(Nearly) Halfway there

We’re deep in the thick of Week 5 of our 10-week Winter Term, limping along to our one-day midterm “break” next week. So far the term’s gone fairly well. I submitted my conference paper on time and with little drama (other than a really terrible user interface for the conference submission site). My Software Design students are finding new and improved ways to struggle with the material — but they are a fun and inquisitive bunch who seem game for just about anything I throw at them in class, and overall I think the shift in topics is a net positive. I’m still looking for a successor for the cohort program, and I’m bracing myself for the deluge of applications (deadline is Friday!).

Excerpt from a paper planner page, with highlighted meetings and tasks.
For you fellow paper planning geeks, this is a Hemlock & Oak weekly, which I am loving!

Largely, I am staying on top of things. I credit paying more attention to what blocks of time I have available in a day, matching the blocks up with expected energy levels, and slotting in specific tasks during specific blocks. I also finally learned, after many years of beating myself up over undone tasks, that perhaps it’s healthier to approach undone tasks with curiosity and grace (“what are the reasons I didn’t get to this today?”) than with self-loathing and self-hatred.

(My therapist is proud of me for that insight!)

February is always a bit bonkers, and I’m giving two talks this month on top of everything else. I am looking ahead to summer, partly out of necessity since there are a lot of Tetris pieces of family and kids’ scheduling, and partly because I’m applying for a curricular grant and I need to figure out what I’m proposing to do and how much time it should take (and where I can slot that in!). There is also a conference paper deadline on the last day of Winter Term classes in March (of course), and a completely rational person would say “thanks but not this year”, but this conference is a perfect fit for one of the projects I’m working on so I might try to squeeze that in….somewhere. (I’ve given myself a deadline to come up with an outline — if I make the deadline, I’ll go ahead and write something up for submission; if not, that’s perfectly fine, too.) Unlike previous years, I’m feeling good about the systems I’ve put in place and somewhat confident that they’ll stand up to the usual February onslaught of All The Tasks All The Time.

What’s keeping you busy this month, and how are you managing your workload?

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What I’m working on this term

Winter Term started exactly one week ago, so we are now officially in the swing of things. I’m teaching 5 days a week this term, which is great in terms of spreading out the workload but also means I don’t really have a “down” day where I can work from home and crank things out that require deep thinking and concentration. It’s also the first time in a while that I’m teaching a full 6-credit course — my course releases for my leadership role and my service on our tenure and promotion committee meant that I had a lighter teaching schedule in Spring 2022 and Fall 2022 (Comps and the Science Fellows Colloquium, both terms). It took me a few days to get back into the rhythm of a MWF class!

Winter is always a busy term for me, and this year is no exception. So, what am I spending my time on this term?

Research

My big research deadline / push actually happens early in the term, so I get it out of the way right away — I have a conference paper deadline this weekend. The working draft is currently a bit rougher than I’d like, but definitely in a state that can be tweaked by the deadline. I also fully expect that the paper will be rejected, since I’m aiming high, so that takes a bit of the pressure off to get it “perfect”. The paper is on an experiment we did in Spring 2019, so I’m relieved to finally be getting it out for review.

For the rest of the term, my goal is to take a look at all the other work-in-progress and determine what to write up next. I didn’t realize while in the thick of campus leadership just how much mental energy that role took up, and how much that mental energy overlapped with the mental energy required to do deep thinking and writing about my scholarship. I’m looking forward to having some of that mental space back.

Teaching

I’m teaching Software Design this term, a course I regularly teach. A few years back we revamped the course, and I’ve pretty much followed the same order of topics since then. I’ve had a bunch of conversations with one of my junior colleagues about the course, in particular about where our students struggle, and based on those conversations and their experiment in moving topics around, I’m playing around with a different order of topics. I think this reordering will give our students more solid footing in some of the backend development, and better prepare them to work with web frameworks. I worry a bit that they might miss some of the messaging around user-centered design, since I’m not leading with that anymore, so we’ll see what happens.

Service

Winter is by far my busiest term as Summer Science Fellows director. I need to select a new cohort and place them into research labs on campus, and help our second year cohort find research positions, too. There are a lot of moving pieces to keep track of. I developed a pretty decent workflow using Trello last year, which I plan on using again. In addition, I’ll be searching for my own replacement as director, since I’m stepping down at the end of this year.

