Living on the Edge of Equilibrium

Last week my bike got a puncture. So what, you might ask. In itself this is totally trivial, but it also represents the way the trivial gets in the way of everything else. A puncture for me represents potential disaster. If I get a puncture, then I’ll miss my train (meeting, lecture, insert some appropriate noun according to your own life); if I miss the train then I won’t get to the meeting in London(miss my plane, miss my next train, miss the dinner I’m speaking at….); if I miss the meeting then I won’t be able to influence the decision (deliver my talk, support my colleague, know what’s going on….). For each of you the specifics may vary but the general picture will be the same. You see what I mean: a puncture is not simply a thing in itself but can have significant knock on consequences.

Migraines are another common, relatively minor disaster I know are waiting to disrupt my plans. Losing a few hours to blindness and nausea mean that those hours I had set aside to write a talk, prepare my teaching or referee a paper irretrievably vanish. If the talk is to be given the next day, if the deadline is imminent, these lost hours can seem crucially important and their loss can add to the misery the migraine itself induces. A fever, a heavy cold or ‘flu are worse because longer-lasting (although occasionally one can struggle on through some illnesses, ill-advised though this may be and anti-social to your colleagues).

The best laid schemes – of mice, men and women – gang aft agley. It only takes one small incident to disturb them.  The puncture in question brought home to me just how close to the edge I and many of my colleagues live: there are an unreasonable number of things to be fitted in to the standard 24-hour day. I have reached the point where any train journey will mentally have a set of tasks lined up against it. I don’t think how nice it will be to look out of the window as I head off to some scenic part of the country; I worry about how reliable the 3G connection is due to this very same scenery.

Life as an academic has long since ceased to resemble the quiet contemplation of a monk or the dilettante pursuits of a gentleman who only has to give a handful of lectures a year to some well-heeled youths. We live in a world where there seem to be more deadlines than days, more emails than minutes and a system that requires us to demonstrate excellence on every front simultaneously from the first moment of appointment to a permanent position (with equivalent stresses before that joyous moment). And the trouble with living like this, however satisfying many of the tasks may be in themselves, is that the satisfaction is sapped by the constant need to change gear and deliver against a different task. Far too often there is no space for creative thought or time to take genuine pleasure in something long sought – a difficult experiment finally working or a hypothesis thoroughly tested – when it comes, finally, to fruition. And of course it is a system that can too easily make failure, on one front or another, the only possible outcome. It cannot be good for academia’s collective health, mental or physical, however much the buzz when things do go right may do to compensate for these negative aspects.

It seems to me unreasonable that I have not only to use every moment of my train journeys (all too frequent, even if only up to London) but even to timetable their use in advance so I can fit in everything I need to do. A trivial perturbation of a puncture is enough to throw my day out and to tip the balance from feeling on top of things to suspecting that everything is just going to slip away into the darkness of chaos. At the best it is as if I am existing in a state of metastable equilibrium surrounded by deep troughs into which I might sink at any moment, although the metaphor breaks down if you assume the troughs are nicely ordered low energy states. Whatever else these troughs are not ordered life!

On this occasion the puncture caused nothing more than a few minutes irritation. I was not only close to a bike shop in town, it even could do a repair within the 2 hour slot of my next meeting. Disaster was repelled. I avoided the pitfalls that would have befallen me had the puncture happened elsewhere in my peregrinations. Who says luck doesn’t play a part in life? Of course it does.


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31 Responses to Living on the Edge of Equilibrium

  1. cromercrox says:

    One of my expanding retinue of brain-care specialists looked at my burgeoning and over-full timetable and summarily decided that I should cut my activities by a third. What is life, if full or care, etcetera, etcetera.

  2. ilovechocagar says:

    So true, this post could have been about me. Also a bike puncture last week with the domino effect of late to morning meeting, missed afternoon meeting to source new inner tube so could be sure of getting to work the following day and still fetching the children on time. And in answer to the person on twitter, I have Schwalbe marathon tyres and the glass still got through.
    Cut to this week and double whammy, virus and fever have knocked me out. 2 more wasted days and left thinking I can never make them up. Need more slack in my system. But how?

