Dear Kerry Ann,
I am putting the finishing touches on my semester plan and as I begin to plug in the dates, I feel so anxious. Even though I know the plan will help, my anxiety flares up each and every time I plan. I like my work (I’ve got some great writing projects this semester), but I feel pressure because I’m teaching three different courses this semester and I feel sad about not having more fun stuff planned. It’s hard for me to plan treats because they usually cost money, and I have some serious financial goals right now that have me being conservative with my spending. So I have a ton of work to do and not a lot of fun.
Please offer some words of support!
All Work and No Play
Dear All Work,
I appreciate your willingness to create a semester plan for what sounds like a busy term, and I applaud your work toward meeting long-term writing and financial goals. It’s perfectly normal to experience some negative feelings when you create a plan, because the planning process itself forces you to make hard choices: How much work can I realistically complete in 15 weeks? Which projects have priority? How much time can I spend on my research while teaching new courses? As always, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but there are a few questions I can suggest to shift how you feel about a term where you are doing a lot of important foundational work for your future success.
What Is the Source of Your Anxiety?
Any time you’re feeling anxious, it’s important to pause and identify the specific cause of that feeling. For example, when I feel anxious planning my semester, it's almost always grounded in one of three problems: 1) the volume of work in my plan (I've put so many projects in it that it feels suffocating), 2) the type of work I’m planning (I'm not very excited about the projects so the work seems like drudgery on a daily basis), and/or 3) the plan is all work (there's no fun in the plan, so my life seems one-dimensional). You may have totally different causes, but the point is that if you can identify the source of the anxious feelings, it will point you in a direction that immediately feels better. For example, this semester, I felt anxious about the type of work in my plan and the fact that my plan was all work, so I took a few projects out and I added some personal fun.
Are You Engaging in Black-and-White Thinking?
Because many negative emotions reside in flawed thinking, I also like to take a step back and examine my thought process for any cognitive distortions. In your letter, I’m sensing a common one: black-and-white thinking. Is it really true that there are only two possibilities: fun that costs money or no fun at all? If you can pinpoint your flawed either/or thinking, you can turn it around by asking: How is it possible to have both (fun and meet my financial goals)? Once you start looking for free fun, you can find lots of it! My favorites are playing with other people’s dogs, making art out of random stuff (aka junk) around my house, hosting a Google hangout with faraway friends and reading children’s literature (borrowed from the local library). Free fun is all around you if you’re actively looking for it, and many cities have lists of free fun activities.
What Role Does Fun Play in Your Thinking?
Let me pose one final question: How do you understand the role of fun in your creative thinking? It sounds like you’re doing a lot of serious foundational work this term to move forward on your writing projects, your teaching portfolio and your finances, so I want to encourage you to consider that during heavy terms of teaching, research and personal growth, fun may be something critical to meeting your goals. In other words, while you’re engaged in leisure activities, your brain continues to move and you may find that once you’re absorbed in something non-work related, you suddenly find inspiration, a great idea or a solution to the problem you’ve been working on. I find that pleasurable activities stimulate a part of my brain that often goes unused in my analytical work and enhances my productivity.
I know it’s counterintuitive to suggest that allowing yourself to have fun may lead to greater creativity and productivity. And I realize that most academics run around talking about how busy and exhausted they are as badges of honor. But the most productive professors I know plan their work, focus on the activities that really matter and engage in fun (without guilt or shame). I hope taking a few minutes to pause, examine your thinking and take a fresh look at your situation will shift your approach to the new term and make space for a little fun on the tenure track.
Peace and productivity,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore