Academic staff at 60 UK universities are on strike from 25 November to 4 December. The week before the strike, I saw some Twitter conversations about the upcoming strike, workload, and the fact that some folks are so overloaded they are apologising in meetings for not being able to speak coherently. In the same week, one of the Studio members stayed on the line for some advice during A Meeting With Your Writing and burst into tears from exhaustion and overwhelm. Attendance has been lower the past couple of weeks and I’m thinking many of you are overloaded and overwhelmed category.
There are definitely crunch times in the academic year when there are just more things to do and a lot of things with short deadlines. It’s okay to adjust some of your other things during those weeks. We tried to anticipate this in the planning class but sometimes you need to adjust even more when you are in the crunch.
This is when you really need to be reminded not to do your best. You might want to listen to my pep talk about that again (or even on repeat): Don’t Do Your Best! You might also want a reminder that you are not, nor are likely to become, That Selfish Bastard (now also with an audio version). Things you do to get through the crunch times are not necessarily the new normal. You can decide “for this week…”
Self-care is your top priority
Fatigue impairs cognitive function (see above re not being able to speak properly). Exercise completes stress cycles and reduces the physical effects of chronic stress on your body. Lowering your expectations reduces stress. (see Burnout by Emily and Amelia Nagoski; the audiobook is very good, btw) It may feel impossible but self-care is always your top priority.
Figure out how you can get more rest. Even sitting in your chair with your eyes closed focusing on deepening your breathing for 5 or 10 minutes might make a significant difference to your ability to function. This is a good quick fix if you notice that you are cognitively impaired but the first thing to be impaired is your ability to notice you are impaired, so you might also consider just setting a reminder on your phone to do this every couple of hours. Or, do this between each activity.
Another options: Put a 30 minute lunch break in your calendar to remind you to eat. Try to also get up from your desk and take a walk, stretch, or otherwise move about during that period, too. 10 minutes eating + 10 minutes moving + 10 minutes breathing deeply with your eyes closed is a pretty good reset midday.
What is most important?
Do you want to maintain some activity in teaching, writing/research, and admin? Or are there whole areas that you want to suspend until the extra activity in another area calms down? Making a conscious decision to set something aside saves energy on retaking that decision daily or feeling like you are dropping balls.
Within each area what’s most important? For example, in writing and research do you have a project with a deadline that you need to prioritise? Or is the most important thing to keep some activity going so you can get back into the project more easily later?
You can even ask this question as the level of the task: If you only have 30 minutes to prepare for this class, what is the most important thing you can do? If you only have 15 minutes to grade each essay, what is the most important thing to do in that time? Is there one agenda item in this meeting that is more important to you? What happens if you only prepare for that item?
What will not happen?
Some things you will do to a lower standard than you might otherwise. Some things you will not do at all. What can you not do? Are there deadlines and commitments you can renegotiate? Are there tasks you can pay someone else to do?
Don’t forget about home things here. Is it worth it to pay for the wash/dry/fold service at the laundromat to free up your time to do something else? Or, does it matter if the laundry gets folded or ironed if everyone has clean clothes to wear? Is it too late to find someone you can pay to clear your drive this winter? Can you afford take-out instead of cooking? Or frozen meals that just need heating up?
You are not making permanent changes
If you have a gremlin that responds to these suggestions with commentary about what a horrible person you’d be if you operated like this all the time, remind that gremlin that these are strategies for getting through the crunch. You need to get to tomorrow, next week, next month, with enough cognitive capacity to figure out how to organize things going forward to prevent this happening again. You need to recover from the fatigue to be more effective. And it is possible that this kind of thing is necessary at this point of every semester because that’s just how your job demands work. You need to deal with the reality not carry on as if there isn’t genuinely too much to do right now.
I sent this to members of the Academic Writing Studio on 22 November 2019. It has been edited. If you’d like support to minimise the stress and burnout without dropping activities that are important to you, consider joining the Studio. The non-member newsletter includes monthly prompts to review your accomplishments and adjust your plans.