My friend and colleague Julie Clarenbach posted this on Facebook the other day:
Sometimes I have this idea that if we can just get beyond THIS crisis everything will settle down and go back to “normal.” But there’s always something. I think Shit Happening may BE “normal.”
She’s right. There will always be something.
Maybe that something is not directly work related: your kid gets sick, or you get sick, or your dog cuts himself and needs stitches.
Maybe something comes up at work that throws your plans off: the dissertation you are examining is problematic and needs carefully worded comments and discussions with the other examiners, your head of department asks you to take on an important and urgent issue, one of your students has a crisis that you need to help them with.
The knock-on effects
The effects of whatever this week’s crisis is are both practical and emotional.
You need to find time to deal with this. That means devoting less time than you planned to other tasks on your list. Or, it means working extra hours and devoting less time to non-work activities like eating meals with your family, or sleeping as much as you usually do.
Emotionally, you spend time worrying about how to deal with this particular something as well as worrying about the consequences of the practical adjustments you’ve had to make. You might add to that a dollop of self-criticism for being in this situation. And some emotional energy will inevitably be given to wishing things could just be normal.
That emotional stuff also takes time. When you are frustrated, it’s hard to concentrate and hard to make decisions about the most effective and efficient way to deal with the problem. Your desire for it to just go away makes it harder to deal with it effectively.
Reducing the emotional burden
Accepting that there will always be something can be remarkably freeing. Instead of expending a lot of time and emotional energy being frustrated with how you would just like one normal week that goes as planned, you can approach the latest crisis with curiosity.
Oh, so that’s what we need to deal with unexpectedly this week. How interesting.
You have permission to be sarcastic. Anything that helps diffuse the tension and frustration will help.
Being accepting and curious can help you deal with whatever-it-is more quickly. Try these questions:
- What does this unexpected thing need?
- Which of those needs is truly urgent? What is the appropriate timescale for the rest?
- Can someone else help with this? Which specific parts? Who would be good at that (and appropriate to ask)?
- What do I need to do first so the other person can help effectively?
It can also be helpful to recognize any other emotional stuff that’s coming along with the task at hand.
- Do you think this could have been foreseen and planned for or prevented? Is that true?
- Do you think you have been asked to take this on unfairly?
- Is someone in this situation upset (or likely to get upset) and you find it hard to deal with strong emotions in others?
- Are you comparing your insides to other people’s outsides? Is your self-criticism realistic?
Be compassionate with yourself. Shit Happening is normal. It’s not your fault. It may be beneficial to take some time to just rant and stomp about how unfair it is to get all that out, then you can calmly figure out how the heck you are going to deal with it.
Making space for the practical impacts
Once you accept that the unexpected is part of the normal way things work, you can make space in your schedule for dealing with it. (This will NOT be easy.)
I had a conversation with another friend about hospital wait lists. The increase in hospital wait times for elective surgeries, for example, happens at the point where governments (or private healthcare providers) get concerned about efficiency. The desire to reduce empty beds creates a situation where there is no spare capacity when there’s a big pile up on the highway, or a flu epidemic, or whatever. You can’t know when those things will happen or how many beds they will require but when the inevitable flu outbreak does happen, it fills up a bunch of beds. Those beds are no longer available for surgery patients so elective surgeries need to be rescheduled.
Like a hospital, you can’t run at 100% all the time. If you fill every minute of your work-day with appointments and tasks, there is literally no time for the unexpected.
You need surplus capacity to be able to respond to the unexpected and atypical. If you focus on efficiency and not “wasting” time you don’t have any spare capacity to cope with unforeseen circumstances.
You don’t need the equivalent of a flu epidemic or a pile up on the highway. With a packed schedule even small unexpected things can turn into crises. Foreseeable situations that are atypical can throw you out of whack because you need to shift ‘normal’ necessary activity out of the way.
If you are already trying to fit more activity into your schedule than realistically fits, your situation is even more difficult.
It’s hard to change
You have the weight of cultural pressure (both general and specific to your institution, department and/or discipline) and the habit of over-scheduling to deal with. You’re not going to be able to wave a magic wand and have a less stressful schedule.
The first step is just to consider the proposition that unexpected events are part of the normal. Let it percolate. See what happens.
Abducted by aliens (a handy poster to use)
Juggling 101: Elements of a good plan (general advice on making plans)