Julie’s Week 7: A Work-Work Balance


Photo by Flickr user DiAnn

All work is the avoidance of harder work.” So says the American poet James Richardson in his famous book Vectors: Aphorisms & Ten-Second Essays. I’ve often paraphrased this quote—in sincerity and in jest—when talking for the millionth time about the workload that comes with a career in academia. Plenty of smart people have articulately described what it feels like to do this job; one of my more recent discoveries is Amanda Ann Klein’s “No End In Sight: Academic Research and ‘Time Off’”, in which Klein, considering what it would take to get to the status of full professor from associate, states “I came to the realization that the stress and late nights, the self doubt and loathing, were now unnecessary. I am not going to get a better-paying job and my current employers, no matter how many books I publish, how many students I mentor, or how many committees I serve on, are not going to give me any more money. Or at least not much money.” As I think about the way the academic labor force/market has changed, and how academia in general has changed, I know that what Klein is saying is more true than false.

In the last year, I have had some pretty intense ups and downs. The day after my 34th birthday I became engaged to my long-time love, and started to envision future stability. Six months later, my mother suddenly died, leaving my entire family (immediate and extended) heartbroken and bewildered. The fragility of life became very, very real, and my days were punctuated with terrifying thoughts that everyone I love could be taken from me in an instant. As I returned home to Pittsburgh for the holidays, I started to realize that no matter how great the writing center was, how well I performed my service obligations, how sharp and consistent a teacher I was, nothing about my job would improve. Nothing would change the attitudes of those colleagues who disliked me from day one. Nothing would persuade all of my students to complete their readings and projects. Nothing would move me closer to my family, my friends, my fiancé, and a grocery store that isn’t Walmart. The only thing that had the potential to improve my life in any way was obtaining tenure (and it’s becoming less and less likely that tenure can do much to improve anyone’s life). And in order to get tenure, you need publications. It’s the sad thing about academia; the only thing that validates you as a person is getting a manuscript you spent years of your free time working on into the hands of of a few dozen people at most. Busting your ass getting organizations and conferences and workshops and learning centers going, and performing sizable amounts of of emotional labor to get a few lost student souls to figuratively come to Jesus—none of this means much of anything when it’s T&P time.
In the last few days, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a number of my colleagues about their work habits, and found, to my surprise, that many of them have drawn clear and sturdy boundaries between their home and their work lives. Some of them have far heavier teaching loads than I do, and they still find a way to leave their work at work. I can’t go quite that far, but I think I can control the kinds of work I do when I’m at work, and the kinds of work I do when I’m at home. So, I’m going to do my very best to do most of my teaching and service work at work. That means no course prep or grading when I’m in my apartment, and none but the most pressing of emails after business hours. I will then devote the other half of my life to a different kind of work, and do most of my research and writing work at home. I’m not aiming for perfection; just a more defined set of boundaries, and a better way to fend off grading creep. 

Julie’s 52 Habits Update
Week 6: My latest frog (commenting on papers) is waiting for me when I sit down at my desk tomorrow morning (assuming we don’t get like a quarter inch of ice overnight and the entire state shuts down).
Week 5: Still in the process of getting my budget together, but I did manage to tie up a few significant loose ends in my finances.
Week 4, Week 3, Week 2, Week 1: My schedule was disrupted last week by a conference/road trip, and I have another one to go to at the end of this week, so I’m going to go easy on myself and wait until next Sunday to get back on the wagon.

Julie’s Week 6: Frog In My Throat, Delicious!

I begin this week with a quote that is usually attributed to Mark Twain: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” That quote is often followed-up by this one, also attributed to Twain: “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And If it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.
What does it mean to eat the frog? Well, I ate a frog this morning without actually meaning to, and it made my day exceptionally better. Let me explain. I hate grading. I mean, I really hate it. I find it to be the most soul-eroding task I have to do as an academic, and I procrastinate on it to shameful extremes. I’ve avoided grading to the detriment of my teaching evaluations, which is where I’m generally and consistently zinged. I don’t even want to talk about how bad it’s been in the last few years, but let’s say I ended up giving out a lot of extra credit points out of sheer guilt.
21-year-old me in Taiwan, May 2001, pretending to eat a raw baby octopus. It's not a frog, but you get the idea.

