It’s in my guilt box…

A variant on the impostor syndrome (as blogged by Athene Donald)

A few weeks ago I bumped into one of my colleagues at the University – he is in a different Department and is a young (ish) PI like myself. I had sent him an email which he hadn’t had the time to respond to. So he says I am so sorry I’ve been meaning to respond, I will soon, its in my guilt box.

I know how he feels.

I have grants I need to finish, grants I need to start, papers I need to finish, research I need to start, students I need to talk to, a lab I need to finish building, a group to run, data analysis I need to do, meetings I need to go to, seminars I need to attend, talks I need to write. My guilt box is overflowing at the moment.

Its not that I am not getting anything done, I am, but one of my mental curses is that I never feel like I am getting enough done – its just that in my new role this feeling has grown from a low-level background growl to almost overwhelming, like some strange Dantean gluttony punishment, and like my Aunt Helen would’ve said ‘looks like you plate done disappeared’

Full plate

So what I am I doing blogging? In fact what I am doing not working ALL OF THE TIME. This can’t be normal.

Everyone else seems so calm.

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain used to be an academic, but now is trying to figure out what's next. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain and Instagram @sylviaellenmclain
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14 Responses to It’s in my guilt box…

  1. Akkie Bardoel says:

    Dear Sylvia,

    Genius is …err… pain!



  2. ricardipus says:

    Oi! You! GET BACK TO WORK!!!

    (Possibly not the most helpful comment ever)

  3. Chrystal says:

    Tell me about it! I think we all understand, and so we don’t judge.

  4. Frank says:

    Time management experts tell us that we just have to prioritise – work out which tasks are most urgent and which are most Important. They don’t have much advice to fifer aboutbthe situation when everything is urgent and important…

    We have three years of transition planning ahead of us, meetings and spreadsheets galore. Someone suggested that the only way to cope is to embrace the personal maxim adopted by Boxer in Orwell’s Animal Farm:

    I will work harder.

  5. We’re not calm, we’re just churning over so rapidly internally that it never has time to make it to the surface. Bottom line – if you can keep the focus up so that you can actually do 10% of the things that you really want to and really should do then you’ll make a success of it. The art lies in choosing what will not get done.

    I find the urgent x important set of four boxes helpful here – for everything you do that is important and urgent, try to do some work on something that is important, but not urgent, by dropping something that is urgent, but not important. Easier said than done and usually involves annoying someone who thinks it is important of course.

    • Good advice Cameron… but…

      Easier said than done and usually involves annoying someone who thinks it is important of course.

      Is dead right, and is harder than ever in Universities these days, as:

      (i) the inexorable rise in admin has now employed cadres of people specifically to nag you about this stuff; and

      (ii) there are now many senior academics tasked with Grand Overseeing Roles where they’re required to shout at you if the admin folk in (i) tell them you’re not responding.

      • Yes Cameron, there seem to be some things I cannot ignore – or sort of more like ignore at my peril! – no one is nagging me though to be fair (well maybe they are gently and I am blissfully unaware) its me nagging myself 😉

  6. Vik says:

    I was once offered some advice from a colleague in this area and it helped me through the overworked times well.
    Take a list of all of what you have to do and decide on the 80% that you really need/want have to do. From the resulting list expect to achieve 80% of the tasks on it. Let go if the rest, and I’d you work hard you won’t be far off!

  7. cromercrox says:

    Oh, Sylvia, how I feel your pain. We are all like the Red Queen who had to run as fast as possible just to stay in the same place. If she actually wanted to get anywhere, she had to run twice as fast as that.

    Some of the following might be helpful.

    1. Delegate. You are a PI. That’s what postdocs are for. Or so I have been led to believe.

    2. There might be some things in life you don’t have to do, and which you don’t actually enjoy. Perhaps you took them on because (a) it seemed like a good idea at the time (b) a favour for a friend (c) a temporary measure that became permanent. Harden your heart and ditch them. Some of these things are chores around the home. Maybe you can afford a cleaner. If you can’t (and who can?) then remember that a clean desk is the sign of a sick mind.

    3. Make lists, and order the tasks by priority. Tick the tasks off as you do them. Make sure each item on the list is achievable in and of itself.

    4. Time management. When I was an undergraduate at Leeds my Prof was famous for knowing all the students personally – even second-year undergrads – giving a super lecture course and still publishing original research papers in a seemingly endless stream. His secret was time management. In his office he had not one but two ferocious assistants (formidable Yorkshire women both) who would guard the Prof’s time zealously. On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons the Prof was in the lab and WOULD BE DISTURBED BY NOBODY. Neither me nor Mrs Crox have such luxuries, but we are both busy and both working so we synchronise our diaries over the iCloud and in addition have regular meetings to decide who is doing what to whom, when, and for how much.

    • …which reminds me of some advice I read in an interview of a successful C-level executive. She said that she lived by the “three D’s”: delegate, defer and drop.

    • Thanks Dr Crox. Especially the part about Time management – I need a zealous assistant, maybe I will get one some day but there is some good advice in, this morning I am shutting the door for 2 hours and writing this dumb paper – end of story. If I did that just twice a week I would be more productive – must learn…

      I used to be a cleaner, which is why I can never have one – but this is all good advice – very useful!

  8. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Do I have to put “stealing the phrase “it’s in my guilt box”” in my guilt box? Perfect term for that feeling we all know and love so well!

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