and many things in their personal lives need to be taken care of or taken away to manage the kind of slow scholarship the manifesto calls for, like child (or elder) care, housework, school runs, and so on. Also, as some critics argue, there is nothing inherently wrong with faster scholarship – in many fields you have to move faster to stay ahead of the curve, to make novel contributions to knowledge, to keep abreast of the pace of knowledge-making. Tweeting and blogging are excellent ways to try out new ideas, to work them out in real time with an engaged audience, to ‘take the pulse’ of your readership.

What we need, I suppose, is a balance – that word again – between scholarship that is meaningful to us and possible for us within the structures we create for life-work-PhD-self, and what is required of us by our universities (and by our fields of research and practice). What can we do to manage the pace at which we create our scholarship – research, writing, speaking, thinking work? What can I do, I am asking myself, to keep the publish-or-else wolves from the door and also create the time to be patient with my emerging ideas and arguments? I don’t want to write a paper just for the sake of having a ‘unit’ or an ‘output. Of course, I might have to, but then perhaps I can work out how to share this labour: collaborate with someone who wants to make a similar argument. That may be both fun and also pragmatic; a way to create something meaningful and create a bean to count or a tick for a box. Maybe. Co-authoring can be a lot of work, but that’s a post for another day. I think right now what is helping me is being aware of this tension and how it is making me approach and feel about my writing. What is helping is giving myself permission to (at least try to) hold the line, for now, and do the work I know I need to do to create the flow that will come after this ebb, where I will have created things to say, knowledge to share, writing to be excited about.

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I know not everyone can do this, at least not in one way; the pressures of early career are significant for many scholars and if you really want an academic career that is not tenuous, precarious, underpaid, undervalued, then the reality is that you do need to get your work out there. Maybe, though, take a step back: think about the work you are doing, where your readers are, what you want to say to them and how, what that all means to *you* and not just or only to your department, faculty or research office. Even if you cannot say no or take time out, you can still, I hope, create a plan for publishing that feels like it fits you, works for you, and enables you to find and express your voice as authentically as possible, at a pace that feels like it will lead, ultimately, to flourishing rather than perishing.

Being part of a research mosaic: finding purpose at the end of the world*

I have not written a full blog post in ages. I had to take a sabbatical from the blog at the start of this year: 2021 was Hard and starting this year, I needed to trim down the number of things to focus on in a sort-of work-life triage. Having taken some time away, though, I have started writing bits of new posts in my head and find that I would quite like to finish them, and share them. So, here I am.

I have 5 blog posts in various stages of being written and completed, and 2 research papers in similar states of disrepair. They’re not finished partly because I feel like I need more time to think (more on this in the next post), and partly because there’s a voice in my head that tells me there’s no point right now because the world is on fire. School and other mass shootings, natural disasters, warming oceans and species extinctions, asshat politicians that want to turn back the clock on reproductive, sexual, and civil rights, a war that doesn’t seem to have an end, alarming rises in the costs of living and more people struggling to feed their families… I mean, seriously? If you watch the news at all, it’s just an endless stream of stress and misery, and it really does feel sometimes like we are at the end of the world. So, really, what’s the point of writing anything? Of researching what I research?

I want to pick up on the part about there being a point – particularly feeling like there is no point – to the writing and research work. I know that there are probably (more than) a few of us feeling like this right now: if you are researching something that is not directly contributing to saving the planet, averting war, aiding refugees, curing a serious illness, saving a species or ending poverty you may wonder from time to time – perhaps more lately – what the point of your research even is. I wonder this from time to time, and have found myself thinking more often lately ‘Who cares? What difference is another paper on doctoral education or writing development really going to make?’ And if you are struggling to see a point to your work, it is that much harder to carve out time for it, feel excited about it, and want to share it. The more time you spend away from it because you doubt that it even matters, the harder it is to ever get it finished. And that would be a real shame because, underneath all this present pessimism and worry, I do believe that my work matters, that the work all of us are doing on our different problems and questions matters. The world needs all of it, and all of us.

