Working in “snack size” portions

Serving of tortilla chips with salsas.
Image credit: PxHere

The myth every year, as I plan out my summer, is that I’ll be able to take advantage of summer’s unstructured time to work more deeply, in longer time blocks, than I normally can during the academic year. And sometimes that’s true.

The reality, particularly this summer, is that I’m finding more success in working on smaller, “snack size” portions of projects for shorter time blocks. Allowing me to chip (ha! pun not intended) away gradually at the various projects on my plate, making gradual forward progress (mostly) on each.

I knew I was burned out going into this summer. But I hadn’t realized how much being burned out impacted my ability to think, concentrate, and execute until I actually had time to think, concentrate, and execute. Burnout means that my brain really can only think in snack-size chunks right now. I could lament the fact that this is happening, or I could embrace it and run with it. I chose the latter.

Sometimes working in snack-size chunks means that I am constantly thinking about other tasks while working on different tasks. So far, this hasn’t been the case. Maybe it’s because I honestly don’t have enough mental energy to multitask in that way. Maybe because when I planned firm boundaries around my work time this summer, I primed myself to focus on single tasks at a time? Whatever the reason, I’m not going to dwell on it — it’s working for now, and that’s all that matters.

Working in snack-size chunks has been a lifesaver this week for a very different and unexpected reason:

Positive at-home COVID test
Our family’s COVID-free streak comes to a crashing end.

I am fortunate that (a) my case is mild, likely because (b) I’m vaxxed and boosted, and (c) I was able to get Paxlovid, which has helped with the symptoms. (I’m beyond annoyed that (a) I am the most cautious member of my immediate family and yet I was the one to bring this home, (b) I HAD A SECOND BOOSTER SCHEDULED THE DAY I TESTED POSITIVE because of course that’s how the universe works.) Working in snack-size chunks on the few things that absolutely have to get done this week has helped me manage my energy levels while sick. That was even true during the first couple of days when the fatigue was at its worst: oftentimes, the snack size was a single chip. Now that I have more energy, the snack size work chunks remind me not to push myself too hard as I do the important work of healing my body.

Do you work in snack size chunks, or does your work time look more like a long, leisurely meal? What food metaphor would you use to describe how you’re working this summer?

New month, new season, new plans

Sticky notes with tasks attached to papers with category headings
Low-tech planning never gets old.

I plan my year mostly according to the Carleton calendar. Rather than dividing the year into quarters, I think of my year in quintiles (similar to Sarah Hart-Unger’s system): Winter Term (January through mid-March), Spring Term (end of March through mid-June), Summer (mid-June through August), Fall Term (September through Thanksgiving), Winter Break (December). Starts and ends of terms form natural start and end points. Plus, each term — and each break — has different rhythms and priorities.

Because of the course releases I get for my administrative and service loads, I had a minimal teaching load this term, just a Comps group and a 1-credit seminar. Neither of which requires grading or exam-giving or final project-wrangling. And given that I’ve already started on a couple of my summer projects, I used Wednesday — the last day of Spring Term classes — to start planning out my summer goals and intentions.

I kept the spirit of the process I describe in this post. I’ve been thinking in the background of what I want my summer to look like, and in particular how to balance work with the rest I so desperately need after 2+ years of pandemic academia. So I was able to capture, summarize, and triage all in one step. I put projects on sticky notes that I stuck on big sheets of paper labeled with categories (“STEM Board”, “Research”, etc.) with columns for each month. (See the picture at the start of this post for a visual.) Doing so allowed me to see if one month was getting too “heavy” with projects and to move things with more flexible deadlines around. I then looked at which sticky notes ended up in the “June” columns and set my June goals accordingly.

I haven’t done the calendar wrangling portion yet, nor have I slotted tasks into specific weeks. But I’ve been keeping pretty good task lists for each project, so I just need to sit down and work backwards from my target due dates to figure out which tasks go where. I’m also going to experiment with blocking off specific times of day to work on specific tasks / projects. I’m hoping this helps me context switch / prepares my brain to concentrate on one task at a time instead of worrying about all of the tasks all of the time. But I’m also using this strategy to put strong boundaries around my work time, to preserve time to rest, rejuvenate, have fun, and work on non-work projects. And to take advantage of the flexibility my job affords — something I’m not always great about doing.

How are your summer plans shaping up?

50!

Goal-setting page from a planner.
Starting the day with intention setting…of course!

Today I celebrate a milestone birthday!