  3. This is me too. Every year I promise to build in more slack. And fail. Which is why my theme for this year is “resilience” in all aspects of my life. Really pleased (if u see what I mean) that you are speaking up about this

  4. Bob Newport says:

    This sort of frenetic work-dominated activity was a major factor in my decision the invoke the Flexible Retirement option within my pension scheme: I now draw 60% of my former salary and 40% of my pension and am all the better for it. It’s actually quite difficult to manage a 3-day working week against a background in which workloads are assigned on the basis of formulaic ‘means’ (so, little/no attention paid by the average manager to seasonal peaks or to the fact that 100% of e-mail traffic, committee commitments etc. are still present) but it is possible with forethought and subsequent discipline. I only started this after the REF census date, so it’s still early days, but I already know I wouldn’t choose to go back.

  5. Andy Morse says:

    A too familiar feeling – I think shared by many if not most … my worst example is get off a late plane (almost midnight in Manchester), come home, shower, pack, doze in the chair for an hour, get in the car, go back to the airport for the 6am flight, back to the same European hub I was at the day before back off on the next long haul. I have done this more than once …

    Any small problem when stacking trips like this can lead to the collapse of the whole pack of cards.

    The cheap tickets we travel on do not allow sensible ‘stay at hub’ over night changes as you have to start and return each journey to the same airport. Other colleagues at different Universities have the same experience.

  6. cromercrox says:

    I thought about this more overnight and came to the following conclusion – If you have an overful work schedule that’s liable to be derailed by something as banal as a bike puncture, I’d suggest leaving the bike at home and hiring a taxi. One should weigh one’s guilt at the environmental cost against the benefits that might accrue by your being on time and composed.

  7. Andrew says:

    Sadly I know of some colleagues who firmly believe that if you build any slack into your planning (whether it is simply organising catching a plane) to account for the unforeseen and the unplanned then you are simply not working efficiently! To them, working on the edge of disaster is somehow the optimum method of working and selective memory seems to jump in when that way of working does indeed go wrong (that or it is the fault of somebody else). Worryingly this thinking seems to drive a knock on effect on people around them.

  8. ilovechocagar says:

    The bike is not part of my commute simply on eco grounds, it is actually far the fastest way to get from my A to B (and C, D and E) when traffic and parking are taken into account. Of course it’s not reasonable to live by such tight schedules, but at this stage in my life, it’s that or not work at all. Time, tide and childcare wait for no (wo)man.

    • cromercrox says:

      Childcare. I remember that. I remember when we had children aged 3 and 1, and my wife worked shifts. I arranged with my work that I could work in antiphase to my wife, as it were. For two years we only met in the hall, one coming home as the other was leaving.

  9. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    I know this isn’t what this post is actually about, but you can buy bike tyres made of something in the Kevlar family that are remarkably puncture-resistant. I discovered them after realising that my tyres are such a tight fit on my wheels that not only can I not get them off, but neither could two members of staff at my friendly local bike shop; it took all three of us working together to solve this problem (apparently caused by slightly larger than usual wheels – something to do with moulds expanding towards the end of their lifespan). Training as I was for a two day, 260 km ride from Vancouver to Seattle, the thought of not being able to fix my own punctures roadside was a little problematic to say the least. The puncture-resistant tyres were expensive, but worth every penny – I’ll be putting them on every bike I ever buy from now on!

  10. I think the puncture should be taken as metaphor, but thanks for the suggestions about different tyres. I once had a bike with solid tyres which couldn’t puncture and I thought it was great. But they stopped making them, presumably because there was little money in selling tyres which lasted a lifetime. Carrying a puncture kit everywhere with me might solve part of the problem, but only at the expense of volume of extra stuff (see this for my bad habits ini this direction anyhow) and turning up at important meetings smothered in oil and looking less than respectable. On this occasion I knew full well my tyre was wearing out so I only had myself to blame anyhow! I had simply been procrastinating a visit to a bike shop for a replacement because, well, I hadn’t been able to fit it into my crazy diary.

