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Combining productive work lives and balanced personal lives

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Less is More
The New Year and the start of the second semester collude to prompt professors to set goals ­ way too many goals. Professors say that one of the prime barriers to good work-life balance is feeling overwhelmed. Here you are near the end of winter, facing spring break feeling overwhelmed with too many resolutions and too many career goals. Maybe this is the year to decrease that overwhelmed feeling by implementing the principle of “less is more.”

How Much is Too Much?

People differ in their energy levels and in their capacity to multitask. Only you can decide on how many goals are too many. Here are some guidelines to consider.

  • Think easy. One of the reasons we get overwhelmed is that we think we must set new goals. Sally Forth, the career-oriented comic strip mom knows how to do this. Sally makes easy New Year’s resolutions such as to not smoke. Her daughter says, “Mom, you already don’t smoke.” “Yes, and that’s why I am making that goal ­ so that this year I can count on keeping at least one of my resolutions.” An exaggeration, perhaps, but it is a reminder that you already have many maintenance goals that you are successfully doing. For example, if you value a healthy life style, acknowledge that you may already be cooking healthy meals. Count this as one of your goals and measure your success. If you want to increase the proportion of healthy meals to carry-out meals, that would be an addiitional goal.

    Perhaps you have enough goals for now. Maybe it’s time to stay in maintenance mode for a while. Recognize the many goals you are already working on in the various areas of your life:

    • Work including the different aspects of work: teaching, scholarly work, and service;
    • Family: both family of origin and family of creation;
    • Friends: local and long distance, personal and career friends;
    • Health: eating well and exercises plus checkups and diagnostic tests;
    • Spiritual: whatever that might mean to you including meditation practices, worship, volunteering;
    • Relationship: keeping current and having fun with your life partner;
    • Home and office: including decluttering, tidying up, cleaning, remodeling or redecorating;
    • Hobbies: involving courses, groups you belong to, materials to organize and catalogue, the actual hobby activities;
    • Any other areas important to you.

  • Think gradualism. Faculty come back from conferences all charged up and ready to incorporate new ideas on teaching diversity, active learning, or writing across the curriculum. What do they do? They overwhelm themselves revising all their classes to incorporate the new ideas and techniques? Instead of doing that overwhelming task, think about trying new ideas in one of your courses or in just one unit of one course and measure the effectiveness of the changes. You can incorporate the best ideas into another class or another unit next semester. You will have a better chance at success if you incorporate your new ideas gradually instead of all at once.

  • Think time units. What can you reasonable complete in a semester, in a half semester, in a month or a week? What longer term goals have you started this semester that deserve to be carried over into the next two semesters?

  • Think specific. Setting a goal like being a better teacher will overwhelm you. Instead, make a list of what a better teacher does and start by checking off what you already do. Then set a goal to try something specific and measurable, such as introducing two new active learning techniques in one of your classes and then asking the students to evaluate the experience.

    In my coaching of faculty, I have found that 3-4 new goals at the start of the semester are achievable if they are easy, gradual, short term, and specific. One or two of those can be steps along the way to larger goals that might take several semesters for completion. An example, would be, “By the time I apply for tenure in five years, I hope to have 20 publications.” Perhaps your research goal for the second half of this semester is, “I will complete two manuscripts I have been working on and submit them to ________journals.”

Hooked on Stress

Some faculty seem destined to set too many grandiose goals, continually overwhelming themselves. A few thoughts on what stands in their way of living a more balanced, productive life.

  • Keeping up with the Joneses. Some campuses have social norms of faculty being overwhelmed and exhausted. Complaining about work load is a social ritual. What is the norm on your campus? Do colleagues on your campus great each other with, “How are you? Busy?” Is being busy it a norm that fits your values? If not, what if you answered them, “No, not busy, but active?” How could you have an active life without being busy and overwhelmed? Doug Richardson, author of *Making Time, Making Change,* says he had to work very hard to go against that norm on one of the campuses where he worked but the effort was worth it to achieve the balance he valued.

  • Failure to learn from experience. Measure your ideal number of achievable goals by looking backward at how many goals you actually accomplished last semester? That’s a good number to set for this semester. You might add e a few “just in case” goals ­ that is, just in case you finish all your realistic goals before the semester ends.

  • Difficulty with empty time. Silence and the absence of busyness make some people anxious because they don’t know how to act when they aren’t frantic. If this has been your experience, you can build up tolerance for holes in your schedule by using very short periods to allow yourself to do nothing. Sometime in the next 24 hours, pause and do absolutely nothing except breathe. Sit or stand still and don’t do anything but breathe.

    At first you will feel anxious and then a bit lazy and slovenly but repeating this exercise once or twice a day will bring benefits. You will feel refreshed when you return to tasks. You will remember more because your brain will have time to consolidate the many happenings. And the most powerful of all: You will feel that you have less to do but accomplish much more. With space between tasks the brain stretches its perception of time. Changing your pace even slightly by pausing to breathe helps you calm the frantic energy that leads to that overwhelmed feeling.

Less Is More - Assignments

Now some tough questions: Are you happy with the number and type of assignments on your course syllabi? Are you accomplishing your pedagogical goals through each one? Could you accomplish the same goals with fewer assignments or with different kinds of assignments?

When I was a full-time faculty member, I taught among other courses, Experimental Psychology. One of the goals of the course is to teach the students to write up experiments in APA style. The standard practice at the time was to assign one paper a week across the whole semester. One year, my dean gifted me with an amazing opportunity ­ released time to participate in a year long Writing Across the Curriculum program with Dr. Barbara Walvoord, a leader in that niche. Based on what I learned that year, I cut the number of assignments in half for the next semester. The goal was to have more time to coach the writing process and to help the students master the principles of good, scientific writing instead of having them just churn out pages while I churned out feedback that made no difference. After revising the syllabus, I was pleasantly surprised at how much the writing improved. Now my feedback was actually helpful to the students and I wasn’t the only reader giving feedback. Periodically, the students presented drafts of assignments to a peer group and learned how to coach each other in the rewriting process.

Both the products and the process have improved. In addition to the course goals being better accomplished with fewer assignments, there are work-life benefits as well ­ less grading and less reading means more time for research or discretionary time. Currently, my students submit their second drafts electronically with the rewritten parts highlighted in color so that I can zero in on the quality of the new material. I have the pleasure of seeing my feedback making a difference instead of pouring my soul into those papers only to have those comments buried in the students’ course files. Take a look at your own syllabi to see if you could cut or consolidate the assignments to accomplish the same or better teaching with less work for you and the students.

According to psychologist and meditation teacher, Dr. Tara Brach, the Chinese word for busy is “heart-killing.” Half way through the semester is a great time to revisit your goals and decide whether you are busy and killing your heart or active and productive. Experience is a good teacher about what can realistically be accomplished during a semester. You can learn how to pace your goals in future semesters. Instead of each semester being an exhausting sprint, imagine your whole career as a long marathon where pacing yourself will keep you healthy and in the running. You might discover that less is more.




Richardson, Doug. Making Time; Making Change.

Brach, Tara. Radical Acceptance.

© Copyright 2007 Susan Robison. All rights reserved. The above material is copyrighted but you may retransmit or distribute it to whomever you wish as long as not a single word is changed, added or deleted, including the contact information.

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