21-year-old me in Taiwan, May 2001, pretending to eat a raw baby octopus. It’s not a frog, but you get the idea.

So why, exactly, do I hate it? I think I’ve finally figured it out. It’s not because it’s tedious (although it definitely is that) and it’s not because I’m annoyed with my students for being lazy or careless (although that definitely comes in to play). I hate it because, for me, it’s where I have to face my own failures as a teacher. When I read a student draft that misses the mark completely, I blame myself for not teaching the student well enough. I second-guess all my lessons, and agonize over the things I must have done wrong. It’s painful. I hate it. Never mind that it’s not completely true, and that students are also partially responsible for their own learning (or their lack thereof). I am the worst teacher ever and I suck, and this subpar writing is the proof. So, I leave all the grading work to the very last minute, and even beyond that last minute.

But I didn’t do that today. Today, I got up, fixed a cup of tea, opened my laptop, and began grading. I kept grading and grading until all the grading was done. I felt so relieved—the kind of relief I hadn’t felt in a very long time. And I felt freedom—the freedom that comes with knowing that the absolute shittiest thing I had to do was done. The rest of my day—dog walk, more work, cooking dinner, eating dinner, cleaning up, doing errands, more work, writing, etc.—felt calm and under control, with very little lingering guilt. I had experienced the joy of eating a big, juicy frog first thing in the morning.

“Your ‘frog’ is your biggest, most important task, the one you are most likely to procrastinate on if you don’t do something about it. It is also the one task that can have the greatest positive impact on your life and results at the moment [. . .] Discipline yourself to begin immediately and then to persist until the task is complete before you go on to something else.” My frog this morning was grading student work. I ate it. It wasn’t great, but wasn’t that horrible; the anxiety I experienced while procrastinating was far worse. And once my frog was gone, the rest of my day was so much better.

This week, and next week, are going to be especially busy and exhausting. On Thursday, I am driving my writing center staff to Austin (an 8+ hour trek) for the SCWCA conference, where I will present twice, attend a board meeting, network, and look after my minions, some of whom have never attended an academic conference before. Next week, I will hit the road again with my colleague to be featured presenters at the SWCA conference in Nashville (Our pictures are in the program. Really!). So. I’ve got a lot of writing ahead of me, in addition to course prep and grading and meetings and general day-to-day work. So, I’m going frog-hunting. Each morning, I’ll identify the biggest and juiciest frogs, and eat them immediately upon hitting my desk. I mean, after all, I do live in the South.

Julie’s 52 Habits Update

Week 5: Did a little more taking stock of my money; realized that things are kind of complicated and I’ll need to spend a good afternoon sorting through all my bills and figuring out how much to budget for. I’m going to hit pause until I return from my conferences.
Week 4: Pomodoro-ing has been very successful. It’s much easier to write when you only have to do it in short bursts.
Week 3: Still behind on the Morning Person course. However, I am still getting up and getting ready immediately. I’m going to start making my bed every morning, too; it’s a small task that doesn’t take too long (like, 4 minutes?), makes my room look spiffy, and makes me feel responsible.
Week 2: Paleo-ing in fits and starts. I have seriously underestimated the depth of my emotional eating k-hole. Again, I’m going to hit pause until I return from conferences, and try to avoid eating deep-fried-deep frying on the road.
Week 1: Still knocking it out each day. Woot!

Julie’s Week 5: Dollar Dollar Bills, Y’all

Getting to the roots of the problem.

Getting to the roots of the problem.

Let’s talk about money.

When I graduated from college in 2002, I landed a salaried job–with benefits–within a month (this is now and kinda was then pretty much unheard of). I was living with my parents, who were so thrilled that their English-major kid found a job that they didn’t charge rent. So, apart from my car payment and cell phone bill, I was free to spend my modest salary on clothes, cocktails, and lunches from the Whole Foods salad bar. I was out on Match.com dates until 2 and got to work by 8 the next morning, was in CardioKick by 5:30 and charging kitten-heel flats in Banana Republic at 7 with a sack of takeout Thai food waiting in the car. In short, I finally had some money, and I thought I was hot shit.

