By Roxanne Donovan - Organization; Wellness; Writing [Slightly edited version of post published on 8/6/20.]
If you’re working remotely this semester, I suspect you're experiencing a mix of gratitude, since it's an option many don't have, and apprehension. You’ve probably asked yourself some version of the question: How in the world am I going to get ANY work done in the middle of this dumpster fire of a semester?
Our forced work-from-home experiment of the last year has taught us a painful truth: it’s hard, really hard. Hard to stay focused on work, hard to manage Zoom fatigue, hard to get (and stay) organized, hard to set boundaries between work and life, hard to find connection.
And home-work (see what I did there) is exponentially harder for those with children who are learning from home either because their school district has gone 100% online, as with our son, or because you’ve opted for remote versus in-person learning when given the choice, as we did with our daughter.
But there is still time to set yourself up for success or at least survival. To help, here are six strategies for managing a remote semester without sacrificing your health or sanity, even in the current context.
1. Lower expectations of yourself (and others) like you’ve never lowered them before.
Seriously, whatever you think you’re capable of doing while working from home this semester, reduce it by 75% or even 90% if you must manage remote learning for your kids.
This strategy requires letting go of the idea that there is some formula that will enable you to simultaneously work more, sleep more, parent more, exercise more, care more, love more, connect more, do more, be more right now.
Too much of our emotional energy must go toward coping with the tremendous stress and fear and loss and pain the viral and racial syndemics are producing.
And please don’t point me to social media personalities who say they’re living their best lives right now and you can too. They’re probably selling you some bogus self-help thing or have ridiculous intersecting race, class, cis-hetero privilege that gives them access to said life possibilities or are in complete denial. Whatever the reason, ignore them at all costs. Better yet, preemptively block them out.
I’m not saying growth isn’t possible. I firmly believe in post-traumatic growth. But that comes after trauma, not when we’re knee deep in it.
2. Create a home workspace geared toward productivity and health.
Squeezing the most out of the limited hours you can work from home healthily requires a dedicated workspace where everything you need is setup and easy to find and where distraction is limited.
This may seem obvious, but I can’t tell you the number of people I know who lose time reconstructing their office daily or managing continuous interruptions from others in their household because their “office” is their kitchen counter, dining room table, or living room couch. These places can suffice for occasional work tasks, but not for a months-long work-from-home future.
A dedicated home office with a desk, file cabinets, bookshelves, windows, and a door that locks from the inside is ideal. If that’s not in the cards, commandeer whatever space you can with some privacy and natural light.
If possible, situate your desk so you’re facing a window with a wall behind you. The natural light will help you look amazing on Zoom calls and can lower your stress and improve your mood, creativity, and sleep. The wall all ensures your webcam doesn’t pick up anyone wandering into your office space, including half-dressed spouses and curious toddlers.
Note: Finding a decent workspace is complicated if you, like me, have kids and a spouse who also need their own dedicated work areas. In such cases, prioritize your and your spouse’s needs then get creative about your kids’ needs.
I, for example, repurposed our barely used dining room into our daughter’s school area. The dining table is now her desk where she can spread out and the bench is now her “bookcase.” Not ideal, but better than having my spouse or me work at the dining table or having her work at the kitchen table where we have all our meals.
3. Set clear boundaries around when you work.
Home-work creates diffuseness between the professional and the personal which means you can easily find yourself working longer and longer hours to the detriment of your health and relationships. You know you’re in trouble when you’re working early in the morning, into the night, or through meals without planning to do so.
Setting a work schedule and sticking to it mitigates this work creep. Make sure to allot time for regular breaks to maximize focus and ward off fatigue.
As an extra layer of containment, commit to working only in your dedicated workspace. Beware, though, of smartphones and tablets that can keep you tethered to work even when not at your desk. Block all notifications or remove email apps altogether if managing these devices is a struggle.
4. Look up from your screen periodically.
Eye strain, neck/back pain, and headaches can arise from staring at a digital screen for long periods. Focusing on distant objects for at least 20 seconds at a time throughout the day can mitigate these problems. Timers that alert you to look up from your screen at least hourly are helpful.
5. Get the best tech and internet access you can afford.
Home-work can be frustrating enough in this context; don’t make it more so by using outdated equipment or slow internet if you have the means to upgrade.
I say this as a person who holds on to tech long after a replacement is warranted. But even I was moved to get a new computer after my 10-year old desktop proved unfit for my new work-home life. The final straw: not having enough hard drive space to download Zoom after deleting everything imaginable.
