“And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”

I haven’t written in a few months. And the truth is, it’s because I’ve been afraid of what might come out. As a process of personal consciousness-raising, writing allows me to get in deep with my own thoughts and feelings about the personal, political, and vocational. And lately, in all three of those arenas, I’ve gotten close enough to the edge of the pool to see that it’s getting awfully deep and it is looking like I haven’t cleaned it in quite a while. So I’ve been sitting on my lounge chair, biding my time until I convinced myself that if I dive in, I’m a good enough swimmer to make it back to the surface. 
One struggle over the past few months has been with my level of “busyness.” Much-reviled busyness, which I frequently take to task here and elsewhere, was starting to enthusiastically creep back into my life. It turns out, once you figure out some important truth about the best way to live your life, you can still retreat to old habits. Furthermore, when the context of your experience changes, so too must the way you make meaning of your values in practice.  Behold, having recently proclaimed myself as unburdened with busyness, I launched into a schedule that can only objectively be described as absurdly busy.  I have allowed tasks and responsibilities that are non-essential and driven by obligation and perfectionism to consume my time. The distinction between those types of activities and those that are essential, important, and aligned with my values and goals is very important, because spending time on the essential is not busyness, but rather an investment. For example, taking two weeks to be with my family when my grandmother was dying: essential. Worrying about trying to put together alumni class activities for college homecoming: busy. 
As a recovering perfectionist, it’s still a pretty ugly process for me to own up to vulnerability in public arenas. However, I share my writing because I am deeply invested in human connection and value the process of exchanging thoughts and ideas with others. Still, it’s a lot easier to share something that you anticipate people are going to find positive and inspiring than to share your struggle. So once I realized that I was bumping up against my own values in a rather uncomfortable way, starting to bullshit my way through life because things were getting kind of ugly and painful, and I was getting dangerously close to reneging on my own self promises of wellness and authenticity, I started putting my protective walls back up. One of those walls was avoiding writing. 
I’m a master of building emotional walls. I’m impossibly good at shutting other people out when it allows me to evade owning that I am scared, in pain, confused, or sad. My partner is very proficient at noticing this, most likely because he has some good practice at carefully dismantling said walls. I am a persistent builder, though. And although I’ve done better lately at not hiding my vulnerabilities quite so much, every once in a while, when I feel like I’m losing control, I will drag out the bricks and mortar and get to work. Brick 1: anger; Brick 2: defensiveness; Brick 3: blame. So on and so forth, glued together with the cement of self-righteousness. Although I haven’t managed to rid myself of this tendency yet, I’ve started to be able to name it, and as previously mentioned, my partner will name it too. Being called out on being insufferable and emotionally distant kind of sucks, but not nearly as much as continuing to be insufferable and emotionally distant would suck. 
One recent example of a calling out happened when I was in a rare mood. I was swimming in my own feelings of hypocrisy, shame, and not being good enough as a partner. I had recently (with the supportive listening help of my partner, sister, and father) identified that my priorities were messed up and hadn’t been able to fix it yet. I was still reeling from grief and worn down from an unforgiving schedule of work and travel. I described myself to my sister as being stuck on a swing, but I couldn’t figure out when or how to jump off without getting hurt. So obviously, I decided to transfer the blame. I was mad at myself for not making enough time for my relationship and for my personal well being, which I spent a five hour car drive thinking about, so I started to transfer my anger by picking a fight. I called my partner and said “Can we please DO something when I get home, because I really CANNOT just sit on the couch all afternoon?” It’s remarkable that I have the inflection and attitude of my twelve year old self when I’m steeped in feelings of inadequacy and exhaustion (this may merit further exploration). He amiably agreed and asked if I wanted to go on a hike (of course I wanted to go on a hike! It was a beautiful day and I love hiking). Because I won that fight too easily (mostly because it was not a fight at all), I lingered and clung to the idea that he was only going on this hike because I had somehow tricked him into it and that he totally resented me and didn’t want to go, instead of accepting that although hiking is not his all time favorite activity, he suggested it and was obviously okay with it because of his love for and devotion to me. I appended this new nugget of inadequacy and failure to the mental novel of Inadequacy and Failure that I had written during my long drive.
And so I kept swirling in this little shame storm. When I got home, I picked another argument when my partner casually joked about our hiking plans. I got into a full blown “conversation” with him about how I feel that “we” don’t do enough “fun things” together (read: I’m being a shitty girlfriend because I’m constantly traveling, I’m totally stressed out, and pissed at myself for not making time for the things that I say matter). I will add here that I’m fortunate to have a partner who fights fair, with love, and an immense amount of care. We actually had a sort of productive conversation, but I was still trying to build a wall around myself to avoid my vulnerabilities. Finally, we got into the woods (literally, we were in the woods). The path we were hiking was slippery with late fall leaves; he went ahead of me, offering his hand as I commented that I thought the path was a little dangerous that day, and reassuring that he would protect me. I  snapped: “I don’t need you to protect me,” and as the words left my mouth I immediately felt the weight of my own hurt. He casually responded “Oop, there’s those walls…” I felt guilty but was grateful that he called me out. Denying that I need help or protection is how I justify the wall building behavior. If I don’t need anyone other than myself, I can justify crappy behavior because it will only impact me. 
I’ve since resumed the hard work of reexamining and committing to my priorities. I thought it was enough to name and understand these things for myself, but the truth is, I can’t live an authentic and whole life without the help and investment of others. I needed help as I navigated major transitions in my life. A new job, a new relationship, a new living and financial situation, and the death of a loved one are all kind of a big deal. 
I’ve been coming to terms with the idea that my development is neither linear nor sequential. Fellow educators will get this: I’m finally figuring out that I’m not following a stage model. This perhaps should have been easier to figure out, since I don’t necessarily believe in linear development as an accurate description of the human experience, but alas, knowledge is easier to understand written on a page than seen in a mirror. So I need to give myself permission to sometimes fall down and sometimes stagger backwards when faced with challenging situations. I need to remember that thinking that I can perfect anything in life is  dangerous and destructive. I need to accept that the beauty is in the struggle and that learning is a direct result of challenge. And I need to be open to the fact that an authentic and whole life is one in which I am open to others and forgiving of myself. 

