Tuesday, April 10, 2018

"How do you do it?"

Twice in recent weeks I've been asked "How do you do it?", usually accompanied with a boggled look as the person in question tries to take into account my primary academic persona, my secondary academic persona, my life as a writer, the fact I have a partner and a child, and I still manage to binge-watch plenty of SciFi, eat a lot of pizza, drink a lot of beer, do medieval re-enactment on the weekends, and still get ~8 hours of sleep a night.

It's kind of an awkward question to be asked, but when the first person -- someone I've known since we grew up in the same neighborhood! -- asked, I put quite a bit of time into thinking about the answer, because I was being asked with a view to perhaps providing my friend with some tips she could incorporate into her own life. It was a useful exercise, and I ended up writing her a long and involved email with a lot of biographical detail. It also meant that when I was asked a similar question this Sunday night just gone, I was able to boil it down to three primary factors. But it was mostly useful because it forced me to see which contributing factors are ones I have/had control over, and which ones are difficult to suggest to other people to do.

So, how do I do it (all)? I've written here before about some of my productivity techniques (e.g., my daily writing, my New Year's resolutions), but they're actually products of my circumstances rather than contributors to them (if that makes sense). If I have to boil it down to the essence, it is these three things:

  1. I have a supportive partner.
  2. I have a child.
  3. I have incredibly low standards of household cleanliness/tidiness.

(1) is definitely one of the "luck" ones; though I figure I can take a little bit of credit for having picked a good one (and certainly some credit for not picking the three alternatives I had at various points in my life), there was no way I could have known in advance just how integral to my success he would be. His support ranges from the very high-level emotional/structural support (e.g., going along with my rather impulsive idea that we move to Europe to finish our PhDs; doing a PhD in logic at the same time I was doing the same so that I always had someone to talk to and sympathise with; leaving academia in order to follow me and my post-docs around Europe) to the very concrete (he works from home and does the lion's share of general household maintenance, including grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning; his job is often more flexible than mine so he handles unplanned childcare needs; he makes a lot of our travel arrangements when we go on trips). I know it's not polite to compare partners, but when I read some of the stories of other people's partners in some of the "women in academia" groups I'm in on FB, I can't help be see how lucky I am, and how much I have benefited from having him around. Advice: Get yourself a supportive partner if you don't already have one.

(2) As strange as it sounds, one of the best things I ever did for "work-life balance" (which is a phrase I have issue with, but those issues needn't be relevant here) was have a child. I got 12 weeks post-natal maternity leave, and took another week holiday, but then my daughter started nursery at 3 months old and has been in care ever since. (She loves it; I love it; it has been nothing short of amazing for everyone involved.) For the first year or so, she went to nursery 20 hours a week, Monday - Thursday, 1pm-6pm. At the time, I was a post-doc, and my supervisor (bless him) pretty much said "As long as you keep up a reasonable research output, I don't care if you're only in the office part-time." What I learned in that year was to become incredibly efficient in my work habits: When I was in the office, I worked as hard as I could so that my other 20 hours, I didn't feel bad if all I managed to get done was read a few articles or write a referee report or do some data entry in between naps, feedings, playing, etc. When we moved to Germany, G. started full-time nursery, 40 hours a week, at 15 months. I always knew that I didn't want her to be away from home more than a "standard" (whatever that means) work week, which meant that when 5 o'clock came around every day, there was little temptation to say "Oh, I'll just work on this a little bit longer." Even now, I have a "don't forget to pick your daughter up from after school club" alarm that goes off every weekday at 4:45pm, giving me enough time to walk up to school and get her by 5pm. I also found that when she was young, I was too tired to work in the evenings/weekends, and as she got older and I got less sleep-deprived, it got harder to work evenings/weekends when she was awake. I was continually frustrated and disappointed about not being able to get anything done on weekends and eventually -- when she was about 2.5 -- stopped planning to get anything done. (Literally, anything). This way if I did get something done -- laundry, cooking a meal, reading a paper -- it counted as a win. And you know what I found? My research output didn't materially differ, whether I was working 40 hours a week or 60 hours a week or more. My dad always used to say "garbage accumulates to fill the available space"; I'd like to say "work accumulates to fill the available time". No matter how much time you devote to work, there will always be more work that you can do. Advice: While I can't in good conscience recommend "go out and have a baby!", I can recommend: Try a week or two where you put a limit on the amount of time you spend on your paying-job-work. When you reach that limit, stop and do something else. See how much you can train yourself to get done when you have to work within stricter bounds.