  11. Jenny Koenig says:

    I often cycle over the railway bridge in a rush and look down at the trains on the platform and think how nice it would be to sit and look out of the window on a long train journey. I got to do this the other day – nice long train journey to Bristol – I was preparing the talk on the way there and then fell asleep on the way back. Oh well… at least I had got a seat to fall asleep in.

    I do find though that cycling is good thinking time whereas driving is not

  12. I got to this point some years ago and decided that it was making me unhappy, and that I should take a long hard look at my life. The tipping point was having an administrator come and tell me that I had 14 days annual leave outstanding that I would lose if I didn’t take them.
    I made a couple of basic ground rules. They may not work for everyone: a lot depends on how far you are overwhelmed with external demands that you have to respond to. I’m lucky in that I have a fair bit of autonomy and so had a degree of control over the busyness.
    Anyhow, for what it’s worth, a couple of tips that work for me.
    1. Learn to say NO. Best is to set some kind of quota regarding the number of optional things you agree to do: e.g. if you get a lot of invitations to give talks, remember that while a talk in Croatia or wherever may sound enticing, the reality will be at least 2 days travel, and then you will probably spend much of the time in an airport lounge or a lecture theatre. And like you, Athene, I find the whole experience can then be enhanced by a migraine – urgh! I generally say no to talks these days unless they are one of the following (a) local, (b) highly-specialised meetings in my area, (c) likely to be fun, or (d) I owe someone a favour. Now I realise people might say, what about public engagement? But I do a lot of that via the internet – videos and slide presentations. These actually have a longer life and a wider reach than a one-off talk. I’ve also given conference talks via video link: I don’t think it is entirely satisfactory, but it can be a compromise between doing nothing and destroying yourself with travel. And you can arrange for it to be filmed and so made available to the wider world. Yes, you do sometimes need to venture out and talks are a great way to meet colleagues and network. But too much becomes counterproductive.
    For committees and so on: we all need to be good citizens, but you have to pace yourself. Again, the quota is the way forward: ask yourself, just how many days in the year do you want to spend on committees? Don’t exceed it. When approached, try to suggest other people who may be glad to get the recognition of being on a committee and to gain the experience.

    2. Take days off. Athene, you don’t say if you take holidays, but I hope you do! I am not one for lounging on a beach, and in general I find the occasional day off as rejuvenating as a proper holiday. A completely stress-free day at home can be a joy: go shopping, get your hair done, read a novel, watch old films on TV, catch up with old friends, but keep off the computer and let your brain unfurl. Now this will NEVER happen if you just wait for a less busy period, so the only way to arrange it is to book it in your diary well in advance and treat it as sacrosanct. As the day off approaches, you will find there is an overwhelming temptation to overrule it because you have some terribly urgent task that you want to do. This must be resisted at all costs. The thing to remember is that the day off is not just an indulgence – it is also part of ensuring that when you are on the job you are unstressed and so much more efficient.

    Needless to say, it’s much easier to give this advice than to follow it!

    • cromercrox says:

      I agree with everything Dorothy Bishop says (though it’s a bit rough on people in Croatia 🙂 )

      In addition to saying no, and taking time off, one should get into the habit of delegating. I once went on a management training course, in which the instructor said that common failing of managers is to take everything on themselves, being afeared to let anyone else to a job dear to them.

      If you have minions/underlings/servants/children/pets/postdocs, devolve as much as possible on to them, and trust them to take responsibility, and to do such tasks well.

      This strategy relieves stress on you; offers necessary experience to the colleague; and – if you leave them to it and allow them to make their own mistakes – will endear you to them. As that wise philosopher once said – if you love somebody, set them free.

      • cromercrox says:

        As a postscript – when I was an undergraduate, my professor and head of department was famous for being able to know every one of his students personally, even undergraduates doing joint honours; running a tight ship; churning out high-quality research papers; refereeing for journals, writing reviews and whatnot – and still being the epitome of calm and friendliness.

        How did he manage it?

        What was his secret?