Personal

I test for my third degree black belt in taekwondo in mid-March (eek!). I am confident that I will pass, but I’d like to try for that elusive perfect score on the form portion of my test. (I’m pretty close, I think!) My taekwondo studio puts on a mini-show twice a year with the black belts, and last year I took over organizing and directing that. Our next show is in April, so I will be spending time this month putting together routines, and then after that running once a week practices up until the show.


Looking at this list, there’s certainly a lot in play, although thankfully I don’t think it rises to the level of requiring a self-care paper chain. And there are things not on this list — the end of Comps at the end of the term, my work on the tenure and promotion committee, stuff at home — that are also ongoing. But I’m mindful about my limits and am working hard to ensure that I keep everything within comfortable boundaries so that I don’t completely exhaust myself.

Currently reading: Unraveling Faculty Burnout: Pathways to Reckoning and Renewal, by Rebecca Pope-Ruark.

2023 goals and one word theme

List of 23 goals for 2023

After eschewing yearly goal setting in 2022, which went fairly well, I decided to bring back my yearly goals list in 2023. I created a 23-item list that reflects the type of person I want to be this year, with a mix of “projects that will bring relief once I complete them”, adventures and experiences, and a few challenges. And I chose a word to center my actions and intentions for the year, as I do almost every year. (Past words and phrases include “defining” in 2010, “healthy” in 2017, “foundation” in 2019, and “gentle serendipity” in 2022.)

So, where did I land this year with my list and with my theme?

Theme for 2023: NEXT

I’m definitely in a transition period in various facets of my life, with more questions than answers. What do I want the next phase of my career to look like? Do I want to stay in academia, go academia-adjacent, or do something entirely different? What does it mean to be an athlete in my 50s, and what role (if any) does running play in that? How can I best support my kids as teenagers, as they figure out who they are and become more independent? How do my partner and I navigate this new stage in our relationship, particularly as our kids grow up and go off to college? How do we navigate the challenges of aging parents who live far away? This year I want to take a step back and give myself the time and space to think carefully about what’s on the other side of all of these transitions — and figure out what’s next for me.

My 23 for 2023 list

I categorized my list this year into 5 areas: home and family, health and wellness, work, adventure and fun, and sports. And I left some items open, so that I can add them throughout the year (in my quintiles!).

Home and family

  1. Finish our will. Honestly, we have most of the pieces in place; we just need to finalize the damn thing! I’m confident this will get done this year.
  2. Assemble an “on the occasion of my death” folder. I don’t have any plans to leave this mortal coil anytime soon, but I am … not young. I view this as a complement to our will, so it makes sense to at least start assembling this type of thing now while we’re planning for the future.
  3. Develop a focused charitable giving plan. I want to do something less haphazard to make a real difference in 1-2 areas.
  4. Do solo trips with each kid. Both kiddos campaigned for this to be included on the list — and I’m more than happy to oblige.

Health and wellness

  1. Get a colonoscopy. Not fun, but definitely necessary given my age.
  2. Get my shingles vaccination. See above.

Work

  1. Make time and space for regular writing. I want to blog more regularly this year, and I want to get more of my work and my ideas out into the world. Also, writing brings me joy and enjoyment, and I could use more joy in my work life!
  2. Submit 2 academic articles. I have one conference deadline I’m aiming to make in mid-January. I also have a bunch of work-in-progress that I’d like to get into the review pipeline sooner rather than later.

Adventure and fun

  1. Do a day long hike. I’d hoped to do this for my 50th birthday, but injuries put the kibosh on that plan. Fingers crossed that I remain injury-free this year!
  2. Go on a solo trip. I enjoy these so much. I think I might secretly be a hermit.
  3. Visit 2 new-to-me state parks. I’d like to visit all of the Minnesota State Parks eventually — I think I’ve hit 28 so far (out of 66). I might be able to pair this with goals 10 and/or 4 — the Resident 6th Grader was very interested in this particular goal.
  4. Kayak a new-to-me lake. I barely got out on my kayak last summer (shame!), and definitely didn’t explore any new terrain. I want to rectify that this summer.
  5. Bike a new-to-me trail. I could possibly do this 4 ways: paved, gravel, mountain bike, fat bike. Maybe I should award myself bonus points for each type of trail I do!
  6. Read 30 books. I honestly don’t know how many books I typically read in a year. I think I probably read about 2 a month, so 30 seems like a comfortable stretch.
  7. Visit 2 new-to-me coffee shops. I love reading in random coffee shops, yet almost never do so. I’m hoping this goal, and goal 14, will encourage me to schedule time to do so.
  8. Go to a beach every day this summer. There are so many beaches near me, and I absolutely love beaches….and I almost never go. I’m curious to see if I can keep this up, and what creative ways I’ll find to meet this goal. (Coffee at sunrise at the beach? Reading in the evening at the beach? Open water swimming instead of pool laps?)

