Sunday, August 14, 2011

Relax

Around this time last year I wrote about my inability to disconnect from work while on vacation. This year was no different, even though I have a new baby to keep me occupied pretty much 24/7.

In contrast, my husband spent lots of time playing with the older kids (in the pool and at various fun parks and fairs) and he was also able to finish one of books from
"A Song of Ice and Fire" series (the book series behind the awesome "Game of Thrones" HBO show; btw, he says the books are fantastic!). My husband actually had a vacation.

I planned on reading as well and not checking email (or blogs for that matter) but was utterly unsuccessful in my plans. Even though I am on maternity leave (well, sort of; it just happens to be summer so I don't have to teach; he nonexistence of maternity leave for faculty at my university is a topic for another post), and quite busy with the new baby, I constantly think about work. (Part of it is that, as you nurse around the clock, you have a lot of time to think and not do much else.) I think about the proposal submission schedule (which one to the NSF in the Sept/Oct submission window and which one to DOE in October and when will I finish the white papers that I need to send to the DoD program managers I have spoken with this summer, and how do I get a hold of that one manager with whom I have been playing phone tag due to poor cell phone reception at vacation site...)

And my students and postdocs have been traveling and giving talks, and that one student who doesn't listen squat has sent me a presentation to look over 3 hours before his talk, and I know he won't practice because he never does and he sucks at presenting the big picture, and yes of course he had no questions afterwards because no one can follow what he says, and my blood pressure boils again, and the paper we are about to submit is 20 double-column pages and I want to cry just thinking about going through it yet again because he has made nontrivial changes and made it 4 pages longer than what I insisted was the final version... And the large multi-PI grant will be funded, but not at 100%, so what do we cut, or better yet whom do we cut, and another grant was supposed to start in July but the agency administrative person is on vacation so collaborators and I have to keep paying students off of other grants while the darn agency person sunbathes...

My husband criticizes me how I do nothing but sit at the computer (that's when I am not nursing around the clock or trying to get some shut-eye), why don't I read or relax. Why don't I pick up one of the books from his series? I honestly don't think that I can relax enough to commit to reading such a large amount of fiction any more; long gone are the days of me effortlessly devouring the volumetric kin of "War and Peace". Even blog posts that are too long make me twitchy.

I have some sort of ADD in which work thoughts permeate every waking hour, every coherent thought. The worries about funding are real and imminent, the pull from students and collaborators never ending. The field is moving fast and it is easy to become irrelevant.

How do you detach, how do you relax? How do you prevent work from infiltrating your every pore and taking over your life?

This is, of course, what Frankie Goes to Hollywood has to say on the topic:

16 comments:

postdoc said...

That's a pretty awful life to have, if you ask me (which I guess you don't). There's lots to say about a profession that does not allow its member to stop thinking about work a single minute for fear to become irrelevant in their fields. Is this a reasonable way to operate? Are we creating academics that can only thrive as long as they have ADD? Or is the profession per se that attracts these individuals, filtering them through the pipeline so that only the most workaholic of them make it to the top?

And most important, is GMP the rule or the exception?

GMP said...

postdoc, I am certainly on the high-strung end of the spectrum :). However, it is my general impression that people in academic science -- or any other highly competitive enterprise, for that matter -- often find it challenging to find balance between work and other aspects of their life.

Some are better than others at (re)gaining the balance, though, and this ability is probably a combination of personality, lifestyle, scientific field, age, career stage, and perhaps other factors...

Anonymous said...

I had the exact same issues when I was on maternity leave a few months ago, right down to the annoyingly obtuse student and absentee admin. I also couldn't figure out how to relax and detach from work. In retrospect, I wish I had because now that I'm back full time, I regret not enjoying the first months spent with my baby more fully. Work is always there but babies grow up or end up in daycare too fast.

Congratulations and good luck with juggling everything, GMP. My hope is that the US will soon catch up to the more enlightened countries that understand how important it is to allow mother and baby to bond without restrictions or distractions for the first year of life.

inBetween said...

I think you describe perfectly the life of a faculty member at an R1 university. You have to be like this to win at the competition, and a competition it is. I know that there are about 100 people who would be more than happy to take my job and work 70-80 hours a week at it.

Thank god for tenure. I mean this in more ways than one. First, it provides job security so that the pace can ebb and flow a bit more naturally.

But more importantly for my personal story is that I got treated like absolute shit during my tenure process. It was so bad that I actually got invited to lunch with the chancellor so that he could apologize (and hopefully head off my getting a lawyer). Combine this with a ridiculous amount of BS from colleagues in my discipline at around the same time and I hit a wall. I completely lost my passion for the rat race. I LOVED it before. I never took breaks. I probably worked 70-80 hour weeks for about 13 years straight. And it paid off in the academic success department. But this really compounded my bitterness at how I was treated.

I took a really big step back and set boundaries between work and personal life. I find them merging a bit more now that I have a baby; I can't just do work at work and life things at home or I would get absolutely nothing accomplished. But I now feel like my university doesn't deserve that kind of dedication, so it is easier for me to walk away when I have had enough. I even read "The Help" last week. It was a fun read, by the way.

I guess the question is, do you feel like it is too much? If not, then it isn't a problem. To be where you are you clearly have a passion for the science and the academic game. So it is a hobby as well as a job. If you do feel like you need more personal life space, then figuring out how to actually make it happen is more difficult. I hear you. I don't have an answer to that one, just my own experience (which I hope is unique).

nicoleandmaggie said...

Don't shoot me, but relaxation is over-rated. It's nice getting things done.

The part that gives you stress, sure, separate from that. But it may be more effective to target those stressors (deep breathing, cognitive restructuring etc.) than to put them off through reading a book.

