On the art of saying no, redux

Remember back last year – in July! Blessed July! – when I wrote about learning to say no more often?

Well, yesterday morning my good friend M sent along a piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education written by our colleague Robin Bernstein, a professor of African and African-American Studies at Harvard (and a terrific performance scholar, btw). Robin’s article made me wish I’d written it, instead of the thing I wrote. Her “The Art of ‘No'” is more or less the ideal distillation of everything I wanted to say in that post, and much more besides.

So, of course, I emailed her right away and asked if I could link to her work here on the blog. And she kindly and enthusiastically said: yes!

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“The Art of ‘No'” a rich and funny piece, full of smart, clear advice. It’s also – I think – all the better for its brash, uncompromising tone:

Don’t explain. Maybe you have a good reason for saying no. Maybe you don’t. Either way, if you try to justify your answer, you open yourself to judgment and bargaining, or you risk oversharing. You don’t have to defend your decision.

  • Don’t say: “I wish I could attend this event, but I need to drive my aunt to the doctor on that day.” The event could shift to a different day — and now you’re on record stating that you want to attend. Or the asker could judge your personal life, or question your commitment to the profession.
  • Instead, say: “Thank you for this invitation. Unfortunately, I’m unavailable to participate. I appreciate your thinking of me.”
  • Or: “I received your invitation to participate in [event]. I have a previous commitment at that time, but I wish you the very best for a successful event.” No one needs to know that you previously committed to going home, watching Project Runway, and eating Funyuns.

At the same time, though, the article is generous in key ways:

Be strategic in naming your replacement(s). If the proposed gig is desirable, suggest someone who could use a career boost. Pay special attention to issues of gender, race, and position: Consider passing a good opportunity on to a person of color, a person without a tenure-track job, or someone else who faces documented disadvantages in academe. If the proposed labor is undesirable, nominate someone competent but underutilized. Be sure only to suggest someone you respect and trust to complete the task reasonably well.

So go forth and read this piece. You’ll be glad you did. Quite apart from the sage advice, it’s a beautifully performative piece of writing in which Robin, as a woman with cultural privilege in our public sphere, models the act of standing up for herself, unapologetically and unabashedly, while also supporting the needs of others.

Thanks Robin!
Kim

No-frog

Lots of memes with white girls saying no. So I decided to go with the frog.

 

Just coping (an imperfect how-to guide)

God, what a miserable few weeks it has been! Post-holiday doldrums followed hard by start of term, and then…

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I’d offer a trigger warning – but what’s the point?

Well, we know what then. Anyone who cares about progressive, inclusive education, human rights and social justice, LGBT+ rights, the United Nations, environmental protection and food security, and myriad other things that many of us in the Anglosphere have been taking for granted for some time now has, I wager, been feeling rather down since Friday, 20 January. Things have been bumpy, to say the least.

My Facebook feed has been filled with friends and colleagues talking about the many things we can all do right now to help support those left especially vulnerable in the wake of Trump et al. (Marching is good; please also send your money.) I’ve taken much inspiration from them. But I also know that I’ve struggled to keep my own head above water these last few weeks. Not because I am anything like as vulnerable as those most affected by the chaotic death spiral of “executive orders” and gross cabinet appointees swirling steadily toward armageddon in Washington, but because, well… It’s the middle of term and the middle of winter and things kind of already sucked, without the Trump-ocalypse turning up to further fuck my S.A.D. vibe.

This time last year I was in real trouble. I was buried under a heavy administrative load as I, along with one of my colleagues in Theatre Studies, juggled multiple new recruitment initiatives and the planning of a splashy program launch party alongside our teaching labour and research projects. I was finishing an edited book, which meant intellectual work plus the palaver of wrangling colleagues/friends whose contributions were behind schedule, while also fending off my increasingly anxious publisher. And I had made the mistake of jumping head-first into a relationship with someone who looked mighty great on paper, but who turned out, in the fullness of time, to be utterly unsuited to me.