Sports

  1. Earn my 3rd degree black belt in taekwondo. I test in March!
  2. Become proficient at flip turns in swimming. Turns out they are not as scary as I’d made them out to be, although they are very hard to get right. I’m hoping to get to the point where they’re more automatic and I don’t overthink them every time I approach the pool wall.

Open items (to be added throughout the year)

These time periods match up with my “quintiles”: Winter Term (and spring break), Spring Term, Summer, Fall Term, and Winter Break (Thanksgiving through New Years Day).

  1. TBD: Winter. I’m leaning towards “go cross country skiing twice”, but I want to see how the first week of Winter Term goes before I finalize this one.
  2. TBD: Spring.
  3. TBD: Summer.
  4. TBD: Fall.
  5. TBD: Winter Break.

Compared to lists I’ve made in previous years, this year’s list is fairly gentle and very accessible. Some years are for challenges and stretching oneself, but every year doesn’t have to be that way. I’m looking forward to a year of kinder, gentler exploration and adventures, and to goals that nurture me and build up my confidence.

What’s on your goals list this year?

5 things that had the biggest impact on my happiness this year

As I’ve worked this week to put the finishing touches on my 2023 goals (yes, I decided to go back to my goal-setting ways this year, albeit with a lighter touch), I’ve spent a lot of time looking back on, and dissecting, 2022. In examining the ups and downs, the accomplishments and setbacks, the messiness and the serendipity, I discovered a number of small things that had an outsized impact on my overall happiness and well-being this year. They range from the truly mundane to the take-a-leap-way-outside-my-comfort-zone, but they’ve all had a profound effect on me this year.

Here they are, in no particular order:

  1. Masters swimming. I’ve come a looooooooong way since showing up at my first practice in May. I’m a much stronger, more efficient, and more confident swimmer. Some days I actually get through the entire workout! (And if I don’t, that’s ok, too.) I’m currently attempting to learn a proper flip turn. I signed up for extra coaching with a smaller group once a week. I watch swimming videos on YouTube for fun. I crave the challenge that every day in the water brings, and I love the new community I’ve found of people who willingly get up at bonkers early hours to jump in the pool.
  2. My morning ritual. I always start my day with a cup of coffee, writing out my intentions and to-do list for the day, Wordle, and a bit of reading. Mundane? Very. But whether I spend 15 minutes or 45 minutes on this small and basic ritual, the quiet time to myself where I get to ease into the day sets me up to successfully face the rest of the day. Even (especially!) if the day goes south, at least I had this bit of solo time.
  3. Planned / effortful fun. Fun fact: I participated in the study that formed the basis for the book Tranquility by Tuesday. One of my biggest personal takeaways from the experience was that it pays to be thoughtful and deliberate about how you spend your leisure time. (Sort of a mix of the rules “effortful fun before effortless fun” and “one big adventure, one little adventure”.) So now, instead of thinking “wouldn’t it be nice to go to the art museum again someday?”, I’ll check the calendar to see if we have a few free hours in the upcoming weekend and schedule it in. I’m more likely to pick up a book and read a few pages, or pick up my latest crochet project and stitch up a row or three, rather than scrolling social media when I’m bored. The study experience primed me to think more specifically about my free time, and my free time’s been much richer as a result.
  4. Teaching taekwondo. I started teaching once a week at my studio this spring, and I also teach a special black belt weapons class once a week. It’s fun using the teaching skills I’ve honed over my career in a different context, and fulfilling to share my joy and passion for taekwondo with others.
  5. Scheduling the thing before you leave the thing. I am notoriously bad about calling to make an appointment, whether for doctor visits, haircuts, or what have you. I just hate talking on the phone! I’d already gotten in the habit of making my next dentist appointment at the end of my current dentist appointment, and this year I started doing that with haircuts, too. (Which is important because I have short hair that grows fast so I really do need to go in every 8 weeks.) Sounds trivial, but it’s made such a difference — I don’t spend mental energy wondering when my last haircut was and stressing about calling to get in before my hair gets truly shaggy and unwieldy. And it’s a bit of regular self-care for me, too.

What’s had an outsized impact on your happiness and well-being this year?

