Of all the questions people can ask, I never expected, “How do you get it all done?” to be the most common. I never thought I’d be the person anyone referred to when they said, “If you need something done, give it to a busy person.” I often feel like I’m struggling against a hurricane rain of tasks, and periodically a wind hurled cow will land on my productivity. Still, I’m somehow keeping things moving, and I have to admit it’s largely because I give myself permission to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t.”
I suck at the whole work-life balance thing. I’ve trained people to know I work random hours that sometimes add up to all hours. Colleagues have no qualms looking at my calendar and adding a 1pm Saturday telecon to talk grants; they know I’ll make it work. Program officers have correctly known they could, in a moment of need, drop a grant on me to read on Friday and ask for a review back by Monday.
I’m that person.
When I was in the last year of my PhD, my advisor, John Kormendy, loaned me a biography of Chandrasekhar that detailed how Chandra was able to accomplish so much. Put simply, he lived by a schedule and was always on. He had hours designated for editing the Astrophysical Journal, and in those hours, that’s all he did. He had hours for teaching, and hours for research. The biography discussed how his work was also made possible by a wife who cooked and cared for him, both as an intellectual partner who could read and comment on his work, and as a helpmate that could free him from many of the nuisances of reality… like laundry. I admit to seeing his discipline – this way of saying firmly, “and this time shall be uninterrupted time for X” – as something to aspire to.
But I want to be a more diverse person. I want to be someone who reads, and keeps up with a few TV shows. I want to be someone who corresponds with friends, and takes moments to make things and do things that matter (even if they only matter to the dog who’s happy to have her belly rubbed). I want to be a whole person, and not just a 24-hour-a-day scientist and science communicator.
I need to do my own laundry.
But Chandra is still a hero, and I have taken his lesson and designed a life with spaces in it for me to be more than just a scientist. This more-by-design is the only way I know how to hold onto something resembling sanity.
(header image credit: Adam Huszka)
It is easy to build a life of pure academics, where all friendships and communications are with others in our tight-knit world of science. It is harder to standup and force yourself to live outside the Ivory Tower, if only for a few
stolen scheduled moments.
When I was a grad student, I was close friends with the daughter of aerospace engineer Victor Szebehely. I remember her warning me that when her dad caught students out eating, he’d get up to interrupt their meal and give them work to do (because if they had time to go out and eat, clearly he hadn’t given them enough work to do earlier). It was from her that I learned to completely escape campus and escape to a barn and horses, and to escape to a place where shoveling of metaphorical shit was replaced with shoveling of actual shit. I learned to have barn friends separate from work friends.
When my beloved horse Quantum Leap died in 2003, I went 5 years without riding. In 2008, the people in my life ganged up on me and told me I needed a horse, that they would get me the horse, and they would kill me if I didn’t start riding said horse.
The thing about horses is you can’t be angry or upset while riding, because if you are, they will act out. My last horse, Ben, would look around to try and guess what I was upset about. Failing to find something real, he would decide he needed to be afraid of his own shadow or the blowing wind. Riding a horse that is afraid of shadows isn’t pleasant, and I had to find a way to live utterly in the moment or … it was going to be a sucky ride. I don’t own a horse right now, but I do ride one of the barn’s horses; a rather emotional mare who constantly looks for a reason to spook or fight or otherwise jump around. I have to be in the moment when riding, or… my seat just might not stay in the saddle.
So, when I’m home, I often hear the phrase, “When are you going to the barn?” and I work to schedule time to escape long enough to get throughly sweaty and filthy; I make time to reset my brain.
For me, a horse is the start of a mandate to get away from my keyboard, but it is not the end. There are days when either the wind and rain precludes riding, or my own exhaustion and/or frustration with our world makes it unsafe for me to ride a spooky horse. Last Saturday started as one of those days. I’d spent all of Friday dealing with the impossible politics of trying to find ways to remove known harassers from the field of astronomy; I listened to women detail their experiences and I listened to leaders say there are no policies that allow known harassers to be removed from out ranks. I admit, I broke inside. I went to sleep wanting to cry, and I awoke with wet eyes. I was not in a headspace to get on a horse, so I sat in my armchair in my tiny home office, and I curled up with headphones that spilled out chapter after chapter of Perdido Street Station. I listened to the book and I knit. I had soft yarn that felt good in my fingers, and I had a pattern I was trying to perfect. I sat there – knit 1, purl 1, knit 1, purl 1, increase knitwise – listening to the words and letting my brain turn off until I was in a headspace that sucked a little bit less. Around 3pm I got up, dressed warmly, and went to the barn to ride.
