This is a follow up to the post about being an academic in dystopian times in which I encouraged you to :
“Double down on the work that is meaningful to you. What makes your teaching meaningful to you? What makes your research meaningful to you? What makes your writing and publishing meaningful to you? How can you prioritise the meaningful work? What can you not do to make room for the meaningful work?”
In this post, I want to talk more about how to do that.
Prioritizing meaningful work
Priority means giving resources, of time and energy as well as money, first. The resources you can give to the things that are meaningful to you may be limited, perhaps severely. Beware the gremlin that says that there is no point giving any resources to those things just because you can only give small amounts. A slow drip of water will eventually wear away granite.
You may find it difficult to imagine how you can achieve a bigger goal, but if you identify the small actions that are necessary and begin to take some of them, it will make a difference. Have you ever noticed a dripping tap and thought it wasn’t really serious enough to call the plumber? And then you put a container under it … It is quite amazing how much water accumulates from that seemingly insignificant drip.
Taking small actions instead of setting big goals
If setting goals feels too overwhelming because of all the things required to meet them that you don’t control, then focus on the part you do control. What is meaningful to you about this goal? Why do you want it? Is there anything you can do that will give you some of those qualities? What actions can you take? How much time and energy do they require? What feels possible?
What makes your work meaningful? Where are you already doing this? What is missing? How can you reintroduce that missing element?
If that feels self-indulgent in the face of the bigger things going on in the world, do the same in relation to your membership of a collective who are resisting some of those larger forces. Pick one thing. It might be HE specific. It might be national. It might be global. Pick one thing. Identify actions you could take. Break them down into small actions. Pick one that feels possible with the time, energy, and other resources you have available. Identify the first step. [link to dystopian times part I]
The drip of water only makes a hole in the granite if it keeps going. Start with actions so small you are confident you can keep doing them. Resist the urge to do the most you can. Doing so much you burn out is not effective in the long term.
Evaluating your actions: 3 things to consider
The biggest problem with this small steps approach to planning and goal setting is that it can feel pointless. Evaluating small actions in relation to the big goal is going to be disspiriting. The writing you did in 15 minutes today is pretty insignificant in relation to a completed article manuscript (much less a book). You need a different way to measure the value of what you are doing.
To go back to the dripping tap analogy, don’t look at the individual drops. Find a container and then periodically check the container. Trust that your slow drip will fill a bowl and only look at how full the bowl is once a week or once a month or whatever. You can’t write a lot in 15 minutes, but you’ll be surprised how much writing accumulates in 2 weeks of 15 minutes a day.
For tiny political actions, you might think of the container as being a group of people rather than a group of your individual actions. Being part of a group that is taking small actions provides opportunities to remind yourself that there really is a stream of water, even if you are only one drop in that stream. (e.g. the Americans of Conscious Checklist is based on this principle; also consider joining your union, or a local organization)
Focus on the meaning
A second way to evaluate your tiny actions is to focus on the thing that is meaningful about this action. When you feel overwhelmed and powerless, turn your attention to these tiny spots of light in the darkness. That might feel more like “Even though everything is going to hell, I managed to work on this meaningful project for 15 minutes every day this week.” at least for a while. (see also Hope is better than fear) Like watching stars, once you start focusing on them, you often see more.
Thinking of your actions this way also suggests a different way of framing your bigger goals. Instead of focusing on outcomes over which you don’t have complete control, you can focus on the kind of person you want to be or how you want to feel. These kinds of goals are less measurable but they often open up more possibilities for action that don’t rely on other people.
For example, a workshop participant set an intention “to feel more like an intellectual”. Since I suspect this might be a common desire, let’s look more closely at how that could work. First, it gives you a framework for evaluating opportunities and deciding whether to say yes or no. You’ll probably say yes to more interesting seminars that don’t have direct bearing on your current teaching and research, and no to more things that feel like drudgery. Say yes to service responsibilities that contribute to your intellectual life and the intellectual life of others. Consider saying no to service responsibilities that promote the anti-intellectual policy trends.
Of course, not everything you do makes you feel like an intellectual but setting this intention might make you curious about how you do things. Is your teaching making you feel like an intellectual? What could you change to make you feel more like an intellectual while you are teaching? Are there interesting audiobooks or podcasts that would make you feel more like an intellectual? Could you listen to them while you do housework?
This kind of framing can also work for goals in other parts of your life. How do you want your relationship with your kids to feel? What small actions can you take that will make it feel more like that? If you are feeling isolated, look for actions that connect you to others.
Look at other effects
The third thing to consider is how taking even small actions affects your energy levels. Overwhelmed and powerless drains your energy. It makes everything take longer. You may notice that certain activities actually give you energy. Initially, you only feel like you can devote a small amount of time and energy to them, but once you start doing them regularly you notice you have more energy. That energy might mean that the next thing you do takes less time so it snowballs into more time for your meaningful activity, which generates more energy …
It’s worth looking at the activities that drain your energy, too, and figuring out if there are small actions you can take to limit how much you give to those things. Or, whether you can reorganize your days to pair energy boosting things with energy draining things to manage your overall energy.
Energy isn’t the only resource that might be affected. You might find that setting intentions focused on feeling a certain way may help you do certain tasks differently. They may take less time or drain less energy. For example, it’s not uncommon for people to overprepare for teaching as a way of addressing anxieties about the quality of their teaching. Having a clearer intention to guide your preparation may allow you to do less preparation and feel more confident about the results. After all meaningfulness is an important contributor to confidence [link].
I hope this gives you some ideas for small steps you can take right now. I want you to feel less overwhelmed and definitely less powerless. You have choices even if they aren’t the choices you wish you had. Your work is important.