I’m still shocked at how much more productive and efficient I am now that I don’t have to wait endlessly for my computer to boot up or have to troubleshoot why it froze or randomly turned off again.
Same goes for the numerous benefits I’ve gotten from upgrading to super-fast internet with money saved from cutting the cable company cord.
6: Work in community with others.
The isolation inherent in home-work where social distancing is required has been especially challenging for many in our WellAcademic community. One way to buttress connection is through what I call socializing work communities. These are groups of colleagues or friends that meet via Zoom or some other videoconferencing platform to complete work and to connect socially.
The success of these communities hinges on having a set schedule (e.g., meet every Tuesday from 1-2 PM), regular attendees (three to six works well), an agreed-upon structure that includes at least 30 minutes of social time, and a shared purpose such as writing, grading, or course prep.
My writing group, which started post-shutdown, is a great example of a socializing work community. We meet via Zoom most Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 11 AM to 2 PM. We catch up for about 30 minutes to start and then write in 30-minute blocks with breaks and check-ins disbursed throughout.
The care, compassionate accountability, and connection this group imbues has been critical to helping each participant find moments of joy and creativity in a time filled with its fair share of frustration and stress.
The group has been so meaningful to me that I created Focus Fridays in its image as an offering to WellAcademic members searching for their own socializing work community. I invite you to build your own community if you don’t have one already or join me for Focus Fridays.
Have other ways to get work done healthily from home this semester? Please post them in the comments below. We need to support each other now more than ever so we can all make it to the other side of this moment with some semblance of wholeness and health.
In peace and solidarity,
Roxanne A. Donovan, PhD, is co-founder and CEO of WellAcademic, a licensed psychologist in GA, and Professor of Psychological Science and Interdisciplinary Studies at Kennesaw State University. She writes and teaches about health and wellness. For more reflections, follow Roxanne on Twitter or sign up for WellAcademic's newsletter.
By Roxanne Donovan - Writing
COMPLETE WELLACADEMIC BLOG POST. This to-do stood out among the others. Its silent recrimination ringing loudly—Why haven’t you gotten to me yet?
The answer boiled down to one word: Fear.
Fear and I go way back. Her presence inexplicably comforts me even though she can wreak havoc on my life, reminding me of a self more imagined than real.
Fear is best at derailing my writing. Her whispers—you’re not good enough, you have nothing important to say, you’re more lucky than skilled—made writing excruciating. Every. Single. Moment.
It is excruciating still. Sometimes. And the distance between always and sometimes is a huge win.
The journey to this point has not been easy. Fear is a worthy adversary, even for a psychologist trained in ways to cope with emotions. And I’m not alone. Many writers struggle with Fear in what appears to be a losing battle. And that’s not okay. Because Fear is vulnerable, wins are possible.
It’s worth repeating: wins are possible. Here are a few ways I use science to help me (and my clients) triumph over Fear.
Pull Fear from Darkness to Light
I thought I could hide from Fear. Crouched in shadows, I held my breath and waited for her to recede. But the dark is no place to face Fear. Avoidance feeds fear, helps her seem larger than life, uncontrollable.
Pulling Fear into the light makes her more tangible. The more visible Fear is—her contours and angles—the easier to deal with her.
So I named her and her goal. This is Fear, a.k.a. Imposter Syndrome and Anxiety. She tries hard to keep me from writing.
This small step makes Fear easier to recognize. Hello, Fear. I see you’re back.
Acknowledging Fear before she does damage opens the space to bring her—and myself—out of the shadows. In the light, I’ve discovered that…
Fear has preferences
Fear loves to, prefers to, show up when I’m writing something new (like this blog post) or writing in a new(ish) voice (e.g., autobiographic) or writing with others I admire. It sucks when all these things intersect, which is happening more and more.
Fear has stamina problems
Fear is strongest early in the writing process. She knows if she keeps me from starting or stops me from finding my rhythm, she wins. Her strength, though, wanes over time. Knowing she can be beat means it’s vital I write through Fear.
Fear has selective memory
Fear is amazing at recalling harsh critiques. Gentle critiques? No worries, Fear can sharpen them until their points penetrate any armor.
Positive feedback? In those rare moments of recall, Fear is adept at distorting the message or messenger. She only said she liked it; it must be crap if she didn’t love it. He’s too nice to tell me the truth.
