I just don't know if I can do this anymore

(19 Posts)
RatSoup Thu 15-Nov-18 20:09:03

I'm sorry - I don't know if this should go in a different section, or if it is specific enough to HE to be here... But as the title suggests I just dont know if I can carry on.
I'm a lecturer at a RG uni. 3 times tonight I have closed my laptop, only to then remember yet something else I haven't done. I am working long hours, and just worked out all-in-all I have taken 1 day 'off' since August - a Saturday. Obviously I don't usually work 'full days' at weekends, but I do work, and every weekend and every evening (unless I've stayed late at the office). I still have 15 days or so leave for the year (runs out at Christmas). At half term I had childcare sorted so I could go in between 6 and 7, and didnt leave until 7 each night, and full days those weekends. And still there's more work. I know I am no longer working at all efficiently, but I don't know what to do. Does everyone feel like this (even a bit), or am I now so inefficient I should just cut my losses? I love some parts of my job, and thankfully I have great colleagues, but I just don't know what to do.
I dont even know what I'm asking - I suppose does anyone have any tips or strategies or anything, or do I just need to get smarter, better, suck it up..?

OP’s posts: |
impostersyndrome Thu 15-Nov-18 21:43:13

Oh dear, this is the right place to get help, and it sounds like that’s what you need. Do you feel up to arranging a meeting with your head of department? You cannot be performing well with such long hours and in the end they’ll take toll on your health. Universities like all employers have a responsibility to their employees, but they can only help if you tell them you have a problem.

impostersyndrome Thu 15-Nov-18 21:52:04

Strategy wise, can you carve out time for essentials and see what can be delegated? What has to be done and what should you be saying no to? And for goodness sake carve out at least one day a week without work, and see about leaving earlier.

murmuration Fri 16-Nov-18 11:49:39

Hi RatSoup - definitely the right place! You are working too much. But you know that already. Un-MN-y hugs. I feel for you.

The problem with academia is the work is infinite - you could always be doing just a bit more. You could be working 24 hours a day and still not be doing all the things you think you should.

I've gotten very good at restricting my working, but because my health forced me to. And I still put in 50-55 hours a week standard. But here's what I do, perhaps you can take some tips from it:

1. I do not work on weekends unless it's an extraordinary circumstance (usually being at a conference - only VERY RARELY do I let something like a deadline generate this, and if so, I get it done as soon as I can Sat AM so I have the rest of the weekend free - I think of my deadline as Friday).
2. I'm done when I go home. Or if I'm working from home, at some point I stop and then I don't do anymore.
3. I do not check email on weekends or outside working hours. Not just not reply. I literally don't look. So it can't get into head and make think about things. And I just put with the "You don't check email on weekends?" shocked question and wide-eyed look. If more of us do this, perhaps it will become less of an expectation. I know several colleagues who do the same now.
4. If I remember something I need to do, but it is outside working hours and I'm afraid I'll forget, I make a note on my iPhone - then check the notes every morning.
5. I've really cut down on the seminars/coffees/chatting I do, so I can be more efficient when I am in the office. This makes me a bit sad, but it's been necessary, as I couldn't complete my job otherwise.
6. I've gotten really good at managing tasks. When I'm working on one thing, it has my complete attention and I don't do other things (like check MN smile or emails). I make my tasks similar - so even if it's tiny things like replying to emails, I flag different categories of emails, so I'll spend time doing nothing but replying to all emails from first year students, or writing all letters of recommendation - so I don't have to mentally shift from one set of knowledge to another a lot.

This does require some thick skin, and sometimes I get very upset when I feel people are pushing me with "but can't you just ...?" - and I literally can't "just", as my body collapses on me if I do too much (I got rugburns last Christmas when this happened - I pushed myself too far and just fell. Couldn't get up for almost an hour.). But knowing that actually makes it a bit easier for me to say "No, I can't" even if I don't go into my health issues. So it will take a lot of sticking to your guns and saying the same thing over and over if really want to protect your time. But it can be done.

