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.

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There’s More to Life Than Work (I Think)

You should work to live, not live to work.

I have, in very recent history, openly scoffed at this adage. I have thought to myself, “My work is not just work…it is life. My work is meaningful and important, so I don’t need to worry about keeping my work time under control. Everything just blends together and it’s okay!”

I’m pretty sure I was wrong.

These days, I’m starting to reconsider my stance on what a good life looks like. I’m on something of a journey of self-discovery (that sounds much better than “existential crisis,” doesn’t it?) As I try to determine the next steps in my career, I am reexamining my work-related values. As I previously alluded to, those values used to be something along the lines of: “Be everything to everyone all the time, and be the best at it.”

There are many contributing factors that led to my work ethic, including perfectionism, gendered achievement expectations (I can’t just be successful, I also have to be selfless), and endless positive reinforcement for my burgeoning workaholism. I believe that these factors are tied into the culture of student affairs and in larger part, to societal factors that conflate being busy or stressed with vocational success.

Here are some of my thoughts about redefining “success” and valuing a holistic life:

Free time is where creativity and potential exist. 

All work and no play make Ashley a dull person. Seriously. Not just for the obvious reason that free time is enjoyable, but because when your mind is allowed to have space to breathe without constant attentiveness to already-determined tasks, you have the chance to dream, imagine, and think deeply about a whole variety of things.

“I don’t have anything else to do” is a crappy reason to work more. 

How many times have you said some variety of this? “I’m not doing anything else…so I might as well just go to the office on the weekend/check my email/work on a work-related project after hours.” Maybe you don’t have anything else to do because all you ever do is work. Have you thought of that?

Know when you’re at your peak performance. Don’t go beyond that. 

Listen to your body. Pay attention to how clear your mind is. Know what it feels like to be productive, energized, and “in the zone.” And if you’re not there, take breaks, take care of yourself, take a walk. We are not robots or machines. We are humans.

Being healthy and well is more important. 

I frequently tell my students that they do not get a new body to trade in upon completion of college, and this admonition goes for all of us. We don’t get to trade in our abused, uncared for bodies and minds. These are the ones we have. What better use of our time is there than to make sure that we are in good condition? I will admit that there are many times that I have said “I don’t feel well, but I don’t have time to go to the doctor; I don’t have time to be sick.” Illness doesn’t, it turns out, just go away if you ignore it. And once you are really sick and have to take days out at inopportune times, your workload and stress level is not going to get any better. Prevention and maintenance matter.

Volunteering might be working dressed up in a disguise.

I’m just saying…I’m a master of this one. If you work in student affairs, there’s a good chance that almost everything you do is for other people. There’s also a good chance that your selflessness, positive attitude, and event planning skills make you a great volunteer. Be careful how many things you sign up for (on and off campus). Though every opportunity is likely a wonderful cause, you can only be spread so thin. Before you take the next volunteer opportunity, ask yourself these questions: Will doing this provide personal/professional benefits to me as well as to others? Am I actually going to enjoy doing this or see it as a burden or stress? Are there other people who are equally qualified and able to do this?

I know that I am more than my job and that my life is more than my job. It’s time to start acting that way and passing along a new work ethic. One that values dedication, hard work, self-care, kindness, intentionality, and living well.

The Real Life of Student Affairs Professionals

October is upon us. That means it’s Careers in Student Affairs Month! The annual occasion when we turn our attention to doing our darndest to indoctrinate bright-eyed student leaders into the cult of Student Affairs. Or perhaps more accurately put, a time when we reflect on our own career paths, our professional aspirations and goals, and the future of our profession.

Earlier today, I was thinking about my own career thus far, and considering how drastically I have changed as a professional, even since I began my current job just over two years ago. I decided relatively early in my college career (as a sophomore) that I was going to pursue a career in student affairs. So I wouldn’t say that I just “happened on to” the field, but rather spent 3 years of college researching, attending conferences, trying to gain experiences, and starting to shape my student affairs career. I was sold on student affairs at age 19.

My experience since my student leader days has been rewarding, challenging, and enlightening. But there have been a whole slew of experiences that I could have never anticipated, understood, or prepared for. Perhaps this is true of all careers, but I really had no idea what I was signing up for when I embarked on this path. I have embraced it and generally thrived. But I sometimes worry that we portray our field as a rainbows and sunshine kind of situation, without having frank discussions about how emotionally, mentally, and physically demanding this work is.

In my opinion, the demands of student affairs life don’t make this career not worth it. The difference I feel I’m making, the ability to have life-changing moments with students, the ability to be part of a higher education institution, to be a change agent, to work in an environment where I can be myself, where social justice is valued, and where I generally have a ton of fun at work all easily outweigh the negatives. However, we need to talk openly about the negatives and accept them in order to improve our own experiences as educational professionals and to set up future professionals for success in this field.

