Organized Chaos, or My Life in Two Words

“Organized chaos” is the phrase I use to describe my life. Those who have been in my office at work will recognize the physical manifestation of that.

One of the things I have yet to figure out on the tenure track is how to balance the needs and demands of my research, writing, teaching, and personal life each and every week. Some weeks things lean towards the writing/research side, while other weeks become consumed with sickness and getting through the bare minimum in my professional life. In the summers and some parts of the academic year, my family life is put aside for travel, writing commitments require seclusion from them, and fieldwork must be completed. Nothing is ever in equilibrium.

In other words, I often feel that I am juggling many priorities, all of which are of equal importance to me. So far, the best strategy I have used to get through particularly rough weeks (professional and/or personal) is to come up with a list of things that absolutely positively have to get finished. That often means that other things are delayed, put aside, late or just plain forgotten. That also means that some things might just have to be cancelled or left behind, and apologies must be conveyed to the parties involved in or expecting those projects.

Because the demands of tenure are upon me and have been for the past 4.5 years, I have devised a list of priorities in my head of which I remind myself each and every week. I have spent a good deal of time thinking about my long term publication, grant, and research goals, which I place on my calendar. To make these goals actually happen, I spend an equally good amount of time planning my months, weeks, and days around accomplishing tasks.

For instance, when I was working on my book, I planned out what I would need to read and write each day of the week and each week so that I knew exactly what it would take to finish it. There were some obstacles that got in the way (such as having two children and getting sick on and off again), but I promised myself that I would work on it daily, even if only 5 or 10 minutes were devoted to it. It did get done, but it required every cell of my body to finish that manuscript, and I think Coca-Cola owes me some serious stock after I downed hundreds of sodas to stay awake writing and working on my book.

As life has it, a wrench often gets thrown in my plans. Kids get sick. I get sick. My husband gets sick. Our pets get sick. Students need advising. Grant reports need to be written. Grades need to be completed. Lecturers need to be hired in our department. A reference letter needs to be written. A grant application is due. Lectures need to prepped, revised, or revisited. Administrative forms need to be filled out. Just as find myself catching up with something, another demand needs to be met or something else crumbles at my feet (be it health or a project at work). There is always something needing to be done and someone needing something from me.

The end of one of the most challenging semesters health-wise is nearing, which is making me reflect upon how I structure my time. I always say “next” semester will be easier, less stressful, and less chaotic, but I do not set aside time to figure out how this will actually happen. Over the holiday break I intend to sit down and map out my time, allowing myself room for sickness, for exhaustion, and for breaks. I am hoping that in the coming years I can make peace with my schedule rather than finding myself frazzled, tattered, beaten down, and worn at the semester’s end, with the ultimate goal of coming to terms with and being less stressed about my life’s ebbs and flows.

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One thought on “Organized Chaos, or My Life in Two Words

  1. Many academics feel this way before or after tenure review, but I think the desire for clear priorities, idealized organization, concrete and temporally clear goals, “predictable” days, and “equilibrium”–or looking at colleagues who appear to be “balancing” such demands–tends to create its own distinctive and unresolvable frustrations with self. There simply are not clear distinctions between personal and academic life for most of us, our time is committed to many things that cannot be predicted and are not always personally productive, and much of our best insight simply comes without any warning or predictability itself (so keep reading random blogs and books out of pure curiosity even if they seem to have no connection to your projects). My somewhat counter-intuitive advice is to actually not spend too much time focused on products and finish lines (and in the case of tenure, the finish line is an ambiguous thing that cannot be clearly identified), just work–that may be writing a little in a blog, picking away at a paper, perusing web pages, thinking about a TV show–, and some things are simply inviolate (e.g., I never surrender my running or cycling time, I will drop everything to go see the newest comic book movie, I absolutely never turn on my computer Friday morning in the office until every single piece of paper is truly filed and not just in a new pile in my office, etc). I am not sure it is about organization or chaos at all but instead about expectations, demands you put on yourself, insecurities with our work and ideas, and discomfort that tenure is an ambiguous goal that you’ll never feel you have comfortably secured.

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