Taking Your Work With You

Summer vacations, weekends, and the lack thereof -- in and out of academia.

July 15, 2012

It’s something I got used to as an academic: always working, always having my work around me, whether at home or in the office. My department chair warned me too: if I didn’t like being surrounded with books and manuscripts and articles and assignments and ideas and the reminders that they offered – deadlines for reading and writing books and manuscripts and articles and assignments – then I definitely shouldn’t pursue my PhD.

I dropped out for other reasons, I should make that clear here, because I really do love being surrounded by these things – by the books on the shelves, by the open tabs in my Web browsers, by my notes scribbled by pen and in Evernote, by story ideas and drafts and questions unanswered and articles unwritten.

And I can’t help but note the irony that the new non-academic life I’ve carved for myself as a freelance writer echoes much of the work I did in the academic world: I’m always working, I always have my work around me.

I should be clear here that I love what I do. And I’m not complaining about working long hours, working weekends, and – as I see many of my academic colleagues tackle projects they wouldn’t get to during the school year, working year ’round. It’s all par for the course.  I did laugh, I'll admit, when I calculated the number of blog posts written on my education blog Hack Education and realized that I'd barely missed a day, let alone taking any "vacation time" from it.

We tend to point the finger nowadays not at the ways in which academia makes us live with our work, but at the ways in which new technologies have altered what it means to be "on the clock."  And I should clarify too:  nor do I want to wring my hands over the ubiquity of Internet-connected devices and the ways in which they’ve changed demands on our time – particularly work-related demands. It was something that I did start to resent as a grad student when my university-mandated office hours went unattended, but my email inbox was inundated 24–7 with students’ requests for help.

Nowadays, I’ve learned to work around those demands. Or more accurately, I don’t always pay a lot of attention to email. I make my own hours – they’re long hours, true, but they’re interruptible and flexible. I know how to close myself off from outside interruptions – digital or otherwise, whether it makes correspondents (and editors and bosses) happy or not.

Of course, these demands don’t just come from email. They come from Twitter and Facebook and blog comments. My iPhone asks me when I install new apps if I want to turn notifications on. And no, mostly, I don’t.

It’s taken years for me to do so, but I’ve learned how to create a work-life balance that works for me. And admittedly, it’s fairly “work” heavy. It has to be, I suppose, as someone who has to hustle as a freelance writer. But I do wonder sometimes if this skill – something that I first honed as a grad student surrounded by assignments and projects with firm and open-ended deadlines – isn’t something that has application well beyond folks like myself.

I’m always curious:

How do others handle this question of work-life balance? Do you feel like the digital world has changed the demands on your time? Do you see that work as “extra” or “optional” or as part of the job description? Do you think we’re all working more? And if so, what are the skills and techniques we need to help students master so that they can decide the what and when and why they answer emails at 8pm on a Sunday or respond to their employer’s demands for a weekend- full of work?

And if “work” has bled over into “life” and there's no going back -- big if's there -- how then do we reiterate the importance of working on what you love?


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