If we sugar coat the realities of dealing with human emotion, negotiating institutional politics, addressing trauma, or working long hours, we discount our own ability to deal with and overcome these vocational struggles. We also set up future professionals to feel like absolute shit when they run head first into those professional challenges. I think that we (especially new professionals and graduate students) have a big complex in our field about admitting that not everything is rainbows and sunshine. Maybe we feel like we were tricked a little bit. Maybe we thought that working in student affairs was just going to be an extension of our student leadership glory days. Maybe we didn’t anticipate that the work-life balance struggle is so very real. But most of us feel deeply passionate, inspired, and energized by our work. I do not hesitate for a moment in saying that embarking on a career in student affairs has absolutely changed my life.

Which is why I am going to do my best this month to post some very real reflections on the nature of student affairs work in recognition of Careers in Student Affairs Month. I hope that through honest reflections of the lessons I have learned as a new professional, I can inspire others to consider a career in student affairs, armed with a full knowledge of what that career means.

Belonging, part 2.

20140507-230236.jpgToday, I won a really wonderful award. I was given the honor of Outstanding New Staff member for the Division of Student Affairs. I have a nice, shiny statue to place in my office, I was applauded and hugged by my wonderful colleagues and friends, and many kind words were spoken about me. Being a new staff member in student affairs sure isn’t easy, and the past couple of years have truly tested my resolve, creativity, and knowledge. So I am truly grateful to be honored with such recognition.

I am much more grateful, however, for something that is much harder to see than a statue. When I moved here nearly two years ago, I was leaving a place that I felt a deep sense of belonging. I knew in my bones that UMaine was part of me and I was part of it. Shortly after moving to Connecticut, I wrote about my transition experience:

It’s one thing to know in my mind that I’ve made a great choice in my career by coming to UConn; I knew that months ago when I accepted the position. It’s another thing to feel in my heart that I belong here; that’s a feeling that comes only with time and experiences. And those things don’t come in a job description or an offer letter, but by building relationships, getting invested, getting to know students, and putting my unique mark on my work.

Somewhere along the way this year, among long to-do lists, longer nights, countless hours talking with students, moments of fear, laughter, and tears, in the midst of difficult conversations and inspirational breakthroughs, between hugs from students and jokes with friends, I started to feel in my heart that I belong here.

I’m so grateful to my colleagues (who have become great friends) and my students for being part of this journey. The opportunity to wake up every day and make an impact and a difference in this community is not lost on me. I am so humbled by the opportunity to be an educator and to learn from those around me. So the statue is pretty great and I’m not about to give it back, but it will never compare to the feeling of belonging.

 

A Year of Change

The first blog post I wrote on this website almost a year ago was about the “One Word” that I was choosing to live by in 2012. With what I now recognize as an impressive amount of foresight, humility, and a good dose of crippling fear, I chose “change”. Even now, it feels empowering to say that I chose change, instead of feeling like change was always choosing me. I knew then that change would define this year, and I’m grateful that I embraced it.

Without question, this has been one of the most change-filled years of my life. When I look back to last December, I’m looking into a totally different life. I was on the brink of transition, ready to find the next phase of my life. I was preparing to leave behind a place that had defined me for years (and which will always hold a big piece of my heart). I was unknowingly about to experience months of heartbreak, soul-searching, doubt, questioning, and ultimately, self discovery and renewed confidence. There were many times in the months that followed that I sat on the floor and sobbed, whether out of confusion and frustration at a relationship that was rapidly falling apart, fear and sadness for leaving the place I loved, exhaustion from tirelessly working to finish my degree, or the mixture of apprehension, anxiety, and abandon that I fondly refer to as “quarter-life crisising”.

In those and numerous other challenging moments, “change” became my mantra. I have reminded myself quite frequently over the past 12 months that I am choosing change. I want change; I love change. It hurts like hell sometimes. But when I commit myself to something, you had better believe I’m going to follow through. Had I not gifted this magical word to myself at the beginning of the year, would I still have gotten through all of the transitions in my life? Most likely. However, I really believe that I met these challenges with greater conviction, grace, and faith than I would have otherwise. I defined myself as a lover of change; I chose my attitude in anticipation of what I thought was coming for me. In many ways, I got more than I anticipated; but I was ready.

Today I feel that I’m better off than I was a year ago. Yes, I have a degree and a full-time job now (whew), but it is more than that. I have a better sense of who I am and what matters to me. I have, in many ways, reclaimed permission to fully be who I want to be. I realize that my life will always hold changes. Likely, there will be other years similar to this one, during which I will turn to my good old friend Change and ask her to hold my hand along my journey. After all, Change and I are well-acquainted now.

Helping.

Last week was one of those weeks. You know, the kind of week when I said things like “I miss grad school, when things used to be simple and easy”. Which must mean that I was delusional, because grad school was neither simple nor easy. I returned from the beautiful lull of a three day weekend, with fresh memories of  sand, surf, seafood, and late summer sun, and BAM. Tuesday was basically a brick wall. And the rest of the week followed suit. I wound my way through a labyrinth of mental health concerns, conduct meetings, roommate conflicts, confrontation, awkwardness, and tears shed on my university-issued office couch. Even when I was just trying to do an innocent door-to-door program, I found students smoking pot.  By Friday afternoon, I was making wagers with colleagues about how long building improvement projects would take (which is obviously a form of reckless escapism).

