You are tired at the end of the academic year.
I am writing in April. Although the exact dates of the academic year vary even within the northern hemisphere, everyone is tired by the time you get to this point. You probably didn’t have enough time to properly recharge over the Christmas break. If you had a reading week since then it was barely long enough to do so. You’ve been working fairly intensely since September-ish.
This is a feature of academic life, not a bug. There is nothing wrong with you. Even if you were better at managing your workload, better at saying no, better at taking weekends off and stopping work earlier in the evening … you’d still be tired at this time of year. Maybe not quite as tired as you are now, but tired.
You may resent other people thinking you get a long summer break. But you do get a long break from one of the most demanding parts of your job — teaching — during the summer. That is important. It is necessary. That break is also a feature, not a bug.
The demands of teaching are intense.
It requires a lot of cognitive labour with immovable deadlines. If you teach on Wednesday at 10 a.m. you need to have something to say and do with your students at 10 a.m. on Wednesday. Every week. It requires a lot of social interaction, which is more draining for some than others. It requires thinking on your feet, observing what’s going on in the classroom and making adjustments (often small). That concentration, observation, analysis, and response is hard work. It requires emotional labour to manage your own emotions, to manage interactions among students, to manage expectations, etc. I’m pretty sure I haven’t even covered everything involved but I’m sure you get the point.
Teaching is NOT easy. It is also not the only thing you do. Those weekly deadlines to turn up and do that work mean that the work is intense. You are trying to manage it better, have more reasonable expectations of yourself, keep the work in its container … and it is still intense and difficult. It takes a lot of energy. This is why you have a long summer break from teaching. You need to recharge after that.
The summer needs a different pace
Yes, you are still working. No, you don’t have to replicate that intensity with your research and writing over the summer. In fact, you can’t. It’s not sustainable. You might do it for a couple of years, when you are younger, when you don’t have kids or aging parents or whatever. You might more or less survive if you do. But it is NOT sustainable and will contribute to exhaustion, burn out, and actual physical illness.
Your gremlins may get very loud if you slow down. They may claim that you’ll never write again if you don’t immediately work out what the next project is and dive right into it intensely. They may chastise you for starting work later or stopping work earlier or taking a long lunch break during which you can go for a walk or a swim or take a nap. Your gremlins are wrong. You want to research and write. You write about things that are important to you. You want to make a difference with your knowledge. The intensity, pressure, and exhaustion make it hard to remember that you want to do this, but you do.
Start telling yourself that the work you do in the summer is meant to happen at a different pace before you actually get there. Start telling yourself that one of your priorities over the summer is to recharge because starting the intense teaching year still exhausted from the last teaching year is definitely not sustainable.
You also need to consider how to actively transition from one to the other. Do the marking. Tidy your office, clearing away the detritus of this year’s projects and making space for new things. Start dialing back the end of your day. Don’t replace everything you finish with a new project immediately.
You are not a machine. And even machines need to be shut down regularly for maintenance.
P.S. this is also why there is a tradition of sabbaticals. From the same root as sabbath, meaning one in seven. A time to recharge and work at a different pace.
This post was first sent to members of the Academic Writing Studio on 5 April 2019. The Studio includes a Planning Your Summer class in early May and weekly Meetings With Your Writing to give members just enough structure and reassure their gremlins that they will start writing again even if they take a proper vacation. Audio version added 12 March 2020.