Academic work habits which I hope will outlive the coronacrisis
Amidst the complaints about lack of productivity and switch to online education, I feel almost guilty to say that I also enjoy my new corona-induced working reality. Well, I would not consciously choose to combine work with childcare. As for the rest, my work satisfaction has actually improved. I know that this sounds pretentious, so let me explain.
Of course, I realise that for those colleagues, who teach freshly-baked online courses the current working reality is very different. I do not mean to sugarcoat their reality, but rather to reflect on mine. I also do not wish to offer unsolicited advice about ‘how to survive corona’ or suggest that I deal with the situation better than the others. In fact, I often feel anxious, unable to motivate myself, and guilty about not putting enough hours into work. But – quite paradoxically – I also feel more satisfied with the little work that I manage to do.
My feeling of increased work satisfaction is certainly not the result of increased productivity. During the three weeks of lockdown I have not made any scientific discovery or contribution, however small. But here is what made my work life in ‘confinement’ more satisfactory, than in the ‘wilderness’ of an academic campus:
Fewer meetings, fewer emails
Spending 80% of my working time in meetings was one the reasons why I left my pre-academic job. About two-thirds of these meetings were ‘strategy discussions’, so vague that none of so-called ‘action points’ could be put in action. Another one-third were tedious administrative meetings (SOOO replacable by email) and public vent-out sessions. In this respect, academia felt like a breath of fresh air: ONLY one departmental meeting a month? And you people are still complaining!?
I then understood where the trick was. Even if at a certain academic level meetings are indeed rather sparse, and can even be inspirational and fun (!), this quickly changes as you climb up the academic ladder. Dreading endless meetings is probably one reason why I sabotage my academic advancement (I wish to believe so!). The ‘killer’ advice given in time management courses is ‘cluster all your meetings in one day’. Sure, try to do that when you need to get together five colleagues, and the only time when they are ALL available is between 9 and 10 on a Thursday in a four weeks’ time.
Another ‘killer’ time management advice: do only those meetings, which cannot be replaced by email. Some would argue that most academic meetings are not replacable by email. We do brainstorming, presenting our work, mentoring, negotiating, ‘difficult talks’ and ‘social calls’, networking, advocacy… The question is: Do we really need to do all of these things? Does all what we say or write needs to be said or written?
Related to the above: I have received much fewer emails than usual in the last three weeks. I am not the one to complain about the amount of email in the academia (which, however, depends on whether or not you have management responsibilities). My usual thirty emails per day do not compare with three hundred, which I used to receive in my old job. Still, receiving 5 emails per day is liberating. It is exhilarating. It feels like the world sends you a signal: there is no hurry, you can focus now on what is important FOR YOU.
Less hectic schedules, fewer societal expectations
In my ‘business as usual’ office days, I would wake up at 6 am, get breakfast for everyone by 6.30 am, get out by 7.15 am to take my son to school, arrive to work at 8.10 am and apply my make up at the parking lot. Not because I am being ‘late’, but because I can’t do this at home with two children hanging on my arms. I would finish work at 17.15 at the latest, hurry to be on time to pick up my son before the school closes, and cook dinner. After dinner, cleaning up and putting kids to bed, feeling overexerted (and I have not even been to the gym!) I would speculate whether to do more work, or watch Netflix. Sometimes I drowse over a scholarly article. But often Netflix prevails.
In my ‘lockdown’ days, I took the habit to wake up at 7 am. I would probably have to go back to 6 am once schools reopen, but it feels so good for now. I actually ENJOY breakfast, because I don’t have to make and eat it in a hurry to be out of the house at a certain time. Contrary to the widespread lockdown advice, I do not dress up and put my make up on, as if I would now be going to work. I secretely hope that many grooming rituals will disappear after the coronacrisis. I also hope that societal expectations on us – and by ‘us’ I mean academic women – that we should run a perfectly neat, clean and tastefully decorated home, keep children and family budgets under control, give stellar presentations and be ‘assertive leaders’, ‘inspiring’ but also ‘attentive to detail’ – will soon die off. I have never been a good housekeeper or public speaker anyway.
By the way, I recently asked students (okay, they were only three, so not a representatative number) about whether they prefer to have their online lectures in these corona times to be recorded in lecture halls, or in professors’ own kitchens. Students said they prefer those kitchen videos because ‘somehow they feel more human’. Relatedly, home videos of disheveled movie stars and sweat-shirted politicians are becoming the new hits: the more outgrown hair the better! Social conventions give up their place to ‘humanity au naturel’: We needed corona to figure this one out!
So with these thoughts in mind I leisurely take my coffee (or three) and turn on my computer: NO NEW EMAILS! I actually cook my lunch AND my dinner. I take all my day’s meals with the people who matter for me the most. And I save two hours a day spent on commuting, dressing up and grooming to do things that are actually meaningful. More on this below.
Focusing on what is meaningful
As I have more time for reflection, I reflect a lot about what is meaningful. Spending time with my family and children is meaningful, talking to parents and friends is meaningful, being out in the nature is meaningful.
What is meaningful in academic work?
Creativity is meaningful. Creativity is the essence of our work. I am thoroughly convinced that most, if not all, of ‘good’ academic work derives from being creative.
More on this here and here. Exercising creativity is not the easiest path though. Being creative means liberating yourself from the excessive feelings of duty. Duty and self-discipline helped us to excel in our studies. Our parents taught us that ‘good things in life must be earned with hard work’. The idea of having to switch from the ‘work’ mode to the ‘play’ mode to become a successful –and, more imporantly, a happy academic – feels so unnatural to most of us. It provokes huge feelings of guilt and fear of being judged ‘lazy’ by our academic peers.
Creativity involves taking risks, sometimes poorly calculated. It requires learning to deal with inner doubts about ‘whether this is all worth it’ and should you not just take the familiar path, and about your own capacities ‘to pull this off’. Being creative also means getting rid of the feeling that ‘you have to’ or ‘you are expected to’ do certain things. It means recognising that almost in any situation - unless it involves life and death - it is US who decide whether to do something or not, and that we ALWAYS have a choice. We often like to believe that it is our superiors or the ‘institution’ that take all the decision for us. But it is us who agree to teach a course, which we don’t find interesting for ourselves, only to make our academic boss happy. It is us who put off submitting that chapter long past the deadline agonising over our 15th radically re-written draft, which we feel is still ‘not good enough’.
What else is meaningful in the academic work? I do believe that seeing others grow, either thanks to your efforts, or despite or independently from them, is meaningful. We should not pretend that we can ‘make’ someone else grow, as growth is a very personal process. The very meaning of growth is different for everyone. Most of the times we are only spectators of ‘changes’, which we observe in people, and which we intepret in our way. Observing these changes and being happy for our colleagues and students who seem more satisfied with their work or their studies, is meaningful.
I do hope that the new working reality we are facing due to the coronacrisis will boost a change in the academic work culture. Alarming voices were raised in the academia – including the Dutch academia - about overwork and poor work-life balance. Some argue that the 'overwork culture' is at least partly self-sustained. The working reality ‘in the times of corona’ might actually be an example of a more sustainable approach to academic work in the long run. We might also be surprised to find out that we were no less, or maybe even more ‘productive’ in the times of the coronacrisis. That is, if we define our ‘productivity’ not as the amount of pages written or emails sent, but as meaningful outcomes of our work: those outcomes that we feel proud of, because we have given our best creative and generous selves to achieve them.
|Anna Pivaty is postdoctoral researcher at the Maastricht University, Netherlands. All views expressed in the blog article are personal. More blogs on Law Blogs Maastricht|