Many women academics feel overwhelmed by everything they must manage at work, leaving little room for other parts of their lives. During hectic semesters, lengthy to-do lists just seem to get longer no matter how much time, effort, and energy they expend. Instead of getting much needed rest at night or on weekends, they often force themselves to work even harder.
This lack of boundaries has been exacerbated by a seemingly never-ending pandemic. It’s become far too easy to console ourselves with thoughts like, “Everyone’s burnt out right now. I’ll just relax over the summer!” Sound familiar?
In my work as a writing coach for women academics, we identify the client’s core values and use them as a compass for making decisions about work. I’d like to share how one of my clients, who I’ll call Tiffany, has used her core values to take back control of her time.
As an assistant professor at a research-intensive university, Tiffany juggled an overly packed teaching and mentoring schedule as well as 12 different research projects. Hoping to start a family soon, Tiffany had zero time for her personal life. A self-proclaimed master procrastinator, she was in the habit of putting off certain projects to the point where she missed deadlines, sometimes by months. Her chronic procrastination provoked endless stress and anxiety that spiraled into negative judgments about herself and her job.
We explored Tiffany’s core values to identify areas that were out of balance. Autonomy emerged as one of her dominant values. Her definition of it: “having a choice over how I spend my time”— something that most academics can relate to! Using this value as a guide, it became clear that the projects which had dragged on longest were ones she accepted out of obligation or convenience rather than true interest.
I asked the young professor to rank her projects according to the amount of autonomy she felt she had over them. Tiffany quickly pinpointed the three she felt most resistant to because she perceived herself as having no choice whether to do them or not. From there, we were able to start developing a plan to clear these off her plate.
However, we couldn’t stop there because Tiffany still needed to find the motivation to complete these projects. Despite her disinterest, she was still holding herself to incredibly high standards that made the work so much harder.
I asked where she could relax her standards. Her face lit up as she answered, “None of these projects have any real career repercussions, so I might as well turn them into things I want to do!” In one case, Tiffany had been trying to force herself to master a whole new scholarly literature for a book chapter already two months overdue. With this new mental reframing, she saw how it would be faster, easier, and even more interesting to just organize it around her own research.
Once Tiffany clears her plate of these “one and done” projects, she will reclaim immense amounts of time and energy that can be invested in creating the overall life she desires. Guided by her core values, she can make more informed choices about what to take on moving forward. And with consistent practice, she will hopefully be able to avoid the overwhelm-anxiety-procrastination cycle altogether.
I asked Tiffany to create some criteria to assess future work obligations, with the aim of avoiding procrastination and overwhelm. She came up with three questions I encourage everyone to ask themselves before accepting any new work request:
Is this something I actually want to do, and how much?
Is there any personal or professional benefit to me doing it, and what would that be?
Do I have the time to commit to this (assuming it will take at least twice as long as it appears right now)?
Blindly taking on responsibilities that don’t align with your values is a recipe for burnout. Liberation from this cycle is simple, though not easy: say no to the things you don’t want to do. This is within reason, of course, since there’s some things you can’t get out of doing.
But think about it this way: by turning down certain opportunities that are not intrinsically meaningful, you are saying yes to yourself and the life you want to lead. Saying no early on may cause some short-term discomfort, but in the long run, it will set you free.
Leslie K. Wang (she/her/hers) is a writing coach, author, and professional speaker who helps women scholars publish books that matter. After spending a decade on the tenure-track, she recently transitioned to full-time coaching. Read more about her work at YourWordsUnleashed.com or listen to her podcast.