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.
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.
Julie’s 52 Habits Update
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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!
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.