None of us are any good at predicting the future.
On one level we are always planning for uncertainty. The level of uncertainty varies though and has been very high for the past year or so, both generally and in relation to your academic work and working conditions. I noticed recently that I have been assuming that, in the summer of 2021, you are in a place where things are more certain. Not “back to normal”, whatever that means, but less volatile.
Apparently I was being overly optimistic. We are not where we were at this time last year, but both Studio members and Guide for the Journey clients are reporting high levels of uncertainty. I was not fully aware of how volatile child-care and schooling still is, especially in the context of testing regimes and mini-quarantines. It seems some institutions aren’t even able to make basic decisions about calendar dates for the next academic year, much less how teaching will be delivered.
Many Studio members wondered about how to plan in this situation, especially when we were looking at the whole year. In situations of high levels of uncertainty, you need a plan even more than you might otherwise. Planning is one practice that’s worth building into your regular activities.
This piece is a long one, so below is a list of some handy jump links that act like a Contents page:
- The purpose of a plan
- Time horizons and uncertainty
- Flexibility, planning, and responding to rapid changes
- Unreasonable expectations or demands
- What makes this job meaningful to you?
- Learning to live with uncertainty
The purpose of a plan
The purpose of a plan is to motivate action. Your goal is to take action on your most important projects. A workload plan helps you figure out how much you can do on each of your projects in a given time period. A project plan helps you figure out what kind of action is going to be most effective in moving a specific project forward. A goal or vision helps you make decisions about which projects and tasks to prioritize.
A plan also helps you identify what you have control over, what you influence, and what you have no control over. The reason uncertainty is a major contributor to stress is because you feel out of control. A plan draws your attention to the aspects of your work and life where you can make choices and take action based on your values and vision. When faced with a situation that disrupts your plan, planning helps you respond in a more controlled way to circumstances out of your control.
Although a plan might help you set goals for deliverables (like journal articles), that is not the primary purpose. In times of high uncertainty, the first thing to drop is making those kinds of promises, even to yourself. Continue to treat them as guiding stars, but accept that you might not reach them as a destination when you think you will. (See Jigsaws, Juggling, and Navigating by the Stars for more on this metaphor.)
Time horizons and uncertainty
The longer the time horizon the higher the uncertainty. In 2021 I led an annual planning class for the first time and I’m happy to report that people found it useful. An annual plan is a very high level thing. My goal was limited: to help you see how plans on a shorter time scale — the summer, this month, this week — fit into a bigger picture; to give you perspective.
A short time horizon is much more certain. The advice earlier in this pandemic to live one day at a time was based on this premise. While a day may feel much more certain, planning day to day is not advisable as a regular strategy. The very fact that you can only plan for a day at a time feels stressful and reminds you of how uncertain things are. Weekly planning is more of a sweet spot, especially if you build in flexibility in the daily plans that make up the week. (see Juggling 101: elements of a good plan)
I hold quarterly planning classes in the Academic Writing Studio, and send out monthly planning prompts to Studio members and general newsletter subscribers to help you consider longer time horizons that might shape your weekly and daily plans. As you look at longer time horizons, you can also figure out whether specific disruptions affected your longer term plans and perhaps recalibrate your expectations. This is particularly important for deliverables you’ve promised (like chapters for edited collections), enabling you to renegotiate deadlines early to minimize the impact on others, or giving you more capacity to reprioritize your other work to get it done.
Flexibility, planning, and responding to rapid changes
The ability to work flexibly, without just working all the time, depends on a planning practice. Plans help you feel enough control over what you can accomplish in relation to your responsibilities and obligations that you are able to take much needed time to rest and recharge.
In times of high uncertainty, that might mean your plan enables you to flex your working hours to deal with something else, like your kids suddenly being at home rather than with the child-minder or at school. Instead of trying to work through that disruption, or interacting with your kids in ways that are coloured by anxiety and frustration about the work you would otherwise have been doing, you can take a smaller amount of time to plan the impact on your work, perhaps with your partner or other people, to optimize your actions as both a parent and an academic.
You can make that process smoother for known unknowns (like this sort of childcare disruption) by having a contingency plan. It’s easier to make big decisions (based on your values) to guide the specific decisions without an actual urgent situation right in front of you. You can lay out steps for decision making if/when it happens based on those big decisions. That gives you specific things to start with and criteria to use.
Warning: This kind of contingency planning or emergency planning may reveal differences in values that are uncomfortable. If it’s pre-planning for child-care emergencies, that’ll be values around parenting or values around conforming to expectations laid out by schools. It may also reveal what you value more when two values are in conflict. You get to decide what you do with that information. It’s okay if you don’t value your kids above all else. That doesn’t mean you don’t love your kids or that you are a bad parent.
None of your plans are set in stone. Change your plan as needed to adapt to sudden changes in conditions. Or even to adapt to realizing you were being overly optimistic about what you could do.