Recognizing that Fear’s whispers aren’t my full truth is an ongoing struggle; Fear’s voice sounds deceptively like mine. But I’ve found effective interventions. One is creating a gentle counter-narrative that challenges Fear’s penchant for the negative. My writing is good enough. I chant this mantra each time Fear starts her whispers. I initially repeat it without conviction knowing that writing as if I believe still works.
Compiling positive feedback into an easily accessible document is another way I challenge Fear’s whispers. Savoring the positive emotions that come up while reading the feedback dials down Fear’s volume, which makes hearing my counter-narrative easier.
Shame is Fear’s superpower
Fear thrives on shame, a feeling of unworthiness. The result: a pull to hide Fear, to perform (or fake!) a competence and ease in writing that I don’t truly feel. This inauthenticity only amplifies my shame which in turn amplifies my desire to perform.
Vulnerability is Fear’s kryptonite
Breaking out of the shame-performance cycle requires vulnerability. By vulnerability, I mean taking the risk to speak my writing truth to other writers, repeatedly. Why? Sharing Fear with empathic others makes her burden easier to bear. Equally important, it reminds me I’m not alone...and neither are you. Fear is a part of our lives, even those academics who make writing look easy.
Caveat: For women of color, hiding Fear can be an adaptive way to cope with daily indignities and systemic oppression. So be gentle with yourself if enacting vulnerability takes time. A trusting network of confidantes is something that must be nurtured to grow. Organizing a writing sister circle whose expressed goal is to provide compassionate accountability is one place to start.
Shout out to my sister circle: Joycelyn, Nichole, Griselda, Karen, and Jackie (my biological sister who is also an academic). I am grateful beyond measure that you welcome and encourage my authentic self, enabling me to face Fear, practice self-compassion, and get back on the writing path when I diverge. As I did with this post.
In peace and solidarity,
Stop, right now, before you advance another step through your early semester research plans.
Remember: writing anxiety blinds. It blocks your view of files you’ve repeatedly drafted for your Most Significant Project Yet.
Survey your research folders – have you mislabeled an indispensable file? Is one folded into the obscure corner of a rarely consulted folder-within-a-folder, a document incomprehensibly unrelated?
It’s time now to scour your laptop for any duplicates of a daunting manuscript you’ve produced once - OK, twice - before. As I often say to my coaching clients, leave no pyrite unturned in your search for jewels you’ve unwittingly buried.
I found buried treasure on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. At an Inkwell retreat last July, my alumni buddy C and I were sitting across from one another on the last retreat afternoon, angled toward a pristine view of spectacular foothills and contentedly fashioning introductions to our respective books. Progressing this far had been both my ideal retreat goal and hers: We each wanted to leave with a fully outlined introduction.
We’d been extraordinarily productive, finally thinking through resources we’d wanted to read sooner, dumping chunks of new information into the intro doc, unpacking long theoretical paragraphs, and the rest. We knew we’d made notes “toward” an introduction in the past, but they were nothing as good as what the retreat coaxed out of us and never anything as thorough as what we’d accomplished.
Still, C and I searched our Dropboxes for words like intro and introduction and a few project keywords. We got results of all lengths in conferences papers, PowerPoints, and grant proposals. In course prep files and mandated annual review dossiers. Deep satisfaction.
Until. Gradually, we got clearer and clearer: we hadn’t never drafted our respective introductions, as we’d thought; in fact, we’d actually written “the” intro to our book projects many times over. I mean, in my own standout folder labeled “CHAAA” (for A History of African American Autobiography for Cambridge University Press), among the dozens of subfolders, I had gone looking for variants of the CHAAA intro. I stopped counting at number five, as in Five Forgotten Documents.
Ironically, when I was editor of African American Review years ago, we implemented a forum we called “Forgotten Mss.” Here’s how I described it back in 2005: “Editor's Note: AAR is pleased to present [this] new feature column. Because so much of African American literary, print, and cultural production remains unknown and/or ignored, and so much scholarly attention (even within these very pages) is yet devoted to the most canonical texts and topics of black literary and cultural heritage, AAR will occasionally publish short complete or excerpted texts, long neglected but noteworthy.” In other words, I designed the column to showcase print documents that had fallen out of literary flavor (and just favor) and into the archives, where it was there, too, relegated to those special collections of the neglected. Right now, though, my innovation seems like a bad joke I played on myself.
