Thursday, February 15, 2018

Working with (against?) work pressure in academia

Today I followed a workshop given by Jeanine de Bruin and Brigitte Hertz on work pressure in academia. This workshop followed at the end of a monthlong writing challenge for academics, in which the goal was to write for two hours every day. I really enjoyed the challenge of consciously shifiting priorities towards generating content and away from responding to things, because even if producing is harder, in the end it is more rewarding (see also my earlier blog post here.

The first insight from the workshop was that the main tool for dealing with work pressure is trying to make the right decisions. It is very easy to get swept away by the onslaught of things to do, and the implicit attitude of "I am busy, so I am working hard and doing it right" instead of thinking about WHAT you are doing.

In managing your work you can think about three levels. The first level is working on a day level. You can start the day with the things that are important to you (e.g., writing this grant application). Moreover, do not have the illusion that you can multitask, because you can really not, and not only the quality of your work suffers, but you also feel much more stressed (at least I do). In addition, I find it very helpful to focus the energy in my day by looking at the goals I defined by means of emacs orgmode; a plain text system in which I stick on my projects with todo items and due dates. This system ensures that no projects are forgotten. I also really like to use it to keep track of each student I am supervising (each student has their own file in which I write a few notes after every meeting with what they have done and what they will do for the next meeting). You can also think about time management at the project level, in which you want to make sure you pick the right projects, and are not afraid to drop projects if they are not leading to something fruitful. Two things I learnt there are first, to take regular space for reflection on how it is going with a project and what is next and so on. This is difficult because the busy woodpecker in me would like to continue doing something "productive", but reflection can really save a lot of time and increase quality in the end. One particular thing to think about are potential roadblocks or plans B: what could go wrong, and what should we do then. I think too little about this, and maybe this wastes a lot of time. On the really long-term level time management is also thinking about what is important for the long-term. What is my passion, where do I want to be 5-10 years from now. I usually only think about this when writing my tenure dossier or a job application, but it is important in deciding what projects to pursue and even what to do in a single day as well. One skilful way of forcing yourself to reflect on this is chatting about it with a mentor over lunch. I highly recommend that. It also made me realize I should review my toggl time log a few times a year to check what my time is being used for, and whether that is what I want. Right now I only review my toggl logs every week when the system mails me the hours tracked.

We then talked about the famous Eisenhower quadrants with urgent-not urgent and import-not important. I have thought about this a lot, and I think that most stuff I do is in the "important" section of the matrix. One thing that I never grasped until this workshop was the distinction between "being important for me" and "being important to do". For example, helping a colleague is a good thing to do, but won't generally help my career ahead. So maybe in the matrix it falls in the category of "not important" in that sense. I realized that I spend too much time following news (partly news, partly news related to science and academic how-to). I made the resolution to limit my news intake to 15 minutes a day, so I won't waste too much time on it. In the end, that won't really get myself too much ahead, apart from staying up to date with the world and getting ideas for lectures, student assignments and grants. Another skilful means for reducing the "not important stuff that needs to be done" is to wonder whether not someone else can do it. I put this into action by requesting a student assistant for the next course I am teaching. While initially this is more work in instructing the person and making all procedures more explicit (grading sheets!), in the end it will save me time. And of course, it is always helpful to remember that saying yes to something means saying no to something else (also described in the book Busy by Tony Crabbe). A final insight from the Eisenhower quadrants was that focusing on the things that are important and not yet urgent will help to increase quality (because you can let the projects rest and then realize you have made some mistakes), and improve your health.

We also discussed what our university can do to reduce work pressure. One important thing I think is that I waste a lot of time searching for information on how to do things, reinventing the wheel, not being aware of procedures. Sharing knowledge more efficiently would really help. We also need to work on more delegation and most importantly better delegation: the insight here was that delegation is not just dropping the task onto someone but also training them how to do it. On the short term training takes time, but on the longer term it reduces errors and therefore headache. It would also be cool if promotion weren't so focused on grant acquisition, because grant acquisition is such a highly risky process that is a lot of work with very uncertain outcomes. I learnt that Utrecht University also has a career path focused on teaching, which sounds really cool. Finally, it would be nice to build more of a collaboration culture at university, rather than the current competition culture.

The last part of the meeting focused on recognizing stress in your work. I think I am blessed in this department because while I feel sometimes exhausted, I never have trouble sleeping and I feel generally happy. I credit the ballet dancing that is a fixture in my schedule, together with the meditation practice that I do every morning and every evening. I think it is really important to stick to those things as priorities in addition to work priorities, because otherwise you waste a whole life working and being unhappy.

In the end, reducing work pressure relies on the confluence of both individual action (trying to work on what is important and inspiring and taking good care of yourself) with institutional action; the universities will have to change because in the long run the current work culture in which many academics put in way too many hours compared to their contracts, and especially in which evaluation is biased towards metrics of grant acquisition that you have little control over is not sustainable. It is helpful to reflect on this both at the individual level and to think together with colleagues and decision makers on how to improve the work culture.

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