Reflecting back on a year without goals

Last December, burned out and exhausted, I decided to forgo setting goals for 2022. Quite the departure from normal for me, as I live and die by my goals list each year. While deep down I trusted my decision, I still had my doubts. How would I keep myself accountable? Would I completely slack off? Would I drift, rudderless, through the year?

Would I have an existential crisis if I learned that I don’t need constant achievement and striving to feel like a whole, worthwhile person?

So, how did it go? Rather well, as it turns out.

Now, to be fair, I didn’t completely throw all goal-setting and planning out the window. I did set goals (or, I guess more accurately, intentions), just on smaller time scales. I set intentions for each academic term and each longer break (summer and winter). I set goals each month and priorities each week. The goals and intentions definitely reflected larger themes, indicating that I did have larger arcs in mind and wasn’t completely going by the seat of my pants.

What I did find is that having smaller horizon goals / intentions helped me be more flexible in life overall. If I failed to meet a goal or complete an “important” task in a particular week or month, I reflected on why that happened and whether I should roll the goal / task over or let it go — and felt more comfortable doing that sort of accounting. If circumstances changed mid-month or mid-term, I felt ok redoing the goals for that cycle, or letting them go altogether. (Case in point: summer, when hiring our new STEM Program Manager crowded out most of the other things on my priorities list.) Did this mean that sometimes I chose not to push myself to meet a deadline where I probably could have pushed to make it (e.g. conference deadlines)? Yes. Do I feel bad about that? Kind of, but way less so than Past Me might have — perhaps because I realize there are other deadlines and other venues and rarely will I completely miss out on an opportunity because I passed on a deadline.

Does this mean I won’t be setting yearly goals this year? I’m not sure. I do miss the process of dreaming about the near-ish future, and the community aspect of setting and sharing goals lists. I think I’d benefit from some structure as I figure out what’s next (career wise and personally). And part of me really wants to make a “23 in 2023” list.

Right now I’m leaning towards this strategy:

  • Select a one word theme for the year. I’ve narrowed it down to 2 finalists for 2023. I find one word (or phrase) works well to center and focus me on what’s important — particularly this year’s phrase, “gentle serendipity”.
  • Make a 23 in 2023 list — focused on experiences instead of accomplishments. I’m still a bit afraid of creating any sort of written accountability record that the darker side of my brain can use to flagellate me in my low moments. But I did miss the parts of lists from previous years that pushed me to try new things and engage in new experiences. So I’m going to make an experience-focused 23 in 2023 list. I already have a few ideas (a couple for summer and one for winter) and may enlist my kids and partner for help on this one.
  • Set lightweight intentions for the year. Rather than focusing on “what do I want to accomplish this year?”, I’ll lead with “what kind of person do I want to be at this time next year?” I’ll set shorter-horizon intentions and priorities that move me closer to this vision.

I’ll share wherever I end up — a yearly theme, a 23 for 2023 list, and maybe a list of intentions — in early January, with the start of a new year, a new academic term, and a new phase in my career.

How are you approaching goal setting in 2023?

What’s next?

Fork in path - geograph.org.uk - 2523137.

Sometime within the next couple of weeks, I will finish all of the remaining documentation, attend my final set of meetings, and sit down for a long and candid conversation with the incoming STEM Director — and officially transition out of that position. And at the end of the academic year, I will also step down from directing the Summer Science Fellows program, a program I’ve led since 2017.

For the first time in literally years, I will not hold a formal leadership position on campus.

Naturally, the number one question people ask when I run into them on campus is some variation of “So, what’s next?”

My official answer is “I have no idea.” Which is partially true. I don’t have specific plans at this point to pursue a specific type of position, or step immediately onto another path, although I do have plenty of things to fill that space in the interim. I serve on the faculty promotion and tenure committee through 2023-24, which will keep me plenty busy between now and then. I was tapped as a community advisor to the Community of Belonging Task Force for the Carleton 2033 Strategic Plan process. I’m conducting a meta-assessment of all the department assessment we’ve done over the past decade. And I’m slowly re-immersing myself in the NCWIT Academic Alliance community — I’ll be serving as an Ambassador for new members, something that really excites and energizes me. I won’t exactly be sitting around eating bonbons, but I’ll still have a bit of a breather from the intensity involved in directing programs and initiatives.

My unofficial answer is that I plan to use my freed-up mental space to contemplate some bigger, broader questions, with an eye towards advocacy and/or developing some kind of concrete action plans where applicable. Some of the questions I’m contemplating:

  • What would a computer science program centered on ethics, justice, and civic engagement look like?
  • Is there a scalable way to design student assessment, and courses as a whole, that doesn’t explicitly or implicitly favor previous experience?
  • What does a sustainable faculty workload look like? How can we get there as an institution?
  • How can we more effectively, and systematically, mentor mid-career and senior faculty?