Maybe I’m weird or unusual (those of you who know me in real life can now stop snickering…of course I’m weird, ha ha, thank you very much), but I actually look forward to getting older. Aging intrigues me rather than scares me. Maybe it’s because I’ve felt more powerful, more brave, and more centered the older I get. Maybe it’s because I don’t view wrinkles or gray hair or gaining weight in weird places (thanks a lot, periomenopause) as some sort of personal failing. Maybe it’s because I’ve found a way to keep having new adventures and try new things each year.

Or maybe, as I told my physical therapist last week, it’s because I’m “aging up” and get to set a whole new collection of running PRs!

Whatever it is, I’m really looking forward to what my 50s have in store.

I’ve actually been mulling over my intentions for the year for a few days now, so I need to get those on paper. Reflecting back on what I wrote at 49 was really interesting — and I was surprised at how many things on my intention list I ticked off over the year. A few things that will appear on my list:

  • Returning to running — and hopefully a few races! I was cleared yesterday to start the return to run program after over 6 months off of running, and I’ll do my first workout tomorrow.
  • Figuring out what’s next career-wise. This was one of the few intentions I didn’t check off last year. I do think I’m in a better place now to do this kind of work, and have a better sense of what I do and don’t want to do.
  • Leveling up in taekwondo. I test for my 3rd degree black belt next March! In the meantime, I’ve started teaching once a week at my studio, and I am in the process of learning all of the weapons forms well enough to teach them. This is something I’ve wanted to do personally for a while, and something I need to do to earn my full instructor certificate.

Today I plan to bike one of my favorite long run / marathon training routes up in the Cities, treat myself to a lakeside lunch at the end of said bike ride, teach taekwondo, and eat cake. My mom and one of my sisters are flying in this weekend, so we’ll have more celebrations (and hopefully more cake!) then. I haven’t seen either of them since my brother’s wedding in 2019 (!!), so honestly just being able to hug them and be in the same physical space as them is the best present ever.

Here’s to a new decade of adventures!

The longest month on the trimester system? May.

Spring term always brings its own special brand of exhaustion when you’re on trimesters. While we have a break between Winter and Spring Terms, it’s woefully short. Particularly so this year — 12 days from the last day of Winter Term finals to the start of Spring Term. (7 days from the date grades were due until the start of the term, which leaves little to no down time given that there sadly are no course prep fairies on which to offload that work.) Essentially, we have been at it since January 5.

We’re all dragging.

Part of the issue, I think, is that each day is sooooooooooo damn full — with end-of-the-year, wrap-up-the-year, and oh-no-we-need-to-have-a-meeting-about-this-before-the-end-of-the-year activities. Along with the normal, steadily increasing workload as the term progresses. Each day feels like 2 or 3 days, at the end of which we collapse in collective exhaustion, only to wake up the next day and do it all over again.

We’re also in the midst of a Covid outbreak on campus, one bad enough that we went back to masking and a “high” alert level. Information’s been slow, and infuriatingly we’ve been largely left to make individual decisions on what to do with events already on the books. Last week alone, I had to make two quick decisions about two big events — our spring Comps Gala (which we moved mostly online with takeaway food), and our Sigma Xi induction ceremony (which we held as planned because it was too late to cancel our catering order). Activities that seemed safe just a couple of weeks ago no longer feel safe — particularly when I see some students kind-of-sort-of masking and hear rumors that some students aren’t masking in our building when faculty and staff are not around.

(That last part enrages me. Sure, faculty and staff aren’t around, but facilities workers are. And it’s a really sh*tty move to make them feel unsafe — especially given everything they did and continue to do to make sure our campus is a clean, safe place to work and learn, for way less pay than they deserve.)

In an online conversation with friends yesterday, one friend mentioned the number of “delicate” emails they were composing, to which another friend replied that every email right now needs to be delicate. It’s true. We’re all raw, all frayed, hanging on by our fingernails until the end of classes, the end of finals, commencement, the submission of final grades. Hoping desperately that no one asks us to do anything that requires us to dig into nonexistent reserves — and knowing that we will, in fact, be asked to do much more, with nothing in the tank, before this is all over.

New month, new adventure

2 yellow flippers, a pull buoy, and goggles laying on the floor
Still life infused with chlorine

While I don’t completely live by the phrase “Do one thing every day that scares you”*, I do try to do things on a regular basis that stretch me outside of my comfort zone. Some of these are big adventures — moving across the country to a state where I knew no one — but many are smaller — becoming a regular blood donor again after a bad incident drove me away for a decade.

