There is no such thing as caught up

11 March 2016**

As we embark on winter break, this is the time when many academics want to believe they can now get caught up.

With much affection and respect, I have to say that I laughed out loud. Caught up, indeed!?!

Years ago, probably in my second-year on the tenure-track, my academic yoda gave the best advice. He said, “There is no such thing as caught up. When you recognize that and stop trying to achieve it, life gets a lot better.”

You know what? He was right. While there are many things in our academic work lives that have set timetables (like semesters begin and end), a big part of our life is driven by our own agenda. Even with the tenure or promotion clock (or annual evaluation season), we’re still setting up our schedules and agreeing to what we want to do. This flexibility in scheduling and choosing projects and deciding where to spend our time often leads to an increase in stress where we feel we constantly feel as thought with just a little more time, a little more space that we can get to all of those things. But the secret is that it will never happen.

First, there are almost always consistent demands on our time that are mostly inescapable such as

  • pop-up meetings
  • paperwork/reports regarding curriculum or committees
  • last minute requests by administrators
  • requests from colleagues to give a “quick read”
  • picking up a task because someone slacked off on it
  • request for a recommendation letter for that really great student who waited until two days before a deadline

The list here could go on and on and on. All of these things add to our stress because these sorts of things push our own work—some of those things we want to do–further down the to-do list, and we feel even further behind.

Thus, we feel we need to catch up.

Second, we often put so much pressure on ourselves about how “our own work,” which usually means research, is languishing as it is unattended as we deal with all these other things. We feel stress because we started the project because we wanted to do it, but find we have so little time to get it done.

Thus, we feel the need to catch up on research (as if you could be behind) or to clear all the other things so there is space to research.

Just writing this I felt the unhealthy and unhelpful circle that it puts us on.

So here’s what I want to throw out to you. It’s a series of questions for you to think about that seem to intersect with this ongoing feeling of being behind and needing to catch up.

Am I over preparing and over working in one aspect of my job? 

For example, are you spending way to much time preparing for classes? If so, why is that? Are you taking on too many service commitments? If so, is it because you like the work or the pay-off of feeling like you’re doing something.

Am I prioritizing work in the ways that make sense to my goals?

Closely related to question immediately above, you need to ask yourself if you’re allocating your time in ways that make sense for your goals. For graduate students, this means reading and growing your knowledge (in the first couple of years) and then it means the dissertation. For those early on the tenure track, it means whatever your tenure and promotion documents say. 9That is, prioritize what will get you tenured and promoted.) For those in full-time, non-tenure track roles, it means teaching and teaching effectiveness (usually). All of this to say, look at your goals and the documents that you will be evaluated by and set up your schedule accordingly.

Have I over committed?

Does it seem like that no matter how hard you work you never check anything off the to-do list or never move any project (teaching, research, or service) substantially forward? Have you over committed? Talk with a trusted mentor to see if you need to try and get out a few things.

Am I suffering from feelings of insecurity (aka imposter syndrome), inadequacy, or fear?

Consider taking some time to seriously reflect on what may be the root of these feelings. It could be these underlying issues that lead to over commitment and over preparing. (It can be a vicious cycle so it’s important to try and find out the core causes.) These feelings too can get in the way of productivity for fear of not measuring up. It’s important to try and figure out what may be driving these.

Do I have a network of people who can help with specific questions?

part of Lisa’s network way back when

All faculty need a network to help them in different aspects of their jobs. Most importantly, this network can you prioritize what is really most important for your own goals. In other words, are you spending your time in the right place for you? This network of people (or “no” committee) can also help you figure out when to say yes and no (link to follow).

Closing thoughts

You don’t have to be caught up to be successful. You have to simply be ahead of the curve on the important tasks. And let me remind you that important tasks are the ones you’ve decided are important and that follow the guidelines on how you will be judged for tenure and promotion and merit and annual reviews. (Thanks, Max, for this perspective.)

I can assure you that as of this minute I am not caught up. Not at all. I have stacks of things I could be doing or want to do or need to do. I’m working to recalibrate my own schedule and think through priorities and goals. In other words, the only thing that comes with experience is being able to recognize that you’re never really caught up and figuring out ways to do the academic work shuffle. (It’s a special kind of dance.)

For the sake of playing along, go ahead and say it with me: There is no such thing as caught up.There is no such thing as caught up.

It’s a freeing…once you start believing it.

Now go out there and do something fun and relaxing. Just for you. Because we all need to put the break back into any of our breaks. The work will be there when we get back.

Wishing you health, peace, and joy!


**The date of this post is when it was orginally posed on WomeninTechComm, which was a national mentoring network for women in the academy who worked in or identified as scholars of technical and professional communication. That organization and its website are no more so I am slowly porting over to here all the blog posts that I wrote, thus the reason I have kept the original date at the top of the post. I have made some minor changes to the original text so that’s why it will also note the current date of publication.