I believe that I have caught myself just this side of a major case of burnout.
If that sentence is an exaggeration, it’s not by much. A few friends who had the dubious pleasure of talking with me just after I arrived at THATCamp Leadership last week can attest that I showed up with an attitude that was in need of a little adjustment. Whenever I was asked how I was, I’d find myself starting out by saying “things are great,” which I meant, but which gradually gave way to a Five-Minute Complaint. I kept trying to stop myself, but it kept bubbling over. I’d hit some kind of limit, and my self-censor was just gone.
It wasn’t that I was unhappy about being where I was; I was very pleased to be back at George Mason, to be seeing my friends, to be participating in an event that promised to be both important and energizing.
It wasn’t that I was unhappy about where I’d just come from; I’d had an excellent, if action-packed, visit to talk with faculty and administrators at an institution thinking seriously about its digital initiatives in the humanities.
It was more that where I was and where I’d just come from were on the tail end of five solid weeks of travel and committee meetings, involving eight cities (not counting New York) and more planes, trains, and automobiles (and one unexpected van) than I can count.
It was thirteen nights in eight hotels over a five-week period, capped off with a musty room with two double beds (rather than one king) on a low floor (rather than a high one) with an industrial rooftop right outside my window (rather than pretty much any other view possible from that building).
Something about that room was the last straw, the thing that sent me right over the edge into a bitter litany of complaint aimed at anyone who would listen. But it wasn’t the room, and it wasn’t the trip: it was everything I’d gotten myself into over the previous month and a half, and — especially — knowing full well that I’d done it to myself. That no one was responsible for where I was, or for the mood I was in, except me.
I’ve spent the week-plus since trying to how to rectify this situation, how to pull myself back from the edge of complete flaming disaster. (1) Because, of course, my major projects did not grind to a halt in the office while I was traveling. Nor did the deadlines for the writing I’ve promised people this fall get any further away. It has become painfully clear that something has got to give — or that something will be me. And so, after a lot of thought, I think I’ve figured out what I need to do in order to make things better.
I need to do less.
* * *
You would be fully justified in rolling your eyes at this point. Because, yeah, duh. But this is a lesson that I have had to teach myself over and over.
I can read about the importance of significant downtime and totally get it. I can even go so far as to write about the degree to which stress has become the contemporary sign of our salvation or about the role of goofing off in the most important, most creative work that I do.
But I somehow cannot internalize it all enough to refrain from over-scheduling myself. Or at least I have not done so. And even when I think I’ve done a good job of protecting myself, of determining what’s enough and trying not to go beyond it, I manage to cram enough tiny things in around the edges that I end up just as over-scheduled and exhausted as ever.
* * *
If I’m going to be completely honest with myself — and this is hard — a huge percentage of this over-scheduling is about ego. People like my work enough to want me to come talk to them, and they’re nice to me when I get there, and that feels awfully, awfully good. (2) There’s of course also a general people-pleasing aspect to the difficulties I have turning down requests. And as long as I’m at it I’ll acknowledge that I’ve also fallen under the spell of competitive busyness; every time somebody says “I don’t know how you do it” about my travel schedule I get a sad little boost.
Ha, I don’t know how I do it either.
I feel as though I’ve been able to do some good out there in my travels — as though I’ve been able to help some departments and institutions jumpstart some much-needed conversations, and as though I’ve been able to help demonstrate some of the possibilities for the academy’s future. But I also know, when I’m willing to look at it squarely, that I’ve gotten a lot out of just feeling important. But that’s finally wearing thin, and the toll is beginning to make itself known.
* * *
It’s perhaps not a coincidence that during this same period I’ve found myself withdrawing from the various venues where I engage with colleagues and other folks online. I haven’t been very present on Twitter, and I certainly haven’t posted here. Some of that withdrawal has been about not having enough time or space or whatever to devote to figuring out whether I had anything worth saying. Some of it has been about a level of conflict of late that I haven’t had the energy to face.
In any case, for someone whose job is focused on fostering productive online engagements, this withdrawal has not seemed to me a Good Sign, and it’s been one more thing that’s had me worried.
