My business is all about helping academics juggle their work and life responsibilities so they can get the important stuff done. I focus on writing (e.g. Academic Writing Studio) because that’s the one area of academic work that seems to get pushed aside for more urgent things. Finding time for writing also means figuring out how to keep all the other things you have to do or want to do from overflowing what every container you create for them.
In the light of the COVID19 pandemic, and the havoc it has wreaked on everyone’s workload, routines, and so on, I decided to hold Office Hours for my Studio members last Friday. My goal was to make everyone at least 5% less stressed. We talked about whatever was coming up for them, and came up with some options for addressing it. Here are the key messages from that session. I hope something on this list makes your life a little bit less stressful.
One day at a time is hard but more than a week is impossible
Things are changing fast. We really don’t know how long this will last. Pick a priority for THIS WEEK. Then each day figure out what the most important thing is for that day. Use your own judgement if you have to. The people making the big decisions are also overwhelmed and trying to do their best. If you worry someone will question your judgement, document it (even if it’s that gremlin in your head that might question it). You will not remember why you decided that. This is a normal effect of stress and trauma.
Turn big overwhelming tasks into small tasks
If you have 14 graduate seminar papers to grade it is better to think of that as 14 smaller tasks than one big task. It is easier to find time to grade 1 paper. And then find time to grade 1 paper. And then find time to grade 1 paper. “Another” is going to remind you of the whole pile. Just focus on 1.
Lower your standards
What is the most important thing about this task? To continue with the pile of graduate seminar papers, her students need a grade so they can decide whether to write a 4th seminar paper or not. The 4th paper is optional. She can read the paper, assign a grade, and make a few notes for herself. She can tell the student that if they decide to write the 4th paper she will provide more detailed feedback to help them do better on the next paper.
Another example, teaching. I reassured a twitter follower yesterday that her online lecture doesn’t need a PowerPoint. She doesn’t usually use them. She shouldn’t start now. Bonus, recording audio only and providing an outline in a text document requires less internet bandwidth.
If you want to write, try an hour a day. Or 15 minutes. Do it right after you wake up. Before you check the news or social media. Then get on with the other stuff you need to do.
Ask don’t assume
The university administration may be assuming that the most important thing is that students finish at the same time and have their degree, or whatever they need to progress to the next year. That may be true of undergraduates (though if they are in accredited professional programs which require a certain number of supervised practicum hours, it may not). It may not be true of your professional masters program students or your other graduate students.
Ask your students what is most important for them? It may be different for different students. Figure out how to deal with each group. If your institution hasn’t told you what the policy is for finishing the program later (what I would call a deferral), then figure out who to ask and ask them.
If you don’t know the answer, the best you can promise is that you will find out and advocate for the outcome the student wants. Just because no one has thought about how we’ll deal with PhD completion expectations or funding extensions doesn’t mean no one is going to deal with them. Trust that someone will do the right thing. Make notes. Advocate for your students once we get through the undergraduates and the PhD students who just need to defend before June.
If you are also struggling to focus on work, tell your students. Talk about strategies you are trying. Help them figure out what might work for them. Give them permission to lower their expectations of themselves.
Allow time for tears and meltdowns
Things are REALLY uncertain right now. It is VERY stressful. Some people are responding to this with lots of bluster about being strong and productive. Some people are desperately hoping that if they act like everything is normal they will wake up from this dream and it will be normal. It is absolutely ok to cry. You can even schedule time for crying. Run a bath, or stand in the shower, if that helps. Holding all those tears in is just going to make things worse, in physical ways. Seriously, you’d rather spend an hour a day crying than get an ulcer.
Tell this to your students, too.
Some useful links
I’ve read and shared a couple of things that my friends have told me were really helpful.
Lee Skallerup Bessette wrote a really nice thing about why this emergency feels so much different than a flood, fire, or the 1998 Ice Storm. (Untitled)
Chuck Wendig wrote It’s Okay That You’re Not Okay. There is lots of swearing but it seems fully justified.