C and I attracted a lot of attention as we faced what we’d neglected. In the residence’s luxurious living room, we pulled back in dread from the quiet corner where we’d sat. We probably started shrieking a few seconds before we heard ourselves. Our respective searches turned up one file after another, each created in our own inimitable Times New Roman, endless files of “new” introductions. Other retreaters came to check out the fuss, then left, shaking their heads as if such oversight would never happen to them.
But it does, and more times than anyone wants to think about: anxiety blinding us to our multiple re-dos of a high-stakes writing project. (Even trying to write this blog in ways charming and useful to you has jacked up my blood pressure.) C and I felt we were writing some of the most critical books of our lives. Emphasis on felt, as in emotions. Intimidation and fear and conviction that any particular manuscript we had jolted into being had not been good enough to remember. In our minds, then, each iteration just. kinda. vanished.
So, we simply started over – and over – and over and.
The redundancy felt both painful and wasteful. Reassuring, too, yes, but depressing. I admit I took pride in the writing already done—hey, those pieces weren’t all bad! The retreat had both exposed and abated our writing tremors. We’d forgotten our duplicate manuscripts partly out of self-condemnation - they weren’t good enough, we weren’t - but perhaps what’s more awesome was the insight into the intricacies of diverse academic writing processes: beauty, community, and sincerity enable clear-eyed production.
Until next time,
Many of my coaching clients are tenure-track women faculty who revere me as “senior scholar.” They think, by now, I’m implacable in the face of writing assignments. For some reason, they ascribe to the myth (founded by 1950s era white boy academics) that writing anxiety manifests as an individual malady one overcomes the longer one stays in the game.
These colleagues seem to need to believe there comes an end to worrying over word counts and due dates. The fallacy seems to drive them toward professional longevity; it inspires them to stay in the game until they, too, one day magically turn the corner and their fingers whisk rhapsodically over keyboards, turning out pages of stunning prose.
The lie of the mythical Unflappable Senior Scholar, at least as embodied in our humble narrator, lay exposed last month at the July 2017 Inkwell residential retreat, founded by the intrepid Michelle Boyd. In the days before the retreat I fretted aloud to my Baby that I wouldn’t know any of the other participants in the retreat. I worried about the size of my goal for the week, which on alternate days seemed too big, then too small.
We’d been warned (some said reassured) that the internet service at the retreat site would be spotty. Would I be able to lug every book and printout I was sure I needed? I went out to buy a portable printer, just in case, but there was none to be had at the local Office Max on the night before my departure.
Suffice it to say, I had a case of nerves, about both my own writing acumen and my embarrassing introversion (which most colleagues who’ve witnessed my public deportment disdain until they catch me hugging the walls at the conference cash bar).
Tucked immediately into the warmth of two other Inkwell retreat alums, I earned their trust on the first morning, in part by baring my soul about my writing jitters and even more by listening to the wisdom of the most accomplished of the trio of us. Quite literally, she turned my writing conundrum upside down and illumined what turned out to be the most intelligent approach imaginable to set me up for the week. The other reassured me by acknowledging her own goal as similar to mine, by happenstance.
At lunch on the second day, two other retreaters remarked my steady and intense work, and admired aloud how easily I stepped into “the zone.” I couldn’t deny I had slid easily into my work. The two aforementioned gifts had worked their magic: a seasoned sister’s perception and a buddy with a similar need and a similar drive.
Which is to say, I had jitters but—maybe here’s what feeds the myth of One Day You, Too:-- I also had long years of experience to trust my gifts and my conviction. That is, I found conviction after many years of persisting through writing anxiety.
And I trusted my conviction, borne of numerous challenges to it, that routinely surfing the urge to run from the laptop, and scrupulously working the details of my outline, would keep me in the proverbial zone. Opening to an outline I promised myself I could revise “as needed” had further sustained my confidence.
On the last afternoon of the retreat, my buddy stunned me with her variation of the much-needed One Day, I Too myth. I had begged to sit next to her, for security, and my elbow was literally touching hers as we worked up our individual plans for next steps once the retreat ended. I had begged her, and she’d been merciful. We were head and nose down, fingers flying, when she sat back and announced something like, “You are so cool as you write! It’s great to see you never have writing anxiety.” Seriously?! Did I say begged?
I stood up. Hold up! “What do you mean I never have writing anxiety?! I have it on the regular. By the hour. In fact, where’s my watch?! Is it time to panic yet?!”
Behold the myth, yet never believe the hype.
