Monday, April 20, 2009

Work-Guilt and Time-Management

It's really surprising how long it takes to acclimate oneself to a full-time position in academia. I'm nearing the end of my second year now, and I still find myself constantly tweaking all of my best-laid-plans for "balancing" the Holy Triumvirate of responsibilities: scholarship, teaching and service. As I've said many times before, one of the more maddening aspects of academic life is that you never feel like you're "off" work. There's no punching-out at the end of the day, and weekends are less "days off" than they are "uninterrupted" work days. And don't get me started on that myth of "summers off"! The dead weight of Work-Guilt (I should be prepping, I should be writing, I should be reading, I should be...) never goes away. For all of the sweet perks that come along with academic life, a quiet mind is not one of them.

I'm sure we're not alone in thinking that there just aren't enough hours in the day, days in the week, weeks in the month, months in the year.... but because our work time is so unstructured, and often so unpredictable, it is especially hard to manage. The first step, I think, in getting some handle on the problem is to figure out how one works best. For me, the optimal conditions include long stretches of uninterrupted focus. I've discovered that I really cannot work for an hour or two, then have a meeting, then come back to my work, then teach a class, then come back, then eat, then come back, then advise a student, then come back, etc., etc.. When I try that, I end up having to repeat the last thing I was doing before I took a break, trying to find my train of thought again, searching desparately for the next sentence that was right there before I got up. Absolutely maddening. The problem, I've come to discover, is that such conditions are really only available in the summer, which means that the amount of reading, writing and researching that I can get done during the semester is less than I would like. Consequently, The Guilt.

However, I've tried something new this term. I've just conceded the fact that there is a very limited amount of progress that I can make on my manuscript during the course of the semester, but what I CAN do is make sure that, when summer gets here, I have everything in place to hit the ground running. All the research is compiled and organized, all the books are checked out and waiting, all the outlining is complete, and all I have to do is sit down and get started. My hope is that this way I won't lose the last couple of weeks of May trying to shift gears from the teaching schedule to the writing schedule. I can't say that this new insight has done a tremendous amount to assuage The Guilt just yet, but I'm hoping that if things go well this summer, I might be able to look back and re-evaluate how best to manage my time during the semesters.

At any rate, I'm interested to hear from others what works for you. Misery loves company!

6 comments:

Chet said...

I hear you. I guess I've been productive this semester despite myself (2 publications), but I have wanted to do more research. I remember when I was a graduate student, imagining that I could write a paper for publication a month. And I suppose that is still plausible, assuming that graduate journals would be adequate homes for such projects ... I've taken it a little easy because it is my first year after the diss and I figure I'm due for a little rest. But I hear you about the guilt. When I just started graduate school, I had a lot of anxiety attacks because of the guilt. THat faded eventually, or rather I sublimated that guilt.

The thing to keep in mind is that we do have a great deal of free time, although that free time is frequently occupied by different professional tasks (teaching, service ...). The latter can be done kind of mechanically, or without as much as reflection.

Is the key to make research and teaching coincide, always? I have to say I think this is unfair. THe responsibilities of some courses simply cannot sustain our own interests. At a college I interviewed at this semester, they left the curriculum wide open, but to the detriment of their students, I think. Such that students might learn about psychoanalysis or about obscure medieval figures, but not necessarily basic attention to Plato, Descartes, Kant--i.e. the canon. You have to do justice to the canon ....

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

I find this absolutely impossible to negotiate --- I think I've ended up waiting until something hits crisis (looming deadline, students getting too anxious about grades, house a total disaster) and then focus only on that for a while. The other thing (and I've only recently been able to do this) is to just be more selfish about my time, but that's difficult to do when you're on the junior end, as we all are...

I do think over the last few years (I think this is my 4th year of full-time position), I have become better about the guilt. Part of this is time, and part of it, I think, is having kids --- it becomes impossible to worry about anything else because you're so worried about them.

I've also been working on realizing what projects I do and don't want to do, but again that can only go so far when (like us) you are untenured...

petya said...

Not sure if I am allowed in this conversation (not being an academic and all) but I find that a big part of guilt, stress, and anxiety for me comes from having started projects that I don't care that much about. Or, I THINK I should care about. Every once in a while I do a quick inventory and get rid of some of the clutter. It helps me a great deal.

anotherpanacea said...

http://www.structuredprocrastination.com/

I have yet to master the work-life balance, but honestly, given your recent tales of singing success, I suspect you are much closer to it than anyone else I know.

As for work-GUILT, I have no idea of a solution, except plenty of Nietzsche and skepticism of the value of such emotions. Guilty that others have killed, stolen, cheated, tortured, lied, in my name, that I have benefited from the privileges of a whiteness and colonialism and that ? Sure, certainly, I should hope so! Guilty that I haven't handed back my students' papers in a timely fashion or made as much progress as I'd like on the paper I'm writing? That seems a strange use of the term.

anotherpanacea said...

Just returning to note that, on reflection, my claim that we are most guilty for things outside our control and least guilty for those we can actually be said to have chosen is a strange one and I have no idea what I was thinking. I leave it intact rather than deleting it because it's such a strange thing to say, and yet it's affectively true: I -do- feel more guilty for the torture I didn't approve than I do for forcing my students to wait for their papers. That's odd.

The Clapp said...

My guilt is felt as a struggle between the needs of myself, my most intimate partner, my community, humanity, my family, my professors, and others. I feel a duty to help the wold in ways that I can, a duty to be there for my friends and loved ones, a desire to have some time for myself, a duty to be prepared for class (as to help the professors create a better teaching environment), a duty to do well in class (as it is the sole evaluator for how well I use the money to put me through those classes), a duty to help those less fortunate in the Memphis community, and others I have not realized. The problem is that I do not have enough time and that I must make choices as to where my time should go. This means evaluating who or what is more important to me, and here is where the guilt really settles in. Am I more concerned about myself, what I produce as a student, who I help, or how well my money is put to use.


It seems the guilt is most apparent for the things I want to do the least. I really do not want to write all of these papers and have them evaluated. I would rather just write for the sake of writing, have my professors read them, and then argue with me about why I am wrong or right. But, this is part of the necessary measures I must take to secure a spot in graduate school. I am satisfying the guidelines of the bureaucratic process of education, and it is something I must do. I feel terrible when I receive a grade that does not reflect my intelligence. But go I feel guilt that I am letting my parents [money] down, my intelligence down, or my professors? This I must continue to reflect on. Sometimes I feel guilt because I know that I have the capabilities to do great things, and if I fail to complete such objectives, have I not failed humanity? If the means to doing something great is academia, should I sacrifice myself? And if I throw away chances at academia by twiddling my thumbs in undergrad should I feel that same quilt? Or am I not giving myself any of the time that I require to stay sane? Where is the median?



I think that guilt is our way of self-regulating what we hold to be the good or moral. We enter social contracts and feel the obligation to meet it's demands. If nothing else, guilt should be welcomed as the indicator of moral feelings [note that the moral foundations may be off, but at least there is room to change the moral grounds so long as a person has the ability to recognize that difference].