I wrote this in December but it also applies at the end of 2nd semester when you are going into summer. Or, at other times of year when you have a break from teaching and you are feeling exhausted.
On the first Friday in December, I ran a group coaching session for members of the Academic Writing Studio with the goal of helping them optimize their ability to recharge over the break. There are systemic issues that make it impossible to fully recharge, but you definitely need to be less tired than you are now when Semester 2 starts, if you are going to avoid some kind of breakdown mid-way through next semester. The trouble is, you also have a lot of other things demanding your time and attention…
The first question I asked participants to consider was:
“When you think about the next few weeks, what is your biggest fear?”
Though it was not universal, one answer stood out: the fear of wasting the break. One person even used the term “squandering”. Later in the session, I asked how many people felt like they were only allowed to rest when they’d finished their work. Almost everyone in the group answered yes to that one.
These sessions are at the end of the day on Fridays for me. I love coaching, but emotional labour is real labour and responding in real time to stuff that comes up is real cognitive labour. I was toast. After dinner I took my Kindle to the bathroom and lay in a hot bath for a couple of hours, then got a good night’s sleep. In the morning, my brain had processed what had happened on Friday and I was buzzing with ideas. I made an exception to my own work-life boundaries and wrote notes about follow up emails for Studio members to go out during the week, writing the first one while I ate my breakfast. In it, I said:
“We live in a culture that values productivity over people. You’ll notice I don’t use the word productivity much in describing my work. That’s a conscious choice. I don’t care if you are productive. I trust you will produce the things you need to produce, but “being productive” is on a list with “excellent”: a list of vague, undefined things that make really terrible goals. It’s like navigating by an airplane’s tail light instead of a star.”
Squandering your break
Squander: verb trans. Spend recklessly or lavishly; use in a wasteful manner.
Noun (an instance of) reckless or lavish expenditure
(Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 6th ed.)
I’m glad I looked that up because it confirmed that it’s not just the sound of those letters that makes squandering seem worse than merely wasting. Reckless. Lavish. Oh my.
No wonder you find it so hard to rest. No wonder you feel guilty if you take the time to enjoy shopping for gifts, baking cookies, decorating, etc *before* you’ve finished your grading, created your syllabus, or given some substantial attention to your writing project.
Rest becomes lavish or reckless. Taking the time to enjoy decorating for a festive season, perhaps with others, becomes lavish or reckless. Sitting in front of the fire with a drink and a snack, enjoying solitude and staring blankly becomes lavish or reckless. Valuing productivity can tarnish your holiday even when you create a boundary and set your work aside.
One of many things we discussed in the session on that Friday was the possibility of resting before you’ve finished things. Fatigue impairs cognitive function and you may be noticing the effect on your ability to do the work you need to do.
Many of us assume that the goal is to not work between Christmas and New Year. You work madly to finish things up before Christmas, squeezing the must-dos associated with your celebrations into the cracks and evenings. I propose that you seriously question this assumption.
Rest first. Seriously consider taking your break from the 18th (or even earlier). Focus on rest. If you celebrate, take your time with the preparations so you can enjoy them. Allow yourself to spend your time lavishly or even recklessly. Then consider doing some work in the week beginning 28 December but perhaps short days, to ensure you don’t undo the effects of the rest and to make up for how hard you worked this autumn. New Year’s Day (2020) is a Friday, which is a good excuse to make that a long weekend.
Or work a shorter week and shorter days for a couple of weeks leading up to Christmas. I would encourage you to plan a solid week of not-working, but if you can’t do that right away, taking a long weekend, and being stricter about evenings might make a noticeable difference.
I expect that if you try this, the must-do tasks related to your teaching will be easier to focus on and less frustrating. If you have time to write, you will be able to engage more fully with your work if you are rested.
Many of you are cognitively impaired right now (because tired). That makes things more overwhelming. It makes you more emotional. It makes risks seem riskier. Step by step instructions may feel patronizing but they require fewer cognitive resources.
This post was originally sent out to recipients of my newsletter on 11 December. It has been lightly edited. Sign-up to my newsletter to get exclusive first access and to make sure you don’t miss any!
If you want support to make things better next semester, the Academic Writing Studio offers regular group coaching to help you juggle your myriad work and life stuff as well as a regular virtual Meeting With Your Writing to help you get focused work done. If you join before 8 January you can attend the session where we do some high level planning for Semester 2.
This post was edited to add the italicized introduction on 28 May 2021.