In a conversation with a long-term client recently I had an Aha! moment. Every one of my clients is busy. Working with me doesn’t necessarily make you less busy. Working with me can make you feel less stressed and make the busy feel a lot different.
What is “busy”?
Busy can mean a couple of different things. At it’s most basic it just means you have a lot going on. This is a feature of an academic career. You teach. You do research. You write. You participate in the management of your institution (which you call service or administration). You mentor. You collaborate with others. You might engage with the community, practitioners, or policy makers about issues related to your expertise. And that’s just your work life. You also have family, friends, hobbies, community commitments, and so on. Busy can also become a sense that all of these demands are relentless. Brené Brown points out that “crazy-busy” is one of the most universal numbing strategies. (Brown, Daring Greatly, in the chapter “The Vulnerability Armory”, p 137 of my edition).
My Aha! moment was about the control you have over those relentless demands. We know, from research, that lack of control is a bigger contributor to stress than just having a lot to do. I have also observed that lack of control means not only lack of control over what you are doing but a real struggle with setting limits on how much you do. How much you do and what you do are related.
Reactive vs proactive
My client has worked hard over the last several years to build a writing practice and develop a pipeline of publications. She now has several active collaborations, several articles in preparation, several under review, some to revise for resubmission, some in press, and a pretty solid publications list on her CV. Partly as a result of that hard work, she secured a new job a year or so ago. She’s now feeling a bit overwhelmed trying to keep her research and writing program going while also adapting to a new institution, preparing new teaching, and so on.
There was a time when it made good sense for her to say yes to opportunities to collaborate. She needed more publications. She needed access to data. She needed mentoring. Some of her collaborations have gone well. Others have required learning some interpersonal communication skills to get to submission. She’s had to make decisions never to work with some people again. Some potential publications have been abandoned along the way. Most of us have to learn how to collaborate the hard way. This is true for you, too.
The reactive approach becomes a problem when you are doing too much and aren’t sure how to decide which things to say no to and which to say yes to. It also becomes a problem if the work you are doing is becoming meaningless. Another client came to me late in her career, already a full professor, and feeling like she’d lost touch with the research questions that were important to her. Years of being reactive had led to success on paper that didn’t feel like success because she wasn’t making the kinds of contributions she wanted to be making.
Sometimes, you need to be more reactive. It helps you build skills and relationships. It helps you develop a writing practice and build some momentum. At some point, you need to pause, reflect, and develop a more proactive approach.
A proactive approach means that you have a clear sense of what’s important to you. You know what you are trying to achieve in your academic career. You know how you want your work to fit into your life. You also know what’s important about your various activities and relationships outside of work. Your priorities come from this personal vision.
You still react to external demands. Those don’t go away. I’m not suggesting you become That Selfish Bastard. But you react (or respond) from a sense of personal priorities. You will still be frustrated but the flavour of that frustration will shift. You will still be busy.
You now have a compass. The road to your destination is still not straight, even if you have a clear sense of it (which you may not). You will be making decisions about your path guided by your personal vision. That gives you more control, less stress, and more satisfaction.
Learning to be proactive
Being more proactive might feel terrifying. This is normal. It requires confidence to set boundaries based on your own priorities. Confidence requires meaningfulness, security, and support. You may already have a lot of the skills you need. Even so it will take time. You have commitments. Your colleagues are used to your current way of doing things and might resist your attempts to change. Despite the autonomy an academic career allows, you also have a lot of demands.
Being proactive isn’t “You need to learn to say no more.” It is about having more control over what you are saying no to, based on making more time and energy available for the things you want to say yes to. It involves trusting that the things you want to do align with the things you are required to do. It means going beyond “but I need more publications” and “I need to be a good colleague” to understanding what is really required of you. It means developing better judgement about the risks of saying no to specific requests.
Clarity about your own priorities, in general and in specific areas of your work and life, is your compass. Knowing what makes your work meaningful, and taking stock of the support you have available enables you to make some of the bigger decisions about your direction and identify criteria for decision making. The level of security you have in your employment status and more generally will influence your risk tolerance, though people vary in how they react to similar situations.
Learning how to use your compass is not always intuitive. You will still feel like you are being pulled in all directions. If you’ve not been good at setting boundaries, starting to do so is going to annoy people who’ve been relying on your reactive nature. If you currently feel like you are adrift on the open sea barely being held afloat by a piece of driftwood, there is a long way to go before you feel like you are on firm ground able to make real choices about the next step you take, even in high winds. You may need to find a boat first. Then get to any kind of land. Then find the firm ground. Chances are, as you find your way through your career, that you will sometimes be on slippery mud, need to hack through some underbrush, or have to take some kind of major detour. The purpose of the compass (your vision) is to help you find your way despite all that. It doesn’t make the way smooth or straight.
You can get started on your own. Notice what you value. Then whenever you have a decision to make, stop to look at your compass first. (I wrote about how to do that here: Before you can say no.) Checking in with yourself in those ways is a bigger step than you might think, even if what you end up doing is more or less the same.
As I explain in my planning classes, when you learn to juggle you start by tossing one beanbag from one hand to the other. It doesn’t look much like juggling but it helps you develop a foundation for juggling. Tossing one beanbag from one hand to the other enables you to get comfortable with the action. You develop form and consistency so you don’t have to think as hard about doing that simple action. When you add a second beanbag, things fall apart for a bit and then you work out how to recover that form while also adding in the 2nd beanbag.
As you transition from reactive to proactive, start small. One place to start is by introducing a pause to turn your reaction into a response. I’ve written more about how to do that in Before you can say no. Notice what difference it makes to how you feel if you pause and consider your response first, even if you end up responding in the same way you would have in the moment.
You might also start by noticing the things you wish you had not agreed to and evaluating whether you could drop or renegotiate those things. You don’t have to go as far as actually dropping or renegotiating any of them. Learning how to identify and assess the risks is a good first step. You may extend that practice to actually renegotiating a deadline or backing out of a commitment. Or, you may identify red flags and other criteria for making decisions in future. Having examined the risks and deciding not to drop or renegotiate a commitment will also make you feel more in control. You will have a better sense of why you are doing this thing at this point in your career. I have written more about renegotiation in It’s not too late to adjust your plans.
If you would like some help and support:
This is what I do. I help my clients take a more proactive approach to their work.
Getting some help with clarifying your vision and setting off in the right direction may be all you need. This is what Wayfinding does: I help you find the compass, figure out where you are in relation to where you want to go, and set off on the path right in front of you. Wayfinding can also help you figure out what support you have and how to make good use of it. Some people also find it helpful to have a Wayfinding session periodically (annually or biennally) to recalibrate their compass and do the map-reading for the next part of the journey with someone else.
A Guide for the Journey is ongoing coaching support while you make whatever changes you decide to make. I help you learn how to use your vision to respond to external requests (and demands) without feeling like you’ve completely lost control. I’m there to help you make the decisions you need to make, to figure out when it might be a good idea to take a risk, and to reassure and encourage you as you figure out these things yourself.
I also offer a group program, the Academic Writing Studio, focused on making time for writing (the thing most academics struggle most with) and also offering support for the knock-on effects of doing that through planning classes, monthly group coaching calls, a members only forum, and other online resources.
An earlier version of this article was sent to my coaching newsletter on 23 August 2019. It has been edited. Subscribe to my newsletter.