At a recent academic conference, my colleagues and I commiserated over the fact that the many activities associated with our teaching, scholarly research, and service—three areas in which our universities evaluate us—increasingly consume our days…our nights…and much of our lives. Of course, this doesn’t include the various other responsibilities we have outside of work. Many of my colleagues have children, and some of us are the sole caregivers for aging parents (the subject of a future post).
Last year, I read an article in The Atlantic that exclaimed being busy is the new status symbol. Around the same time, a friend in Canada serendipitously sent me a link to a podcast titled Crazy Busy, on the CBC (Canadian Broadcast Company) show Tapestry, which also addresses our obstinately obscene obsession with ‘busyness’.
Books such as The Slow Professor, Deep Work, The Coach’s Guide for Women Professors: Who Want a Successful Career and a Well-Balanced Life, and Mapping Your Academic Career are also bringing attention to our unsustainable and poorly balanced priorities and practices.
Frustrated with this constant busyness, one friend remarked, “It shouldn’t be a competition!” It shouldn’t be, but it is.
If a colleague complains about being swamped with five dissertations to read this month, why do I feel compelled to respond with my own list to show that I’m not slacking? So consumed are we by competitive ‘busy talk’ that our greetings and conversations naturalize and even expect it, thus devolving our interactions into a game of one-upmanship:
How’s it going?
I’m so busy! I have 40 papers to grade.
Yeah, I have 50 coming in tomorrow.
Plus I have to design a new online course.
I had to do two of those last semester.
And my kids are sick today, so I have to rush home.
Well, it was nice seeing you. I have to hurry off to back-to-back meetings. No time for lunch today!
The display of busyness is a banner, even a badge of pride, that signals to the world and to ourselves that we are ‘serious’ academics and not slackers. As a consequence, we readily accept that we must ‘publish or perish’, self-promote our professional accomplishments and our scholarly productivity, and even sacrifice our sleep, health, and relationships; as a result, we feel reluctant about taking time for self-care and saying “no” to colleagues, students, administrators, and publishers. How many of us experience feelings of dread or anxiety before we open check our email? Yes, apparently email anxiety is now a ‘thing’—we dread checking our inbox and we obsess when a reply isn’t immediately forthcoming.
A dear friend and mentor recently confessed that she felt guilty about talking about her family or the other joyful parts of her personal and professional life for fear of appearing insensitive to the busyness and pressures experienced by others. In response, our mutual friend expressed her outrage at this undeserved guilt and at a profession that pits us against one another (and ourselves) and causes us to think that busyness, stress, and competition are normal but that taking time out and supporting one another is a luxury of the naive and unmotivated.
This constant busyness is also negatively impacting the quantity and quality of our interactions with one another. My department recently relocated to a newly renovated building with an open design, glass doors, spacious break rooms, and a large number of meeting and collaborative spaces. One of the stated design goals was to encourage interaction and interdisciplinary collaboration. However, I seldom see most of my colleagues because they are choosing to work primarily at home. Perhaps it’s because the new location is on the edge of campus, far from classrooms. There is also the issue of decreased privacy due to the glass doors and walls as well as the poor soundproofing (!). I suspect many colleagues are just too busy to work in the building and risk interruption. Faculty and staff who do come in regularly hang “do not disturb” signs on their doors to protect their time and space.
Berg and Seeber, in The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy, comment that decreased interaction may lead to individual isolation and a loss of community. This can be damaging to one’s personal and professional well-being:
“The daily interaction among colleagues is disappearing. Everyone is too busy.” Another commented, “no one is in the office. There is no one to turn to for some quick advice about the wording of a sensitive memo, or the selection of a course text.” Why are we talking to each other less? Why are so many of us feeling isolated at work? These are important questions. Studies show that loneliness at work “increases attention to negative social stimuli,” making people “form more negative social impressions of others” (Cacioppo and Hawkley 450, 452); on the other hand, a sense of community helps members of a unit cope with stress: “people are less likely to appraise potentially stressful events as threatening if they are in a supportive environment” (Shelley E. Taylor 269)”
(Berg & Seeber, 2016, p. 72)
There is also evidence that suggests busyness, stress, anxiety, and isolation are causing academics to face higher mental health risks than other professions. A simple Google search of these issues confirms that academics are no strangers to anxiety, depression, mental illness, broken relationships, even suicide. As a recent survivor of the tenure and promotion process, I can attest that academia can be a brutal and demoralizing place. Yet I am one of the fortunate ones.
It’s not all negative, of course. I still love my profession. I find great pleasure in teaching and mentoring students and being a part of their scholarly and professional development. My curiosity hasn’t waned. Gaining new knowledge and skills, doing research, publishing, and contributing to the field still excite me. But I want to make sure that my habits are sustainable so that I don’t burn out—or burn others out.
I’m still working on resisting the ‘busyness’ game. Baby steps. My new motto: “Say no judiciously, say yes cautiously.” But I have to own every ‘yes’ and ‘no’—and not let them own me. I am still constrained by many professional and personal demands, so I recognize that I don’t have complete freedom. But to some degree, I am convinced we teach people how to treat us and what to expect from us (and when to expect it).
So, I am testing the waters by practicing a guilt-free “No” (it still needs work). I am learning to keep my writing and personal time sacrosanct by scheduling them into my daily calendar. I have turned off email, Facebook, and other notifications on my phone. I have finally stopped coming into the office on Saturdays and Sundays (yes, despite the increased responsibilities, there is an upside to tenure). I don’t check email after 5:30pm (surprisingly, the world hasn’t fallen apart yet). I give myself one hour before bed to unwind and meditate. I don’t berate myself for not responding to emails right away (if it’s that important, people can resend them). And I tell myself it’s
okay essential to take ‘mental health’ days and email holidays. I still come into the office 5 days a week at 5am, but it’s quiet and gives me a few hours of uninterrupted time to focus and to be productive.
I’m also working on striking “I’m busy” and “I’m swamped” from my conversations. Everyone’s busy. But it doesn’t have to be a competition.