Imagine if I’d known then that Donald Trump was going to win the damn election!

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Thanks to my dear friends and my outstanding department chair I made it through February and March 2016, realised I needed a better work-life balance plan, decided to cut out work emails on weekends and over holiday periods, and generally set about paying better attention to my life. I feel a lot better now; in fact, I feel well enough that in the weeks since Mr Trump Went To Washington I’ve been doing a number of things designed, simply, to help me cope with the pool of heavy affect that has settled over my heart.

As it turns out, these are also things that, in normal times, could help those of us who teach and support young people for a living to care for our own emotional wellbeing and sustain our forward momentum.

So I thought I’d share them.

Take a friend out for lunch. My office neighbour, Kate, is a wonderful human being and sometimes I see her when we are both on campus for teaching. But we are busy and she lives in Toronto and we are busy and did I mention how busy we are? So a couple of weeks ago, when I was planning a day of work in the city, I emailed her and asked her if we could have lunch together while I was there. She was totally game – but then her book deadline got in the way. So I said: fear not! I will come to you and I will bring the lunch! We ended up having burgers and deep friend pickles (OMG SO GOOD!!!) and milkshakes and sharing our news in the sunny front window of Rudy’s on College. What bliss.

Have a drink over Skype with someone you love. Most of my friends aren’t in the town where I work; they are in London, England or Toronto or Berlin or San Diego or Brisbane or Halifax or… you get the picture. Academics live a nomadic life, leaving waves of loved ones behind at each career turn. I don’t see enough of my folks, so at the suggestion of my dear pal Jen Harvie I’ve started to make Skype/Facetime dates with friends abroad. Recently I’ve had two, both with chums in Toronto when I couldn’t make it to the city. Sure, we might talk a bit about work, but mostly we gossip about boys (at my instigation; I’m single, straight, and on the internet…). A drink in hand makes it all the more fun.

Go for a long walk, maybe with an animal. My dog Emma provides a built in excuse for long walks; she’s portable, so sometimes I throw her in the car with me and we travel to friends and their trails elsewhere. We had a fantastic, nourishing time walking on the glorious Niagara Escarpment with our friends Susan (human) and Shelby (canine) a couple of weeks ago; you can read more about that adventure here.

Have some sex. Oh yes, I’m quite serious! It’s a gesture of care for your body, a reminder of your beautiful, flawed, awkward, delightful humanity, and a chance to be held, supported by, and connected to another human being for a moment, just when that kind of holding, support and connection are lacking in the wider world. It also totally counts as exercise.

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Emma the dog. You didn’t think I’d share a photo of the sex, did you?

Make a beautiful dinner for yourself, and for someone you love. We are busy professionals and too busy to cook a lot of the time, I know. But cooking a proper meal, as my horrendously failed relationship from last winter reminded me, is the best gift we can give to ourselves and to one another. So book off some time (mark it on your calendar!) and go for it. Make the thing you most love in the world, and share it with somebody. Open wine, if that’s your thing, or open whatever your thing might be.

And then raise your glass to the struggles ahead. Remember that if you embrace the other humans around you, and fortify yourself, you can be ready for anything.

Kim

On the freedom to move, and the freedom to be, part the last

(Over the holiday period I’ve done a series of posts about mobility, access, and equality. Read the previous posts here, here, and here.)

Over the Christmas break I got promoted. What a terrific gift at a challenging time of year. The promotion was especially welcome news because I wasn’t convinced, until the very last letter was signed, that it was actually going to happen; I was going up on the strength of a lot of edited work and teaching labour, not on the back of the coveted “second monograph” that is the “gold standard” in most academic departments like mine. So I’m genuinely chuffed to report that the external examiners, the internal committee, my Chair, Dean, and Provost all decided the work I’d done was in every respect worthy of promotion. A happy new precedent at my school, I hope.

