What to do when you can’t get it together- Fall Semester 2018

At the start of the semester, I intended to blog every Friday, reflecting on the teaching and learning experiences of the week. Here it is the end of October, more than halfway through the semester, and I’m writing my first post. I could give you a list of reasons/excuses why this happened-family health crises, travel, family life, other work priorities, I technically have no readers anyway-but whatever the reasons, I just can’t seem to get it together. This week was a little better, but I still have that “winging it” feeling, and that’s way out of my comfort zone. I’m a planner, an organizer, a goal achiever, a Type A, INTJ, generally uptight and fully together sort. So, I’m not only feeling disorganized, I’m feeling anxious about feeling disorganized. It’s making for a fun semester.  Finding a chipmunk in my classroom didn’t help either, but that’s a story for another day.

However, because I live my life as a life-long learner, today I’m taking some time to record what I’ve learned from my minor disintegration. There’s probably something else I should be doing on this rainy Saturday, but I can’t remember what it is before I have some more coffee. And if I never have any readers, at least I’ll have this post for my own edification during the next “semester from hell.”

The first lesson I learned is that you cannot skimp on self-care. Influenced by my health coach and yoga teachers, I’ve become a bit of a crusader for this concept this semester. No matter what is swirling around you, you will NOT make things better by neglecting sleep, healthy eating, exercise, and sunlight. Make a daily self-care routine and stick to it. The little extras like a clean and comfortable work space, nice smells, and some time for non-work things like hobbies, facials, or cuddles with the dog don’t hurt either. Show yourself some grace and patience, the same grace and patience that you hopefully grant to others when you see them struggling. You cannot live on caffeine and to-do lists alone.

Second, don’t fall into the trap of productive procrastination. Overwhelmed me (I should really give her a name. My husband calls it squirrel brain. He keeps saying “Cage the squirrel, Honey.”) loves to organize last year’s exam papers and thank you notes from students, do the dishes, travel down the twitter rabbit hole looking for course content, or make new to-do lists and file systems. She’s convinced that she can’t handle everything she has to do, so she finds other “good” things to occupy her time to avoid engaging with the real stuff. This semester I’ve learned to keep a list of “low hanging fruit” tasks, things that move me towards my real goals but don’t take a lot of time or, frankly, brain power. I turn to those when I start to get off track. I’ve also blocked off Deep Work time without interruptions at my most productive times of day. That’s when I tackle the big tasks in 45 minute intervals. It’s like HIIT for my brain, and I’ve been truly amazed by what I’ve accomplished in short periods of time.

Third, learn to delegate and ask for help. With limited time and mental resources, I have had to decide when it is truly best for me to engage with a task or to pass it on to someone else. I don’t like handing off tasks, generally. I am a bit of a control freak and a recovering perfectionist. But when you literally can’t do everything you need to do in 24 hours, you learn. I’ve learned. Some of the things I’ve outsourced surprised me. Grocery shopping and wandering around Target with a latte has been replaced by online grocery orders, my husband and son doing the meal planning, and/or a meal delivery service. Instead of doing everything in the classroom alone, I found some wonderful volunteers in students from previous classes who are answering questions online during lecture and running study groups for my largest course. Now, I look at tasks with a critical eye. Am I the best person for this job? If not, who would be? Does saying yes mean I have to say no to something more important in my life?

Which leads me to another point, sometimes you have to say no. I hate saying no to exciting things, but there are only so many hours in the day. I finally made a list of all my commitments, especially at work, and the amount of time and energy they require. For now, if an opportunity arises, I make myself physically cross something off that list to add something new. It’s a reality check. I have to weigh pros and cons, costs and benefits before I say yes. It’s wrong to commit to wonderful things that I can’t actually do in a wonderful way. And I have to sleep some time.

Finally, enjoy the fact that there are natural resets in the day and the week and the year. After lunch can be different than before lunch. (Are you hangry?) Tomorrow is another day. The weekend is coming (What weekend? say the academics). A new year is on its way and with it a new semester. Winter is coming, but it is not forever. Okay, enough with the cliches, you know what I mean. When you feel buried in life, that newness that comes from a reset event can be inspiring and encouraging. Use that.

While all these ideas have been really helpful, I still feel out of sorts. I’m still anxious about my goals and my classes. And don’t you even talk to me about the holidays, at least not if you want to be friends. But it’s the weekend, tomorrow is another day, my students are learning, and I will survive the semester. And look at all I’ve learned. I was recently told by a very old friend that I’m much calmer than I used to be. As his role in my life has always been telling me the absolute, unvarnished truth, I’m encouraged. If I seem calmer during this semester, just think how relaxed I’ll be when life’s stresses are a little less. Cage the squirrel, my friends.Image result for crazy squirrel gif