But guess what? I DID IT. I did it. Issue after issue, and I just kept going. It was like a whack-a-mole game and I nailed every single one of those moles right on the head. I know that’s a really weird analogy. And yes, things happened that are outside of my control. Not everything ended up rainbows and unicorns last week because my job is about real stuff that happens in young people’s lives. Human emotions, impulses, conflict, identity crises, transition, transformation, and life are never going to be clean and pretty.

My job is not clean and pretty. Sometimes it seems thankless. Other people in the “outside world” ask me if I want to be doing what I’m doing, as if it’s impossible that I went to grad school with the goal of becoming a residence hall director. Yes, I went to grad school so that I could do this challenging, time-consuming job that requires I live in a residence hall at age 24.  And last week was the kind of week that makes you ask “Why exactly am I doing this, again?”. Thankfully, I have answers.

After dealing with a mental health concern, I told a colleague “I went into this field for a reason; because I want to help people.”  I said it off the cuff, as an explanation for my calm and focus under pressure, but in that moment, I realized that is my explanation. That’s my reason. When the chips are on the table, when I’m tired, when I’m going “above and beyond”, I’m not doing it because I think it’s going to advance my career, get me recognition, or even a thank you. I’m doing it because I feel an intense obligation to make other people’s lives better. I’m doing it because there are people who helped me in college, who listened to me when I was upset, who offered me opportunities and hope. I do it because I don’t want anyone to ever feel alone. I do it because I want these students to make it through college. I don’t want anyone who feels like they need help to not have help.

I’ve said many times that my philosophy in life is to ask myself at the end of each day if I’ve helped someone. And that’s it; at the end of the day, after all of the student development theories, history, law, organizational context, educational philosophy and what have you, it’s about helping people and doing the right thing.

A Question of Faith

Religion and higher education. We have a weird, frightened, tenuous relationship with religion at secular institutions of higher education.

This topic has been floating around in my head for a while but has most recently been brought to the fore by this week’s book club co-sponsored by @The_SA_Blog and @CronkNews. For the summer #SAChat book club, I read The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University by Kevin Roose. Roose transferred to Liberty University for a semester while an undergrad at Brown and, after maintaining an “undercover” persona while there, wrote a book about it. It’s a pretty interesting tale of student development, cultural understanding, and growth. It’s also a fascinating read if you don’t know much about Evangelical Christianity, which at present, is the most popular form of organized religion in the U.S. (in a recent Pew Survey, it ekes out Catholicism by a little over 2%, accounting for 26.3% of adults.

There has been a renewed discussion within Student Affairs on examining spirituality and religion in the context of our work, even at secular institutions, as faith and spirituality are rather important for many students. However, I don’t think I am alone in saying that at secular institutions, we are still a little afraid of religion. Now, I am not the most spiritual of folks out there. However, raised in the Episcopal tradition and a professed atheist since my teen years, I have a pretty keen understanding of faith, community, spirituality, and identity pertaining to those issues. I’m rather wary of the spiritual development models that I learned about in grad school (Fowler, I’m looking at you), mostly because they were Christian-centric and did not allow for conversion or non-affiliation with faith.

But I feel strongly that spiritual development is very important in that it encompasses a variety of moral, cognitive, interpersonal, and personal elements that challenge many students. As an individual, I have a set of beliefs that are obviously at odds with just about every organized religion out there; in fact, I’m part of 1.6% of American adults who identify as atheists (and I would wager that there is some serious variety of thinking within that group). So I know that when I am working with a student, I am almost guaranteed to have a different belief system (in terms of faith and religion) than they do. This thought rang clear for me while reading The Unlikely Disciple because one of the central tenets of Liberty University is that everyone has approximately the same religious belief system.

My main concern in thinking about spirituality and Student Affairs is to what extent are we marginalizing students based on their beliefs through an apprehension to engage in matters of faith?

I haven’t done any  first-hand research on this topic,  so I can’t authoritatively speak to the attitudes of SA professionals at secular and public institutions regarding conversations and experiences about faith, but I think this is an important area to think about. There are many questions that I think we should consider with regard to this topic:

  • Are we comfortable engaging with students about their faith?
  • Are we comfortable talking about what they believe, why they believe it, and what that means in their lives?
  • Are we comfortable having these conversations with our colleagues and peers?
  • Do we understand the legal role of religion in public higher education and are we able to apply the concepts of freedom of religion holistically without creating an environment of fear of religion?
  • Are we stewards of our own faith and spirituality in such a way that allows for open dialogue, sharing, and interfaith collaboration?

Throughout the course of human history, innumerable wars have been waged over religious beliefs (mostly associated with money, power, greed, and land, but religion was involved). But public opinion shows that most Americans today don’t believe that it’s “my way or the highway (to hell)” concerning their religious beliefs. 70% of affiliated Americans believe that “many religions can lead to eternal life” and 68% believe that there are multiple ways to interpret the teachings of their religion (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life). This means that most people are probably fairly open to having collaborative, constructive conversations about faith without writing off everyone else in the room. And we should have these conversations, because religious activity can have very close ties to community service, social justice, community, identity,  a sense of belonging and other positive outcomes that are central to the the goals of our work in Student Affairs.

Weigh in on the conversation here: