Memo to self: “I’m swamped” may be a self-imposed condition
This piece is especially for fellow academicians and others who find that work-life balance often turns into an anxious work-life blend.
At the recent “Work and Well-Being 2012″ conference in Chicago (sponsored by the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program of the American Psychological Association), Larissa Barber, an organizational psychology professor at Northern Illinois University, gave a thought-provoking talk on work-life balance.
Dr. Barber explained that we may disengage or “recover” from work in four ways: (1) “psychological detachment”; (2) “mastery experiences” (such as hobbies or home projects); (3) relaxation; and (4) sleep. Unfortunately, job demands and technologies that bridge work and home can make it difficult to achieve a healthy sense of disconnection from work.
Her words rang true to me. When it comes to work-life balance, and applying the four modes of healthy disengagement, I often fail miserably.
Academic work and careers
I understand why folks outside of academe believe that we professors have a pretty cushy deal. After all, most of us are not in the classroom for hours upon hours each day, we have a lot of flexibility in our schedules, and we appear to have “summers off.”
In reality, however, professors who are truly engaged in their work often are extraordinarily busy. Personal motivation, institutional and professional expectations, and choices concerning one’s activities combine to fill up time, and commitments can stack up very quickly.
I know how this feels. For most of the spring and early summer, I’ve been on a recurring weekly cycle of maybe four days at home in Boston, with the remainder of the week on the road, mostly to fulfill various speaking and meeting commitments.
Even during weeks that I’m not scheduled to travel, I’ve been getting anxious by Tuesday, conditioned to anticipate my next trip. And to keep up with things, my “road warrior” kit of gadgets I take on trips keeps expanding, sometimes including a laptop, a tablet, and a smartphone — with all the cables and rechargers that come with them.
I am extremely grateful for the many opportunities to do work that I care about. However, the recent pace has left me feeling tired and frazzled — not to mention way behind on projects that are important to me.
On being “crazy busy”
And here’s a rub: It’s not as if a gun was held to my head to accept these various invitations.
In a recent piece for New York Times, Tim Kreider explores the phenomenon of being “crazy busy,” starting with kids whose every hour is booked up with activities, and extending to adults whose daily schedules seemingly offer no respite. On a personal level, he nails the fact that — at least at the point of saying “yes” or “no” — many adults who claim they have no free moments had some choice in the matter:
It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.
His dime store therapist insight resonates as well:
Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.
I plead guilty. To me, creating a meaningful life is what our time on Earth is all about. But too often this has translated into overcommitting myself. When I tell people “I’m swamped,” I must concede that some of this stems from my own choices.
There’s always more
We continue to ratchet up expectations for occupational and professional success. We worship the mantra of “work hard, play hard.” If you don’t keep doing more, you’ll fall behind and never catch up — or perhaps miss out on that “big opportunity,” even if it’s something you don’t necessarily want.
It all fits well with this era of hyper-capitalism that sadly has become a cultural norm.
Some people thrive on this lifestyle and are much better than me at juggling all their commitments. But for many of the rest of us, a more balanced way of living may be the healthier option. It requires engaging in some personal triage to sort it all out, but this process alone can be a valuable one.
Hmm, this gives me something to think about during my next plane flight…