Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Fighting Burnout

Like most early career academic researchers, I’m busy. My official job duties are teaching a lot of courses and chairing a program. But, then there’s all the extra academic stuff that gets piled on top: applying for tenure-track positions; applying for research funding; writing reference letters; going to meetings; attending conferences; trying to think about writing something, as well as the non-academic life stuff on top of that: eating; making sure the laundry gets done; keeping up with friends; having a long-distance relationship; exercise (?); doing the dishes every once in awhile…

It’s a bit much. It’s too much, in fact. Even if I was a feminist superhero (and I couldn’t tell you if I was because it would jeopardize my secret identity), it would be too much.

There are particular times of year—and this is one of those times of year—that it’s pretty easy to start feeling burnt out. You might be reading an article and find that your eyes are glazing over; seeing a pile of essays might induce nausea; or you might just feel completely saturated. Here’s a few ideas for fighting burnout.

1. Clean Breaks

Are you one of those people who insists on bringing a laptop or pile of grading to a cottage? If you’re already feeling burnt out, take a clean and guilt-free break. It doesn’t even need to be a long break, but a break that involves you lugging four books around town while you “go out for a walk” is not a clean break. When you’re done working, stop working. For real.

2. Reading Detox

Try this experiment: do not read anything. No email; no lists of things to do; no articles or books, even for pleasure, for 24 hours. It feels impossible. It is not. Let your brain recover for awhile! Try occupying yourself in other ways: knitting; exercise (?); doing that pile of laundry; or anything else that strikes your fancy.

3. Have a Life Outside of Academia

One of the best things that happened for my academic career is that I made friends with people who aren’t academics. In my case, it was through playing music. Being friends with people whose lives don’t revolve around the university puts a lot of what we do in perspective, and this can help academic work feel much less overwhelming.

4. Acknowledge that You Won’t Do Everything Perfectly

This can be hard to do. As an academic, and maybe just as a human, I want to do my best all the time. Acknowledge that you are doing your best under the circumstances and try to avoid long sessions of beating yourself up for what you may perceive as “falling short.”

Finally, perhaps most importantly, sleep! Goodnight!


3 comments:

  1. Excellent advice, Liz. If you don't mind me asking, how much of it are you able to follow, do you think?

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  2. Yes, excellent advice. I put most of these into practice, actually, but I want to put this out there: it's a lot easier to ease up, take reading breaks, accept "good-enough", etc, when you have a stable, tenured or tenure-track job. It's a LOT HARDER (as you know) to be reasonable in your work/life balance when you feel like you are constantly auditioning for the future you want. More teaching. Better evaluations. More publications. More grants. Better work. More committees. It's hard when you're on the tenure-track, too, because in both cases the point where you "pass" the test is not made clear to you. So the "sensible" thing is to perpetually try harder.

    Insidious.

    Pragmatically, it's worth realizing that "try harder" is not a sustainable strategy, and that no one does their best work while burnt out or attempting 48 things simultaneously. Ugh.

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  3. @A-Dubs: The short answer to your question is "piece of advice #4" -- I don't "do" my relaxation as perfectly as I'd like, either, but I do my best under the circumstances!

    @Aimee: Yes, I completely agree. While my advice might be helpful to individual folks dealing with stress, overwork, and burnout, it also doesn't address the much larger, structural problems of a neoliberal academic system that creates the working conditions that lead to burnout. And addressing this systemic issue is a lot more difficult than all of us individually trying for a good night's sleep every once in awhile.

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