Unreasonable expectations or demands
The hardest part about planning is prioritizing. Workload planning forces you to prioritize projects given the time and energy available over a particular period. Project planning enables you to prioritize certain tasks so that you are able to submit manuscripts for publication, teach a class, or get all your grading done. Prioritizing means making tough decisions.
The ways in which universities have responded to the pandemic have made it very clear that your employer will not set these priorities for you. They will exploit your high standards and desire for autonomy and flexibility to extract more labour from you, even at the expense of your health or your longer term career interests. The level of “summer creep” reported by Studio members suggests that many universities are no longer even attempting to use the promise of more time for writing and rest during the long summer break to extract that labour during the main part of the academic year. The increasing use of short term contracts and the way in which wages for those employed on short term contracts are being driven down, is part of a larger pattern of exploitation that also affects more securely employed academics.
Just because all your choices are choices you don’t want, and they all carry varying levels of risk, doesn’t mean you don’t have choices. The biggest contributor to stress is lack of control and making choices helps reduce stress even when they are not great choices. Think of it like piloting a boat in a storm. You might prefer to not be in a boat out on open water in a storm, but if that’s where you find yourself, it’s better to do what you can to steer the boat and keep it from capsizing than to just let the storm do what it will. (See Surviving & Thriving in uncertain times for more about this metaphor.)
Planning is sometimes difficult because it requires you to confront this unpleasant reality. Every time you decide to work more hours to avoid not doing something, or doing something less well than would be ideal, you are choosing to prioritize your work over your family, friends, and your personal health and wellbeing. Question your own assumptions about whether and how something needs to be done. What is essential? How can you make it easier?
Planning can be part of how you resist. Planning can help you identify what you can control (perhaps due to some form of personal privilege). Planning can help you identify what you can influence, and perhaps use your privilege to reduce demands on colleagues as well. Planning can also make it clear where more organized forms of collective resistance will be necessary. Planning can help you ensure that you have time and energy for resistance.
What makes this job meaningful to you?
If you prioritize what is important to your colleagues or institution over what is important to you, you will start to question why you are bothering at all. That may start out as a rhetorical question but it won’t take long before you are really wondering what you are doing.
Planning can help you determine whether it is possible to find an acceptable balance between the things that made you want this job and the things you need to do to keep this job. As you plan, you can look at the real risks of prioritizing certain things instead of reacting to a generalized sense of risk. I talked about this more in Risking doing the work you find meaningful. The security of your job may be more uncertain than you’d like, but you can determine whether a particular choice you make will actually affect that. (More on this in Priorities and boundaries in the face of job insecurity) Planning can help you decide whether and when you need to start planning an exit strategy. It can help you make contingency plans for that generalized job insecurity even if there is no direct threat right now.
You might also realize that your job doesn’t have to be as meaningful as you’d hoped. If this is the case, it is even more important to prioritize your workload to limit your working hours so that you have time and energy for meaningful activity and relationships outside of work.
Learning to live with uncertainty
We all wish that things were less uncertain. There are better and worse ways of dealing with it. It would be nice not to have to change our mindset, focus on what we can control, and so on. We are members of communities of various types. What we control includes how we build relationships and participate in collective resistance. You don’t have to do any of this in an “I’m alright, Jack” kind of way.
You can’t solve a problem without a clear sense of what the problem is and what your options are. Anything that makes things 5% better is worth doing. When you have options that will make things better for a group rather than just for you, you can choose those options. The fact that you can’t help everyone shouldn’t stop you from helping someone. Starting by increasing your own capacity to take action is a good place to start.
Think about what activities increase your sense of security and autonomy, and make those a priority when you plan. It’s okay if you need professional support (from a counsellor or therapist, for example) to do that. There are also probably small ways you can do it on your own (perhaps while you wait). Start with just making a list, and then add to it as you notice more things that help you feel this way. (You might also make a list of things that increase your feeling of insecurity, so you can work out how to avoid those things.)
What makes other people feel secure won’t necessarily make you feel secure. Personally, I feel more secure if I don’t have to lock my doors. Locking doors reminds me of the potential threat. Other people have exactly the opposite reaction. Your list needs to be what works for you.
If you know or suspect you have an anxiety disorder, or other mental illness, that affects your feelings of security and your ability to make tough decisions, seek help from a suitable professional. Medication can help. Sometimes taking meds gets things enough under control that other non-pharmaceutical interventions work better. Everyone I know personally who has an anxiety disorder has increased their meds during the pandemic. That suggests to me that there are probably lots of people who were previously fine without who might benefit from medication given the general shift in the context. It’s almost always difficult to determine the exact type and dosage that will work for you. You need to see a professional to figure out what’s right for you. More tough decisions where all your options are probably things you’d rather not do.
You have a lot to contribute: to your discipline, to your institution, and to your wider community and society. I want you to still be here to make a contribution. I want you to be able to make your contribution and also benefit from what others are contributing.
You can do this!
This post was originally sent to my General Newsletter recipients and has been substantially edited for reposting here. Sign up to my newsletter for early access!