I saw a post recently on Instagram by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that made me stop and think about the work I am doing, the research I am doing, and my role less pessimistically. In the post, she uses the analogy of a mosaic to counter the idea that, by ourselves, we are too small or powerless to really make anything different, so why should we bother – isn’t it all futile in the face of so much awfulness and when others (like those politicians) have so much power? She says:

“When you have your eye pressed all the way up to the single tile of a mosaic, it can look quite meaningless. A single piece of shattered glass could look worthless. Or perhaps a piece of small painted porcelain could seem beautiful, but too small to “be” anything. Or maybe a stunning rare slab of stone may think itself as the biggest piece when it is really a corner tile. The secret is, it’s all significant.

The two secrets of mosaics are: 1. Each piece (us + our small actions) is far more powerful and meaningful than we know, and 2. Each piece (we) need each other far more than we realize”.

Image by LoggaWiggler from Pixabay

What I take from this is that I am, in my more pessimistic moments, too focused on my small tile, my small contribution to the bigger picture, so much so that I lose sight of the fact that there is a bigger picture and I am not called upon to draw the whole thing. I am only called upon to add my small tile. While it may feel pretty small and not that important, if I take it away there will be a gap in the mosaic that will mar the overall effect. If more and more researchers start removing their tiles too, how many more gaps will there be? And what effect will that have on our knowledge of ourselves, our present, past, and future; on our ability to create a different future for ourselves, our societies, the environment, and the planet?

It is sometimes easier, for me certainly, to see what I can’t do rather than what I can do, especially when I have talked myself into believing that my work is too small to make a real difference. But, what counts as a ‘difference’, and to whom does that need to be significant? Does all research need to be world-leading or internationally recognised to count as meaningful, as making a difference? Surely not. That is neither possible nor desirable, and thinking on such grand levels probably makes it harder for some researchers, especially those starting out or starting something new to see what their piece of the mosaic is and why it matters – that it *does* matter regardless of how far the reach of its influence or impact. Creating something that is locally impactful, or that makes a difference to or adds to our knowledge about ourselves and the world we live in is meaningful; it is a piece of the mosaic that helps to create the bigger picture, and that picture needs to be – must be – diverse, vibrant, multicoloured. Some pieces are bigger and some are smaller, perhaps, but they all add up to a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

This may sound a bit overly optimistic in the face of academia that is less and less supportive, overall, to researchers, where funding is increasingly competitive and scarce, where the ‘high impact’ journal and journal article (or book) is the pinnacle of achievement in scholarship in many disciplines. This environment – especially as regards precarity and time/funding for research being squeezed or even eliminated from workload/paid time – can make research feel even less possible, especially research that wants to make a difference or have an impact in ‘non-conventional’ ways, ways that are outside of narrower definitions of ‘impact’ and ‘success’ in most universities. But, and I do truly believe this, there are ways to work within this system to use the research/practice you are engaged in to say something, and mean something to you and to your audiences. My current work is not ‘mainstream’, and I’m exploring new and very different ways of both doing and sharing this research. I know I am going to get push-back and ‘encouragement’ to ‘tick the boxes’. But I am going to try really hard to stay the course; to show the naysayers and discouragers that what I am doing might actually mean more and have greater impact if I do take a few risks, if I don’t just ‘tick the boxes’.

I’m not arguing that we all have to do this; you need to work out who you are speaking to with your research, where those audiences are, and how best to reach them. Each field has different ways of doing this – some more overtly creative than others. But I am arguing – and I acknowledge as I say this that I am no longer an early career researcher and have a bit of a track record, which does help my case – that systems are built by humans, and that humans can rebuild, remake and reimagine them. But to do this, we need to keep working on our own small tiles, but with an eye on the bigger picture we are adding to via our different, valuable contributions, looking for ways to encourage, celebrate, support, and boost one another. While we are doing this, we can also look for chinks in the system’s armour where we can argue for different understandings and realisations of impact, of ‘outputs’, of worthy questions to ask and answer. All the questions, all the research, all the collaboration, all the writing (and drawing, making, speaking, doing) adds up. And if we focus on what we are contributing to the bigger picture and remember we are not alone in either our struggles or the work we are doing, maybe we can find a way to keep going.

Image by FelixMittermeier from Pixabay

*I was inspired by the title of Denise Cuthbert and Robyn Barnacle’s edited book: The PhD at the End of the World: Provocations for the Doctorate and a Future Contested (Springer, 2021).

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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