(3) is pretty self-explanatory. How do I have so much time to spend doing the things I want to be doing? Because I prioritise them over many other things. Sometimes I prioritise them a bit too much -- I think everyone in the house, myself included, would be happier if I vacuumed more often and tried to keep the livingroom tidier -- but I never said I was perfect. :) Also, if I spend my evenings writing fiction or working on my onomastic research, I feel less aggrieved when I spend weekend time cleaning and tidying. (It's also much easier to clean the house on the weekend, when I have a 6yo awake and around, than it is to write; and it's also much easier to write in the evenings, when I have a 6yo asleep, than it is to clean.) But (3) is also related to something else, which is that I am an intrinsically pretty selfish person. I get 8 hours of sleep a night because I am not willing to sacrifice my sleep for other people. I prioritise the things I find worthwhile because I am a happier person when I do so. (And it's a compounding process: When I am a happier person, I am more productive with the things that I do, including the things I don't want to do.) Advice: Lower your standards.

These are the primary factors. There are some other things which contribute to my productivity: I've always lived within walking/biking distance of work/daycare. For a 9-5 day, I leave the house around 8:15 and get home around 5:30. I embarked on what laid the foundation for my secondary academic specialism when I was 10 (seriously when I was about 15), and for many years it was my hobby, a means of relaxation and escape. I've now turned it into a proper academic endeavor, and if my primary research is going well, I will happily allow myself to spend working-hours time on onomastics instead of philosophy/logic. But likewise I am also happy to work on that material in the evenings because I can still treat it as a hobby: when I chose to work on it "out of hours" it is because I am doing so for the intrinsic enjoyment it brings, not because of any deadlines or requirements or guilt or the like.

Before concluding, I will say there was a bit of a learning curve when I started my job at Durham in Oct. 2014, and moved from purely research positions to a position where I have to balance research with teaching and admin. My first few terms I got quite anxious about how little time I got to devote to research; but then I realised "Oh. That's what term breaks and summer break are for," and with that realisation I've been able to stave off anxiety about projects and also tap into the "you have [[this much]] time to get all these projects done, so when break starts, you do the work." (This is the start of the third week of Easter break. In the last two weeks, I have brought four papers to their next stage of completion (two new papers in submission; one R&R resubmitted; one significant draft submitted for a workshop). Two of those papers were co-written, and that's another factor in productivity -- I offload all the bits I hate about writing to my co-author! (He does the same to me, so it's fair.)) I also limit the amount of time I spend prepping for teaching -- I generally have 4-6 contact hours a week, and spend about 2 hours prepping for all of them -- and work to integrate my research into my teaching as much as possible. (Having been in this position long enough to not have new preps each year helps a lot!)

So how do I do it all? Weekdays my alarm goes off at 7:45 so that G. and I can be out the house and on the way to school by 8:15. I drop her off at 8:45, and get to my office around 9:00, where I work until 4:45 and then head up to school to pick her up. We're home by around 5:30, and eat supper between 5:45-6:15. Around 6:45 we start the bedtime routine, which ends around 7:15/7:30; she's allowed to stay up reading until 8:00 if she wants but after 7:30pm I am not available for general mothering activities. I head to bed around 11pm, read for about an hour, and am usually asleep by midnight. During my time in the office, I read, write, teach, prep to teach, hold office hours, meet with students, etc., etc., etc., prioritising my logical and philosophical research, but sometimes devoting a day or two to onomastics. During the evenings, I write fiction, do onomastic data entry, or indulge in another hobby (like calligraphy and illumination). Weekends are for chores and errands, but also family time -- we have lunch at the pub every Saturday in between G's peforming arts lessons and running errands, and Saturday evenings I make pizza and J and I eat it, drink beer, and binge whatever TV series we're on. It's a pretty good life.

1 comment:

  1. A lively discussion over on FB has brought to light other contributing factors, ones that are so fundamental that I hadn't even thought of them: https://www.facebook.com/sara.uckelman/posts/10155643622522809