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I'm only a third of the way through the semester and the following tasks have piled up: stacks of papers to read, student conferences in need of scheduling, a journal article to revise, lesson plans to hammer out, numerous meetings to attend, editing work to which I must attend, lectures and seminars in the evening, a major conference for which I’m a key planner, and a dental appointment that I keep postponing. Last week I was home all evening on Monday; the week before it was Thursday. Next week?

So today I did what any rational professor would do: I took the afternoon off. I took a drive into the New England countryside, gazed at the foliage — "leaf-peeping" in regional parlance — stopped at a farm stand, meandered home, made coffee, and plopped down with a third-rate novel. I plan to do the same this weekend. I’m turning off my cell phone, e-mail will go unanswered, and I’ll finish that novel even if it kills me. It won’t, and that’s the point; those bright leaves and that slim volume of egregious prose are my lifeline to sanity.

I'm no busier than usual this year — overload happens every fall semester, generally right around Columbus Day. And each year I embark on the same seemingly counter-intuitive path: I force myself to chill like the crisp days of autumn. It took me years to learn a lesson that labor experts have long known. If one plots efficiency and long working hours on an axis, there is a point at which the curves will cross; that is, the harder one works, the less efficient one’s endeavors will be. We need to slow down; science is on our side!

The first step in warding off stress and fatigue is a reality check. The academic world does not (and will not in the future) revolve around you. If you’re AWOL for an afternoon, day, or weekend, the campus will still be there when you return. You’ll probably be amazed to discover that the old adage “if you ignore something, it won’t go away,” is a big load of hooey. There are lots of things that go away if you ignore them, including 90 percent of the e-mail announcements that arrive in your box daily and about 25 percent of the things that panicked students e-mail you about and are perfectly capable of resolving on their own. Of course you have a bunch of legitimate work to do, but most of it can wait 24 hours.

The biggest step in recharging your battery is to stop thinking about relaxing and do it! I don’t mean taking a 10-minute stroll to the campus coffee shop and then returning to your papers; I mean getting out of Dodge City. Going to a weekend conference doesn’t count. Do something that has nada to do with academia. For me it’s tennis, photography, watching baseball, and curling up with the aforementioned crummy novel. Whatever your non-scholarly thing is, dust it off and do it.

Once you’ve got your own spirit back in order, consider your students. They’re in the same mental and physical rut you’re in. (The biggest difference is that their recovery time tends to be shorter.) There are some very simple things you can do to help students reinvigorate. Among them:

  • Change the frame: If you generally meet students in your office, don’t for a week or so. This is when you should take that 10-minute walk to the coffee shop. Meet students there and let the informality of the moment be a mood-changer. You’ll find that you can ask the same probing questions you'd ask in your office, but somehow students feel less "on the spot" if a hot beverage is involved. If your college is close enough to town, consider getting off campus altogether.
  • Change the usual routine: If you customarily lecture in a class, try having a discussion. (If you have a mammoth lecture class you’ll need to act more a talk show host walking into the studio audience, but you can still do this. Punctuate questions and discussion with quick lecture soundbites.) If you usually discuss, give a lecture. If it's appropriate and logistically possible, make a sign-up sheet, suspend classes for a week, and require students to stop by for a one-to-one tutorial or planning session.
  • Change the backdrop: Come to class armed with something that's not generally part of your repertoire. Play a piece of music and ask students to analyze it. Project a single slide, ask students to write down everything they observe on the image, and discuss their responses. Invite a guest to take over your class for a day. Set up an experiment and abruptly tell students that you’re reversing roles — they’ll conduct and explain it while you listen. Conduct a nature walk with your bio students, or discourse on Emerson while walking by campus nature spots. Let your imagination run wild. The worst that can happen is that you’ll try something that doesn’t work and you can share a good laugh about it the next class. (“Okay, so that wasn’t my most brilliant idea ever!”)
  • Dispense special compensation: Want your students to like you more? Do something they really don’t expect. Walk into class and say, “Know that assignment that’s due on Monday? It's going to be a nice weekend, so let’s make it Wednesday instead.” It’s amazing how little it takes to buy affections. One of my seasonal favorites is to dispense to my most problematic class any Halloween candy not claimed by neighborhood ghouls.

There are plenty of other things you can do to buck up students, but first get your own house in order. So activate your “Out of Office” messages, leave the cell phone on your nightstand, and take a hike this weekend!

If you must read more:

1. Life coach Nickolove Lovemore argues that time off is essential for success.

2. Those who like a historical approach can peruse Frank Watts, An Introduction to the Psychological Problems of Industry. He discussed the fatigue/inefficiency problem back in 1921. Available on Google Books.

3. The Web site Helium has several articles on the dangers of overwork.

4. A 1999 article from The New York Times on burn out and how companies deal with it.

5. A 2006 Australian study verifies that old assumptions about “workaholism” and inefficiency remain valid. It also contains a useful bibliography.

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