But I’m now thinking that the withdrawal is in part about the conservation of energy, and as such may not have been such a bad thing after all. Total disengagement would be a problem. But disengaging enough to restore oneself, in order to be better prepared to re-engage, is utterly, utterly necessary.
It’s like sleep. It’s cyclical. And you’ll go crazy without it.
* * *
I’ve been reading a fair bit of self-help type stuff of late, partially (3) because I’m interested in the genre, in how it can describe and shape lived experience, and in the purposes it might serve in a scholarly context, and in part because I have felt myself in need of something that might help me personally figure out a better path. A more manageable way of being in the world.
Among the things I’ve read lately is Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz’s The Power of Full Engagement, which, if they’ll forgive me, is a rotten title for a very important book. (4) The key lesson in the book — heck, it’s in the subtitle, but if you’re interested, read farther than that — is that our belief that the resource we are shortest on, the thing that if only we had more of we could do what we need to do, is time, is dead wrong. In fact, the resource we are shortest on is energy, and we resist many of the things we need to do in order to conserve and restore our energy because they look to us like enormous wastes of time.
However, it’s clear that those wastes of time are precisely the things that allow us to step out of the barrage of the urgent long enough to discover, focus on, and make room for the important. In order to be genuinely engaged where it most matters, in other words, you have to find regular, routine ways to disengage. And to somebody as completely inculcated into our always-on, more more more culture as I am, that disengagement does not come easily.
Or at least it doesn’t come easily in a productive form. But it’s becoming clear that if I don’t figure out some better strategies for managing productive disengagement, a few much more damaging modes of disengagement are lurking just around the corner.
* * *
So, doing less. It’s not just a matter of saying no to more things. I keep trying to find some quantitative limit for how much I can do — no more than one trip every two weeks! no more than three major service commitments! — and yet it keeps not working. The over-extendedness just gets worse.
I finally realized something about why last week. In talking with my coach (5) about the issue, it suddenly became clear that the problem is the nature of the quantitative itself. If I set a limit of four trips per semester, it becomes very hard to distinguish between four trips and four with one little add-on. Or five, for that matter. With maybe one small side thing tucked in there too. And something local, because that’s not really a trip. And next thing you know, I have a calendar filled with five solid weeks of three-city trips and am railing at my friends over cocktails.
It’s the nature of the more more more culture: if you can run two miles, isn’t it better to run five? If you can write an article about something, isn’t it better to turn it into a book? If you can speak in four places this semester, isn’t it better to add on just… one… more…?
The quantitative will do you in every time, precisely because so much of how we operate is all about finding our limits and pushing past them. So it’s becoming clear to me that I’ve got to turn my attention to the qualitative, if I’m going to change anything, even if it’s not entirely clear what in this context the qualitative might mean.
* * *
One key to the qualitative, I think, is figuring out how to determine what’s important, and how to separate it from what’s just nice, or ego-gratifying, or adding to the frequent-flyer record. But the real challenge in that is that I don’t mean “important” in some externally-defined sense: what’s best going to further my career goals, or promote my organization, or what have you. I mean what is most important in a very personal sense: what’s most in line with the things I value, the things I want to be, the ways I want to live. What’s going to support me not just in getting more done, but in doing what I most want to do, and doing it better.
What am I doing it all for, is the question I keep asking myself.
* * *
As I’ve been working on this post, I’ve been hoping that some conclusion would present itself to me, some anecdote that would cheerily illustrate everything I’m pondering here. I’m not sure that anything can; I’m not sure that concluding, in fact, is the right way to end this line of thought. As the links above might suggest, I’ve written too many times before about the need to recalibrate and reshape the way I’m living, and yet. Here I am. Again.
I had, however, a near-perfect day yesterday. I did a bit of work in the morning, and then went and got a fantastic haircut, and had a great lunch with a friend I haven’t seen in eons, and then headed back home. And on a whim, I told R. that I wanted to take a walk in the park. Rather than push it, though, in the ways that I usually do (surely you can go a little faster!), I let myself just… walk. A bit faster than a stroll. Kind of an amble. It only took about five minutes longer than usual to make the loop of the park, and in the process, I got to do two really important things. I got to spend the hour really talking with R., and I got to look around.
