Let the Countdown Begin!
The span of time between the return from Thanksgiving and the beginning of Christmas break is a special time for tenure-track faculty. For many, it's where your own end-of-semester exhaustion meets student’s desperation, where your own search for a moment of free time has to accommodate forced participation at multiple holiday social events, and where your own grandiose writing goals face the pending reality of what you can actually accomplish in the remaining two weeks. To add insult to injury, it's also the time when the days get shorter and the weather turns grim in most parts of the country. In short, what we hope will be a gentle descent into the slower pace of Winter Break often ends up to be a stressful and bumpy climb.
I believe that special times call for special behavioral changes. And since my Top 10 Tips for Crunch Time was so popular during the Spring Semester, I thought I would produce a fresh new list as we head towards the holiday break.
1. Plan ahead for crunch times.
One of my clients shared a secret with me over the summer: When she makes her semester plan, she leaves the first two weeks in December blank so that she can catch up on any research and writing that has not been completed during the fall term. When the calendar turns to December, she has a built-in cushion of time that helps relieve her stress during an already stressful time of year.
2. Try the reward system.
Lots of the academic writers I know swear by the reward system during the end of semester crunch! Since each day can be packed full of pressure to meet other people’s demands, staying committed to completing the most important thing (your writing) without getting off track deserves a reward. If you fulfill your writing time first thing in the morning, then you get a reward. The only rule is that the reward has to be something truly pleasurable!
3. Find a crunch-time buddy.
The buddy system is a great way to get through the difficult times of the semester. Asking someone to be your accountability partner during crunch time will not only help to keep you connected to your colleagues, but will also help you to maintain your daily writing practice. It’s really simple: 1) ask a peer if they will be your partner for two weeks, 2) set up a time to talk for 5-10 minutes each morning, and 3) agree to quickly report in during the call by stating what your key priorities are for the day and identifying any potential places you may get stuck for a little advanced problem solving. Two weeks is a minimal commitment and the call can serve as a morning ritual to confirm and clarify your priorities for the day.
4. Get comfortable with end-of-semester conflicts.
The end of the semester is guaranteed to bring some students wanting to negotiate with you for better grades. Instead of getting angry and lamenting their consumerist attitudes, understand that at this late date, the only thing you control is your response. Get clear ahead of time about how and when you want to handle grade conflicts, and then just do it in an efficient and professional manner so it doesn’t disturb your inner peace.
5. Try annoyance tracking.
Most of the things that you find annoying at the end of your first few semesters on the tenure track can be alleviated with a little advanced planning. If you have too much grading at the end of the semester, then you can front-load your writing assignments next time or try an entirely different evaluation strategy. If the binge-and-bust model of writing has left you hysterical because you’ve only produced a handful of pages, then let next semester be one where you start a daily writing practice. If you’re shocked to find yourself with time-intensive service commitments that all piled up at the end of the term, then make yourself a note to consult your calendar before saying yes to anything in the Spring. This doesn’t necessarily solve any of these problems in the moment, but the changes that will come out of your annoyance tracking will reduce your stress in the long run.
6. Take strategic shortcuts.
Many people respond to the stress of the end of the semester by taking shortcuts. Unfortunately, the shortcuts we frequently take are with our writing and/or our bodily needs. So instead of unconsciously choosing to skip sleep or give up your daily writing time, try consciously assessing what activities in your day can be eliminated or reduced with minimal consequences. For example, when I skimp on sleep, the consequence is lowered cognitive functioning and physical exhaustion. That’s not really a good idea. However, if I stop checking Facebook for a week, sign off of all listservs, close my office door (and don’t answer when someone knocks), let voicemail pick up the phone, or re-schedule low priority meetings, the consequences are minimal and I open up time and space in my day for the things that really matter.
7. Move your butt.
Even if you don’t normally exercise, stressful times require movement! If you can combine movement and relaxation (yoga, sex, whatever...) that’s great! If all you can manage is to take the stairs instead of the elevator up to your office, that’s fine too! If that seems like too much, how about just playing some music and wiggling in your chair a bit? Whatever you can do to get your body in motion is worth the time and effort.
8. Rethink your regular coping strategies.
Smoking, heavy drinking, overeating, procrastinating, withdrawing and/or glazing out in front of the TV are all-too-common coping strategies. However, drinking a bottle of wine while watching a Real Housewives marathon probably isn’t going to leave you feeling truly relaxed and rejuvenated. Instead, I want to encourage you to take a look at your regular stress-relieving behaviors and consider trying some healthier alternatives during the end of semester crunch time. For example, calling a good friend, taking a hot bath, pausing for a cup of tea, playing with your dog/cat, getting a massage, journaling, reading for pleasure, or listening to music.
9. Hold your Sunday Meeting sacred.
I believe the key to aligning your time with your priorities is to take 30 minutes to plan your week on Sunday nights. But during the crunch times it’s even more important! Your schedule changes, demands on your time increase, and it would be oh-so-easy to just hope everything will get done. The truth is that we still only have a finite amount of time, we have more tasks to do than time to do them in, and our human tendency is to focus on the seemingly urgent while neglecting the truly important. Unless we take the time before the week begins to make sure our priorities are appropriately placed in our schedule, they are very likely to get pushed out entirely or we are likely to end up working far more hours.
10. Keep the end in mind.
If all you can do during the next two weeks is to regularly ask yourself: what MUST get done between now and the end of the term and let the answer drive your daily behavior, you will be in good shape. Keep your tasks manageable, ask for help when you need it, and be willing to let some things go by developing the habit of consistently asking: does this matter? You may return to being hyper-attentive to details when the semester has concluded and your grades are turned in. However, during the crunch time, there are many small details that can be released from your life. Stay focused on the most important priorities each day and give yourself permission to let the small stuff go.
I’m not suggesting that you should try all of these strategies at once! Instead, I’m suggesting that you pick one or two from this list (or from my It’s Crunch Time column in the Spring) and experiment with them. If they work, great! If not, try a different strategy. The idea is to recognize that the end of the semester has it’s own special energy and unique time challenges that can best be managed by recognizing them and adjusting your approach in whatever ways make the most sense for you!
Peace and Productivity,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore
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