During the NASPA 2016 Annual Conference, I had the wonderful opportunity to give a talk on “Breaking Up With Busyness,” inspired by a post originally published here, as well as my ongoing personal journey and the great work of many writers and researchers.
Busyness, which can be described as the constant need in our lives to be occupied by tasks and responsibilities, is not unique to Student Affairs, but, I would argue, it’s an insidious part of the culture of our field. It’s fueled by perfectionism, workaholism, and environments of shame.
Before I came to these realizations about “busyness,” I would embark on each semester with an increasing sense of anxiety and urgency, with the belief that to she who works the most hours go the spoils. For years I kept this up, and I did it more or less successfully. It’s unsurprising that I found success by making myself continually busy in environments that tend to glorify the overworked, overtired, and overscheduled. I was the smartest, most accomplished, and damnit, the busiest. If I didn’t work the most hours, sit on the most committees, and volunteer the most, I wouldn’t get ahead. I wouldn’t be successful—or so I thought.
I wasn’t the only person around me who felt that way or was behaving that way; most peers and colleagues were. I saw role models and supervisors glorifying exhaustion, so I, too, laid myself down for sacrifice at the altar of Student Affairs. It was a vicious cycle of loose boundaries, overwork, and complaining. And then, after a gradual wearing down over the course of years, I decided that it was time to show Busyness the door. One weekend, I came back to campus (I was a live-on professional at the time) after being away, and the very thought of being there caused me to burst into tears, sitting in my car in the parking lot– I knew then that I was burned out, only a few years out of grad school, and that if I wanted to enjoy my life and my passion for education, I was going to have to find the courage to change how I was working and living.
I started seeing a therapist (which I recommend for anyone), and I intentionally started to name some behaviors that weren’t working for me. I started saying “no,” and quitting things that I no longer cared about. I’ve read a handful of books that have been really helpful in supporting my desired life changes, some of which I’ll reference today. The most important thing is that I truly started to believe that exhaustion is not a status symbol or a measure of success, and I started to measure my success by metrics other than the amount of hours that were filled on my schedule. And I’m here to say that when I did this, my life and career did not come crashing down. Contrary to my fears, I strongly believe that I am now more successful, more productive, a better colleague and supervisor, and…happier.
Although much of this journey has been personal and individual, I also see immense organizational value when we break up with busyness, especially those who are supervisors and leaders. So I would ask you to consider 5 tips for breaking up with busyness, both for yourself and for your organizations:
The first is to stop always working. The idea that many of us have that our value is greatest when we spend the most time working is a total fallacy. Brene Brown has researched, among many things, boundaries, and says that “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.”
I was awful at this; Not only would I stay late, volunteer for extra responsibilities,and religiously attend any and all “fundtatory” work activities, I would wake up in the middle of the night and check my email at 2am, which was very unhealthy. I felt like because I had my email in my hand all the time, I should be available to everyone all the time. So I stopped checking email at night and on weekends–I actually turn off the email on my phone unless I’m scheduled to be working. I started putting my phone on “Do Not Disturb” when I was sleeping. I scheduled my days for 8 hours and hardly ever stayed late. I didn’t eat lunch at my desk. I flexed time when I spent extra hours at night or on the weekends. I hold these boundaries and others respect them.
It’s important for us to stop believing that the world is going to come to a screeching halt if we don’t send emails at 11pm. And we absolutely need to stop expecting that people who aren’t on duty or on call are going to respond to work related matters outside of work hours.
Research shows that workers experience negative physiological and psychological impacts as a result of working overtime. (slide) A 2004 CDC meta-analysis found that “Overtime was associated with poorer perceived general health, increased injury rates, more illnesses, increased mortality…unhealthy weight gain…increased alcohol use…increased smoking…and poorer neuropsychological test performance.” Another meta-analysis of long work hours suggested a possible weak relationship with preterm birth. When we expect constant response from employees, we are being totally negligent with the health and well-being of staff; I don’t care how life-changing your job is: you can’t do it all the time, that is how you get burned out, and then you’ll be awful at the job that you used to love.
My second tip is that free time creates innovation. One of my favorite books is Dan Pink’s Drive, which is about unleashing intrinsic motivation. In it, he discusses the concept of a “FedEx” Day, which many of you may have heard of. This is a concept that many technology companies use, in which they give employees an occasional day to work on whatever they want, whatever is interesting to them. It can’t be something that they are currently working on, and they have to have a deliverable at the end of the the day; hence the name “FedEx”, because they are delivering an idea.
The concept here is that if we are constantly working on the same routine things, there’s no space for new ideas or creative improvements to our work. If all you’re ever doing is crossing off the to-do list and chasing deadlines, you’re not going to be unleashing the creative part of your mind.
