When things aren’t slow

This post was prompted by my agreeing to take on a new leadership role with an estimated workload of one day a week. It was also triggered by a feeling of trepidation when a colleague asked what I was up to at the moment. I made a list of the things I am doing in July and August and collected the multiple notepads I had been working from (at work, in my handbag, and at home):

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I am excited about a lot of things on my to-do list. To name a few: the forthcoming issue of Australian Universities’ Review on activism and the academy; a peer review action research project; directing a growing undergraduate degree program; facilitating teaching inductions and workshops; conducting interviews for a history of the Academic Identities Conference; co-authoring papers on topics and with colleagues I care about; facilitating communities of practice for early career and teaching-focussed academics; and planning future research projects.

My challenge is to manage this busy period within part-time paid work hours.

Note I said ‘busy period’ — these strategies will not work if there is no end in sight. If your workload is unhealthy, unsustainable and unsupported, don’t struggle on alone. (I have made suggestions for finding like-minded souls before. Join a union. Also check if your university has a staff wellbeing program or counselling service).

Workloads in academia are not an individual problem. This recent Times Higher Ed article by Ruth Barcan makes the case for institutional responsibility for the “almost 40%” of academics who want to quit the sector. This figure is from a Times Higher Education’s 2016 University Workplace Survey. In my research with colleagues on aspiring and early career academics’ experiences at three Australian universities, the numbers were less alarming:

At the extreme, ECAs consider leaving academia. Of the participants, 16 (3%) stated this explicitly: ‘I want to get out of higher education and research as soon as possible’ and ‘I plan to leave academic at the end of my post-doc [because of] limited opportunities.’ Another 46 (9%) refer to moving into private or community sectors as an option: ‘I do not know whether I will stay in academia long term or move into industry.’ Others stated that they did not have career plans, with 57 (11%) respondents undecided about the future: ‘My career plans are fairly vague’ or ‘I will re-evaluate whether academic life is for me’ or ‘No fixed plan, but I would like to spend some time in academia at some stage.’ There were 89 (17%) blank responses to the question about career plans; by contrast, all 522 participants answered the questions about their ideal academic job.

This is a more telling result when the responses of women with caring responsibility for children are isolated. Of the 128 respondents in this category, 16 (12.5%) stated that they were considering leaving academia. That means everyone in our study who said ‘I want to leave, get out, or quit’ was a mother. (Ruth Barcan may not be surprised by this: 80% of the people who contacted her to discuss leaving academia were women). (Note we did not ask about leaving academia explicitly).

High workloads will be a familiar story for most of you. With thanks to colleagues who allowed me to think aloud (or vent) and offered solutions, I am using a range of strategies (and there is slow privilege at work here):

  • I am working an extra day a week from home. This is taking pressure off the feeling that I was volunteering my own time for work activities. I am spreading this load over a few days so it feels manageable and, for the short term, being flexible with my self-imposed rules about not working nights and weekends (I recommend Tseen Khoo’s post about working weekends);
  • I talked through my current projects and activities list with my manager and was supported to stop, delegate and defer some things. This is extremely helpful if you have a supportive manager, supervisor or mentor;
  • I revisited strategies for prioritising work: what three things do I need to achieve today? What is the relative importance and value of these tasks?;
  • I scheduled everything into my calendar (which looks a little crazy with multiple things listed simultaneously, but keeps tasks in one place);
  • I let people know they might have to wait, and I asked for extensions where possible (if you haven’t heard from me yet, my apologies);
  • I put a pause on agreeing to new commitments. Or at least I told myself I would do this. To be honest, it hasn’t gone well and I agreed to a speaking gig today — but if anyone asks, then tomorrow I am saying no!;
  • I am allocating time to task (not task to time) because time is finite but tasks are infinite (this advice from here). Sometimes I have to remind myself that near enough is good enough, done is better then perfect, and aiming for 80% is ok;
  • I am continuing to practice self-care — exercising every morning, eating good food, sleeping enough. And for wakeful nights, I find reading on the Kindle is a good distraction from thinking about work, and soon sends me back to sleep.
  • I will give myself a reward at the end of this busy period. I am taking a week off in September. It looks like this might clash with my university’s Staff Wellbeing week. I think this is a great initiative, but I might not be participating this year. I have to consider my wellbeing.

What strategies do you use to manage intense times at work? And how can you ensure there are less busy times ahead?

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3 thoughts on “When things aren’t slow

  1. Thanks so much for this post, Agnes – I’m weirdly in the same space as well with trying to embed more consistent ways of working to try and get through a particularly high volume bunch of commitments (and planning for commitments later in the year) right now. The dropping of everything into the diary works really well for me, too, because it keeps things before me and doesn’t allow it to wallow below the radar and be a nasty surprise when I hit the deadline (which is always there in red…).

    Also, like you, I was getting quite good at saying ‘no’, and then I wasn’t!

    Like

  2. Pingback: Meet Agnes, The Slow Academic - teche

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