Guess how much money I saved during this magical time? Guess how much I could have saved? When I was in grad school and trying to make it to loan disbursement while overdrawing my bank account and paying bills late, I cursed my stupid decisions. The ivory pantsuit was $200 I could never get back, and it ended up in the donation pile (because it seemed I packed on about 75 pounds with every subsequent degree I earned). I guess it wouldn’t have mattered a lot, now that I see how puny my savings would have been compared to ten years of adulthood below the poverty line while desperately trying to appear professional. By the end of my Ph.D., I had accumulated a terrifying amount of credit card debt (and let’s not even talk about student loans). When I got my first academic job (the one I’m still at), I hoped I could get ahead of my bills, but my disappointingly tiny paychecks (yet another issue in academia) vaporized on contact with my expenses and my debt.

And lest you think I’m in denial: I know that all of this is at least 50% my fault. In addition to food, I exchange my feelings of sadness, anger, and fear for stuff: clothing, makeup, jewelry, shoes, home decor, electronics…the list goes on. I justify this with excuses: I work so hard! I never get to go anywhere. I miss my family. I hate my body/apartment/car/life. It’s been a rough day/week/month. I must look like such a loser compared to XYZ, they have a job and a house and a family and a retirement plan…The worst excuse of all was/is this: It doesn’t matter. This is how I pretend that a slip-up is not actually a slip-up, and that I’ll get it together perfectly tomorrow. Then I wonder why months have passed and I’ve seen no progress.

And then there’s this other thing that happened. On September 21, 2014, my mother died. She was a few months short of retirement and her 66th birthday. It was unexpected and sudden, and horrific and unfair and cruel and surreal. And, without sharing too many private details, I’ll say that in the weeks and months that followed my credit card debt became a thing of the past and I found myself with some substantial assets. And although I would joyfully give up my newfound financial security to have my mom back…it’s not going to happen. So, I try to tell myself that this was mom’s way of helping me, one last time.

I wish this place really existed. Until then, I'll stick with a boring old budget app.

I wish this place really existed. Until then, I’ll stick with a boring old budget app.

That brings me to the present moment. I need a damn budget, now that I actually have enough money to cover my expenses. So, naturally, I’m using the personal finance software You Need A Budget. It helps you create and stick to a budget and gives you access to free online money management classes. At $60, it’s steep, but I got a deal on my copy several months ago. My goal is to have a basic monthly budget planned by the end of Week 5. Also, I’m emptying my Sephora and Ulta and Old Navy online shopping carts, because the reward points ain’t all that.

Julie’s 52 Habits Update

Week 4: Not too shabby with these daily pomodori. I’m doing 20-minute intervals with 5-minute breaks, and I’ve found that the Pomodoro Timer app is highly customizable and can track whether or not I’ve met my goals. Also, what this is helping me to do is prioritize writing. I could have spent the last hour doing more class prep or grading, but I pushed all of that aside to write (even if it is just a blog post—you gotta start somewhere). I’ll be no good to anyone, least of all my students, if I can’t get anything published and lose my job or something.

Week 3: Still holding steady at getting ready immediately upon waking, but haven’t done anything since then. I’ll make it my goal to spend some time planning my ideal bedtime routine this week.

Week 2: I’ve been avoiding the scale as last weekend’s mega-depression drove me to the proverbial feed bag. However, I made some tasty paleo dishes this week, including a respectable chicken tikka and paleo naan, and a wicked good pad Thai with zucchini strands in place of the rice noodles.

Week 1: I’m getting close to making 2 daily distraction-free hours an actual, bona fide habit. When I don’t do it, I feel weird. Yay!

Julie’s Week 4: Tomayto, Tomahto, Pomodoro

I can always tell when the semester is in full swing because my apartment looks like a particularly studious frat boy lives in it: clothes, papers, and books on the floor, half-unpacked parcels and unopened mail on the kitchen table, dryer still full of clothes when the buzzer went off last Saturday. Usually, I shrug it off and keep going at a frenzied pace; the work gets done but I feel disheveled and out of control. This week, however, there was a fairly serious emergency at work, and so I made an executive decision to STOP for 24 hours and tend to my gushing limbs instead of charging ahead wounded (all metaphorically of course).

