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Attempting to reduce the rush in academia – 9 suggestions on how to slow down

Updated: Sep 1, 2022

Kimberley Hockings is a Senior Lecturer in Conservation Science at the Centre for Ecology and Conservation in Cornwall, University of Exeter.

A red colobus monkey chilling out in Cantanhez NP, Guinea-Bissau (taken by K Hockings)

This won’t be the first blog about attempting to achieve a healthy life-work balance in academia and it certainly won’t be the last. Many people I know are constantly battling to stay on top of an ever-growing to-do list and feel like they are constantly rushing between jobs to achieve this. This blog is about my realisation that life should not be one manic rush and the need to consider how I can alleviate some pressures on my time. Time pressures will of course vary according to your career stage and personal circumstances, but some of the points I bring up should transcend different career stages and hopefully resonate.

To provide a bit of context, for the last 4 years I have had a full-time education & research lectureship in a great, supportive department, two young children (aged 4 and 6), the most chilled partner imaginable, and am renovating my house (well more accurately my partner is, whilst I watch and pass comments). I am constantly multi-tasking. I realise that my permanent lectureship means I am now in a position to make choices and say ‘no’, and I realise this is not always possible for others in academia, especially early career researchers or those in fixed term contracts. I don’t think my department expects too much of me teaching wise (especially when I compare my teaching load to other institutions), I love the research that I do, but I always feel so rushed with everything. I imagine that people in many other professions feel similarly, but in academia we take on extra work that is not obligatory, is unpaid, and where there is often an element of ‘choice’ involved. When I talk about ‘choice’, I’m thinking of personal decisions to make extra collaborations, accept that flattering invitation to act as editor for a new journal, organise a new special issue, write that extra grant, agree to give that talk, participate in that exciting outreach activity, the list goes on. Of course, we might not feel like these are really choices as, in the longer-term, they will impact our future career opportunities or likelihood of promotion. I should also say that many people in academia clearly have unrealistic work loads even before taking on non-essential work. This requires Institutional change. In this piece I’ve decided to focus more on the personal decisions and choices we make that add to our own workload and reduce the time available for other things.

Rushing from one thing to another day after day, week after week, month after month isn’t good for anyone’s health. About one and a half months ago, whilst isolating with COVID-19, I started to think more deeply about enabling those changes that might make me slow down. Prior to the pandemic (and children), I always used time away in the field to enforce a break from staring at my computer or replying to emails on my iPhone. Fieldwork of course comes with its own challenges, but these for me are often physical and logistical, and there is always down-time. This down-time and break from normality was what allowed me to recharge. In-person conferences, albeit intense, were also a ‘break’ from a rushed daily itinerary, a chance to embrace our primate sociality and catch up with old friends and a new generation of students. As they say, a change is as good as a holiday, and this was certainly my experience. While these strategies were changed in some part due to the commitments of raising two healthy and happy children, during the pandemic these strategies were completely eroded. I started to think about how to reduce the rush in my day-to-day life. Some things can’t be improved without institutional change, some things we can possibly manage better ourselves with some organisation.

A photo of me (in 2004) having an afternoon siesta in the forest whilst the chimpanzees slept

Many have written about the issues of excessive workloads in universities and normalising a research culture where people are expected to work to extremes and where success is often pinned on bringing in huge grants and high impact publications. Of course, it is critical that universities address this, but I also think there is potential to reflect on how we make choices when opportunities are thrown our way and how to better manage some day-to-day tasks. Here are some of my personal thoughts and those from close colleagues and friends:

1. If you are naturally someone who gets excited by interesting research ideas (let’s be honest that’s why we become scientists) and easily find yourself applying for that one extra grant or agreeing to that one extra collaboration or to supervise that one extra student, then be strategic and weigh up the short- and long-term costs and benefits of your new venture. Avoid making quick decisions that will have significant implications on your available time. Chatting to someone (or multiple people) who is experienced and who you trust to offer you honest advice can help you put things in perspective. Find out what are the important things you should be doing to get that next stage in your career. Understand the system. Be a good citizen but don’t feel bad for saying no.

2. If you feel like your life is a never-ending string of meetings, then for those that you have control over, try to organise most of your meetings on set days of the week. This is a game-changer! It can be difficult to shift from group or one on one discussion to deep work and then back again over the course of a day; help yourself by providing the opportunity to focus on a specific task without breaking off.

3. If you feel like you have no time to think and write, then set aside specific times each week for writing and treat it as a time when you are not free. Be really really strict about it. You might do this alone or as part of a group. The book 'How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing' by Paul Silvia contains many helpful tips.

4. If you feel uncomfortable or inexperienced when dealing with a particular situation, then seek help. In academia we are expected to be experts in many different things and wear many different hats, often with no or minimal training. There are certain jobs that trained professional service personnel (for example, health and wellbeing services) are better placed than us to do. Sometimes it’s about knowing how to signpost people in the right direction and knowing when to admit we are not necessarily the best person to advise. This is not a cop out, it’s sensible.

5. If you think you have no time for the small things you used to love and miss in academia, and deep down know will make you feel better, then try to spare an hour or two to make them happen. Prioritise those small things and that will increase your happiness and productivity in the long-term, whether it is going for a stroll, or having chat and coffee with colleagues, or going out for a vinho with friends. Everything else can normally wait.

6. If the incessant ping of emails is too much and is getting in the way of other aspects of academia, like actually doing some research, then think about realistic ways you can tackle the problem. The urge to check emails throughout the day, at the weekends, and in the evenings can be overwhelming. Having an app that turns off your university emails during certain times might be a solution if you respond to emails on your mobile phone. Having a strict schedule where you check your emails at specific times of the day works for some people, or possibly start each day by replying to yesterday's (fixed number) of emails, and then not check emails again. Again, we live in a world where many people expect immediate responses to their emails. Setting up expectations about how long you will likely take to respond to emails is important, perhaps as an email signature. This might even reduce your email traffic with people attempting to solve simple problems by themselves.

7. On a related note, if you feel the pressure to reply to emails even when you are out of office, be sure to communicate your absence in advance to those people who you think might need you. Inform them when you will be out of contact to ensure there are no rushed and panicked emails that you feel compelled to reply to during your break. You can manage your time, but others should also do the same. Obviously, there are unforeseen circumstances which might require flexibility. I heard recently about someone who sets up an auto-reply saying that they won’t see any emails while they’re away between specific dates, and to please re-send after a specific return date (with information of someone to contact in an emergency). On their return, they then delete ALL emails received during the period stated, without looking at them, and starts afresh with an empty inbox and no guilty conscience. This is brave!

8. If you are constantly being asked to do unpaid work by external organisations (e.g. journals, Institutions), then carefully think about the costs and benefits for your career. For example, the peer review process is a critical part of academia, but it can take half a working day or longer to thoroughly review a paper. If you receive a lot of review requests, then it’s important to carefully choose which papers you review. How you go about choosing to accept or decline an invitation will be personal but might be influenced by your expertise and interest in the research, knowledge of the author/research group, the journal name, reputation, and dare I say impact factor or some other metric. Whatever your criteria, be selective and strategic and don’t review for predatory journals.

9. If you have felt less connected with work colleagues since the start of the pandemic, then try to reconnect. A sense of belonging and community is important and can increase our productivity and creativity. Think about how you can help and support others to make the environment better for everyone. Attend key weekly departmental meetings and have coffee breaks with colleagues. These are often the platforms where the most useful information is shared and can save you time and stress in the long run.

These pointers are not the only route to reducing the rush, but they are a start. Slowing down is a choice and one that can be difficult to achieve. I’d be keen to know about any other tips you’d like to share!

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