Surviving the surge.

Here it is once again, like clockwork: that time of the semester when it all piles up–the papers, the deadlines, the meetings, the kids’ recital, the conferences…. And here you are once again, barely keeping your head above water, with your out of control to-do lists, working 24-7 with no hope of catching up, barking at your kids or your partner, overwhelmed, frustrated, defeated, and perhaps even second-guessing your career choice.

Going into the semester, you thought you were doing well. You had good intentions, a plan and a set of strategies to go with it:  submit 3 manuscripts, exercise 3 times/week, sleep 8 hours/ night, set weekly goals, schedule daily writing time.  Then came the semester “surge,” as one of my friends calls it. And that was that.

What’s on your tray?

What happened?  Yes, the surge is real; there always comes a point in the semester when meetings, deadlines and grading do pile up. But the ugly truth is that we also bring it on ourselves.

Picture yourself carrying a tray on which are rocks, each representing what you do in a day at the beginning of the semester: teaching, doing research, writing, meeting with students, shopping for groceries, paying bills, taking the puppy out, taking the kids to their extra curriculars. Your tray is heavy, but manageable.

As the semester goes on, you shift the rocks around to make room for new rocks: helping graduate students in the lab, grading midterms, serving on a committee, helping a colleague out, taking your kids (or your parents) to the doctor, attending kids’ practice and rehearsals, helping an elderly relative.

By the middle of the semester, you have added so many rocks to your tray, that you are crumbling under its weight, crawling your way to the end of semester, barely hanging on to the last string of your sanity.

In the midst of it, the story we tell ourselves goes like this: to earn our place at the table, we must show our value, keep up with the pace, put the work in. We all know that smart, successful people never stop working (and we hear stories that support the belief: professionals who never retire, “working” until the day they die; mothers “choosing” to go back to work two days after giving birth or getting up at  4:00 a.m. every day to finish a manuscript). Downtime is for losers, the story goes.  And so we start the semester at capacity already. When the surge comes around, we have no bandwidth for it. We never stood a chance.

Lightening the load

As hard as it may be to believe it right now, being over-capacity is not an inescapable condition for academics. When it comes to managing what’s on your tray, intention can go a long way, especially if you follow these three steps:

Step 1. Inventory what’s on your tray, at work and at home, keeping in mind that not all rocks are equal. Which rocks nourish you? Which ones weigh you down? Which ones do not belong to you?

Step 2. Drop a few rocks. Start with 2-3 big rocks whose removal would have the most significant impact right now.  Focus on rocks you have the power to move: email, graduate student projects, home chores, etc. Identify which rocks you can trade back and forth with others (who said you always have to be the one planning and cooking dinner, or cancelling your day when a child is sick)? Which ones could be made smaller if you delegated? What will it take to remove these rocks? Whose support will you need?

Step 3. Tell (don’t ask) others what you need so that you can remove these rocks. This is probably the hardest part. Nobody is going to come to you and willingly move your rocks onto his or her tray. Know that as you re-set boundaries.

You are not selfish. If you find it hard to ask for what you need because you’re worried you’ll appear selfish, consider the toll that your stress level and overwhelm are taking on your health and well-being, your interactions with colleagues and students, your relationships with your kids, and partner. I would argue that if there is selfishness, it is in not taking action to be more engaged and present in your life.

Others will resist. Change is hard. Students will keep knocking at your door, contact you on the weekend, wait on you to fix their problems; colleagues will still expect you to join their taskforces, show up for meetings, help with their projects; your partner will still expect you to do the grocery shopping, to figure out dinner or to cancel your day when a child is sick. Be firm and consistent.

There is a “yes” in every “no.” Consider how each “no” creates an opportunity for a yes, for you and for others. Yes to uninterrupted writing time. Yes to meeting a deadline. Yes to creating an hour to catch your breath. Yes to spending more quality time with the kids for your partner. Yes to modeling boundary setting for graduate students.

Moving forward, consider how you can keep your tray under capacity. Understand that down time is a must. That’s what you need to recharge and do your best work. It also serves as a buffer to keep you from always being in the “at-capacity” zone and from drowning when the semester surge arrives.