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Work-life balance: progress report #3

July 31, 2020

I’ve made some tangible progress since my last report.

Perhaps the biggest initial problem with my summer plans was that I had a million different “important” things that I “needed” to work on. OK, maybe not a million, but at least six: online labs (both for Human Anatomy and for Human Physiology), online lectures (for both courses), biology teaching songs, not-yet-written manuscripts (two or three), further development and dissemination of Test Question Templates (TQTs), and old/ongoing email.

When faced with a list like this one, I’m generally likely to either (A) focus on my favorite item (unlikely to be the most important one) while neglecting everything else, or (B) bounce back and forth between several items without making much progress on any of them.

To avoid such outcomes, I needed a clearer prioritization of tasks and some simple-yet-useful metrics of progress. I decided that my #1 priority for the summer would be editing my slides, in part because that was compatible with a simple-yet-useful metric: if I did six chapters’ worth of slides every week, all of the slides would be done by the start of the fall quarter.

During the first week of the six-chapters-per-week regimen (July 20-24), I managed to complete six chapters. However, it took most of the working hours that I had not previously committed to other meetings and deadline-sensitive tasks.

During the second week (July 27-31), I again completed six chapters. By cramming in some extra work in the evenings, I was able to devote one full weekday to a family hike.

If I can keep this up for six more weeks, I’ll be in great shape slide-wise.

But don’t ask me about my email inbox. Or my manuscripts. Or my labs…

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“Hamilton” as a parable about work-life balance

July 13, 2020

It probably doesn’t need to be said that Alexander Hamilton and I have little in common. In watching Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece on Disney Plus, though, I couldn’t help but notice certain parallels.

Hamilton, as portrayed by Miranda (and by his primary source, a biography by Ron Chernow), is a workaholic who “write[s] like [he’s] running out of time” and who devotes considerable (possibly excessive) thought to his legacy. When George Washington sings to Hamilton, “History has its eyes on you,” it seems like an unnecessary warning. I almost expected Hamilton to fire back, “Well of COURSE it does!”

As I continue to struggle with work-life balance, one of the recurring themes is that certain tasks take way longer than they need to, simply because I want them to come out extra-well. My revision of my slides is a fine example.  Nobody is insisting that I make five hours’ worth of changes to these slides. Nobody is even recommending it. In fact, everybody is recommending against it. Yet away I go again into my PowerPoint time warp. Why?

Gaining a better understanding of my perfectionism is one major goal of my therapy. Where does it come from? What dials it up or down?

Here is a first draft of an answer. For some (often writing-related) tasks, I hold myself to certain high standards as a way of convincing myself that I am important and deserving of attention and praise.

That’s pretty self-centered, isn’t it?  Yes, but most people are self-centered.  My advantage is that I am relatively conscious of my selfish tendencies, and can compensate accordingly.

With that decently developed self-awareness, I can admit a personal desire to, in the words of Hamilton, “not throw away my shot.” Part of me wants to become famous, even if that fame is limited, say, to my own campus, or to fellow singing science instructors.

Obviously, it’s OK — admirable, even — to try to do certain things well enough that others might be impressed, and might remember what I did. But if I continue to define huge chunks of my life as “my shot” — always important enough to consume all of the hours I have available — then the work will never be under control, and I will never have a shot at a normal life.

 

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Work-life balance: progress report #2

July 9, 2020

Today I forced myself to buckle down and revise some specific course materials for the fall. I chose to revise some PowerPoint slides corresponding to Chapter 2 of our physiology textbook.

The good news?  I did it! I kept my nose to the proverbial grindstone and made a bunch of useful revisions. The slideset is now clearer and better organized, and it gives the students more and better opportunities to take notes and do practice problems.

The bad news?  Revising this one file — a file that was already in decent shape — took me FIVE HOURS.

This is, more or less, the fundamental issue that I encounter over and over again. I like revising course materials; I like making them more student-friendly. (I’m only half-kidding when I tell people that my pedagogical specialty is reinventing the wheel.) But taking five hours to revise one chapter’s worth of slides makes me the poster child of unsustainable behavior.  I must be able to work more efficiently than that… Right?

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Work-life balance: (lack-of-)progress report #1

July 8, 2020

As I’ve mentioned, work-life balance remains elusive for me.

This summer I’m approaching the problem with a two-part plan: (A) psychotherapy and (B) a vacation from paid teaching so that I can get a good jump on preparations for fall.

I didn’t turn in spring-quarter grades until June 23, and then I had to play inbox-catchup for a while, so I’ve been slow to admit that part (B) is not going well. But it isn’t.

Today — thanks to the continuing blessing of a live-in mother-in-law who cares for our two young boys — I had many hours in which to work. 8:10am to 4:30pm, to be precise.

Many people would LOVE to have that kind of a workday.  So what did I do with this wonderful gift of abundant work time?

Well, I worked on a presentation for this Friday (~1.5 hours), worked on a COVID song-in-progress (~1.5 hours), read and wrote emails (mostly work-related; ~2 hours), went for a bike ride (~1 hour), ate (~0.5 hour), hung out with my 13-year-old (~0.5 hour) … and I’m not sure where the rest of the time went.

Conspicuously absent from all of this, of course, was any specific progress on fall teaching.

