By Michelle Boyd
If you’re like many scholars I know, you may have found yourself looking around at the end of last semester, wondering how—despite your best intentions—you ended up so exhausted. I recently found myself there too, and the more I listened, the more I found others facing the same problem. These words, from a scholar I’ll call Mina, struck a chord when I read them in one of my online support groups:
“I’m laid in bed with the flu and back pain and decided to see if it’s because of overworking? I’ve single parented for the past 12 yrs. which is another dimension.
SO: I sat on 3 committees and chaired one for a curriculum revision that sucked the life out of me. Had 7 long meetings for an outside mentoring organization, met with individual doctoral students for over 16 hrs total, worked with an out-of-state doctoral advisee on her dissertation proposal (which passed), wrote 10 doctoral recommendation letters, taught two courses, directed a Campus Center and organized speakers and events, offered 4 book proposal reviews, edited a collection, finished off with final page proofs, and tried to also ignore some very hard to put-up with faculty members.
I took my son on three weekend college visits coastally, gave two public lectures on my campus, directed 4 doctoral independent study courses, wrote a book proposal and got it contracted, wrote a chapter for a collection, guided my son through countless and expensive ACT tutoring sessions, 3 tests, 10 college applications, and countless admissions essay revisions, and countless snarling sessions. I also made weekly visits to my doctor for ongoing health issue.
This was my Fall…Now, I’m going to bawl my eyes out.”
Mina’s post points out what we rarely say when speaking reverently about New Year reflections: it’s not an inherently good thing to find that you’ve gotten a lotta shit done. While it might look good to others or even soothe our imposter-syndrome-fears, getting a lot done can actually depress and demoralize you when the scope of your accomplishments are out of proportion to your capacity. It can take a toll on your health. It can diminish your commitment to your work. And if your Spring semester is shaping up to be just as full as Fall was, reckoning with your list of accomplishments might just make you feel a bit powerless.
So if you’ve looked back on Fall 2017 and want the next semester to be different…what should you do?
Look Backward…Ahead of Time
One place to start when planning out your semester is to begin with what I call a Forward Feeling Reflection. That is, write your end-of-Spring reflection right now as a way to unearth what you’d really like the semester to be like. Visualizing what you want is a proven technique I love to use in my writing coaching. But for many people it can feel a little woo woo, or maybe just hard to figure out how to do.
This is one of the other things I really appreciated about Mina’s post: Although I’m not sure she meant it to, it serves as a perfect guide to doing your own Forward Feeling Reflection. Mina’s post included two key components of this technique that can guide you if you decide to try it out: first, she had hard data on the work she’d put in and what she’d gotten done (numbers of hours spent, letters written, lectures given, etc.). Even when she’s not specific, her use of the word “countless” gives a clear sense that a good deal of her time was taken up with these tasks.
The second, less obvious component of Mina’s reflection is that her numbers are supplemented with a description of her physical and feeling state. When she wrote it, she was “laid in bed with the flu.” We know that some of her committee work wasn’t just time-consuming, but it “sucked the life out of” her. Even in the instances when she doesn’t explicitly name her feelings (the committee and advising work, as well as the writing), we can guess, by contrast, that these tasks did not drain her in the same way that some other work did.
My point is, the Forward Feeling Reflection works precisely because it gives you the multiple kinds of information you need to make decisions about what you’ll commit to this spring: it specifies not just what you would do, but how it would feel, and what you would have to give up in order to get it done.
After finishing the Forward Feeling Reflection, it’s easy to think about how well it matches up with your plans, and what you might do to sync the two visions up. Do you remark on how quickly you got through grading even though you’ve assigned three essay exams to your class of 60? The one with no TA? Do you describe how great you felt about submitting these two long overdue chapters, even though you haven’t scheduled time for writing in your calendar? Are you dreamily writing the reflection from your family’s annual vacation spot, even though you’ve scheduled the final Curriculum Committee meeting for that same week?
If you find a huge disconnect between the ideal you imagine for yourself and the things you’re currently putting in place, you still have plenty of time to right your ship. If you’re fine with the list of possible accomplishments, but can’t bear what you’d have to experience to achieve them, you can do something different. Right now. You can still reschedule meetings, back out of service requests, scale back end-of-term assignments (yes, even if you already put it on the syllabus. You really can do this.).
The last term is gone, and we can’t bring it back. Nor can we stop this one from coming. But neither do we have to be held hostage by our old choices. It’s still possible—it’s always possible to make a change.
Which is the whole point of this New Year, isn’t it?
Michelle Boyd is the founder of InkWell Academic Writing Retreats, where she helps overcommitted scholars create the time, space, and focus to write. An award-winning writer and former tenured faculty member, Michelle knows firsthand what it’s like to have no time to write, to procrastinate when there is time, and to struggle when the writing goes nowhere. She also knows–from experience and research–that successful scholars follow their own writing process. At InkWell, she teaches academics exactly how to uncover that process, so they can face their fears, lose themselves in writing, and rediscover their love for their work.
* A longer version of this essay was originally published at InkWell Academic Writing Retreats.