It’s a new year, and the academic term has kicked in with renewed vigor. I haven’t written here for a while because I simply didn’t have the mental capacity.
I collapsed into the Christmas holidays nearly flattened with exhaustion and stress, and demoralized by some bad news. Over the two week break, I finally managed to relax, catch up on my sleep and rebuild my battered confidence. Spending time with my family properly was the best medicine: there was a lot of cooking, and baking, and wooden train tracks snaking all over the living room carpet. Each day I ran up Windmill Hill, pounding the muddy grass with my trainers, heart beating furiously in my ribcage, low sun dazzling my eyes and the estuary Thames spread out below: a meandering ribbon of blue with its entourage of wind turbines, great ships, smokestacks, docks and cranes, the town’s rooftops, trees and church spires seeming to tumble into it.
Before I went back in January, I put my work practices under the microscope to see if I could identify any way to prevent another miserable term from playing out all over again. I’d kept a time sheet in the autumn to try to pinpoint what was going wrong. It didn’t tell me much when I’d skimmed it, bleary eyed, on my last day before vacation, other than that I simply had too much to do. With my renewed clarity, however, the patterns jumped right out at me, and what had caused the stress was now obvious.
I am supposed to teach no more than three days a week, with the fourth day for regular research. During the fifth day, my time has been bought out since October by the biotech company that’s helping me take our novel treatment for chronic urinary infection through to clinical trials. But the designated days were only virtual partitions – in reality the teaching was scattered all over the place, and as last term bore down, its chores spread like a cancer into all my other time slots. As anyone who teaches knows well, what’s in the timetable is only a small fraction of what you end up doing on a course. If you don’t defend your non-teaching time, it will simply dissolve into the maw.
The spreadsheet showed that each day, in a vain attempt to keep all the balls in the air, I’d do a little bit of everything – an hour of teaching, then frantic work on a grant, then more teaching, then a chat to one of my PhD students, then a meeting – then more teaching. Constant interruptions meant that I never really sank into any chore wholeheartedly or with the proper focus. Transitions – not being able to start anything else a half hour before teaching a class, or commuting back and forth for meetings between Bloomsbury and Belsize Park – eroded my time even further.
But suddenly it was all clear. All I had to do was block out two actual, real-life days a week and dedicate them solely to research (or other academic chores), and to keep them sacrosanct. I drew a thick black line through square after square in my diary. In weeks where there weren’t two free days from teaching in the timetable, I negotiated with the friendly admin staff to reschedule them to another day, until I finally managed to herd every last hour of teaching into three separate corrals. The two non-teaching days weren’t the same each week, but that didn’t matter. I had done it.
But has it worked?
Three weeks in and I’m sitting here asking myself that very question. If you’d queried me yesterday, I would have said yes: the first two weeks on the new pattern had felt manageable – and for the first time in many months, enjoyable. But now the stress is creeping up on me once again. I am registering flickers of panic just off-stage, the kind that heralds total paralysis: when you have so much to do that you can’t do anything. The problem is that, within each designated day, there are two many subcategories of chores. And tasks that are neither teaching nor research – for example, my new role as Athena SWAN lead for my Division – are starting to gather like brewing stormclouds. Where do I file them? How can I keep everything moving without slipping back into that inefficient multitasking mode? Most importantly, how can I prevent what now seems inevitable – starting to work even longer hours on evenings and weekends to catch up, despite a small child that takes up all my time and energy at home?