I have been supporting academics with research and writing in some way since 2005.
It took several years for my business to evolve into what it is today, but one thing that has remained consistent is my belief that focusing on what matters to you about the work you do is important. Early on I talked about that in terms of loving your work. I’ve now come to think of it in terms of what makes your work meaningful.
Both of these terms get used to manipulate you into overwork and into accepting exploitative and abusive behaviour that is objectively unacceptable.(See “Lies you’ve been told about loving your work”) This can lead you to reject meaningfulness, enjoyment, and love/passion as inappropriate for thinking about work. You don’t have to do that. The fact that you find (some of) your work meaningful, that you enjoy it, and/or that you can get really passionate about it is a good thing.
You aren’t broken but there may be things you’d like to change about your work or your relationship to it. The posts in this spotlight can help you think about how to harness meaningfulness (or love, passion, or enjoyment) to make decisions about
- What to say yes to & what to say no to
- What’s worth putting extra effort into and when you can do the minimum
- What activities outside of work you want to prioritize and how to limit your working hours to do them
- What relationships are important (in work and outside work) and what that means for how you spend your time
Thinking about meaningfulness (and related ideas like enjoyment, love, and passion) may also help you with motivation and focus.
What do I mean by “meaningful”?
One of the early iterations of the importance of meaningfulness was The importance of your vision, by which I mean the thing that motivated you to do this work in the first place, or what you want to accomplish with this work. There are a lot of ways to have an academic career, what is the career you envision for yourself?
I am now more likely to talk about that in terms of values. Some of the values that are commonly associated with academic work are autonomy, community, rigour, integrity, and originality. It is important to consider not only whether these are important to you, but what they mean for you and where they might be particularly important. It is also important to consider how different values relate to each other in specific situations.
It’s often easier to see when it’s missing
Back in 2012, I wrote Is “number of hours” the right measure? in response to an issue raised by a coaching client.
Recently a client asked me to help her figure out how to work less. She is frustrated by long hours, working weekends, and so on. She figures at this stage of her career she should be able to have a better balance.
As we worked together, it became clear to me that the number of hours worked in a week might be the wrong measure of the problem. If this is true, then the number of hours worked in a week might also be the wrong measure of the change.
In that post I shift the focus from the number of hours, to how you feel about the work you are doing in those hours. I also make a connection to meaningfulness by focusing on work that feels meaningless.
This absence of meaning has become even more obvious during the Covid pandemic that started in 2019. You might experience this as loss of meaning or as starting to hate the work you love. It may be burnout (AKA cognitive fatigue), common or garden fatigue or exhaustion, or you may be (legitimately) angry at how your employer and the culture of academia has used meaningfulness and love to exploit you and make it difficult to set boundaries around that work.
How does meaningfulness help you juggle your workload?
Your workload is overwhelming. For most people that’s just an objective fact. Universities have been reducing the number of securely employed academics, increasing the number of casually employed teachers and researchers, increasing administrative demands, increasing student numbers, and reducing the number of support staff available to help you with the job. The autonomy you have as an academic also means that you have to make your own decisions about how much and what kind of research to do, how much to publish, and how much to update your teaching in a the context of increasing pressures to meet abstract standards of excellence.
Meaningfulness also seems to be related to time perception. I’m not sure if it’s that the time we spend on meaningless or frustrating activities feels longer. Or if we just resent that we had to spend any time at all on them. The reverse is probably also true. The time we spend on activities we find meaningful perhaps doesn’t register in the same way as those we find frustrating, boring, or whatever. We don’t notice how much time we are spending because we don’t resent it. This can be important for workload decisions.
Your goal isn’t merely to do less.
The goal is to make meaningful work a higher proportion of the work you do. You want to be less frustrated. You would like to enjoy your work more. Being more thoughtful about what kinds of work are worth stretching your boundaries for, and which ones most definitely aren’t, is a good place to start. Then you can start to make space for more meaningful work during your normal working day/week (however you define that for yourself) and allow some of the less meaningful work to remain undone.
The things that are meaningful to you about the job act as a guiding star as you make difficult decisions in these circumstances. By this I mean that you may never fully realize the vision you have for this job, and you may have to compromise some of your values some of the time, but you don’t abandon either your vision or your values completely. You want to be proactive, rather than reactive, as much as possible.
Since you objectively can’t do everything being asked of you (specifically, or in that vague “do excellent research” kind of way), the goal is to ensure that the things that are not being done are less important than the things you are doing. One of the questions I encourage you to use to guide decisions about what work you will do and how well you will do it is:
“What is essential?”
Answering this question requires you to identify the values that make something essential. You might get at this in a different way, questioning your assumptions about what you must do by then asking:
…in a way that helps you see whether particular ways of doing things are aligned with the values that are important to you.
This brings me back to what makes something meaningful. Meaningfulness doesn’t have to be a big, almost spiritual, thing. It can be the quality of a particular task that makes it not worthless, pointless, trivial, or futile. Sometimes what makes a task feel meaningless is the way it is being done. In “The value of intellectual engagement” I get more specific about some high level values and provide some specific examples of what that means in practice. I’ve addressed the specific issue of meetings in Are meetings really a waste of time? This perspective also influences a lot of what I’ve written about email. Email itself is not meaningful, but the things being communicated by email might be.