And the trees. If it’s not peak leaf around here yet, at least a few of the trees are there: flaming reds and yellows mixed in amongst the still-rich greens. It was absolutely gorgeous, the best moment of my favorite season.
It’s uncomfortably obvious (see footnote 5 above) to point out that it will all be gone in the blink of an eye. But it will be. And I’m grateful, really really grateful, not to have missed it.
That’s what I’m doing it for. That’s what I want to keep my eye on. How the things I elect to do can better contribute to my ability to engage with the here and now, and, when I need to recover, can let me gently disengage.
I do not know how. But I do know why. And that’s at least a start.
- Okay, that one’s an exaggeration. ↩
- I’ll just go ahead and admit here tucked away at the bottom of this post how much I identified with Sally Field’s “you really like me” moment, and how personally I took the grief she was given over it. Because, seriously, if you’re not a little bit shocked every time somebody likes something you do, the inside of your head is a very different place than the inside of mine. ↩
- Says the scholar desperate to justify her more pedestrian engagements with the world. ↩
- Schwartz is quoted in the “downtime” story I linked to a ways back. ↩
- Yes, I have a coach. And she’s awesome. She’s helped me sort out a whole series of issues related to my new career path in ways that have been productive for me. But there’s still something in the phrase “my coach” that makes me just as uncomfortable as the statement that I’ve been reading a bunch of self-help literature, as if it were some kind of admission that I am underneath the scholarly veneer so simple that my issues can be understood and helped in the most facile ways possible. It is not at all unlike the discomfort with AA evidenced by so many of the characters in Infinite Jest, who are at great pains not to admit that, as Don Gately notes, “It starts to turn out that the vapider the AA cliché, the sharper the canines of the real truth it covers.” It’s me, whether I like it or not. ↩
This post is likely little more than a bit of ritual throat-clearing, designed to help me get past a stage in the trying-to-write-again process in which I simply cannot get myself to focus on what it is that I need to write (promised articles coming due in very rapid succession) and yet cannot find a way to noodle around with something new, either. The result is that I find myself looking guiltily at this space, thinking I should be writing something here, that it might help get me going again, but finding myself with nothing much worth writing about.
It’s not as though I’m not writing, though, all-day-every-day: memos and reports and email messages and proposals and even one very big important project for the day job. It’s just that all of that has taken a tremendous amount of energy off the top of the thing I persist in thinking of as “my own writing.” But deadlines are pressing, and I find myself flailing around a bit, looking for that magical point of entry into these articles.
And so, I’m back into my too frequently forgotten strategies: sitting down at the computer first thing in the morning, before the day’s demands get the opportunity to make themselves known; doing whatever freewriting I need to do to get myself loosened up; consulting the notes I’ve made about the projects in front of me.
This post is a moment of knuckle-cracking before I set fingers to keyboard, hoping that the loosened-up hands will magically tap out the answers. Wish me luck.
I honestly don’t know what’s worse: that I never knew these lyrics at all until @Karnythia linked to them in the context of #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, or that I have not been able to shake the mouth-full-of-marbles version I’ve heard since childhood ever since.
I mean, I knew it was racist and sexist in that generalized “boy, aren’t YOU exotic! I could just eat you up” kind of way — which is to say, little worse than most rock music. But now it’s become the world’s most vile earworm.
I’m horrified that I didn’t know. And I’m disgusted that I can’t get rid of it.
As I posted a while back, I’ve been on an extended European trip this summer, beginning with several conferences, followed by a pretty blissful four-week stint in Prague. As week four begins today, and as I see this trip beginning to draw to a close, I’ve been reflecting a bit on how it all went, and how to carry some of this feeling with me back home.
When folks have asked me lately how my vacation has been, my instinct has been to say “great! It’s been super productive!” Which causes people to blink, or shake their heads, or otherwise give me the you’re doing it wrong look.
Perhaps it’s true that I’m doing it wrong. I’ve never been terribly good, though, at doing the things one is supposed to do on vacation or on a trip to a new place. I’m not a sight-seer. I don’t feel compelled to visit the national landmarks and museums. I do, however, like to sit still, to let myself really be where I am, and to let my brain wander where it will. Where it will wander, when given the chance, is often to reading, or writing, to new projects or new directions for in-process projects.