This promotion doesn’t come with lots of added frills, mostly just bragging rights: I’ve got to the top of the academic food chain. But it has also come at an opportune time, just as I’ve been thinking about how and when and where we move, what privileges many of us can and cannot access – and how sometimes those who seem most mobile are in fact most profoundly stuck.

Academics have weird jobs. Those of us in tenured or tenure-stream positions get to work from home a lot of the time, and are often jetting around to conferences and paper-giving events around the world. I’ve piggy-backed most of my holidays for the last decade on top of cool conferences in Asia, Europe, and the states, airfare paid by my employer or an external granting agency. I’m writing this post in my pyjamas.

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We are, in other words, gifted with flexible time, the means to travel, and an awful lot of cultural power besides.

But that’s hardly the whole story. Most importantly, and worth mentioning straight away, is that those of us in cozy jammies are truly the gifted few: a shocking number of our colleagues work contract positions without benefits or job guarantees. They go to those same conferences, too, but on their own dime most of the time and in desperate need to land a more permanent job. They struggle under the heaviest teaching loads at most universities, and sometimes under heavy admin loads too. They work to survive, but appear outwardly to be mobile professionals. And that’s the way universities like it: the less attention drawn to the actual working conditions of sessionals, the better for a school’s bottom line.

(This is a subject that has been much written about, and my own experience of it is as an outsider, so I’m not going to focus on it here. But I want to direct attention its way, and for those interested in reading more I recommend the terrific work of Melonie Fullick in University Affairs.)

So being among the lucky, tenured few brings plenty of certainty, and stability, to be sure. And I am so, so grateful for both. But sometimes certainty and stability hide other problems – and I know these problems are relative, of course, but they are also real. I talked in my first mobility post, back in December, about the value of feeling placed in the world: knowing where we are rooted allows us to fly free. Those without roots – those who must migrate in order to survive – suffer the hard strains of place’s very lack. But being in place can also mean being profoundly stuck, and more than a few academics I know feel stuck, trapped in fact, in the very jobs that guarantee their livelihoods.

There are a few reasons for this.

The first is scarcity: tenured jobs, particularly in the Arts and Humanities where I teach, are fewer and further between than ever. Partly this is cyclical, but it’s primarily a side effect of the rise of neoliberal university culture, which depends increasingly on flex-time labour (sessional contractors without benefits), promotes STEM fields over liberal arts ones, and encourages instructors to teach toward future employment, rather than toward broad and informed citizenship.

(My own faculty is in big trouble these days, as are many of its kin across North America, because numbers in our classes are dropping – we tend to offer more citizenship training than job training, which seems nebulous and irrelevant to lots of people who just want to get good jobs/their kids to get good jobs. However, because our budget remains tied in large part to the number of bodies in our seats, fewer students wanting to learn about art, literature, and foreign languages right now means less money for all of those things in the future – especially for replacement faculty for those retiring today.)

In other words: when you get offered a tenure-stream academic job, dammit, you cling to it. Doesn’t matter where the hell it is.

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And there’s reason number two: universities are not exactly like engineering firms. Even if Richard Florida rates both profs and engineers as high-impact “creatives“, the fact is that as an academic you don’t generally get to pick the city you want to live in, or even the province or state. Even massive global cities boast at most half a dozen major schools, not all of which will have departments in your field (and even fewer of which will have hires coming up anytime soon). Then there’s the question of whether you could even afford to live in London/New York/Tokyo on a professor’s salary! (Answer: barely.) On the flip side, many universities, including very good ones, are in deep-space places: far from major cities, in towns where those not associated with the university resent it, or in a region that doesn’t share your political values in any way. If you realize one day, as a colleague of mine confessed to me recently, that you literally cannot bear the place your school is located as a home for your family one more minute, you’ve got two choices: massive upheaval, assuming you can find a comparable job elsewhere (big assumption), or leave the academy altogether and start over from scratch.