Individual vs institutional change.
There are limits to how much you can change as an individual. As I said, your workload is objectively too much, for a whole host of reasons that you have very little control over. The changes I’m suggesting may only make things 5-10% better, but that’s still better and worth doing.
Even if you don’t have control, you might consider whether you have influence (again, even if it’s small).
- How do your practices contribute to a culture of overwork?
- When can you raise the question “Does this need to be done at all?” in a meeting?
- What other influence do you have?
It’s also important to consider meaningfulness when you push back against meaningful demands, either individually or collectively. If you don’t get specific about what is frustrating you, and wait until things become really untenable, you risk making it look like you don’t care about things that you really do value, or that you couldn’t defend dropping if challenged.
- Is it really that the entire role or project is too much?
- Is it specific aspects of the role?
- Is it the way it is being framed?
A Guide for the Journey client provided a good example. They have an administrative role that is objectively (on paper at her institution) too much work for the time allotted. There is a particular week where this role takes up the majority of their time. My client cleared that week. They turned down an invitation to an interesting research seminar. They made sure they had the time to do this task well. My client did not resent this because it was clear how the work needed in that week contributes directly to better outcomes for students, which is important to them.
A colleague of my client who was doing the same role in a different unit had a very public breakdown about the workload required of this role during the busy week that my client did not resent. That kind of general blow-up can make your whole argument about the unreasonableness of your workload seem unreasonable. We talked about it and I noticed that while my client agreed with some of the general points their colleague made, the specific tasks required during that week were nowhere near the top of the list of tasks they thought made the job frustrating. By having the blow up in that particular week, their colleague gave those who have the power to change things (but don’t want to make the tough decisions necessary) an easy out. They can just focus on the one obviously important thing that you needed to do in that week, reiterate how important it is, and push the bigger questions off to an undefined “later”.
Meaningfulness, confidence, and risk
Whether you are making changes at an individual level or trying to contribute to institutional change through individual or collective action, you will be taking risks. I’m assuming that your values are (at least somewhat) aligned with your institution and with those of your colleagues. I’m confident that this is often the case, but I know it is not always the case. The risk might be something big like “Will I get hired/fired for this?”, or even “Will this increase the risk someone will threaten my life or that of my loved ones?” Or, the risk might be something like “Will students give me bad evaluations or complain?” or “Will this be harder to publish?”
Everyone’s risk tolerance is different. You can never reduce risk to zero. It depends on factors like the security of your employment, your past experiences, your membership of a minoritized group, your trust in colleagues or the institution, the legal and policy context in which you work, your immigration status, and so much more. I can’t judge this for you. What I say here applies to being the kind of colleague or friend other people can trust as well as your own decisions about what risks to take. There are situations where therapy or counselling can help, but it isn’t always appropriate or available.
You might experience lack of confidence as imposter syndrome, or as overwhelm, or feeling powerless to make even small decisions that could make a difference. You might experience it only in one part of your work.
When something is meaningful to you, it is much easier to get yourself to work on it.
How much of your resistance to whatever you are doing now comes from feeling like the task or project is worthless, pointless, trivial, or futile? Are you adding some kind of magical ending to counter that? (An outcome that is related but not guaranteed, and over which you probably don’t have control. See the linked post for examples.)
What if you risked doing the thing that would be more meaningful? It probably means risking some still uncertain future thing in the name of making it much more likely that the work you do tomorrow will be satisfying.
This lack of confidence can make it hard to start, but I encourage you to push through just a little bit. Enough to get started. Because working on something meaningful and making progress will change how you feel. Maybe only 10%, but that’s still a change worth having.
Focusing on something meaningful can also be a good way to deal with the mid-career blahs, sometimes called the post-tenure slump. It can be hard to believe that after so many years of insecurity and anxiety that you actually can now take more risks. It can be confusing (and disappointing) to realize that your work doesn’t feel very different even though you’ve achieved a goal you’ve worked towards for a long time. Actually taking some meaningful risks can help build your confidence that you have really got here.
To return to the language of love, what happens if you let yourself be an amateur (in the original sense of the word)?
This is all really difficult.
It is particularly difficult in the context of a truly awful academic labour market, combined with institutional and government policies that may be increasingly mis-aligned with the values that led you to this career.
The other thing that contributes to your confidence is getting the right support. If you like (some of) what I’ve written here, and would like to take some steps to increase the proportion of meaningful work you are doing, you might find it helpful to have the support of others who are taking similar steps.
The Academic Writing Studio includes events and resources which provide that support. During A Meeting With Your Writing, you can get support from the host if taking the risk to write about meaningful things is getting you stuck. There are also regular group meetings a couple of times every quarter where you can bring your worries and particular problems to discuss and help find solutions.
Finding meaning is important. You find it in community.
You can do this!