I’m also hoping to write more, both as scholarship and for broader audiences. My civic engagement work, and my current research project, lend themselves to wider dissemination beyond academia, and I want to figure out ways to get those stories out to a wider swath of people. Plus, I really, really enjoy writing, and want to find more ways to work that into my workflow.

I’m excited to start this new chapter, and look forward to seeing what roads emerge.

Image credit: Fork in path by michael, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Incentivizing myself for tasks I don’t want to do

When it comes to any sort of project, I’m definitely more of a starter than a finisher. I love to start new initiatives and I maintain high energy levels until it’s time to wrap things up. Then I dig in my heels like a tantrumming toddler and/or ignore those last items on the to-do list, hoping the Task Fairy will pay a visit and complete them for me.

(Hope springs eternal.)

Perhaps the perfectionist side of me is always disappointed that the project didn’t execute perfectly (no matter how well it actually went). So not wrapping a project up is a way to never have to confront the “failings” of the project — it is always possible to wrap it up perfectly “someday”.

And so this is how I find myself as I wrap up my term as STEM Director: half-documented processes, unfinished annual reports, and a number of loose ends to tie up before the official handoff to the next director sometime in December.

I decided to reframe how I approach wrapping up those last details so that I can give this STEM Director project the ending it deserves. My approach is part gamification, part celebration.

Gamification, aka Documentation Week!

Rather than spreading out the report-writing and documentation over a number of weeks, I decided to set aside an entire week to prioritize finishing up all, or at least the majority of, all of the things I need to write — the annual reports, the timeline of tasks, the summaries of working groups, etc. And rather than treating this writing as a task to be dreaded and survived, I decided to turn it into a party.

Thus, Documentation Week was born!

I picked a week and marked it on my calendar. I started a countdown. I made sure I had special snacks and my favorite teas in my office. I bedazzled my “to write” list with stickers. I promised myself I’d buy a new puzzle at the end of the week. I hyped up Documentation Week so much in my mind that I could not wait for it to start.

I’m in the middle of Documentation Week as we speak. Documentation Week will likely spill a bit over into next week, but by and large it’s going really well. I’ve drafted part of one annual report and did bullet point versions of two more. I’m enjoying my special snacks as I record various processes. I’m also finding that I’m not as critical of my own writing as I normally am. Celebrating the process has allowed me to cut myself more slack, and to prioritize finishing over perfection. And it feels so, so freeing to get rid of this mental load I’ve been carrying around for far too long.

Celebration

During our weekly meeting the other day, the the STEM Program Manager asked me how I wanted to celebrate the end of my tenure as director. I honestly had not thought about framing the ending as a celebration. And that led me to an a-ha moment: documenting what we’ve done is also a way of celebrating the STEM Board’s, and my, accomplishments over the past 3 years!

Writing a report sounds dull and boring. But highlighting in writing what we did so that we can celebrate those things as a community? Well, that sounds a lot more appealing and joyful!

Reframing documentation as a means of celebration has made the writing process much lighter and freer. It’s also allowed me to step out of the “there’s so much I didn’t do!” mindset and embrace the “look how far we’ve come despite the obstacles and challenges of the past few years” mindset. Instead of thinking “ugh, here’s this overdue report”, I’m thinking “I can’t wait to share what we’ve done!”.


In writing this post, I’ve realized that this is not the first time I’ve turned an arduous work task into a party. I eat particular snacks when I’m making final edits to conference papers (sour gummy worms) and grading finals or other large projects (pretzel rods). I wrote my promotion prospectus over the course of a week in new-to-me coffee shops and libraries in a part of St. Paul I don’t normally visit. And in one particularly rough term, I made a paper chain with self-care tasks as a tangible way to mark time and reduce stress. (Thankfully, I haven’t had to do that one since!) Adding little fun touches to challenging tasks doesn’t make them less challenging, for sure. But it does add a bit of novelty and whimsy, and we could all use more novelty and whimsy in our lives.

Do you gamify or otherwise celebrate your mundane or difficult tasks?

Holding pattern

I’m in a weird and uncertain spot in what feels like all areas of my life right now.