That brings me to reason number three academics get stuck: workload creep. Lots of us are in jobs where the day-to-day is so onerous it eats our research time in huge mouthfuls. Can’t publish the book/major article/make the major breakthrough at the lab, can’t move; it’s as simple as that, no matter how good an undergrad chair you are/how high your teaching scores tend to be. When I look at my permanent, tenured colleagues who struggle under 3- or 4-class per term teaching loads, plus administrative duties, I am genuinely embarrassed by how much time I have to write, edit, and publish. Yes, of course, I just got promoted to full professor at a relatively young age because I am totally gifted and amazing! But, no, wait: I ACTUALLY got promoted because I have made a series of life choices that mean I work in a department where I teach a 2-2 load, in classes with maybe 25 students each in them, and rarely have to do onerous admin without lots of help.

Now, about those choices… there have been some serious trade-offs. Some of them sit very heavy on me.

Some of them have broken my heart. But –

I know, I know: talk to the hand. We’re damn lucky. We have good jobs. We have salaries, benefits, and can’t be fired at the whim of our employers because we are protected by strong unions (often) and academic freedom (more often). Being a prof is fucking cushy, I won’t deny it. But it doesn’t mean we’re all just delighted, bouncing through the heather. Most of us are, in fact, depressed. Exhausted. Some of us are commuting huge distances on alternate weekends. Unsure if we’ll ever get out from underneath the job’s grind. Afraid to leave because where could we go? If we could actually get another offer at a better place, could our partners find work too? Would the kids mind moving thousands of kilometres away? And what if it was just more of the same?

While I was writing this post and fighting with myself to get the tone right, so I didn’t sound like an overprivileged douchebag whining about bullshit problems, I took a break to eat some dinner and watch Meryl Streep accept the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes. It’s a riveting, heartfelt performance of hurt and despair at what might be the highlight moment of her career, and I really recommend a watch, if you’ve not seen it. Here it is:

Meryl reminded her audiences of a few important things in this speech. First, that Hollywood actors, and the Hollywood foreign press – despite being two of the most outrageously privileged groups on earth – are also currently among the most “vilified segments” in America (“Hollywood. Foreigners. And the press”). Why? Because it is their job, actors and journalists alike, to inhabit difference, call out falsehood, and speak truth to power – even when it places them at risk. She reminded everyone listening in the auditorium of the weight of responsibility their privilege brings, the responsibility to model empathy and compassion, and to refuse to stand for bullying, belittling, humiliating acts perpetrated by those with power. When we are secure, are em-placed, we speak from a built-in podium; let’s speak loudly, and clearly.

But let’s not underestimate our own vulnerability, either; that’s a lie that not only does our own selves a disservice, but also reduces the potential for ally-ship with others. And this is where those of us in secure academic jobs should learn from Meryl’s words: to be conscious of, and grateful for, our own freedom and mobility, but not to take it for granted, and never, ever to assume its normativity. It’s likely that more than a few of our colleagues, even just down the hall, are feeling more precarious than we know; if we overstate and universalise the privileges of this fortunate job, we risk erasing the details of struggles barely recognised.

There are lots of ways that tenured faculty can be allies with contract faculty, graduate students, and others in the university precariat, and we should embrace them all. But we must also be each other’s allies, and make space to talk honestly about that all-too-common feeling of entrapment that lurks around us. How might we alleviate it? I bet there are dozens of ideas waiting to be hatched, if we’d just take this problem seriously as shared, personal, and an impediment to our collective strength as teachers, scholars, and community leaders.

Job shares? Advocating for better regional transit on behalf of university populations? Proactive planning for commuting profs, including on-campus housing, centralised carpooling, air or rail discounts? New models for spousal hiring and support? These are off the top of my head, but I bet there are more, and better, examples floating around. I’d love to hear about them – please share!

Kim

 

 

 

On learning to say no, and to feel good about it too!

There’s an analogy I used when my mom first got sick, early in 2014, to help my dad realise that taking care of her was, of course, a good thing, but that he also had to take care of himself. In fact, he had to take care of himself first, so that he could also take care of her properly. It comes from that thing every air traveler loves to ignore with gusto: the safety briefing. It’s the bit that says: secure your mask before assisting others.