        I expect that much lay in his own character – but it helped that he had not one but two secretaries, who were ferocious, and guarded the prof’s time as a lioness guards her cubs. On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, they said, the prof was in the lab and wouldn’t be disturbed by ANYONE. This time was – as Dorothy Bishop puts it – ‘sacrosanct’. After a short time no-one had to belabour the point – it became departmental tradition – allowing the prof to carry on calmly with all his tasks with grace and aplomb.

  13. Dorothy and Cromercrox

    I find it interesting that you assume I don’t say ‘no’. I do, often (though I may still feel bad about it). I’ve written previously about why I think travel is over-rated in academia and I do very little (abroad). So, for instance, I have never been to Croatia or indeed to most countries of the world. I haven’t been to the US for several years and have few regrets at limiting this aspect of the job. Likewise I do take holidays (see this although you may not find that a very convincing demonstration of complete switch-off) and I pride myself on my ability to delegate. So I’m not convinced that these are my problems. What I find is that if I take on a role it always seems to expand. That is no doubt my fault, but I hope it is a good one as I put a lot of myself into the task.

    Additionally, I think committee work being electronic so often means that it tends to arrive terribly close to the actual meetings in ways it used not to. That puts immense pressure on a short time span to get through the requisite reading and, if one is otherwise busy, this can cause the sorts of problems I refer to. Clearly, from the sentiments expressed over Twitter (and I know I’ve been too busy to sort out the Twitter feed to show these….) I am not alone in feeling this pressure. Not by a long way.

    My current problem is that I am in transition. I am assuming new responsibilities whilst the old ones are not yet shed. This is acute right now, but will ease up soon – she says hopefully. And, I do get a buzz out of so much of what I do. I can feel fortunate in this, even if also stressed. But I most certainly don’t regard myself as a helpless victim who just doesn’t know how to say no!

    • cromercrox says:

      I take all yur points, and the period of transition is going to be a bit rough from time to time – but one problem I have found in saying ‘no’ is that many of the tasks I am required to decline are tasks I enjoy.

      For example, we editors at Nature are frequently asked by people to come to their graduate retreat/departmental seminar and tell them about getting published in Nature. Now, judging from the receptions I’ve received, I am very good at this (if I say so myself). It’s great to get out of the office and mix with young, interesting, intelligent people. If nothing else it makes me feel young, interesting and intelligent.

      When I was about to turn 48 I was seized with a mid-life crisis. I resolved that had I opportunities to go places I’d never been, I should take them. There followed a year in which I was shuttling all over Europe having a great time talking about Nature.

      After a year of this I was knackered, and simply had to stop…

  14. simple girl says:

    I have a question – is it necessary to live like this on the edge ? Are you okay with living like this ?

  15. stevedsmart says:

    Maybe the puncture was more an opportunity than an inconvenience?

  16. Stephen Moss says:

    You say the puncture should only be taken as a metaphor, but in my case a puncture led to a sequence of events that almost finished me off. I was cycling to work (as I have done for more than two decades) one morning almost three years ago, and knew that with rain on the way I had better step on it or face a soaking. Half way down Holloway Road I had the puncture, and being right outside a bike shop I pulled in and had them fix it there and then. But the delay meant that no sooner was I back on the road than the heavens opened, and with a couple of miles still to go I decided to pull off the road to don my waterproof trousers.

    It was then that disaster struck. I spotted a dry bit of pavement under a large tree near Highbury Corner, but failed to notice the gleaming wet and heavily rutted cobbles that I had to navigate to get there. The bike just disappeared from under me and I hit the ground hard, especially my left ankle which took a heck of a knock. After getting my breath back I eventually got going again and made it into work, but my problems had just begun. A couple of days later I took a flight to Vancouver for a conference and noticed while there, that the nagging pain in my ankle – which had been receding – was if anything intensifying. By the time I returned to the UK it was really bugging me, and to make matters worse I had developed what I thought was a nagging chest infection.