Career-wise, I’m transitioning out of both of my campus leadership positions. My term as STEM Director ends sometime in December (exact handoff date TBD), and I’m stepping down as Summer Science Fellows Director at the end of the academic year. In the latter case, I’ve held the position for longer than the typical tenure (hello, pandemic!), and while I still find the work immensely fulfilling, it’s time to give someone else the opportunity to carry the program forward.

Life-wise, things are no less settled. I’m injured, and not running, again. The transition to middle school has been rough, for the Resident 6th Grader and thus for the entire family. The Resident 10th Grader is starting to contemplate life after high school while also learning to drive and generally becoming more and more independent from us. We recently had a Big Important Conversation with my in-laws about life transitions and moving. And I learned at that conversation that my partner and kids have Very Strong Opinions about place and home — opinions that greatly constrain my decision-making process about future leadership opportunities.

It’s unmooring.

When I started as STEM Director, I sort of assumed that I’d step out of that role and into another leadership role once my term was up. Or, at the very least, have a clear path to whatever the next leadership position is. Instead, I find myself stepping into a whole sea of “unknown unknowns” and a path (or set of paths) shrouded by thick fog.

This all feels very uncomfortable right now. To be honest, I’ve spent a lot of the past month wallowing in the discomfort, and ok, maybe even whining a bit. Or a lot. As a Type A first-born Upholder, I judge my self-worth by achievement and productivity. So when the next achievement is not visible on the horizon, I flounder. And other than my third degree black belt rank test next March, there are no well-defined goals on the docket for me.

I recently reminded myself of my one (two) word theme for the year, gentle serendipity. It’s much easier to embrace the concept in theory than in practice, particularly when whining feels way more fulfilling in the moment. But I’m rededicating myself to that theme for the remainder of the year. I don’t need to make all of the decisions now. There is value in hitting pause, in gradually reflecting on what the last few years have taught me about leadership and what I do and don’t want in the next phase of my career, and my life. It’s perfectly fine, rather than forcing my way through the fog, to sit on this bench enjoying the (obscured) view and waiting for the paths to emerge.

Someone else’s summer

With the end of summer quickly approaching (seriously, how is it the end of August already?), I find myself way more disgruntled than usual with how my summer’s gone. Even with the realistic goal-setting and early course correction, I’ve had a growing and gnawing sense of intense dissatisfaction with this particular summer.

It took me a while to pinpoint exactly why I felt this way:

I’ve lived someone else’s summer.

What do I mean by this? I’ve spent the majority of my summer supporting others, emotionally and otherwise, at the expense of my own goals and projects. I’ve had to prioritize other tasks over my own priorities, in some cases. In other cases, the energy I’ve spent on supporting others sapped the energy I had for my own projects and goals, leaving me with literally nothing left to give.

Getting COVID at the start-ish of the summer cemented this situation in place, as I scrambled to do what I could from isolation and reschedule the rest for when I recovered. Even from isolation, I found myself single-handedly dealing with rescheduled vacation logistics and making sure the rest of my family stayed healthy and safe, on top of my can’t-be-put-off workload, at the expense of resting and recovering. This COVID interruption threw off my summer “flow”, and I never really recovered from that setback.

A work project — hiring a new program manager — extended well into the summer (and continues as I put plans in place to onboard our new hire!), taking up significant time and energy. Other STEM projects also consumed my attention and energy — projects that landed back on my plate as I spend a few “bonus months” as STEM Director until the new director takes over in December.

Home provided no relief from emotional labor. For complex reasons I won’t go into here, this was a challenging summer for both kiddos — and thus, by extension, our family. Our family vacation was not restorative for any of us, least of all me. Home is not always a relaxing place.

I’d hoped to get a paper out in July and make significant progress towards a poster submission deadline in September. But with depleted energy, I have a hard time doing the deep, creative thinking that this particular phase of my research requires. I decided a week before the July deadline to let that deadline go, which was absolutely the right decision at the time, but that doesn’t mean I’m not beating myself up over missing the deadline. My lack of research progress — even though I understand on one level why that’s the case — frustrates and demoralizes me. I spent part of July in a depressive spiral as a result.

Naming what I was feeling helped tremendously, and helped me realize that I need to actively manage my energy levels. I’ve scaled back my (mainly self-imposed) expectations, embracing both time-blocking and a motto of “good enough is good enough”. I’m meeting with my therapist more frequently to help me work through this particular rough patch — which has really helped me figure out what I can control and what I need to let go. And I’m putting some strategies in place for the fall to better safeguard my time and energy so that I can work more thoughtfully on my own goals and priorities while also providing appropriate support to others’ goals and priorities.

(Let’s just hope this sticks!)

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?