Of course, I've been kind of a lazy bum since sabbatical... I need to get back into the swing of things. Maybe next week...

Dr. Dad, PhD said...

Although I'm not as far along in my career path as you, I haven't taken a vacation since my oldest son was born. He's in kindergarten now. And the last vacation before that was for my honeymoon 8 years ago (while in grad school). Yes, I'm potentially going down an ugly path, but I'm also trying to reign it in, and more importantly, take breaks when needed.

For instance, this year we're going on a 10-day family vacation. I'm not sure that it's a great idea to try this while 1) writing grants, 2) wrapping up papers, 3) trying to squeeze time into the lab, and 4) applying for TT jobs, but I also realize that a great opportunity presented itself and I could really use the break.

I also agree with nicoleandmaggie - I feel a great sense of accomplishment when I can get sh*t done on vacation. However, if I'm obsessing or stressing, I stop doing it.

Namnezia said...

I agree that GMP is on the tense end of the spectrum. If I don't take time off I basically can't function, so to me, I'm much more productive if I take vacations and disconnect from work as much as possible when I need to. We usually take at least a couple of weeks vacation during the summer and another two during winter break, and typically go away during spring break. You just have to plan carefully and make time to relax, otherwise things get bad.

Dr. Sneetch said...

I'm pretty much like this too -- cannot disengage. I'm not sure it is a problem though unless you think it is. If this works then so be it.

Cloud said...

The only time I really fully disengaged from work- as in I didn't even think about it at all- was when I took a 4 month leave of absence to travel. I was totally out of touch, I'd finished up my project before I left (I was a contractor at the time), and I even stopped dreaming about work. Interestingly, my 3 month maternity leaves, I still thought about work- even answered a few emails.

BUT- I do go on vacation and relax. I set limits to how much work email I'll deal with (if any, but my jobs usually require that I stay in contact to at least respond to emergencies). I don't min if my brain spends some spare cycles on work related problems, and I'll take notes if I think of anything I consider particularly useful. Still, I do disconnect and relax, and I consider that crucial to being able to come back and fully engage again. I am trying to think of how I do it, and I don't really know. Alcohol? That helps, but I manage even when I'm still nursing and therefore not drinking much. I don't know. If I come up with it, I'll come back and post.

I also agree with @Nicoleandmaggie- sometimes just getting stuff done is the best stress relief. But I also find that yoga helps when I'm really wound up from some work thing but past my brain's useful work limit. I know. Yoga. How stereotypically Californian. But it works for m

Alex said...

There's two different ways that work can intrude on your mind during a vacation: demands and deadlines can weigh on your mind, or the creativity can flow. Critiquing drafts for students and answering email is usually the bad kind of intrusion. However, getting creative ideas while on vacation, or seeing a solution to an intellectually stimulating problem while relaxing, these are rewarding uses of a vacation. I make no apology for the fact that while enjoying the company of my little nephews I finally understood a subtle mathematical issue. Relaxing and going to a child-like state was exactly what I needed.

Hermitage said...

I really think you need to stop helping this perpetually incompetent student. If the paper is 4 pages too long, refuse to look at it until it at least passes that test. If she/he's fighting you at every turn to the point where you must do everything yourself, why don't you just threaten to put yourself first and him/her second if they don't get their shit together?

PQA said...

I practice mindfulness. I try to pay attention to the physical world around me rather then my intangible stress. So if I walk to the bathroom I concentrate on feeling my feet as I walk, when I wash my hands I concentrate on the feel of the water on my hands. When I walk outside to go home I notice the feeling of the breeze on my face and so forth etc.

This doesn't actually take any extra time, but is excellent at shutting down my hyper active brain and forcing it to focus elsewhere. It also helps me realize how good I have it. It is a simple practice, you might want to look into it.

frautech said...

I totally get this. I'm so mentally into my work most of the time it's hard to relax and separate. Usually on a weekend by Sunday night I am finally starting to let go. Too little too late. Not sure what the answer is if you are a Type A. I've seen people who have very separate home lives still be incredibly successful I'm industry. But for me it's like I have to be "on" always so as not to get left behind.

Alix said...

Wow I am an assistant prof at an R1 and even on the tenure track I am more relaxed!! The tension in this post was just electric! I really recommend taking a good look at your whole attitude that you *can't* relax. It sounds more like you "won't". And what's at stake here? Delayed grants, annoying students, long papers that need to be edited. These are all really small issues. Perhaps all this is getting to you more due to fatigue from the newborn? I just painted my nails and will sunbathe a little. I recommend the equivalent. (Of course I have a very serious chronic illness which tends to put it all in perspective. Don't let it come to that before you realize life is too short!!)

Crystal Voodoo said...

I hear this all too often from TT professors particularly in the R1 universities. The truly sad thing is that in opposition to this you have people like me who love writing the manuscripts and grants and would gladly free up your time for kids and classes and research in exchange for a moderately decent salary. Unfortunately professional writers are considered a luxury and few departments have them, which means I'm stuck at the bench until I can find myself a TT position and have postdocs and grad students of my own.

In regards to the work/life balance I've had a strict "no work past my door" rule in place since grad school and it helps immensely. The mental off-switch generally improves my mood and my sleeping habits.

Anonymous said...

I can recall also having those manic, non-stop work thoughts when nursing a young baby. I think there is something about the sleep disturbance that sets your brain on a running loop of thoughts that are very hard to interrupt. As a fellow TT with small kids, I blame your constant work thoughts on breastfeeding ;) It's much easier to get some distance and perspective (e.g., more down time, less stress) when you are sleeping through the night.