For this reason, for me, the “working vacation” is not a contradiction in terms, not a capitulation to the always-on logic of the new economy. It’s one of the best ways for me to retreat from the busyness — or the business — of the day-to-day and focus on the things that matter to me, whatever they might be.
My time in Prague has been a working vacation in a most literal sense: most of my time has been charged as vacation, but some of it has been charged as remote working. I’ve kept up with a much-streamlined version of the things going on in my office, I’ve handled some small much-delayed tasks, and I’ve used the rest of my remote working time to focus in on one large day-job project of the sort that I would never have been able to get to during the normal 9-to-5, a substantive chunk of writing that required distance just to get space on my agenda.
The rest of my time has been spent on my own projects. I’ve drafted an essay, I’ve begun sketching out another one, and I’ve read a lot. And for the first time in eons, I’ve found that reading scholarship has been just as much fun as reading fiction.
I’ve had fantastic meals, and I’ve slept a ton, and I’ve spent time hanging out with friends and watching television series that I missed. But being able to be just selfish enough about my time to restart my reading brain again has been really exciting. That self-directedness has made this time both enormously restorative and enormously productive — and perhaps productive precisely because it was so restorative, and restorative precisely because it was so productive.
In a week, I’ll be returning to the more socially-oriented aspects of my job, and I’ll undoubtedly discover just how much of the usual business my colleagues kept out of my inbox while I was gone. I’m grateful to them for that, and to my boss for the willingness to negotiate this working vacation with me. I’m looking forward to returning to the office with renewed energy — and hoping to find ways to maintain the space for creative thought that I’ve had the luxury of rediscovering this month.
Consider this a plea for help:
This site has been through some serious migrations over the years. It’s had two different hosting providers and three different blog platforms, among other kinds of changes. As a result, its permalink structure has changed over time, and I’ve had to use mod_rewrite to grapple with redirecting old inbound links to where they need to go.
By and large, I’ve been able to manage this. I’ve got one big lingering problem, however, that results from neither a server nor a platform migration.
For several years, Planned Obsolescence ran on a single-site WordPress installation, with pretty
/%postname%/ permalinks. A little while back, I got the bright idea that I should consolidate it with a few other WP instances I was running, through one clean multi-site installation.
This is now the main site of that multi-site instance. But multi-site WP adds
/blog/ to the URLs of all posts in that main site. And so inbound links that are looking for
http://www.plannedobsolescence.net/post-title get 404′d.
I have searched around, both within wordpress.org and out in the larger internets, for a way to use htaccess to redirect such inbound links to
http://www.plannedobsolescence.net/blog/post-title. But I’ve run into several problems, most notably, infinite redirect loops: even when I include a
!blog condition in the rewrite rule, the request still gets caught in some redirect vortex. I also need to make sure that a few pages and secondary blog directories don’t wind up with
/blog/ added to their URLs.
I’ve created a 404 page that attempts to explain the problem, and I should probably just let it go at that, but knowing all those errors are out there makes my OCD kick in. So if there were a mod_rewrite guru out there willing to help me work through this problem, I’d be enormously grateful.
I have once again missed my own anniversary. It turns out that June 18, the day I launched this summer’s adventure, was the day this blog turned 11.
Eleven! Planned Obsolescence is fully a tween, alternately chatty and sulky. Here’s looking forward to seeing how it develops from here.
One would think, this many years and books and articles into a writing career, that I might have solved the getting-started problem by now. Or if not the getting-started problem, then at least the keeping-going problem. Not so much, though.
When I was a faculty member, writing often got back-burnered during the semester. Not always intentionally: I’d plan time in my schedule to do some bits of reading and writing intended to keep my projects moving forward, but gradually that time would be overcome by teaching work, chairing duties, committee obligations, and the like. I’d find myself at the end of the semester, at last facing open space in my schedule, and I’d think Okay. Where was I? And inevitably the need to get my bearings in the project again took longer than I wanted, heightening the sense that my limited work time was still being sucked away by things beyond my control.
My current situation is only somewhat different. I’m in a 12-month position now, and while my calendar doesn’t ever really reach those points of hiatus at which all the other obligations fall away, I do have the extraordinary luxury of time away during the summer, a combination of vacation and remote working that allows me to turn my focus at least in significant part back to the thing I refer to as “my own work.”