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I’m very big on self care – in theory. I am very well aware that I’m of no use to my students when I’m sick or over-tired, or worn down emotionally (although do I cancel class? Nope). I also know that if I want to ride my bike faster (which I always do) I need to rest properly. (I write about cycling for Fit is a Feminist Issue if you want to learn more). So I would like to think that, in the event I was in a plane-travel emergency, I would absolutely, totally follow instructions and secure my mask first, before looking around to see whom I could help.

I’d like to think so, but I doubt it.

I’m a perennial yes-sayer. Ask me to do shit; chances are I’ll say sure, of course! Usually with enthusiasm; somehow I convince myself in the moment that it’ll be fun/good for me, so of course, bring it on! Sometimes with covert frustration, but firm in the belief that saying no would bring very unwelcome consequences indeed. What these are remain abstract, but I’m sure they are lurking in the underbrush, ready to bite me in the shins.

Where does this urge come from? Part of it has to do with cultural socialisation: women are socialised to say yes – or rather, we are socialised not to say no, except under extreme circumstances. (And, incidentally: the fact that women are socialised to say yes most of the time is part of what makes debates about sexual consent so tricky, the obviousness of “no means no” so hard to make stick.) Historically, women are the helpmeets, the obedient ones, the ones who clean up the shit with a smile so that everyone else in the household still feels good about themselves afterward. Ever notice how women who take care of themselves well by firmly insisting on their rights – to their own time; to their own bodies; to their human rights – are often labeled sluts or bitches or worse? Or trolled mercilessly online? These are the women who have learned against the odds to say NO, to set their own boundaries independent of patriarchal expectations.

But a big part of this urge to say yes, for me, is also down to the social lessons the academy teaches us, from grad school onward: that we always need one more publication, so if someone asks you to write a chapter for their obscure forthcoming collection of course you say yes; that we always need to earn the next round of glowing course evaluations or else be branded a bad teacher, so of course you make yourself available to your students 24/7; that we need to be seen to be team players, so of course you do that committee gig on overload. The academy breeds imposter syndrome; all the measures in place to judge our impact are designed to help us feel, consistently, not good enough. And that feeling creates the panicked urge just always, always to say yes, even when the yes drips with years of accumulated resentment.

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I was warned at the start of my academic career to guard against being constantly asked to do stuff, and to learn to say no as often as yes in order to protect my time and my own best interests. (That is, to preserve enough time for me to do the 40% of my job that is research and publishing-driven. We’re not talking lolling on the couch eating bonbons, friends. I wish!)

I knew there was absolutely no chance I was going to become one of those people who doesn’t get asked; those people are demonstrably a) incompetent, or b) assholic when on committees. I am highly competent, more’s the pity, and I’m allergic to being mean to people (just one more way I have been well socialised as a woman in the workforce, let me say). But I figured, early on, that there was a fighting chance I could learn to say no and mean it.

Alas: somehow, along the way, I did not manage to acquire this crucial bit of academic survival kit – or perhaps I got hold of it, but never properly internalised it. Anyway, I didn’t recognise how seriously I’d misfired on this one until last year, when a handful of extremely large things (a book; the organization of a large conference; the launching of a new academic program) I’d said yes to over a period of about 18 months all came to a head at the very same time. Suddenly, I was living through the profoundly exhausting consequences of three separate yeses. And it occurred to me that no way could these consequences have been worse than what would have happened if I’d said no.

So, emerging from this self-imposed trauma, I decided I was going to teach myself how to say no and like it. Feel relieved and gratified by it. Feel not guilty about it!

To do this, I turned to a handful of my best loved and trusted colleagues, all women, and asked them these questions:

  • when was the last time you said no to something that really made a difference to your work-life balance and/or mental health? How did saying no “go”? (IE: how did you do it, and were there repercussions?)
  • when was the last time you WISH you’d said no to something? What would you do differently this time around, if you had it to do again? (Or: HOW would you handle it?)