    By now, anyone with a jot of medical knowledge will have realised that I had developed a DVT, but it was my wife who decided to whisk me off to A&E late one evening where my ‘chest infection’ turned out to be a pulmonary embolism caused by the DVT getting dislodged. They put me on heparin and warfarin and kept me in hospital for a week, and it was probably another year before my lung function returned to normal. And all because of a puncture on the way to work.

  17. Mark Field says:

    As others have noted this feeling of everything being almost out of control is very common. I hate to say it, but for many I know the extra drama in doing things last minute seems to be almost an addiction; there is a sense of getting away with it when it works, and a feeling you could be getting more out of life if you deliberately step back and simplify. In case you think I am up on my soap box telling you all how much better I am, you are mistaken – I’m describing myself above. Modern life in the 1st world is set up to be ‘just in time’ to entice you to be a customer, and this convenience allows us to do more. Unfortunately we naturally assume that this is how our life should be organized as well.

    The problem is the psychological and emotional toll of always being on duty to keep the balance, and the problems of cleaning up the mess when everything comes crashing down which happens more or less often depending on what I have signed up to do. As Professor Donald notes it is frequently something small and relatively unusual in your day that throws you ( a puncture, a late plane, a last minute email from the boss). How do we become more resilient ?

    I hope I can be smart enough to manage the commitments so that I do not end up quite so close to the edge. Obviously simplifying to the point where you do little is a huge waste and there is an optimal amount of stress you should aim for. There is a famous curve of stress versus productivity which suggests you should be just behind the max in a place called eu-stress (which sounds like a European Union directive to me). Life and work often conspire against you to add complexity to your life and we end up in situations where everything has to work flawlessly and then get stressed when it doesn’t.

    I suggest that the answer to becoming more resilient is not to be, and try instead to manage the commitments to keep your life from becoming too complicated to operate on low power if you need to, and accept that occasionally it all fails due to a bike puncture. I’ll also be wishing for ten million pounds and Richard Branson’s private Caribbean island while I’m at it. (If you’re interested you can stay on Necker island for 1,200,000 Virgin Atlantic air-miles, I’m saving up)

  18. Klara says:

    Considering your “complaint” a little while ago about all those visitors who visit but not comment, I decided to drop a line this time.

    Just to say I am absolutely grateful that you manage to find moments to write this blog! It’s been a great resource for me, as young female scientist who hasn’t had a single female supervisor to learn from yet… Thank you. Let’s hope there won’t be too many trivialities to interfere with your plans and blog writing!

  19. Ire says:

    Although this post mainly refers to profs, I believe that it applies to postdocs too. We may have less admin to deal with, but finding jobs and applying for funding can add to every day stress.

    I would also add the problem of backlog. I may not be super efficient, but after every (long) day at work, I have to deal with what has yet to be published from previous postdoc. This applies to weekends and most of my annual leave.

    I am sure it sounds familiar, but only to academics. In fact family and friends cannot understand why I do it.

    Now I ask myself whether it is all worth it. I love research, but this kind of life for about 30 years seems too much. Probably I should change attitude and take ‘the bike puncture’ as an occasion to slow down.

  20. Ruth says:

    Another blog that rings true. thanks!

    I think a lot of modern life is now lived on the brink, not just us but also for our children (mine currently downstairs with my partner trying to create a ‘perfect’ mother’s day breakfast). Let’s give one another a break, time to breathe.

    My suggestions are:
    – a 2 month ban in universities of all strategy papers, or anything with charts – restrict ourselves to 2 sheets of foolscap and a pencil and have time to deliver half of what we promised
    – stop measuring each other based only on outputs and ask instead if that was a really good idea and how it might work
    – have 121 meetings walking outside or sitting on a bench (it is Spring!! Did we notice?) – people relax and stop trying to impress so much and listen

    We need to resist the temptation to fill each other’s time as an output in itself. We also need to do stuff, not just agonise about how.

    How young this starts… My young children this week have new KPIs/homework – make a full on masterpiece Easter tableau in a shoebox and design and build a musical instrument. We have been told hat a drum is not acceptable, previous examples including a trombone made of pipes and a full electic guitar!