I've also heard saying "no" is a good thing, but I'm actually pretty bad at this. But if you can limit the things you agree to do, it helps.

Also, can you take a look at what you're doing, and ask how much of it is essential? There are a surprising number of things that need less attention than we give them. This I've found out by simply not being able to accomplish them as well as I'd like, and nothing terrible happening.

And can you find a local mentor or someone to talk things through? They might be able to give you some tips specific to your Uni.

impostersyndrome Fri 16-Nov-18 14:11:35

Brilliant advice murmuration. This should be cut-out-and-keep for every academic. I do much of the same regarding switching off emails when I get home and at the weekend (though could improve my focusing on one job at a time skills grin).

NotN0wBernard Fri 16-Nov-18 18:09:31

I second the excellent advice above. Firstly, is your workload reasonable (as reasonable as it ever is in academia)? If not, it's worth discussing with your HoD and being very clear that in the long-term it will affect your productivity to be overburdened. In terms of working smarter, I did a lot of time management research when my son was tiny and time was beyond precious. I 'chunk' my days as best I can. On days in the office I schedule back to back meetings (as much as in my control) so that the days I work from home I can concentrate on tasks that need uninterrupted time. I also diarise everything - even doing emails. Every so often I'll take a look at my diary and see if anything is taking up a disproportionate amount of time. Are you doing lots of tasks for the first time this year? That always takes longer than anyone anticipates. If that's the issue then perhaps saying no to opportunities that would create more tasks like this for a while might calm things down. In terms of making admin efficient, I have a colleague who has a bunch of email signatures saved to answer reoccurring student queries (I.e. that information is in the syllabus!). Switching off is also something I do ruthlessly now I'm a parent. You can't recharge if you're always 'on'. And the last thing I've realised as I get more senior is that deadlines are not always hard deadlines. Some of the academic I admire best are hopeless at submitting things on time! We all have you much on our plates at times and it's critical to be able to say "I'm not going to get that in on time because I need to have a real weekend". Self care is paramount. My philosophy is it's a marathon not a sprint, and looking after ourselves is so important for the stamina required in an academic career.

sushisuperstar Sat 17-Nov-18 01:08:08

I could have written this myself OP. It's probably the main reason for me wanting out. @murmuration your advice is excellent. I feel that many of the things that were good about an academic job are rapidly slipping away more and more though.

Orchiddingme Sat 17-Nov-18 15:54:34

Murmuration's advice is very good. I too have had to cut down on all hours working, for my own health and because of children/other responsibilities. I work about 1/3 less hours than I used to, but am much more efficient as well as utterly ruthless about what I can and can't do. I always have one day off a week, and work only 3/4 hours on the other weekend day if I have to.

There are times when it's almost impossible to constrain hours- I would say if you are putting in a grant against a deadline, or sending a paper back against a deadline, or possibly a peak of marking. This isn't every week though- and as you say, you are becoming less efficient over time through exhaustion probably. You really can't be concentrating if you are working from early morn til eve. Do you really mean childcare from 6am to 7pm? I don't know if I misunderstood or you meant one hour? If it was 13 hour days, that's ludicrous as a long-term way of working.

Also, how old are your kids? If they are small then no amount of efficient working can compensate for the time and energy suck of small kids! It's unrealistic to expect that you will be able to produce amazing work in every area with little ones, the good news is they grow up and your opportunity to refocus on your career will come.

Can you talk with your HoD or another senior/mentor figure?

I do the things I would be sacked if I didn't do first- so that's teaching well, answering student emails (v briefly and I have lots of tactics and FAQ to divert the quantity here), marking and getting through the teaching term. I then focus on the most important research things- so writing REFable papers/required by grants, and writing grants. Do only one at a time, focus on that instead of switching between projects constantly (if you are writing, anyway, I can't write 4 papers at once, some may!) Then everything else- being the best committee member, joining in away days/seminars, editing journals, running conferences and so on- it happens if it happens but if it doesn't, it doesn't. Put it in the list of things you will do when you are less exhausted and your children are older. If you are on probation (which isn't clear)- do those things and only those things. Protect your own mental and physical health.