The challenge I’m facing today, however, is trying to remember what my own work is, and this is where I think I’ve completely blown it in my second year in my new position. My running joke, when people ask me about how my transition to the new job has gone, has been to say something about the shock of finding oneself in a 12-month, 9-to-5 gig after 20 years on the academic calendar, but then to point out that, by way of compensation, I’ve discovered this thing called a “weekend.”
It always gets a laugh, especially among academics: the notion of the weekend is a crazy luxury. Two full days to do whatever you want with! And you get them every week! And that doesn’t even take into account the fact that most of my evenings belong to me as well. Very often, in fact, work can be contained within work hours — an amazing concept, that.
During my first year in the new gig, I worked hard to protect my evenings and weekends, and I mostly did a good job of it, primarily because I was so exhausted from the intensity of the 9-to-5 days. In year two, I’ve found myself a little better adjusted to the rhythm of the days, but (perhaps as a result) I feel as though I’ve gotten declining benefits out of my weekends. A good bit of the problem is totally self-induced: I’ve travelled way too much lately, and a lot of that travel has of necessity spilled over into evenings and weekends. And then there’s been the deluge of personal stuff that has taken up out-of-office time: apartment stuff, moving stuff, life stuff.
So there are perfectly understandable reasons for it, and yet I find myself here, facing a small window in which I can focus my attention largely on writing, with zero sense whatsoever of where I am, and what I should be doing.
Don’t get me wrong: I have a list of small writing projects that need to get done in the next few weeks, articles and chapters that I’ve promised people, the obvious stuff to turn to first. The question, though, is about the overall direction of my writing. Back in October, I sketched out two potential Big Projects that I imagined working on — but now, eight months later, I feel so distant from that moment and those sketches that I cannot imagine being able to pick either project up and get going.
I’m sure that over the next several weeks I’ll either remember what it was I wanted to work on or imagine a wholly new project. My challenge to myself for the coming year, however, is to keep that project in sight. I do not want to convert my evenings and weekends wholesale into just more work time, doing away with the benefits of the 9-to-5 schedule without the compensations of the academic life to balance their loss. But on the other hand, if I can make that work more genuinely “my own” — writing that I’m doing entirely for myself, writing that’s energizing rather than draining, writing that’s even fun — I’m hoping that I might be able to find the motivation to keep it moving forward outside of work.
This post is mostly meant to help me jumpstart finding my focus and generating that motivation, but any suggestions or strategies you’d like to share in the comments would be oh-so-gratefully received…
Having wrapped up a whirlwind spring, in which I successfully got through the craziness of buying an apartment in NYC, got myself more or less moved into it, closed down my California office and shipped everything east, and attended a ton of conferences and meetings and gave a bunch of other talks — and mostly managed to keep things at work moving forward in the interstices — I’m now off on my summer adventure.
Like last summer, I’m on the road for quite a while, starting with a spate of bouncing from conference to conference and concluding with a nice long period of being still in Prague. Unlike last summer, however, I am staying in Europe for the entirety of the trip, and not bouncing back to the US until it’s over.
So this year’s schedule is a good bit less insane than last, and I expect it to be terrific fun:
- 18-22 June — Geneva, Switzerland; OAI 8
- 22-30 June — Göttingen, Germany; Cultures of Obsolescence
- 30 June – 3 July — London, England; JISC/OAPEN conference on Open Access Monographs.
- 3-31 July — Prague, Czech Republic; utterly, totally event-free.
And so far, so good, on all fronts; I arrived in Geneva this morning, hopped a fairly easy bus transfer to my hotel, had some breakfast and struggled to stay awake until my room became available, and then crashed for several hours. This afternoon, got a bit of work done. Tonight, an early dinner, a good night’s sleep (please please please), and on to OAI 8 tomorrow.
[As many of you know, MediaCommons disappeared for a couple of days this week. It's (almost entirely) back now, but we wanted to explain what happened, and to start rebuilding not just the site but our relationship with our community. Thus this, cross-posted from MediaCommons.]
So… funny story.
You know how you get those email messages from your hosting provider, saying “hey, we’re going to upgrade some things on your server”? And you think “Bonus! Upgrades are good!”