I told them they could feel absolutely free to ignore the request; I did NOT want to add to anybody’s workload! I explained that I was crowd-sourcing ideas for this post, and that they should let me know if I could quote them, or paraphrase them, and whether or not I could identify them. (Most chose anonymity, but were happy to have me share their thoughts.)

I learned a lot of great stuff thanks to this exercise, and I’m eager to pass it on. Herewith, then, the distillation – plus a list of top tips you can pin up above your computer (I know I will).

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One colleague at a similar stage in her career to mine noted that the biggest challenge, when it comes to saying no, is managing the temptation. Do I NEED to do this thing, or do I WANT to do it? And what exactly do I mean by these terms? Where do I place the distinction between them? She wrote:

As I think about it I realize that saying no feels pretty privileged. It is like the CV of failures. Privileged to say no because I don’t NEED to do that thing. But part of that I think is also calibrating what we mean by ‘need.’ My child-self mixes up ‘need’ and ‘want.’ Saying yes sometimes is a want rather than a need. Saying yes brings warm fuzzies of validation and achievement. … But beyond system imposed needs, I do think that the hardest thing is to self-calibrate those needs and wants. If I think about saying no as a privilege then saying no can feel pretty good too. I am fortunate that I get to say no.

These reflections on “no” as a privilege – one we need to be willing to grant ourselves, which is not often easy, but which remains a privilege nonetheless – coincide with the thoughts offered by one of my senior mentors, someone whose career advice I trust almost without fail. She noted that we always, always over-inflate the consequences of saying no, especially once we are at the very privileged stage, in North America, of having tenure:

In my experience, there aren’t repercussions for a ‘no’, beyond some generally short-lived grumpiness … saying no doesn’t ever mean you won’t be asked again … and again … in the months and years ahead.  Probably the most important thing to teach oneself is that it doesn’t have to be you – there’s always another person on the “ask” list.

Maybe that last statement is the critical one: there’s always someone else. We might not like to think we are dispensable, or replaceable – oh god, my imposter syndrome is calling! – but of course we are. Maybe embracing that reality could be, should be a good thing!

This leads to another key insight, offered by another senior mentor and friend. She struggles with health issues that impact her ability to work on a regular basis, but rather than making an issue of it she finds herself overcompensating by saying yes too often. For her, the struggle isn’t saying yes or saying no, but knowing her own body’s limits and respecting them, rather than trying to cover them up by repeatedly transgressing them:

The ‘how to’ isn’t hard: there are usually enough things on any academic’s plate that we can say ‘I can’t manage it at this time,’ or ‘I can’t manage it until x is done’ or ‘until we get a replacement for y who left’ or ‘there simply aren’t enough hours in the day.’

It may be that the question is ‘how much is enough.’ I mean that. And I recognise the absurdity in saying it when I write it, but I think it’s there.

“How much is enough for me?” “What do I mean when I say I need to do this thing?” Or, as a couple of respondents noted, will I enjoy this?

This last question is actually not superficial, but crucial. It’s directly connected to this one: will this thing, a lot of work or not, nourish me in a way that will allow me to do it well? That will allow me to learn from it and not resent it, and encourage others to do it well? As another peer noted very succinctly, I don’t do X because I hate it, and lots of people don’t hate it and would rather do it. I do Y because I love it and do it well; it’s a trade-off and one we should feel confident making. If everyone pulls their weight by doing (largely) the stuff they love, we will actually discover most of the bases will cover themselves.

To end, I’d like to share an extremely sensible list of things to consider before saying no, shared by my senior mentor with the iron-clad advice. This is a keeper, folks!