So, giving myself a day today will allow me to put out any raging fires, and to establish a new habit—one I should have had for years. Despite having two graduate degrees in creative writing, earning a Ph.D. in composition (with completed dissertation!), getting a handful of creative and critical publications, and directing a writing center (!) I’ve never been able to maintain a stable writing routine. If there’s one thing I know about writing, it’s that you have to actually fucking do it. And yet that seems to be the one thing I cannot do with any amount of regularity. In high school I attended the now-defunct Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts on a poetry scholarship, and spent a lot of my time there crying. I made it through college and grad school by writing in fits and starts, always painful. During my comprehensive exams, I told my mother that the act of writing felt like struggling to stay alive while someone was trying to drown me.

Pomodoro Timer for OS X.

Pomodoro Timer for OS X.

So, to build a routine that I have a fair chance at sticking to, I’m going to use something simple: the Pomodoro Technique. Popularized by Francesco Cirillo, it’s a productivity strategy that involves 25-minute focused work sessions interspersed with 5-minute breaks, with a 15-minute break at the end of four “pomodori” (the plural of pomodoro! TIL). There are tons of dedicated apps for using the PT, and the one I’ll be using is Pomodoro Timer ($1.99 iOS, $2.99 OS X). I’m going to set the initial goal to do four writing pomodori per day, at a time in the evening when I’m less likely to be interrupted, between 8pm and 10pm. If I end up going out or doing something else during that time, I’ll schedule my pomodori for another time in the day, or else pick up a second session the next day.

Week 3: I’m behind on the morning person quest; I need to take a few minutes and do some thinking about my nightly routine. However, I have managed to get up, washed, and dressed first thing every day, even on the weekends.

Week 2: I did a lot better this week and managed to do about 60/40 paleo. Also, I LOST FOUR POUNDS! Yay!

Week 1: I missed a few days and broke the chain, but I’m mostly remembering to stick to my two nightly hours of distraction-free work. I’ve learned I need to block a few more sites on my computer, though.

Julie’s Week 3: Morning Is Broken

So, let me be clear on my attitude toward mornings. I like being up. There’s something about being up early that makes me feel like I have purpose and control in my life. I like the quietness of early morning, and the feeling of possibility. That being said, I hate getting up. I’m at that stage in my life/career where I’m always tired, and for many years I lived in a climate where for five months out of the year, all I had to look forward to in the morning was brushing snow off of my frozen-shut car doors.

I’ve also discovered that I have a pretty serious sleep problem. I often set an alarm and go to sleep, only to wake up and discover that the alarm went off at the appointed time, and was then calmly shut off…by me. I don’t sleepwalk. I sleep-sabotage. Once I discovered that I was doing this, I started setting more alarms. I would set my clock, then set an alarm (or two or three or four) on my phone. Then I bought another clock. Then I set my stereo to wake me up as well. I think the most alarms I set to go off was six: two alarm clocks (one of which was the “Sonic Alert” clock meant for the hearing-impaired) three different alarm clock apps on my iPhone, and my FitBit, set to vibrate on my arm at 6:15am. That morning, I vaguely remember a few sounds, and my body moving around, then tumbling back in bed. I slept peacefully until 8:46. I need to train my dog to jump on my face or something, because I’m not sure any kind of machine will be able to help me.

It looks so encouraging.

It looks so encouraging.

Maybe getting to the source of the problem is the next step. My bedtime routine is hardly serene; it usually consists of working on the couch until I’m too exhausted to continue typing, then dragging myself toward the bathroom to swallow my pills and, if I’m lucky, wash my face and brush my teeth (yes, I just admitted that I don’t always do that before I go to bed. Yes, it’s gross. Yes, I’m gross). Then I lay in bed and shut the lights out only to tap away at my phone until I pass out with it in my hand, which usually leads to me having to search though the blankets to find it in the morning, which leads me to that routine. My mornings are usually me stumbling out of my bedroom to make coffee and feed my dog, then sitting in my pajamas with my computer in my lap, aimlessly kind-of-working while the wasted time ticks away, and then it’s 12:30pm and oh god not again and what the hell is am I doing with my life?