We are here to tell you that sometimes upgrades are not so good.
The result of the upgrade that was conducted on the MediaCommons server over Tuesday night was, not to put too fine a point on it, a debacle.
We woke up Wednesday to a completely clean, shiny new server — with no files on it, no configuration settings, and no user accounts through which anyone could log in and, say, rebuild a totally missing website.
The day was a misery for our heroic development team, who tried absolutely everything to get things back up and running as quickly as they could. Thanks to some utterly abysmal customer service and misleading communication from our hosting provider, it wasn’t until the wee hours of Thursday morning that our folks found the source of the problem, which they spent all day Thursday addressing.
To cap everything off, a server configuration mystery prevented our even leaving anything like a meaningful error message on the site, so for an embarrassingly long period of time all we were able to provide were bad redirects, 404s, and our hosting provider’s generic “hey, site administrator, something’s not properly configured here” screen.
Happily, we’ve gotten the bulk of the network restored. There is a bit of recent content still missing, however, and a few other errors to address. If you notice something odd, please leave us information about it in the comments.
We are deeply sorry for any inconvenience that our downtime may have caused our community, and we hope, now that we’re back, that we can begin rebuilding your trust in the stability of our platform. The good news, though, is that we heard from a lot of you over the last couple of days, and so we got a very strong sense of the richness of the community that we’re serving through the various MediaCommons projects.
We are — it will probably not surprise you to hear — actively seeking a new hosting solution. We are hard at work on upgrades to the platform that will increase its stability and its user-friendliness. And we have some very exciting developments in our projects coming soon.
Thanks for sticking it out with us. Together, we can and will do better than this.
Honest to goodness, I’d completely forgotten about this. “Cheese” was a short story I wrote when I was 20 or 21, I think, in the first year of my MFA program. It’s old enough that the file on my computer is listed as being “Microsoft Word 1.x-5.x,” and I’m certain that it was converted at least once, when I made the transition from the MS-DOS machine that got me through the MFA to my first Mac PowerBook. It’s from several lifetimes ago, as far as my writing is concerned.
What’s on JSTOR is not the entirety of the piece, needless to say. (At least I hope it’s needless.) I shopped the story around to literary magazines for a while, the last of which was Mississippi Review. Fredrick Barthelme was still editing it then, and after a couple of months or so, I got a letter from him. An actual letter. He told me that he was planning on doing a special issue on first paragraphs — nothing more, just first paragraphs — and that he wanted to publish mine.
And thus it came to pass that my first real publication was composed of nine out of the 5825 words I’d written. The remaining 5816 never saw the light of day.
It’s not without reason. I’ve just re-read the story, and… let’s just say that it’s imperfect. A friend from the fiction workshop I originally wrote the story for gave me a great note about the first draft, saying that its quirky tone was a bit too unrelenting for the story to do the work it wanted to do. “It’s like if M*A*S*H was all Hawkeye and no Trapper John,” he said. “You couldn’t stand to watch it.” 1 I wasn’t really able to hear what he was telling me at the time, but boy, do I get it now. Quirky isn’t the half of it. It’s painfully cute, the kind of cute that only comes from studied avoidance of the real thing the story actually needs to work out.
There was something in Barthelme wanting to publish those first nine words and pushing aside the rest that confirmed for me that something was wrong, but I wasn’t ready to deal with what exactly the wrong thing was. I more or less stopped writing fiction not long after that. My interests gravitated first toward playwriting, and then toward screenwriting. And then, bizarrely, while working in Hollywood, toward a kind of critical nonfiction, which sent me back to grad school — and the rest is history.
I’ve wondered periodically whether I could work my way back into writing fiction, but I’m not sure that I would be much better at it now than I was then. I certainly never had any intention of returning to the old stuff. So having the students of English 668K uncover the existence of this long-forgotten publication created a mini return-of-the-repressed style freakout for me. Not only is the repressed back, but evidence of it is on JSTOR. But I’m resigned, I suppose: with those nine words out there, I guess the rest may as well be, too.
In any case, safely buried below the fold, and announced this far into the post in a way that might usefully prevent anyone but the most determined from actually finding it: the rest of the story. 2