I’d hoped to do one such big adventure for my 50th birthday, coming up later this month. I pondered hiking the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim, a several-day trek on the Superior Hiking Trail, or some other solo outdoorsy trip.

Then I got injured, started the never-ending cycle of physical therapy, and put the adventures on hold while I healed.

So I started to look for something smaller, something that still made me nervous but that I could do while inhabiting my healing body.

And that’s how I landed on Masters swimming.

We gave up our family gym membership a while ago, and along with it access to a pool. I swam competitively up until 8th grade; worked as a lifeguard and swim instructor through high school, college, and grad school; and basically grew up in and around water, swimming every chance I could get. I enjoyed getting in the pool every once in a while and peeling off some laps. I missed that when our membership ended, but not enough to seek out opportunities to swim, since I was doing so many other active things.

As my injuries dragged on and as my return-to-running date became fuzzier and further out, I contemplated a short-term gym membership somewhere with a pool, but the options weren’t great. And I realized that not only was I missing cardio, I was missing the structure of a plan. I wanted someone to tell me what to do, to create some accountability, to push me out of my usual habit of swimming leisurely and only doing sets I enjoyed.

It took me a few months to work up the courage to actually sign up and show up. At my old gym, the Masters group that swam in the early morning was a total Bro Fest — loud, brash, and completely unwelcoming. I worried that I’d end up in a group just like that — fast, former collegiate swimmers who’d be annoyed at me for being so slow and bringing down the caliber of the group. I worried about getting back into the pool after a long absence, of not being able to complete the sets, of failing at swimming.

I ended up signing up for the Masters group run by my elder kiddo’s swim club. I figured, for better or worse, I knew the coaches, and surely they wouldn’t make too much fun of me knowing that I’m Resident 9th Grader’s mom, right?

I was terrified to attend my first practice, which was on Monday. I had trouble falling asleep, and checked and rechecked my swim bag the night before.

But as soon as I walked in the door, someone recognized me as a newbie, and came up to say hi. And introduced me around. As it turns out, Monday is a more lightly-attended workout, so I didn’t even have to share a lane (and “drag down everyone around me”, another fear of mine). No one cared that I didn’t do all of the sets, or that I put my flippers on for the kick drills because I’m more comfortable doing so. Parts of the workout were challenging because I was out of practice, but I did way better than I expected. The coach even noticed a small thing that was affecting my stroke that I’ve never been able to diagnose, and correcting it has already made a difference in my endurance. I went back on Tuesday and did even more of the sets and it was still challenging but more doable. Circle swimming was not as hard as I remembered, and as it turns out my swimming speed was totally on par with the other two swimmers in my lane. And I met even more people who went out of their way to welcome me and engage me in the conversation of the group.

And the coaches didn’t make fun of me, either.

I’m still not sure if this is going to be a one-month-only thing, or if Masters swimming will be something I incorporate more regularly. I do know that this group does not swim in the summer — but I’ve heard rumors that my younger kiddo’s swim school might be starting a Masters group for the summer….

What’s one thing you’ve done recently that’s scared you?

*Which, contrary to popular belief, was written by Mary Schmich, and not Eleanor Roosevelt. If you’d like to go down the same rabbit hole I did regarding the history of this quote, start here.

A time to rebuild

I haven’t run since October.

I’ve spent the better part of the last year in and out of physical therapy. A sprained ankle from spring 2020 that never quite healed, then another sprained ankle (the other one, at least — equal opportunity injuries!). Muscle imbalances and tightness. PT would “fix” one issue and another would pop up like a game of Injury Whack-A-Mole. I’d build back up to running, and then have to stop. My last run, in early October, ended with me hobbling with achilles pain and one really specific painful spot in my hamstring.

When resting and yoga and foam rolling and strength training and pleading to the running gods for several months to just let me run again already, please didn’t work, I broke down and scheduled an orthopedic visit. And ended up back in, this time, pretty intense physical therapy. “Postural therapy”, as my chart puts it.

TL;DR: my body is pretty darn broken.

Through PT, I’m slowly retraining my body to support itself properly, to undo years of overcompensation for muscle weaknesses and realign everything back to where it’s supposed to be. It’s hard and maddeningly, maddeningly slow. Understandably, my body’s fighting the changes — it’s difficult to unlearn habits honed over a lifetime! If PT doesn’t ultimately help, I’m not sure what the next steps are.

