Pay Yourself First
I travel to different campuses almost every week, and no matter where I am, or at what type of institution, I hear the same thing from tenure-track faculty over and over and over again: I don’t have enough time for my research and writing. Once I scratch the surface to explore what’s keeping them from writing, it becomes clear that many new faculty are held back by three basic technical errors: 1) they don't have a daily writing routine, 2) they don't block out specific time each day to write, and 3) even when they set aside time to write, they quickly give up that time to accommodate other people’s needs. And whenever I ask why everyone else's needs come before their own needs, we get to the underlying problem: a litany of unrealistically high expectations about their performance. To sum it up, many of the new faculty I work with expect themselves to be Super-Professor.
The image of professorial perfection typically includes some combination of the following:
- Super-Teacher who performs transformative and inspiring teaching every day in the classroom, grades extensive writing assignments with ease and quick turnaround, and answers all student e-mails with rapid efficiency..
- Super-Colleague who is central to the functioning of the department, provides immediate and insightful reviews of colleagues’ work, attends all functions, and whose departmental labor nobody could live without.
- Super-Researcher who challenges existing paradigms and shatters disciplinary boundaries with brilliant and prolific research.
- Super-Role Model who serves as a mentor, confidante, adviser, and/or shining example for all students of color and/or women.
- Super-Institutional Change Agent who serves on every search committee, diversity committee, and/or any committee needing "diverse perspectives" and who works to change longstanding structural problems within their institution single-handedly.
- Super-Community Activist whose research directly impacts social problems, regularly attends community meetings, and/or is actively working for justice outside the university walls.
PRIORITIZE AND PAY YOURSELF FIRST!
The first three expectations can occur among any tenure-track faculty with a perfectionist streak, but the last three seem to be especially common among underrepresented faculty. In other words, while institutional and community activism may be important to individual majority faculty, they seem to be externally created and internally imposed expectations for faculty who are underrepresented in their disciplines. At some level, when disproportionate requests, expectations, and pressures from others mix with a personal desire to be the professor you never had as an undergraduate or graduate student, the result can be over-working and over-functioning in some areas of your job (service and teaching) while neglecting critically important others (writing and research).
Personally, I have never met a real live Super-Professor and I can't think of a single person that fits all these criteria at one time! More often, trying to do all of these things simultaneously means that none of them get done well AND it’s easy to get exhausted, angry, and resentful in the process. So in addition to visualizing your career as a book with many chapters, I want to suggest consciously releasing yourself from unattainable expectations.
As we head into the home stretch of the semester, let's try being gentle with ourselves and acknowledging that it's impossible to do all of these things at the same time at the highest standard. Instead, try aligning your time with your long-term goals. If your goal is to win tenure at your current institution, then publishing your research needs to be a high priority. Great teaching and great service won't make up for a lack of research productivity when you are evaluated for promotion and tenure at most institutions. To enable higher research productivity, you may need to lower the bar a bit in other areas of your work life. I am also going to boldly suggest that you symbolically send a message to the universe about the importance of your writing by paying yourself first each day. That means try starting every day with 30-60 minutes of writing.
I know this is easier said than done! Personally, I start each morning thinking about all the things I will be held accountable for that day (client calls, meetings, talks, etc.). My immediate impulse is to do those things first and hope my writing will get done later. But from experience I know that I will have neither the time nor the energy "later" to write. I also know that at some deep level, completing these other tasks first means that I am prioritizing them over my writing. It means that I'm putting everyone else before myself, my writing, and my future. And it means I’m putting seemingly urgent and short-term demands before the truly important activities that will lead to accomplishing my long-term goals.
Instead, I push myself to write first thing in the morning (against my natural tendency) and the result is that I often don't spend as much time on other tasks as I wish I could. But guess what? Even with less preparation than I would like, everything is fine. Most importantly, writing every day keeps me productive in a way that allows me to have choices about my future. I often feel euphoric after my writing time because I know my overarching agenda is moving forward, I'm intellectually stimulated and bursting with new ideas, and I have made my daily investment in my long term success.
This week, I want to challenge you to do the following:
- Recommit yourself to 30-60 minutes of writing EVERY DAY this week.
- Try paying yourself first by writing in the morning before you do any other work or check your e-mail.
- At the end of the week, ask yourself: How does this feel?
- If you cannot pay yourself first, patiently and gently ask yourself, Why not?
- Every time you experience the impulse to be super-professor, stop, look around, and ask yourself: Who else is operating according to this standard?
- If you still haven't written your semester plan, it's not too late.
I hope that this week brings you the strength to pay yourself first, the discipline to write every day, and the joy of investing in your future!
Peace & Productivity,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore
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Anthropology Open Rank (Assistant, Associate, or Professor) of Anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts