My latest Chronicle Vitae post, somewhat misleading titled (by my editor) Five Steps to Productivity, is actually about the seemingly impossible effort to maintain some semblance of forward momentum as the world burns around us. So I am sharing it here. I don’t know that there is any more urgent question for American (and global) academics right now than finding a path to stay professionally afloat in the face of constant assaults on our institutions, funding, jobs, national security, personal safety, and indeed on the very notions of “truth,” “facts,” or “reality.”
When I say “stay professionally afloat,” I don’t mean to prioritize careerism. I mean, get enough written, enough published, enough accomplished, to keep moving toward your goal of employability and financial stability. I fully expect that you, my readers, may like me be spending ever larger chunks of your time calling your representatives, attending protests, and education yourselves on the issues, and I applaud that. But we all need to also keep food on the table, and for most of us, protesting is NOT a paying job. So balance is needed.
I hope that these steps will prove useful for you. If you have other ideas that have worked, please share them in the comments.
Q: This isn’t exactly an academic career question, except it sort of is. I can’t really focus on the job market in the midst of the ongoing political turmoil. I spend my time obsessively reading the news, signing petitions and things, and going to protests, which feels valuable, but I’m also just so distracted, and also drained. It’s really hard for me to muster the energy to apply for jobs, or get my writing done.
A: At The Professor Is In, my clients tell me daily how difficult it has been for them to focus on the work of editing their job documents, let alone charting a research trajectory or finding the concentration to complete major writing tasks. So, first, know that you’re not alone.
It is all too common in academia for people to feel that they are the only ones struggling, and “everyone else is getting their work done.” This is never true, but let me assure you, it is particularly untrue right now. I don’t know anyone anywhere, of any status in the academic circles I frequent — grad student, full professor, administrator — who has not been struggling with issues of productivity during the first few months of this year.
Second, there are excellent, valid reasons for this distractedness. You or someone you know may be directly in the line of fire of recent executive orders. You may be unsettled by the president’s public attacks on the judiciary and the news media. This is all particularly unsettling for academics whose very existence is based on a belief in the existence of knowledge and facts, and the value of scholarly inquiry.
Finally, there is the simple question of time management. If you have, like so many Americans, been “activated” by the current crisis, you’ve been spending time writing letters, making calls to representatives, and protesting, in unprecedented ways. All of which removes you from your desk, your lab, your office, your laptop, for hours at a time.
So what to do? This turmoil clearly isn’t going to stop any time soon, so how can we regain some level of balance in the midst of personal and political upset, and reclaim the productivity that remains urgent to our well being, particularly for those applying for jobs. My fellow Vitae columnist, Theresa MacPhail, offered good advice earlier this month on “Writing Through Our Political Tailspin.”
Here at The Professor Is in, my colleague Kellee Weinhold deals with these tensions directly in her academic productivity coaching, and she offers the following five-part approach.
Part 1: Tell the truth. You are struggling. Don’t deny it, or try to bury it. You may be scared, angry, sad, devastated — these are all real feelings, so allow yourself to acknowledge them. If you don’t, they’ll continue to quietly sap at your energy and resolve. At the same time, understand that the fear and rage you’re feeling (especially if you’re white and a citizen) may be something others in the country (immigrants, people of color, Muslims, to name a few) have felt for a long time. Heed the words of more experienced activists, and allow yourself time to feel, to grieve, to vent, and to recharge.
Kellee’s specific advice: Take time to panic and fall down. Set a timer. Lie down on your floor and cry for 30 minutes. Then get back up and go to your desk.
Part 2: Take a big view. Circumstances will change, and in ways that we don’t expect. Of course things might get worse. But they might not. The point is we don’t know. And fretting is debilitating. So aim for the 30,000-foot view of your life. Think back five or more years ago. Remember the things you did then, that led to where you are now. Remember that the things you do now will carry you forward to the next stage. Let go of the story that everything is a disaster and all hope is lost. Nobody actually knows. The academy will not entirely collapse in a year. Get out of the news and social-media firehose, so that you can remember who you were before all this started, and reaffirm the goals that inspired you then.
(At the same time, it’s OK to allow the current moment to inform your choices. If you find yourself more and more certain that academia is a less urgent location for your energy than, say, politics or activism, listen to that quiet urge. Don’t act on it rashly, but give it scope to grow and inspire action that, over time, may open new career priorities for you).
Part 3: Work on tiny tasks. In the academy we tend to say things like, “I’m spending this year writing my dissertation,” or “I’m spending this break writing a book,” or “I’m spending the day writing an article.” But are you actually writing a “dissertation” or a “book”? In other words, when you sit down at your desk one Tuesday, and then rise up again a couple hours later, have you produced a “dissertation”? No. You’ve produced (if you’re lucky) a few pages at most, a few pages of just one chapter of what will eventually be a dissertation. The tasks we set ourselves are simply too big when they’re defined in that way, and they intimidate us and swamp our already strained coping mechanisms. And as we get more stressed and anxious, even small tasks begin to feel too big.
The solution here: Embrace the tiny. When you sit down to “write your job application,” realize that in a single sitting, you may write only the teaching paragraph of your cover letter. Just one paragraph. And that’s fine. Write that paragraph. The next day, write one more paragraph. Break each task into smaller and smaller tasks, until you reach a level that is actually doable for you. Shift your mindset from “OMG I still haven’t finished my job letter,” to “wow, I finished the teaching paragraph of the job letter!” Think about it: which of those is more likely to motivate you to write more the next day?
Part 4: Erect guardrails around your (good and bad) habits. If you know that you are most energetic late at night, then plan on doing labor-intensive tasks late at night. Don’t fight your own tendencies by, for example, forcing yourself to wake up at 5 a.m., because that’s what “productive people” do. If you know that you are helpless before the siren song of social media, work at a place that has no Wifi. Or use the Freedom app to block your own access to the internet for certain periods of time.
The point here (returning to Part 1) is: Tell the truth. If you lose focus after 30 minutes of writing, arrange to write for 30 minutes and then move on. Don’t sit there for two hours, beating yourself up because you’ve only managed 30 minutes of actual writing. You are a person who writes in 30-minute chunks. This is your truth right now, and it is sufficient unto itself.
Part 5: Celebrate accomplishments. Celebrate everything that you achieve, no matter how tiny. When you finish a paragraph of your cover letter, text a friend, “I finished the teaching paragraph of my cover letter!” If you trust yourself to visit social media for awhile, tweet about it. Tell your family. Put on music and dance around your room for five minutes. Go out and plant a spring plant. Each thing you do is a vast achievement right now, and should be celebrated.
I can vouch that these strategies work, because they work for me, and for Kellee and for our clients. Try them, and let me know how it goes.