I don't care if someone comes on and tells me I'm a bit selfish for not doing all the 'extra' stuff and someone has to do it- it's that or essentially lose my job and sanity. Universities have been increasing workloads for a long while now without any recognition of what this means in terms of stress for academics - double the students, twice as much feedback, more REFable papers, on it goes. Amidst the madness, you have a perfect excuse to keep yourself sane. Go for it!

dodi1978 Sat 17-Nov-18 22:51:34

I kind of recognise myself in you - a few years ago I was really unhappy in my job, too (with two small kids to boot), although I never worked the crazy hours you do.
What has helped me
- saying no
- not oversetting goals in your appraisal. I now keep the goals I set for myself to an absolute minimum - this means if I do any extra, I get acknowledged for it rather than worrying about achieving the things that are on my targets
- Not worrying two much about fast career progression. As long as I progress to the next level once I am out of increments, I am fine :-)
- being really strict about the evenings I do work and the evenings I don't. For instance, I am quite happy to sit down again Sunday - Wednesday evening, as this allows me to occasionally leave early or come late (e.g. when there is a school play on in the morning etc.). However, Thursday I go to an exercise class, Friday night is steak / chips / wine night with the husband, Saturday night is this and that and some more wine. No work weekends otherwise.
You really cannot continue like you do. Please speak to your line manager, find a mentor and formulate a strategy.

try2hard Sun 18-Nov-18 07:24:14

I wish I knew the answer. One thing that does work is removing emails from any devices, only checking them 9-5. If you have to, do a 30 min stint of answering emails in the evening but delay them so you send them out in the morning to avoid all evening email exchanges with students/other staff who don't value your down time and you're also not perpetuating the always-on culture.

I find the fewer emails I send, the fewer I receive so over time it can really cut your work load.

sushisuperstar Sun 18-Nov-18 15:16:52

See the reason I know I need to get out is a major part of the problem is my personality.

I don't know if it's related to my ASD but I have an overwhelming urge to check emails and know what I have to do at all times. It means I can never switch off. If I know an email is waiting it will drive me mad till it is dealt with. I can also get obsessive over things and therefore spend too long on marking.

This means there is no time for research - the only way I'd get any done is if I went back to being an RA and to be honest I was far happier in that role although they tend to be contracts and lower paid.

Orchiddingme Sun 18-Nov-18 15:49:00

sushisuperstar that is an issue- I think for perfectionist, driven people, academia is terrible, because there is always more to do and you really never have finished work, you are often carrying around a lot of undone/late stuff as well, and you have to find a way not to care too much. I don't have a solution- except have you talked with your HoD or a mentor/lead about this, in the context of your ASD as well, perhaps there might be another person who could talk this through with you/help you manage your own expectations etc.

sushisuperstar Sun 18-Nov-18 18:12:48

@orchid Thank you for this. If I'd been more aware of my issues I'd never, ever have went down this route although when I did my PhD the sector wasn't as it was now. I am quite uncomfortable discussing ASD with work but it is something that needs to be done. I'm in my thirties and have totally missed out on having any kind of a life due to my choices, which I know are my own. I guess I fell into the trap of thinking I'd do research and have a manageable load of quality students rather than loads of admin stuff (which I'm terrible at) and management type roles. I also wasn't aware of my ASD in previous years - late stage diagnosis. Although the signs were there but I won't go into the gory details. So really a lot of this is down to me making the wrong choices, I am considering going part time as I'll never do research as a FT person anyway, I just worry about drop in income, and besides that don't have to grant me PT anyway, so its not something I could expect.