The hardest part, of course, is not running. Sure, I do other active things — my fatbike and snowshoes saw a lot of action this winter, and the taekwondo studio is my home away from home. But running has always been my go-to, my most satisfying workout. And it’s a key, key part of my mental health toolkit. Walking is great, but it’s not running. I’ve been mourning the loss of running (even if it turns out to be temporary and I’m back at it someday) as keenly as any other loss. I’ve had to mourn the loss of running, so that the thought of possibly never running again doesn’t consume me.

I find that I’m not just rebuilding my body right now — I seem to be in a state of rebuilding. I’m rebuilding my mental health toolkit to make up for the absence of running. (Yoga, which was my go-to for a while, is off the table for now too, until my body gets in a better, supportive place.) With the end of my tenure as STEM Director approaching at the end of the calendar year, I’m rebuilding my career goals and figuring out what I might want to do next. I’m rebuilding connections to community partners, to jump-start collaborations that went dark during the pandemic. And I’m looking to rebuild my relationship to my work in general, so that it doesn’t leave me so burned out and demoralized.

The trick with rebuilding is that nothing is guaranteed. I may indeed need to let go of running even if I do get my body to a better place. My career goals, and community collaborations, may not pan out. Given the state of the world and the still ongoing pandemic, continuing burnout seems likely. But even if rebuilding gets me to a different place than I’d hoped, in any or all of these realms, I still believe that I end up ahead — and that’s worth the risks and the costs.

Emerging

After pressing “submit” this morning on the study abroad program website, uploading the weeks-ago promised letter of recommendation, I felt something I hadn’t experienced in quite some time:

Relief.

Going into the term, I knew that Winter Term would be a whirlwind. It’s always my busiest time of year service-wise — reviewing applications and selecting the next cohort for the Summer Science Fellows, coordinating the review of applications for faculty-student research funding (and suggesting how to allocate those funds), managing the end of the Fall/Winter Comps cycle with the Comps Gala and the oral exams and all of the other administrative tasks that entails. On top of that, I have a large Software Design class (36 students). And this year, I’ve added reading tenure and promotion files to the mix and attending meetings for the tenure and promotion committee I was elected to at the end of last year.

It’s…a lot.

It’s been particularly a lot since mid-February, starting with Advising Week and going non-stop since then. I’ve worked every weekend in February and so far in March, sometimes both days (particularly in the last couple of weeks). Early mornings, late evenings, random bits of time I’d usually spend on other things — work, work, work. (When I grumpily kicked my partner and my elder kiddo out of my home office last night, both of whom bounded in wanting to brain dump their days on me, both of them rolled their eyes at me and deemed me “no fun anymore”. Ouch.) Work often feels like an avalanche — as I finish up one set of tasks, I can see the other ones quickly bearing down on me.

I’m definitely not at my best. Because of all the work, and because I lack some of my coping mechanisms like running (more on that in a future post), I have limited energy reserves. I find myself spending those limited reserves on my students and my colleagues — which means that my reserves are even more shot than normal by the time I get home.

The recommendation letter is not the last item on my way-too-long to-do list. Not by a longshot. But that letter was the last thing in the overwhelming backlog of tasks. I can look at what’s left on the list and slot those tasks, many though they are, into mostly normal working hours that don’t involve frantically keeping one eye on the clock and worrying about the 8000 things I’m not currently doing. I have time to pause and take breaks in between tasks! I can take the entire weekend off if I choose! I might even spend a wild evening (gasp) playing board games with my kids tonight!

For the first time in a long time, life feels….manageable.

(At least until the final projects and reflection essays come in next week!)

Hyperawareness

The realization that the turn lane looked a tad icy came just a moment too late. Instead of executing my usual smooth turn from one country road onto another on my commute down to school, my car clumsily skidded from one country road onto another.

My instincts from years of driving on slick snowy and icy roads kicked in, and I quickly righted the car. No harm, no foul.

After the initial adrenaline died down, the anger kicked in. Which, frankly, surprised me. Usually the emotions sequence is adrenaline (whoa!) – relief (thank goodness I’m ok) – self-admonishment (jeez, drive more carefully next time!). But this time I went from whoa! right to #$*%!! And not #$*% the road is icy! but #$*% why is this happening and why can’t I get a break for just one darn minute?

Ah, bingo!

