The Busy Contest

The Busy Contest | New Faculty


We are stuck in a contest over ‘who’s busier’ and it’s pretty annoying. Whenever someone asks how the workload is or what we’re doing, we’ve become programmed to respond with the ‘worst possible scenario’ and make it sound like chicken little (the sky is falling) and we just don’t have time for anything else in life. It is true: we’re all pretty busy people. Our days are filled with teaching, advising, meetings, and the half-hearted attempt to eat right, work out, and be home to see our loved ones for a few hours before passing out in exhaustion. I’m not going to stand here and say that you’re not busy or accuse you of over dramatizing your work schedule, but what I would like to do is have everyone take a look at their schedule and think about how “busy” we truly are.

What kind of busy is it? Busy work, tasks, to-do lists? Busy like writing chunks of an article, prepping or grading for a course? Or busy like endless meetings with students, colleagues, or research? If you’re an academic, the odds are, your busy-ness is coming from one of those three strands. Let’s keep it to the work related busy shall we?

Now, as you look at which strand consumes the most of your time, is it the strand you love or hate. I’ll put it right out there and say, writing is my least loved task. Somedays, I can rock it, other days…..little crickets jump across my screen. It’s truly an ebb and flow kind of thing. Unfortunately, my feelings of burden don’t always correlate with deadlines. I’ve already mentioned that bringing back the busy signal is a good idea, but I would be so bold this week to challenge you (and me) to start feeling like you’re less busy or burdened, and create some space to get in the zone to tackle those tasks. It makes me feel busy because I feel as though it’s a burden. I know, it’s part of my job, but it’s the least favorite part of my job. I have no problem teaching, advising, training, and meeting, but when I think about writing, I immediately go, “ugh.”

As I’ve worked through the last year or so, I’ve been working on figuring out how to feel less like I’m always too busy and less burdened by writing. NYT ran an article and one sentence made an excellent point:

“Some industries are so highly volatile that people need to be connected all the time, but most of us over exaggerate our own importance,” said Dalton Conley.

He’s right. Why was I burdening myself with the feeling that I HAD to be writing ALL of the time I wasn’t doing those other things? I was over exaggerating my need to write and it was stressing me out. There’s always times when it is truly stressful and necessary- end of semester, deadlines, and other times, but for the most part, the life of an academic is purely self-motivating and usually self-fulfilling if we manage our time correctly. There’s always a certain amount of stress in life, some is good (so I’ve heard), but by always feeling negatively busy and burdened by writing, I was killing my own productivity.

Here’s what I started doing:

  • I stopped writing for a week or two at a time.
  • I stopped reading up for things on purpose. If I saw something I might want for later, I began saving it to my zotero (citation) and the pdf to zotero or a dropbox folder. 
  • I stopped being productive on purpose when writing.

Hear me out, I know we can’t just ‘stop’ but I did take a pause to NOT write, to NOT keep reviewing articles, and to NOT keep badgering myself about it. Reverse psychology perhaps? I don’t know, but it actually worked. By being LESS productive in my writing (forced productive), that when I did sit down to actually write, pages came out in a matter of an hour or two at the local coffee house. Being less productive on purpose was good for me. By loosening my grip on productivity, it gave my brain some much needed space to clear out, reboot, and begin to look at what was truly valuable in terms of scholarship.

Jackson says, “At first, this may sound crazy; we’ve become so conditioned by the language of efficiency. But there are sectors of the economy where chasing productivity growth doesn’t make sense at all. Certain kinds of tasks rely inherently on the allocation of people’s time and attention. The caring professions are a good example: medicine, social work, education. Expanding our economies in these directions has all sorts of advantages.”

We’re in education, so why are we pushing for productivity? Tenure. I know. By taking a creative pause, I was able to evaluate what was going to work for me in my current position and how I could offer up the most value to the team I’m working with. I was hiding out at a starbucks a few weeks ago, which I do at least once a week now, and reviewed articles, drank coffee, and read through at least a half dozen articles for an upcoming submission. In four hours, I accomplished more in terms of writing (or working towards my next manuscript) than I had been able to do in months. I chose the space, I chose to NOT be in the office around social colleagues, I chose NOT to have my email on, but music/headphones instead, and it was quite productive.

Unplugging from writing, being more lenient with myself (b/c I can right now), and by saying “no” a few times helped me carve out the space I needed to be productive without feeling like it was a burden or ignoring it because I felt too busy. As a new faculty, I need to do this more often and urge you to begin to do the same.

  • Figure out what burdens you and makes you feel bogged down by busy-ness with all of the other negative feelings associated with it.
  • Put it away for a day or several if you can (mentally and physically). Hide the stack of grading on yourself if you must. 
  • Forgive and acknowledge the fact that you don’t like it. It’s ok. 
  • Allocate the time for it. Instead of feeling like I had to ‘fit in’ writing in every nook and cranny of my days, I started to block out chunks for it to really give it the time it needed, not a half hour here and there. 

There will always be times when I don’t have this luxury. There will always be things that make me feel too busy or burdened but I challenge you to stop competing with yourself or others in the “busy contest” and start giving yourself the time to do get a grasp on the parts of your academic career that you fret over. Whether it’s writing or meetings or simply slowing your productivity in order to spend time with loved ones, by carving out the space to focus, I hope it will help you as much as it’s helped me the last 4-6 months.

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3 thoughts on “The Busy Contest

  1. Misty Lambert says:

    I have a quote posted above my computer screen: “Don’t mistake activity for achievement” by John Wooden. I think we feel if we are busy, we are productive and the two do not necessarily correlate.

  2. […] because I get so tired of hearing everyone have a busy contest with each other. In fact, I’ve blogged about it a couple of times  exhibiting the amount of annoyance I have with people who do nothing but tell me how busy they […]

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