    What if we don’t sign up to competitive parenting? What if I send a note and say, You have got to be kidding – and then take the boys for a walk?

    I think we know we need to simplify – but to do it we need our own better metrics of what success looks like or we will just be a victim of someone else’s version of life as diary management.

  21. Ruth
    Firstly I’m flattered you spend your Mother’s Day lie-in reading my blog! Secondly, good luck in transforming your university’s culture to remove the use of charts and strategy papers. I am sure there are those who’d welcome it!

    As for competitive parenting, what is being requested sounds absurd and not necessarily even very educational (unless for the parents). I was always bad at creating fancy dress for my own children: never got beyond last minute cardboard, newspaper, maybe tissue paper on a good day. I cycle past the local prep school and you can see competitive parenting at its best/worst on days they are all turned out as perfect Roman centurions or bishops or whatever the challenge-of-the-day is.

  22. Ruth says:

    Thanks Athene!

    Next time you are in Sheffield you must join us is reinforcing the case for a culling of strategy papers. There is lots of support 🙂 I did suggest it to our Registrar who looked less convinced, but I see no reason to let that put me off. Especially when our sanity is at stake.

    The prep school competitive parenting sounds grim but familiar. Maybe one more suggestion is no Facebook (I don’t do it) so you don’t have to post pictures of your darling genius as proof of your own brilliance as a mother.

    I think I am giving my children a break too by letting them know there are choices. It is fine to see your mum in bad leggings laughing with a friend or reading a blog in bed. They will survive the trauma.

    Must go – the smell of burnt toast tells me that the master chef breakfast is almost ready.

  23. Kate says:

    I sympathise so much with all of this – as I imagine most readers will. (Though I don’t cycle much, and if I got a taxi to work it would cost me £40 a time.) But what surprises me is how inclined we all are to think of this as our fault, and to address it by trying to come up with strategies of self-management. It may well be that the best we can do is come up with individual plans to try and manage the workloads. Having been in HE since 1990, I look at it and think: objectively the workloads are infinitely less manageable, and less relevant to what I imagined I was coming into academia to do. The proportion of my time I spend (as a senior supposedly research-active academic) on meetings, planning documents, trying to think up funding applications, etc, is ridiculous but also not really under my control: you take on a role and it carries with it a swathe of responsibilities that simply weren’t there twenty years ago. Those who manage to dodge this kind of thing are usually doing it at the expense of their colleagues. And yes, I’ve just sent an email apologising that I’m missing the deadline of April 1st for the latest paper; I am sitting on two overdue reviews, and an overdue journal proposal, and an overdue book. It is undoubtedly to do with domestic responsibilities as well as work. But if it isn’t possible to balance work and home commitments then it isn’t just because we are saying yes when we should say no, or being over-conscientious when we say yes; it’s because there is no recognition on the part of university management of the range of things we are trying to do, and the time they take if we are to do them adequately, never mind well.

  24. Paul Carder says:

    As someone moving from commerce to academia next month, this is all slightly worrying! I have read some but not all (yet) of the comments above. But one of the key underlying issues seems to be travel. For the first time in my 20+ year career, I will be one mile from campus and walk to/fro.
    Of course, some times we must travel and physically ‘be’ with others. But as was said above, much can be achieved online, and that will improve every year.
    I would still say that time pressures are still worse in the commercial world, where change happens quickly, and often others (eg., customers, execs) control your time.
    Lack of control is a major source of stress. Honest (manager/subordinate) personal time-planning should be easier in academia (of course, I hope I’m right!)

  25. Stephen Picken says:

    This is very close to my heart, the problem of the electronic age is that one mouse click can make the entire university miserable, this happens multiple times per day. The obstacle for mutual annoyment used to be governed by how many letters could be typed & signed, even with a substantial pool of secretaries the scope of the message was usually rather limited. Anyway, what might help is to do something useless and stick to it, in my case I nearly always cook dinner at home for my wife and myself. OK,OK not useless but it lets the brain switch off for about 30′- 1 h. As prof. Northcote Parkinson famously said “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.

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