Orchiddingme Sun 18-Nov-18 19:06:29

sushi you have nothing to lose by disclosing your disability and asking for adjustments accordingly. My department does indeed adapt for staff who, say, have mental health difficulties or ongoing health issues and this is something a good HoD should be able to adapt around, so that you are still doing most things but some slack is found where you are most stressed. It's no good to anyone if you go off with stress/leave teaching at an inopportune time. I would be really honest, disclose to HR and ask for a meeting with your manager/HoD and start the dialogue about how you can best have your needs managed. By the way, this isn't just about you having ASD, because a lot of people in the sector as a whole are struggling and overloaded due to increasing workloads- it sounds like that occurring, plus your predisposition to be extremely dedicated and detailed in your work is creating an unsustainable storm. I have had to go to the HoD with personal issues and although it initially is embarrassing, there are people and procedures that could help you. Don't try to manage this alone.

sushisuperstar Sun 18-Nov-18 19:31:42

@orchid I wish there were more people like yourself in the sector (!!)

I appreciate your words. I've always been notoriously private and I can't stand the thought of people knowing about this sort of thing. I will speak to the HoD when I can, its just not everyone in our sector is quite so nice as you. I'm sure many folks here can relate to what I mean. But I have to do something, as I'll either crack up again or continue to able on like the terminator. I have no idea how my relationship has survived.

I admire those of you with kids, who can do this job and not go potty, thats something else that is passing me by as there is no way I could handle it and be an academic (no family etc - would be completely on own with kid).

Thank you again.

ChameNangeFail Sun 18-Nov-18 22:28:01

I'm at a similar place and at a similar level. Also strongly suspect I am ASD (I have taken Simon Baron Cohen's tests at various times) and recognise similar traits to what you describe, e.g. constant email checking and anxiety over leaving tasks unfinished, and being incredibly susceptible to requests for help.

I do have children and having them somehow helped - nursery fees have been devastating and I'm usually exhausted of course. But maternity leave allowed me to remember that I liked my subject, and also made me slightly more ruthless in use of time and simply made some things, like frequent travel, impossible.

As I've got better at my job, more and more is left undone, so I'm learning that success does not mean finishing everything I would like to do.

I also feel that I work very hard but beyond 45 hours is impossible. Mark Reed's book on being a productive researcher is full of great advice - he rarely works weekends.

You could also check whether your university offers a career coach (or whether your head of department could refer you) who might help with stepping back and thinking about the bigger picture.

ChameNangeFail Sun 18-Nov-18 22:30:37

Sorry - I think I confused the original poster and a subsequent poster in my reply. I hope it makes sense nevertheless :-)

murmuration Mon 19-Nov-18 07:17:51

sushisuperstar I get both the anxiety over emails and the worry about disclosing. I still haven't officially disclosed my health disability to my Uni, although many of my colleagues and HoD know. Even if you don't go down an official route, if you have a sympathetic line manager it really helps.

Regarding the emails: I know that when I take time off, I always set an autoreply saying when I'll be back. That way I feel like I've 'handled' things remotely and anyone who emails me will know. So it lessens the anxiety about what might be there waiting. (Although then there is still a big set off stress right as a return and see the pile at once - but for me, the break is worth that). I've also seen colleagues who add to their signatures things like "I do not reply to emails outside working hours (9am-5pm) nor during weekends". If you know that people have the information to know to not expect you'll see it, would you be able to mentally categorise it away? No idea if that's helpful or not, but thought I'd suggest.

Good advice dodi! Especially about setting goals. I'm guilty of remaining far too ambitious and constantly being disappointed. Plus, each time I write a grant, I really think I'm going to get it. So I fall quite hard when I don't, but I don't know how to balance not getting one's hopes up with writing the best proposal and beliving in it! And I ran out of increments quite some years ago sad But am planning to go for promotion next round, and then not stop until I get it...

Also good advice Orchid. Will go back and read again...

sushisuperstar Mon 19-Nov-18 22:58:25

Just to let you know I've seen these replies and I am grateful. I will respond proper when I can. I'm up to my neck in it just now (aren't we all - I always find winter semester more hard going though)

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