Whether it is in the weekly e-mail that clients send me, in tweets, or in casual conversations I’ve been noticing that academics seem to diminish their accomplishments.
“I’ve had a slow week.”
“I only marked 2 essays.”
“I only wrote [insert number here] words today.”
“I only read 10 articles this week.”
Negative talk demotivates
By diminishing your accomplishments you are telling yourself that you aren’t really up for this.
You might add to that by making judgements about who you are as a person: lazy, inefficient, a procrastinator, not good at follow-through, not cut out for this job …
If the words “always” and “never” start creeping into those self-judgements, it’s getting serious.
If you get up in the morning telling yourself those kinds of negative stories, it’s going to be even harder to get things done.
It’s bad enough facing a large stack of essays or exams to grade. Facing them while telling yourself that “you’ll never get them done on time” doesn’t really entice you to pick up that first essay and read.
What’s going on: 2 patterns
Your accomplishments don’t match your plans
That line about 10 articles was not made up. This particular client is beginning a new project and has a lot of reading to do. She had planned to read 20 articles that week.
The same thing happened with the 2 essays comment, from someone else. She had planned to mark 5 essays that day.
Reading 10 articles or marking 2 essays only looks like a failure in comparison to what they hoped they could achieve. Those hopes/plans might even be reasonable.
Your accomplishments pale in comparison to what remains to be done
Only writing 500 words of an 8 000 word essay (or an 80 000 word dissertation) …
Only marking 2 essays of that stack of 25/50/100…
Only reading 10 articles from that long list of relevant literature…
Most of the work you do as an academic consists of big, complex projects. If you have “write a book” on your to do list, it’s going to be a long time before you can cross that item off as done.
On top of that, you are working on several big, complex projects simultaneously: teaching 2 (or 3 or 4) courses, writing an article (or 2 or 3), participating in a committee (or 2) …
No wonder everything you do seems insignificant.
The truth is you get stuff done
Both of the people in the examples above also accomplished a lot of other things. They taught. They wrote. They wrestled with technology essential to reporting those marks.
Shift your focus away from individual projects and look at your day. There are a finite number of hours in the day. You have a finite amount of energy. You have a lot going on.
Try taking 15 minutes at the end of the day to write down everything you got done. Start with a blank page and just think back over the day and write down all the things you did. (If you are in the Academic Writing Studio, there is a printable page with prompts to help you out.)
- Try to describe what you did in self-contained terms without comparison to either your plans or whatever the finished project needs to look like. Remove the words “only” and “just”.
- Include all the unexpected things, perhaps with the amount of time they took.
- Try to include all the self-care that you did: ate lunch, took a 15 minute break, ran for 30 minutes, …
- Avoid judgemental language wherever possible. Pretend you are looking at a friend’s day. Or doing research.
Put your list down and sit back in your chair and look at it. Really acknowledge how much you got done. Allow yourself to be proud of how much you got done. You don’t have to brag about it publicly or tell anyone else. Just acknowledge, to yourself, that you get stuff done.
When you face the myriad things you need to do tomorrow morning, review that list and remind yourself that you can get stuff done.
Go in like a superhero. You can do this.
Edited Sept 15, 2015.