Breaking Up with Busyness

About a year ago, I started breaking up with Busyness. Busyness and I were pretty deep in a toxic relationship that had started sometime in my sophomore year of college, just around the time that I was introduced to a budding career in Student Affairs.

Busyness, which can be described as the constant need in our lives to be occupied by tasks, responsibilities, and to-do lists (usually work-related, but for me, also related to volunteering that is suspiciously like work) is not unique to Student Affairs, but, I would argue, is an insidious part of the culture of our field. It’s fueled by perfectionism, workaholism, and environments of shame. With a calendar that looked like a game of Tetris, I embarked on each semester with an increasing sense of urgency and anxiety, with the belief that to she who works the most hours go the spoils.

For about 7 years I kept up this deleterious dance, 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. Every time I started to get weary, I reminded myself that I had a reputation for excellence to uphold. I was Ashley F**king Robinson (an actual nickname that others used for me). I was the smartest, most accomplished, and goddamnit, 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.

What a load of bullshit that was. I wasn’t the only person around me who felt that way or was behaving that way; most people were. I saw role models and supervisors glorifying busyness, 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 damn door. I was getting burned out, only a few years out of grad school, and I knew that if I wanted to have a long, rewarding career of educating college students, I needed to do it differently.

I stopped checking email at night and on weekends, unless I was actually working. I put 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 started going to the gym regularly for the first time ever. I started getting up and walking around every 45 minutes. I paid attention to my mental and physical health and nutrition. I kept track of my sleep and always aimed for 8 hours in bed. I stepped away from any extra work obligations that were not clearly benefitting me and the mission of my department as it related to my scope of influence (committees, I’m looking at you). I refused to let myself feel guilty when I left the office when other people were still there or didn’t volunteer for something extra after hours. I let things slide a little bit here and there in favor of more important priorities.

When I did this, bad things did not start happening. In fact, good things started happening. I am less stressed and more organized than I used to be. I spend more time on things that I am passionate about. I lost weight and got healthier. I advanced my career with a new job. I fell in love. I’m not saying that if you stop answering your email at night, you’re automatically going to lose 20lbs, get a new job, and find love…but what I am saying is that when I carved out and fiercely protected my free time, I allowed myself to expend energy on previously neglected areas like reflection and personal fulfillment outside of work.

Although much of this journey has been personal and individual, I also see immense organizational value when individuals break up with busyness, especially those who are supervisors and leaders. Over the past year, I communicated openly and widely about my quest for balance and wellness. I told supervisors, peers, and students that this was a core value of mine and encouraged and supported the same type of behavior in others. I reflected on the ways I had felt guilty or not enough in the past and tried to break down those forces for others as I combatted them for myself. And this, I think is the path to fix our busyness problem.

We, as the field of student affairs, need to look Busyness in the face and name it for what it is: a toxic work culture that devalues our holistic selves and replaces good management and efficiency with anxiety and wasted time. Stop scheduling things for after hours that don’t have to be after hours. Encourage your staff to be productive without spending extra time in the office. Be clear and consistent in your expectations for how supervisees spend their time, and when extra time is spent, ensure that they are able to balance that out. Challenge if extra time needs to be spent or if there are ways to work smarter, further ahead, and more creatively. Stop acting like the world is going to come to a screeching halt if you don’t send emails at 11pm. Challenge how we schedule student staff and how we structure our schedules during both the busy times and low times. Eat lunch. Ask for help. Go home. Don’t be a martyr.

It’s time to break up with Busyness for good.