Until next time,
*Shout out to JA, MB, BF, CS, and IW.
Looking at a list of writing goals held over from last semester? Feeling miserable that it’s your umpteenth year of resolving to finish that article, to write that paper before you’re sitting on a plane to the conference, to wind up that book proposal to share with colleagues?
Go ahead, it’s a new year: give yourself a break and any necessary permission to reset with a clean slate. And as you ease into self-forgiveness, consider implementing these steps I recommend after my long career of sputtering to jumpstart not just one writing project but a veritable swarm of them.
Draft an exhaustive list of all your pie in the sky writing goals.
Set a timer for 30 minutes. Grab a soothing drink. Turn on your Zen music. Sit down with your favorite tools for recording essential ideas. Mine are paper and pen; I feel more creative when I write by hand.
Draft a thorough list of unfinished writing goals. Don’t hold back. Large and small. Academic, professional, personal: a blog about a research find, the tedious bibliography keeping you from submitting an overdue article manuscript, the book review you’ll write once you finish reading that book. Try to breathe through the inevitable worry that making an exhaustive list will leave you too exhausted for forward movement. Throw up those writing projects like a cat tossing up hairballs—get it all out of your gut, head, heart, wherever it lies, and onto paper.
Take a break.
Organize your list by due date.
Gather up your Chihuahua, spaniel, pound mutt, formerly feral friend, your stuffed animal, your meditation pillow cuz this step is gonna hurt.
Strike out everything that doesn’t have an external due date attached to it. Then—deep breath--pledge not to add a single writing project to your list this year.
I speak from shameful experience when it comes to setting goals making commitments I simply should not have made. Umm, as I drafted my list to share with you (below), I cringed seeing how my unfinished list reveals my idiocy. (How not to break the “No More!” pledge should be my next blog.)
Like me, long list, short list, I’m betting you’ve got zero space for another goal. Oh, yes, those shiny new opportunities will pop up in the coming term. As I’ve done way too many times, you’ll swear this project is exactly what you’ve always wanted to do. You ignore the voices warning of a similar list of incompletes this time next year.
Maybe you’re approaching your list with zeal, sure you are just gonna settle down and write, and soon be ticking off one fulfilled goal after another. Uh-huh. Even if you are a fantastic organizer, you are probably reading this blog because you’re painfully overcommitted.
After you’ve separated out your time-specific goals, create categories for any remaining tasks. Put every single item on your list into one specific category. My top two tend to be writing for publication and writing for presentation.
Stop here for the day. Dangle the fishing pole for your kitty. Meditate a while. Schedule an appointment. Walk outside. Call a friend. Leave your list for now.
Delete, delete, delegate, and barter.
To write this blog, I sat down with my own exhaustive list of writing projects. Note my list doesn’t include my personal plans to move house before spring break. Not the annual faculty report. Not my classroom teaching or the three graduate degree theses committees I’m on. Nor my work for the annual African American Studies Spring Symposium, or for the summer pipeline program I direct. And on and…
Here’s what my list looked like in the last week of 2016:
Now that I’ve recovered from a panic attack, I’ll continue. Here’s my revised list:
Hell or high water
Last and least, with survival strategies
Maybe One Day
I got real with myself by considering what my list could cost my body and my mental health. Since I want to work joyfully, I brainstormed ways to minimize my obligations while also stretching my intellect and preserving my health. I reconceptualized each project for value added to my edition introduction. A bonus: African American autobiography is also the topic of my spring undergraduate seminar.
I crazily overcommitted myself last term—and I’m still overcommitted. I ought not to have agreed to write so many letters (for all my desire to support colleagues) or to give as many presentations (though I’m eager to support local libraries). I should have declined a couple of other projects, too, that I haven’t even shared here. I could be using that time on my latest civilian pastime: testing dairy-free, gluten-free recipes for my squeeze.
So, with you as my witness, going forward, I pledge three new behaviors: I’ll glue my new writing commitments list to my forehead (okay…maybe next to my computer or on my cell phone’s homepage). I’ll mindfully consult it on the regular. And I’ll resist any impulse not to consult it before adding to it.
Then in turn, I’ll allow myself some guilt-free celebrations for accomplishing my writing commitments, first up the manicure I’ve long delayed, and then whenever I want: ditching school for a date with a novel, a weeknight movie party for one, and the best, a Sunday drive to the Texas coast with a home-cooked picnic for two.
Until next time,