I didn’t feel as though I was being grossly irresponsible, and yet I made zero progress on the long-term goal that is my best ticket to a healthy fall quarter.

I think the next step has to be something like requiring myself to spend at least three hours a day, every day, to specific fall curriculum issues (revisions of PowerPoint slides, revisions of lab exercises, etc.). And fit in the email, music, etc. around that, rather than vice versa.

If I need to sacrifice some summer fun in order to have a sane, not-completely-exhausting fall, I will.

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The civil war continues

June 11, 2020

A few days before the murder of George Floyd sparked a new round of protests, our family happened to start watching the 1990 Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War. We finished it last night.

I’m not going to write about the documentary as a whole, but I thought the segment below — from the last night of the documentary — was sadly relevant to the current upheaval.

Here is what historian Barbara Fields says starting at 3:40 (taken from a 1987 interview archived here: https://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_509-2r3nv99t98).

I think what we need to remember most of all is that the Civil War is not over until we today have done our part in fighting it, as well as understanding what happened when the Civil War generation fought it. William Faulkner … said once that history is not was, it’s is, and what we need to remember about the Civil War is that the Civil War is, in the present as well as in the past…. The generation that fought the war, the generation that argued over the definition of the war, the generation that had to pay the price in blood, that had to pay the price in blasted hopes, in the lost future, also established a standard that will not mean anything until we have finished the work. You can say, there’s no such thing as slavery anymore, we’re all citizens, but if we’re all citizens then we have a task to do to make sure that that too is not a joke. If some citizens live in houses and others live on the street, the Civil War is still going on. It’s still to be fought, and regrettably, it can still be lost.

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The whistling is all around you — if you listen

June 4, 2020

Here is a quick story to illustrate what awareness of racism looks like in a well-intentioned but insufficiently attentive white guy.

In 2014 or 2015, I read Claude Steele’s book “Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us And What We Can Do.” The title refers to a black graduate student (Brent Staples, now of the New York Times) who would whistle classical music to make his presence seem less threatening to white people on the streets of Chicago.

At the time, my reaction to this anecdote was:
* Yes, racism is real, important, and tragic.
* What an efficient, clever way of putting everyone at ease and avoiding conflict!

Note that my reaction did NOT include the following:
* What a shame that this innocent black guy had to take it upon himself to calm everyone else.
* Gee, I wonder whether such defense mechanisms are common among people of color?

Now fast-forward to the present. George Floyd has just become the latest unarmed, nonthreatening black man to be killed by out-of-control police officers. I come across the article It Does Not Matter if You are Good by R. Eric Thomas. And some more grim realities finally start to sink in:
* Whistling Vivaldi, in the metaphorical sense, is VERY common among people of color, and especially among black men.
* It’s deeply unfair that potential victims of racism should have to whistle as a means of protecting themselves.
* No matter how loud or how tuneful the whistling is, it doesn’t always save you.

This reminds me of another metaphor — one that reveals the seemingly cheerful opening of Steele’s title to maybe not be so cheerful after all.

“Whistling in the wind” is an old phrase referring to an action that is utterly ineffectual.

Enough whistling!

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Blogging about mental health

April 30, 2020

Here is a small contribution from yours truly, posted this morning to the Dynamic Ecology blog run by my friend Jeremy Fox:
What if my hobby — what I do for “fun” — is being a workaholic?

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From the team who brought you “SJZC”…

February 2, 2020

My middle son loves bears, and books, so my eldest son and I made him a book for his 3rd birthday.

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More year-end feel-goodness

December 27, 2019

Sam, our not-quite-3-year-old, has a curious habit when we are out walking or running. When we see a dog we don’t know, Sam will often say, “He’s a NICE dog,” with a clear emphasis on NICE. This opinion will be offered regardless of whether the dog is large or small, barking or silent, hyperkinetic or still.

It’s easy to laugh this off as childish naivete. All dogs can’t be nice, kid; it’s statistically impossible!

And yet … how nice to be so optimistic about a species as to see every single member as a potential friend.

I suppose I’ll allow it — though the owners who don’t use leashes are another matter altogether.

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It seems that he relates well to dogs.

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A good one on which to end the year?

December 24, 2019

Amidst her usual quips, Rev. Debra Jarvis (who officiated my second wedding) has some good advice (for herself and others) about coexisting with people we don’t like.

We walked in silence for a while until I said, “I’ve always believed that Jesus meant it when he said, ‘Love one another,’ but he never said we had to like one another. So now I have to figure out a way to love her in spite of not liking her.”

I already knew how to do this because I had done it many times with patients. If you can’t be compassionate, at least be curious because many times curiosity opens the door to compassion which can open the door to love.

So I sat next to her at dinner that night and forced myself to talk with her. It turned out that her husband of two years was supposed to walk the Camino with her but he pulled out. Then he said he would walk the last sixty miles with her but changed his mind about that too. Her voice got low and thick as she talked. For the first time I felt she was being real.

I felt no satisfaction in being right about her cheerful veneer. I felt compassion for her. When her eyes filled with tears, mine did too.

…Curiosity almost always opens the door to compassion which leads to love.

I love the simplicity and practicality of this advice. No need to launch directly from a standing start into heroic levels of empathy; just try a little curiosity and see where that takes you.