I don’t know how possible it would be for me to regularly take a day off from my normal responsibilities, but the way that I have created space for innovation is by setting aside a few hours a week in my calendar for ambiguous tasks that I’m working alone on. I also add big-picture items to my actual to-do list, like “Think about Supervisory Philosophy” or “How to better engage learning community faculty?” I think that we have to communicate that this type of work is not only legitimate, but necessary to the progress of our organizations. If you imagine a supervisor or colleague asking you “Hey, what are you working on?” would you be comfortable saying “I’m thinking about my supervisory philosophy today!” ? How about if you are the supervisor in this situation? We have to be okay with giving our smart, talented, creative employees (and ourselves) the time and space to be smart, talented, and creative!
The third tip is that wellness is a strategic priority.
As I mentioned, there are a many studies that show the connection between overwork and serious health concerns. Ultimately, if staff are physically and mentally struggling, that is going to negatively impact productivity, success, and the workplace environment. Sick days exist for a reason: sometimes our bodies and/or minds are not operating at the level we need to be able to be productive at work, and we should give ourselves the time and space to heal and recuperate. That includes being able to care for a sick parent, spouse, or child; I know that when someone I love is unwell, I’m not going to be a great employee that day.
I used to feel guilty about spending time taking care of myself, because in the culture of Busyness, we quantify every minute of our lives to achieve maximum productivity, and I thought that taking a walk, going to bed early, or taking a sick day was wasting time. All of these things, though, are essential steps for my care and upkeep as a human. The way to be most productive and successful is not just to put the most hours toward your tasks, but to make yourself best equipped as a whole person to address the challenges and opportunities of life. For me, that means leaving the office at a reasonable time in the evening to go to the gym regularly, getting up and walking around every hour, spending time cooking nutritious meals for the week, getting between 7-8 hours of sleep every night, and making time for my favorite activities like hiking. When you and your staff are physically well, mentally calm, alert, and happy, every minute that you spend on your work is going to yield more success.
Tip number four: If Everything is a Priority, Nothing is a Priority.
I have been influenced quite a bit lately by the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown. McKeown espouses the practice of Essentialism, which is the idea that to lead a very successful life, we need to identify the things that are absolutely most important for us to spend our time on (the essential), and get rid of the rest.
We need to intentionally and strategically say no to opportunities to remain focused on what is most important, and we need to deliberately and continuously re-assess what our highest point of contribution is. The highest point of contribution is the intersection of “What do I feel deeply inspired by?” , “What am I particularly talented at?” and “What meets a significant need in the world?” You focus on that and get rid of the rest.
This is difficult to do, because someone is always looking for a volunteer, and often, we know that we are skilled and would be a valuable asset to a task or new idea. But we have to ask ourselves, at what cost? Just because you have the opportunity to do something or are asked to do something doesn’t mean that you should do it. I think of leading an essential life as a way of avoiding “mission creep” in my work life. There are things that I’m here to do for my department and university; I could do many other things as well, but if I don’t identify and protect my most important priorities, then I’ll never achieve success in my area of responsibility.
This can seem harsh and anti-collaborative, but it’s important for us to learn how to say “no” so we can say “yes” to the right things. If you don’t decide what your priorities are, someone else will.
The last tip is that we can’t help others unless we help ourselves first
Burnout is very real when you work in a helping profession like student affairs. Burnout includes three aspects:
- Increased feelings of emotional exhaustion,
- development of negative, cynical attitudes about those you are helping, and
- unhappiness with yourself and dissatisfaction with your work accomplishments. (Maslach & Jackson, 1981)
Because burnout is caused by organizational, interpersonal, and intrapersonal factors, (Huebner, 1993) there are opportunities to prevent and treat burnout as a supervisor, colleague, and for yourself. We should expect that the type of stressors that we deal with related to difficult human emotions and experiences may lead to burnout, especially when combined with overwork, conflicting workplace demands, or insufficient organizational or supervisory support. Avoiding burnout is like when you are on an airplane and they tell you to always put your own oxygen on first We cannot bear every burden and solve every problem, and if we don’t develop and sustain healthy coping mechanisms to address work stressors, we won’t be able to bear any burdens or solve any problems. So make sure you have your oxygen on.
We, as the field of student affairs, need to look Busyness in the face and name it for what it is: a toxic personal and organizational attitude that devalues our holistic selves and replaces good management and efficiency with anxiety and wasted time.
It’s time to break up with Busyness for good.
- Essentialism, Greg McKeown
- Rising Strong and Daring Greatly, Brene Brown
- Drive, Daniel Pink
The Measurement of Experienced Burnout Author(s): Christina Maslach and Susan E. Jackson Source: Journal of Occupational Behaviour, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Apr., 1981), pp. 99-113
Huebner, E. Scott, PROFESSIONALS UNDER STRESS: A REVIEW OF BURNOUT AMONG THE HELPING PROFESSIONS WITH IMPLICATIONS FOR SCHOOL PSYCHOLOGISTS Psychology in the Schools Volume 30, January 1993, pp. 40-49