I want my bedtime routine to be restful and conducive to quality sleep, while my mornings are reflective and productive, without me rushing around or being a sloth. In short, I want my sleeping and waking life to look and feel like it came out of Real Simple magazine. Enter Little Green Dot’s 28-day How to Become a Morning Person online course. I received the first “lesson” in my inbox a few hours ago; I’m planning on reading it once I’m done with this post, as I lie here on my bed in a posture-destroying position, various screens flickering and too-creepy-for-restful-sleep music playing. I get the feeling that I won’t be able to do the same tomorrow.

Habit Tracking

Week 1: Still haven’t broken the chain on two hours of distraction-free work daily, but I need to be careful not to look at my phone or get up and start putzing around in the kitchen while I’m doing it.

Week 2: More or less, a complete failure. I kind of broke down early upon hearing some bad professional news (yes, I eat my feelings), and some of my paleo recipes didn’t turn out to be as good as I had hoped, so I wasn’t all that into eating them. I’m going to redouble my efforts, though, and add three restrictions this week to make sure I stay on the wagon: no skipping breakfast, no junk (it’s really embarrassing to be 34 years old and still indulging in cheese puffs on the regular), no eating after 8pm. I’m going to put all of these into Way of Life and track them that way. Try again. Paleo again. Paleo better.

Julie’s Week 2: Slouching Toward Paleo

When it comes to my health, I’m not where I want to be. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been where I want to be.

Beachside elegance.

Beachside elegance.

Every year of my childhood I grew at least two or three inches, and by the time I was 14 I was at my full adult height of 5′ 10″. The thing about tall people is that they’re just bigger all over, and as a 170 lb. teenage giantess in 1994, it was incredibly hard to find stylish clothing that fit. Flood pants and shapeless rock band t-shirts were my staples, and I paired them with glitter-painted Chuck Taylors and a nondescript bob haircut, which I constantly dyed an off-putting shade of drugstore auburn. Though I hid it, I desperately wanted to be beautiful and glamorous, but in reality I was plain and, as a childhood frienemy passive-aggressively said, “plump.” Around this time I began to experience the clinical depression that would follow me for life, and commenced my abusive relationship with food.

I think I started my first “diet” when I was 13 or 14. The longest period of weight loss I was able to sustain was in the 14 months after I graduated from college and worked as a legal assistant at a firm that paid for employees’ gym memberships. I had nothing to do in the evenings (no school!) so I worked out, then cooked adventurous dinners from whatever ingredients I could afford to buy at Whole Foods that week. I spent the rest of my disposable income on magazines and kitten heels from Banana Republic, and for the first time in my life felt that being a hot babe was within my reach.

Cue grad school. Cue 60-hour workweeks and $10,000 9-month stipends with no summer support. Cue stacks of papers, to write and to grade. Cue endless anxiety. Cue a lot of beer, and an increasingly heavy smoking habit. Cue a bunch of dead-end relationships and imploding friendships. Cue ten years straight of that, actually. Then, cue waking up at age 33–with a decent academic job and a loving partner, thank god–but with a reconstructed left knee, five new prescriptions I’ll likely have to keep taking for the rest of my life, and a weight gain of about 170 lbs. (yes, you read that right). I got engaged the day after I turned 34, and with a wedding (and a marriage, and a family) on the horizon, I realized that I really, really needed to think seriously about my health and my weight (I completely agree that “thin” does not equal health and beauty and that one can be healthy at any size, but I honestly do not feel healthy at the size I am at. No disrespect meant to anyone else).

Tracking in Evernote.

Tracking in Evernote.