  1. Don’t say yes or no immediately.  Keep to a 24-hour rule.
  2. Ask yourself:  will I learn anything?  Is my voice necessary/useful?  Will it be fun (at least some of the time!)?  Could a colleague/graduate student benefit from this opportunity instead?
  3. Think about time: if I say yes, how will this fit in my schedule?  Do I need something in order to make it work (money, course release, grad assistant, stepping away from another committee or whatever)?*
  4. Good to remember: saying “no” might be a huge nuisance to the person asking, but it is never fatal.

(*She also notes: If you are being pressured for a “yes,” even when you’ve given a “no,” then ASK FOR SOMETHING that will help! If you don’t get something in return, then your contribution isn’t that important to the person asking, and you can say no secure in the knowledge that you made your willingness but also your needs clear.)

My thanks to everyone who replied to my request for thoughts on saying no, and especially to the beloved friend who wrote this, and made me laugh out loud:

Hi Kim,

Sorry for the slow response. This is a fascinating topic for your blog but I’m afraid I must decline writing at this point due, in large part, to the time needed to devote to the many other things I’ve failed to decline. Sigh. Happy to discuss strategies in person at some point, though.

I look forward to reading the blog.

And yes, we plan to chat it out – over drinks, natch! – sometime soon.

In solidarity,

Kim

My Summer Email Vacation: what happened when I just stopped checking the post

If you read the blog regularly you know I’ve been focused a good deal lately on work/life balance issues, mental health and wellness for university staff and faculty, and the intensification of administrative downloading – which on its own is leading to a hell of a lot more email, make-work tasks, and generally unnecessary panic for me and my colleagues (and not just in the UK, where admin downloading has been the exhausting norm for a while now).

Which is a nice way of saying: I’ve been doing far too much fecking complaining lately about how tired I always am as a result of coping with work emergencies that are ABSOLUTELY NOT EMERGENCIES in the normal human sense of that term. (They aren’t even really that urgent. In fact, nobody is going to die, so who the hell cares?)

Certainly plenty of my complaints have been legit, and need to be laid at the feet of an increasingly teetering system in which academic professionals are invited, should they be Type-A like me, to take on responsibility for a whole bunch of stuff (like, oh, say, building and running a new academic program) for which universities no longer have enough staff, and then work ourselves into the ground. But let’s be honest: I am a tenured middle-aged woman with no kids. I have choices about which work I do, how much, and when. I have the choice to stop and give myself a break.

And yet, as I tried to explain to my therapist the other day, we work in a world chock-full of superficial choices that, at depth, amount to very little choice at all a lot of the time. This is a world of “flexible” labour that shames the break-takers and rewards those who are accessible and eager to help, 24/7. And the rewards are rarely just monetary (if they even are that! As a salaried prof I am one of the luckiest “flex” workers on earth, and I do know it). Working yourself to death also comes with an affective prize, the seductive Feeling Of Always Being Totally Checked In. (Don’t believe me? Click here to read a review of Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep.)

So sometime in the spring I decided this was it: I was making myself sick with overwork, and in the absence of a rescue helicopter from the fantasy world of Neoliberalism Is Over, I was going to have to take personal responsibility for my own wellbeing. Fuck the stuff that wasn’t going to get done on campus as a result; time to shift the priorities.

Step one in this gambit, I figured, needed to be to tune out. As in, to make all of the voices asking for things go away – if only for a little while.

I had to take a holiday, circa 2016, in which I DID NOT CHECK EMAIL.

For a whole week.

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Some of you might be rolling your eyes at me right now, but I suspect far more of you have just recoiled in horror. After all, we know what happens when busy professionals turn off the email for a week: hundreds of messages pile up. Coming back to that tsunami is worse than living with the daily, dull ache that comes with seeing the messages drip, drip, drip in.

I have long succumbed to the fear of turning off the email. Hell, at the ashram in Kerala I visited last summer I even checked messages once a day! But this time around I figured I’d hit the tipping point. Time to give email cold-turkey a try and see if the benefits outweighed the consequences.

Word up, people: they did!

