best of 2009: learning experience

What was a lesson you learned this year that changed you?

I became a professor because I value learning. I wanted to be in a place where I learned something every day and I often say I learn as much from students as they do from me. However, in 2009 I came to the realization not only that I take on way too much but also the damage saying yes to too many things can do. I'm sure I'm not saying anything new to my female readers. I think women have a tendency to just keep going, keep taking on projects, to do lists. We need to prove, somehow, that we can do it all. Here's something I want you to remember: it's okay to say no, I cannot bake 45 cupcakes by tomorrow for your school whatever. It's okay to say, "While I'm flattered you'd like me to serve on that committee, I really don't have the time such a task really deserves." You are not lazy, or a failure when you say no. This is something I needed to learn this year and I learned the very hard way. I took on too many new projects, students, and committees this year. I think my teaching, my health and my well being suffered.

I heard other people say no. A male colleague quickly and easily told someone he felt uncomfortable serving on a university wide committee and I was seriously jealous of that response. I don't know if I feel pressure as a new tenure-track faculty member to say yes to all projects that cross my path because I need to prove my worth or if it's that I am hesitant to say no in general. Maybe some of both. I think the problem is that until now, I haven't known my overwhelmed threshold. I think we all have one, a point where we can clearly see we cannot do one more thing and then we find ourselves agreeing to something else.

I learn things the hard way; just ask my mother. I'm stubborn and determined and it never occurs to me that I cannot do something. This attitude is often my downfall. It is my Achilles' heel. I am able to succeed because I just keep pushing myself but I also don't know when to stop myself.

I had no idea what teaching a 4/4 load would be like. I had no concept of the time and effort involved in teaching that many students, prepping for those classes and grading those projects before I did it. And then I survived my first year. I took deep breaths and I took the summer off. I began Fall semester refreshed and confident and a bit forgetful of how hard we have to work, as female academics. And then I said yes about 3 too many times and it all fell apart. I could feel it slipping away after midterm. I knew I was falling and I got terribly sick from it all near the end of the semester.

So, what I learned and what I'm taking into the new year is that I need to learn to prioritize. Yeah, it sounds both obvious and ridiculous at the same time but stick with me. As a graduate student, one of my mentors told me that I needed to make lists to help me manage feeling so overwhelmed. I like these lists because it boils things down to categories that you cannot ignore. I wrote about her suggestion at the time. You can read the original post here.

Step One: Divide everything you have to do for the month, semester, whatever time frame applies, into a major list. Call this the major to do list.

Step Two: Categorize things “to do” into the following categories:
1. WWE: The World Will End (i.e. If I don’t deposit my checks in the bank, bills won’t get paid, Michelle will leave me, the world will end).
2. DWL: Deal with Later (These items will eventually become part of WWE or NMP).
3. NMP: Not my Problem
4. Anxiety Box

Step 2a: The Anxiety Box is an imaginary vessel for your anxieties. You must ask a friend, someone who does not live with you and with whom you can share your darkest and deepest secrets to be the keeper of this Anxiety Box. So let’s say I’m working on a syllabus and I am struggling because it reminds me somehow of how anxious I am about writing my self-evaluation because last semester went so badly and then I start thinking about what I'll do if the students don't like me... or something as equally parlayzing and I can’t get anything done. I can call Oren and say, “Can you put this anxiety about next semester and stick it in my anxiety box?” He says, “Sure.”

Now, the rule is that you can ask for your anxiety back and the keeper must return it to you. But most of the time this does not happen.

I'm adding a caveat here because I think it's important to acknowledge and feel all of the emotions we have, irrational as they may be.

You can have 5 minutes to feel anxious, worried, afraid, whatever it is that you need to feel before shuffling it to the anxiety box. Once those minutes are up, let it go!

Step 3. Get on with the WWE items.

These kinds of priority lists will help me to realize what's important to me and focus on my energy on those things instead of oh, a million other things I cannot control.

Danielle Laporte has asked, "What's your stop doing list?" Because what we won't do, the mistakes we won't repeat, the projects we won't take on, the distractions we will no longer use as crutches, are just as important for the successes of what we want to do in the new year.

My number one: I'm going to stop taking on projects simply because I'm afraid to hurt someone's feelings/scared of what (s)he'll think of me if I say no/because it would be good for my CV to say yes. Instead, I'm going to take on projects I feel passionate about and be honest with myself about my own limitations.

I'm going to keep thinking about my stopping list and I'll post more items on my stopping list throughout the new year as a way to remind myself to be conscious of what I'm saying yes to and why.