So, here I am, ready to transition–slowly–into a paleo diet. I have been experimenting with paleo for about a year and a half. I attempted a Whole30 last year and it wasn’t a success, mostly because it ended up being too restrictive. But even in my failure, I saw some progress: I wasn’t starving, and my blood sugar didn’t plummet and make me feel nauseous and lightheaded. This week I’m going to do a 50/50 paleo, meaning 50 percent of my food intake will be from non-paleo sources such as grains and dairy. I’m hoping to move up to 60/40, then 70/30, and finally to 80/20, which seems to be a manageable lifestyle for many.

I have a fair number of paleo cookbooks, but this week I’ve mainly been reading Ciarra Hannah‘s The Frugal Paleo Cookbook, and taking her advice to cook with a “theme.” This evening my dinner was paleo zuppa toscana with paleo breadsticks and salad. The rest of the week is more Italian: spaghetti and meatball stew, zucchini carbonara, and paleo Italian beef. I’m filling in with some decidedly non-paleo overnight steel cut oats and strawberry yogurt smoothies.


When you’re here, you’re family.

And no, I don’t actually believe that this is how “cave people” ate. I have no idea how cave people ate. Nobody really does (in fact, I think “cave people” is a pretty condescending way to describe our human ancestors). I like paleo because it cuts sugar and simple carbs, and it’s hard to argue that this is a bad thing. At one point in our history, humans did massive amounts of running, hunting, farming, and other physical labor and thus consuming diets filled with grains and starches wasn’t really a problem. Not so anymore. I’d guess I spend at least 12 to 16 hours of my day sitting on my ass.

That reminds me–my FitBit Charge arrives tomorrow.

Here goes nothing.

Habit Tracking

Week 1: Successfully did 2 hours of distraction-free work each day! Instead of Chains, I’m now tracking with a fairly powerful iOS app called Way of Life (free, or premium version for $4.99). It’s the same principle as Don’t Break the Chain, but with a sleeker interface and lots of data visualization.

See you next week!

Midweek Thoughts: Working to Music

A typical work soundtrack for me.

A typical work soundtrack for me.

A few days ago, our writing center colleague Scott Whiddon posed some questions to his Facebook friends about the relationship between music and work.  As a lifelong music/music journalism fan and as a scholar interested in writing process and workflow, I was eager to answer the questions myself (and of course we all know now that I’m prone to breaking out into Fleetwood Mac lyrics in the middle of blog posts). So, here goes:

  1. Do you listen to music when you write? Yes, all the time. I have for years, probably since I was in junior high and Smashing Pumpkins and The Juliana Hatfield Three soundtracked my school papers.
  2. Do you listen to certain kinds/genres of music when you write? Yes. I do writing-related work pretty much all the time, and I listen to music every time I write, so 85% of what I listen to is “work music.” My work music is chilled, downtempo electronica, usually indie-ish. SomaFM, an Internet radio station that I love, has a stream called “Digitalis” that they describe as “laptop rock.” Digitalis plays bands such as Lali Puna, The Go Find, Four Tet, Washed Out, Sigur Rós, The Notwist…it’s close to my ideal work soundtrack.
  3. Do you need noise, of some sort, to think about writing? I’ve been writing with music for so long that it’s hard for me to work in silence anymore. When I’ve tried to do it, it just seemed uncomfortable and wrong, or like I wasn’t “really” doing any substantial work. I can’t deal with just any noise, though. Coffeeshop noise isn’t terrible, but I usually listen to music there, too. Television noise completely interferes. I always end up paying attention to the show and not what I’m working on, so any attempt to work in the same room with a TV on is a waste. My fiancé, however, is one of those people who can watch an exciting football game on TV while simultaneously grading a towering stack of papers–and do both of them quite well. I guess we’ll have to have separate home offices.
  4. Do you listen to music at certain parts of a composing process (say, early drafting, listmaking, drawing) more than others (for example, line editing or substantive drafting)? Not sure. I think when my writing tasks vary in intensity, the music I listen to changes. When I was doing my exams, I listened to a Milwaukee post-rock band called Lights Out Asia, whose vast soundscapes were perfect for very-late-night drafting (I even posted to their Facebook page that they were invited to my dissertation defense, and though they didn’t come, their guitarist accepted my friend request).

What about you? Care to answer Scott’s questions? Post a comment below.