Memo to self: “I’m swamped” may be a self-imposed condition

This piece is especially for fellow academicians and others who find that work-life balance often turns into an anxious work-life blend.

At the recent “Work and Well-Being 2012” conference in Chicago (sponsored by the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program of the American Psychological Association), Larissa Barber, an organizational psychology professor at Northern Illinois University, gave a thought-provoking talk on work-life balance.

Dr. Barber explained that we may disengage or “recover” from work in four ways: (1) “psychological detachment”; (2) “mastery experiences” (such as hobbies or home projects); (3) relaxation; and (4) sleep. Unfortunately, job demands and technologies that bridge work and home can make it difficult to achieve a healthy sense of disconnection from work.

Her words rang true to me. When it comes to work-life balance, and applying the four modes of healthy disengagement, I often fail miserably.

Academic work and careers

I understand why folks outside of academe believe that we professors have a pretty cushy deal. After all, most of us are not in the classroom for hours upon hours each day, we have a lot of flexibility in our schedules, and we appear to have “summers off.”

In reality, however, professors who are truly engaged in their work often are extraordinarily busy. Personal motivation, institutional and professional expectations, and choices concerning one’s activities combine to fill up time, and commitments can stack up very quickly.

I know how this feels. For most of the spring and early summer, I’ve been on a recurring weekly cycle of maybe four days at home in Boston, with the remainder of the week on the road, mostly to fulfill various speaking and meeting commitments.

Even during weeks that I’m not scheduled to travel, I’ve been getting anxious by Tuesday, conditioned to anticipate my next trip. And to keep up with things, my “road warrior” kit of gadgets I take on trips keeps expanding, sometimes including a laptop, a tablet, and a smartphone — with all the cables and rechargers that come with them.

I am extremely grateful for the many opportunities to do work that I care about. However, the recent pace has left me feeling tired and frazzled — not to mention way behind on projects that are important to me.

On being “crazy busy”

And here’s a rub: It’s not as if a gun was held to my head to accept these various invitations.

In a recent piece for New York Times, Tim Kreider explores the phenomenon of being “crazy busy,” starting with kids whose every hour is booked up with activities, and extending to adults whose daily schedules seemingly offer no respite. On a personal level, he nails the fact that — at least at the point of saying “yes” or “no” — many adults who claim they have no free moments had some choice in the matter:

It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.

His dime store therapist insight resonates as well:

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

I plead guilty. To me, creating a meaningful life is what our time on Earth is all about. But too often this has translated into overcommitting myself. When I tell people “I’m swamped,” I must concede that some of this stems from my own choices.

There’s always more

We continue to ratchet up expectations for occupational and professional success. We worship the mantra of “work hard, play hard.” If you don’t keep doing more, you’ll fall behind and never catch up — or perhaps miss out on that “big opportunity,” even if it’s something you don’t necessarily want.

It all fits well with this era of hyper-capitalism that sadly has become a cultural norm.

Some people thrive on this lifestyle and are much better than me at juggling all their commitments. But for many of the rest of us, a more balanced way of living may be the healthier option. It requires engaging in some personal triage to sort it all out, but this process alone can be a valuable one.

Hmm, this gives me something to think about during my next plane flight…

4 responses

  1. “It all fits well with this era of hyper-capitalism that sadly has become a cultural norm.”

    I had a bit of a Fruedian slip of the brain and read “cultural norm” as “cultural worm”.

  2. Personally, I myself love the busyness. The sense of satisfaction that is gained from being regarded as highly productive and yet still a very kind and positive person within the workplace is only complimented by my having had a very efficiently running family. My children were well adjusted and also acknowledged for their good character and high intelligence.

    It is tough to juggle it all, but for me it was just the way I’d prefer life. Multitasking was a very strong point for me, an attribute that was a huge part of my identity and made me feel accomplished. I welcomed it all. This skill is what ultimately allowed me to function within a very blatantly (and spoken of) hostile, demeaning, harassing, unethical environment that was without consequence. I had a double duty…working hard at being productive while working hard at holding my temper while deflecting severe and blatant abuse.

    It may have been the catalyst, or at least big part of my being made a target. I was called princess and the bullies/harassers would say that “I was not perfect” or find any flaw and personify or manufacture more in order that I may be diminished in even the smallest of ways. They would orchestrate a series of undignified scenes much like what we saw on the videotape that happened with the bus monitor.

    All thought it was horrendous and hard to watch, yet….do they realize that this is -EXACTLY- what occurs within workplaces between a bully/harasser adult and their target. It is a shocking reality to find yourself being called slurs or demeaning verbal assault openly as you work. Often times the slurs and profanity is not yelled into your face…lest there would immediately be a physical altercation, but instead it is said within feet of you as you work while two or more that the bully has enlisted stands nearby and openly harasses you and bystanders watch only to speak about it and the stark unethical climate within the company in private.

    I am of the opinion that perhaps those who are inserting themselves as roadblocks and sitting on or in the way of legislation that would prevent and protect workers from this, must not understand that we are not just speaking of an overload of work and thus wining about too much responsibility…I wish it were only that.

    It is instead foul mouthed verbal assault and threats of violence at times and then threats that you would be fired, intrusion and severe invasions and more. Persistent, persistent, constant, ongoing… often times over YEARS. Just like…dare I say (and stress) that it is exactly what we saw captured on tape for the -TEN MINUTES- that the bus driver endured and fought off this attack.

    Psychologically a human being cannot withstand this. It was horrendous for ten minutes…imagine 1, 2, 3, or ten years. If we saw that on camera, some would not believe that it were adults and the setting was work….

  3. I can’t tell you how much I dislike the “the gift my chronic/catastrophic illness gave me” meme, because I think it’s sometimes used as a subtle way to bully sick people into being martyrs…

    …but I have to cop to one myself :-). As a person who deals with chronic illness and the drugs to control it, I’ve discovered that downtime isn’t just a good idea for me, it’s a necessity. If I don’t get sufficient unstructured downtime, I’m setting myself up for a painful flareup, which will also put me further behind schedule in the Busy Life Contest (TM). If I’m going to be any good at anything (being an employee, friend, family member, hobbyist, citizen), I have to take time to breathe and unwind.

    I have to miss out on lots of things I’d love to do because of that, but being able to function reasonably well at the things I DO do requires me to take a load off on a regular basis. As a bit of a rascally contrarian, I recommend to friends that they try a bit of “nothing” time now and then 🙂

  4. A wise woman I know has cautioned me to be vigilant about becoming a “human doing” as opposed to a “human being”. I find it very challenging to just BE.

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