Here’s how I managed the tune-out:

  1. I created a “rule” on my laptop mail program (Mac Mail) to send all incoming email from my work account into a folder I titled “holiday post”. (Mail users: go to “preferences”, click on the button in the pop-up window called “rules”, and add away.) That folder lived locally on my hard drive, and I moved it to the bottom of my folder roster in Mail so that if I happened to have my laptop open I would not see it. (And I didn’t: I was surprised how, after a day of being tuned out, I was not even tempted to look and see how many messages had come in.)
  2. I turned off access to work email on my phone and on my iPad. (Easy to do, apple users: go to “settings”, “mail, contacts, and calendars”, and click on the offending account. Turn mail to “off” just like you’d set, say, airplane mode when boarding a flight. Nothing is lost or disappears; the device just doesn’t look for post from that account again until you ask it to.)
  3. I checked my personal email account as normal, relishing the freedom that comes from being able to look at an empty inbox in the process. (SO FREEING!)

What happened when I came back to the land of typing and sending?

  1. The morning after my break ended, I checked the holiday post box and found 203 messages in it.
  2. After 45 minutes of gentle triage, over coffee, that number was down to 16 messages.
  3. Of those, roughly 8 needed answering. I chose to take an afternoon to deal with those, leaving all other work for after the email was up to date.
  4. I turned off the “rule” in my Mac Mail and reinstated my work email on my phone only after the triage was complete on my laptop.
  5. I chose not to reinstate work email on my iPad. After all, it’s mostly for reading the Guardian, watching Netflix and videos downloaded from the web, and looking at Facebook. There’s no need for it to be a work device! (That it took the email holiday to teach me how I use the iPad day-to-day is telling, I think.)
  6. I resumed working as normal, though at a slightly reduced pace. This week, only the one genuinely urgent (IE: overdue) thing got prioritised, and a couple of other tasks are on the roster for when that’s done, as a bonus, if I get there.

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How’d I fill all those free holiday hours? I used my away time to do some stuff in the garden I’d been meaning to do but never got to; I sat in my favourite cafe and did NOT do work; I walked the dog enough to satisfy her (not easy – trust me!). I was hoping to spend part of every (hot, crazy-sunny) day at my awesome local pool, but a bike accident involving a lot of road rash on my first email-free weekday (PAINFUL IRONY) scuppered that. Instead, I rode my bike a bunch, rowed, and chilled out in the back yard, not checking email. Revelatory!

Best of all, though, I was genuinely surprised (and pleased) at how easy it turned out to be to ignore my work email all week. I know those of you with strictly separated work and home devices (IE: work phone, home phone; work computer, home computer) might be a bit perplexed at this. But for those of us who work at least partly at home (and all academics do, some like me much more than others) it’s not practical to maintain separate devices. Which means we get in the habit of feeling the urge to check work email during leisure/non-work hours, and feeling it strongly.

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I found over the week I took off, though, that being tuned out felt way, way good. Much better than I could have guessed! And having given myself permission to feel free of work messages, free to use my time for my own pleasure and benefit, I became much more attached to that feeling than I could have predicted. The urge to look at work stuff literally melted away in the heat of high Ontario summer – so much so that, when I opened a work message that had been accidentally posted to my personal account, the light nausea in my stomach helped me realise, in my body, just how important the alternative feeling of freedom had become to my wellbeing. (And yes, I deleted it!)

Now, the challenge for me is figuring out how to carry the lessons from my week free of email into my regular work routine, and especially into the chaos of life during the teaching term. For one thing, I’ve already decided I’m going to do another email-free week in August, before things ramp up ahead of the start of term. Then, once we get into the term, I’m going to do something a bit wacky: I’m going to commit to not checking work email on weekends, ever. I’ll let the students know; I’ll set the email bounce. I’ll keep you posted.

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear what you do to maintain work email boundaries; I know anecdotally from friends that there are some excellent strategies out there. Please leave yours in a comment!

Kim

PS: next up, the promised post on how the heck to say NO – crowd sourced from Women Who Know.