I’d been in my usual peripherally aware driving state — that state of mind where you’re obviously paying attention to the road and the other drivers and such but you’re still free to think about other things, like what that podcast guest just said or how pretty the sundogs are this morning or I wonder what kind of soup the cafe will have today? And the road conditions changed to the point where I had to shift awareness from peripherally aware to hyperaware. Not usually a problem; that’s winter driving for you!

But I realized I was angry because I really needed to not be hyperaware for a hot second. I’ve been operating in hyperaware mode almost constantly since the term started, and it’s exhausting.

When all of my students are in the same room with me, I’m aware of what’s happening on multiple levels — reading body language to sense how well they’re understanding the material, monitoring the room for questions, paying attention to how well students are working together or who’s on task. Most of this time I’m highly aware. Years of teaching experience mean that I can take small peripherally-aware breaks — freeing me up to think about the transition to the next topic, or assess whether to skip the next activity so that I have time to introduce the next concept.

But when I have students in front of me and students on Zoom, I’m now hyperaware all of the time. I’m monitoring students in the classroom with one set of visual and emotional cues, and students on Zoom with a different set of visual and emotional cues. I don’t have time to downshift, even for a second, to any state less than hyperaware.

This hyperawareness extends outside of the classroom. How do I structure this sensitive conversation in a meeting when everyone is on Zoom and I have to both manage the conversation and try to discern body language? Should I make this particular ask of this particular person given how overburdened I know they are? And in the past few weeks, with a non-COVID sick kid and a concussed kid at home, I’ve been hyperaware there too (how worried should I be about this kid’s headache? is this too much screen time? do we need to figure out if concussed kid needs accommodations for finals?).

Even just walking around and existing in the world requires hyperawareness. How many people around me are not wearing masks? How many people are in this space? How risky is being in this space?

The need to be hyperaware is, sadly, not going away anytime soon — and part of the issue is that I have no idea how long this hyperaware state needs to last. Will the COVID situation get better in a month? Will I get to a point where I don’t have any students on Zoom, even for just a day? But just being able to put my finger on the fact that I am hyperaware the majority of the time is helpful. I know now to be hyperaware (ha!) of scheduling downtime and breaks, and to honor my limits more strictly. I have a name for part of the cause of my seemingly constant exhaustion, and while that doesn’t change the situation, it does provide a small bit of comfort. It’s not much, but it’s not nothing.


What I’m reading: Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein.

What I’m listening to: I’ve been enjoying the “between-isodes” of The Agile Academic podcast, with the focus on reflection and intention-setting for the new year.

“x, y, z. Pretty close.”

My family and I spent a week with my brother, sister-in-law, and niece at the end of my winter break. My niece is a year and a half old, and unintentionally hysterical in the way that really young kids are.

My SIL recently taught my niece to recite the alphabet. As my niece practiced saying the letters and repeating the order, my SIL encouraged her by saying, “Pretty close!” My SIL used this phrase often enough that now my niece ends every recitation of the alphabet with a hearty “Pretty close.” To her, “pretty close” IS part of the alphabet.

(The alphabet recitation happened many times during our visit, and it never got old.)

I’ve been thinking about this scenario and how it relates to how students form mental models of course content. I recently introduced my Software Design students to git and GitHub. Students often struggle to learn version control — the workflow and the commands — and don’t develop great mental models as a result. Particularly at this point in the term, when they’ve only done two short labs introducing them to the key commands and ideas, git seems to consist of a series of magical and confusing commands you issue in hopes that your code will be saved in your local and remote repositories (as illustrated beautifully in this xkcd comic). It’s hard at this point for them to figure out which commands are “alphabet commands” — necessary to complete the task at hand — and which commands are “pretty close commands” — not necessary for the current task, but they’ve heard them in conjunction with the other commands and figure they must play a role in completing the task.

Eventually, my niece will realize that “pretty close” is not the last letter of the alphabet, as she gains more understanding of and fluency with language and has more opportunities to practice the alphabet with feedback. And eventually, given enough practice and repeated exposure to the workflows, most of my students will be able to cut out the “pretty close commands” as their mental models of git shift. My role, to help them get to that point, is to provide them with plenty of opportunities to practice various workflows, while providing an underlying model of what’s happening to the repositories as they issue and execute those commands and providing appropriate feedback to help students figure out what parts of their models are correct and which ones need refining.


What I’m reading: The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir, by Sherry Turkle.

What I’m listening to: The audiobook version of No Cure for Being Human: (And Other Truths I Need to Hear), by Kate Bowler. (Apparently it’s Memoir Week around these parts!)