That was the day I needed.
I don’t always succeed when I’m knitting (or horseback riding). I have one particular yarn that I’ve now unsuccessfully used to try and make a sweater (it was too stiff, and felt odd), to make a different sweater (it felt great, but I ran out of yarn before it was done), and it is currently experiencing life as a misshapen cowl that needs undone. The thing is, no matter how bad the thing I’m knitting comes out, I can always see progress being made. I can watch the yarn ball shrink and the cloth grow, and there is satisfaction in seeing something take shape.
We each need to find ways that we can always succeed. We need the places where accomplishments can be safely built.
And we need to let ourselves have spaces to safely fail.
I choose to knit that space.
Last Saturday I rethought my failed cowl pattern and I created a cowl that didn’t suck. This morning I finished it. I made a thing. I made a soft comfortable thing. It has flaws, but that’s ok; it will still be warm and soft, and flawed things can still be beautiful things.
More by design (and software)
I need to carve out time to be human, but I have to carve it out of time that is carefully shaped to allow the too many things I need to do to still get done.
I’m not going to lie. My life is shaped by a series of beeps and flashes. Software orders me about like a (mostly) obedient golem. Alarms tell me to get up. They remind me I should be done with my coffee and email triage and actually working. They remind me to stop and think about stuff and things (like dinner), and they tell me when I should turn away from screens and turn toward bed. Alarms ring me through my day, and calendar notifications pop up to give me me day-to-day specifics; telecons, recording, meetings, and reports. When I’m writing – like right now – I know I’m capable of hyperfocus and those alarms remind me to come up for air.
Sometimes, I need forced to focus and take on life in manageable chunks. From the Agile Community, I’ve learned the usefulness of timers. Called the “Pomodoro Technique,” this productivity hack structures your day into a series of short sprints and mandated breaks. Classically, it’s a cycle of 25 minute sprints and 5-10 minute breaks. Research by the Draugiem Group, however, looked at the time-usage of the most productive employees and companies using the productivity app Desktime, and found these employees tended to work in 52 minute sprints with 17 minute breaks. Personally… I vary my durations according to task and fatigue levels.
When I’m not writing, I need help silencing the distracting voices in my head, and the Pomodoro timer on my iPhone helps me to tell them to shut up for X more minutes. Too often, I find myself working on tasks that leave space for my brain to pipe up with suggestions of snacks, and shopping, and… stuff and things. I need this help. Most of the time, I set up cycles of 50-10, but if I’m doing budgets (a task I hate) or I’m exhausted, I’ll switch to 25-5 cycles. When I’m in a sprint, I’ll only let myself work on whatever task I’ve set for myself to do in that block. This means no notifications, no email, and ignoring my phone (with some exceptions). During the breaks, I’ll get tea or coffee, interact on social media, and stand up. (I used to use these breaks to post a lot on social media, but I admit that there is so much ugliness in the world at the moment that I often read my feed and find myself wordless.) Every few hours, my software reminds me, “You need a longer break,” and things like food are contemplated. (The fact that I don’t use this technique when I’m writing tends to lead to odd eating habits when working on large writing projects.)
Reshaping my inbox with Inbox
Learning to not constantly check email and social media has perhaps been one of the most efficiency-increasing things I’ve done. While I may (or may not) check email at lunch, I generally try to only spend a couple hours a day on email.
This inbox-ignoring way of life only became a practical reality with the advent of Inbox by Google (and with the aid of filters that alert me if I get messages from certain people, like my NASA program officer). Each morning I get up, make coffee and grab a breakfast bar, and proceed to curl up in my home office chair with my iPad and my Inbox. I’ve worked very hard to setup filters that stash things like promos, forum posts, and daily mails I really want to read (like GoComics, arXiv digests, and SlashDot highlights) into prioritized folders. Most of my folders are set to only appear in my inbox at 8am. Prior to that, they hide in my sidebar with their messages piling up out of the way. The remaining mess of messages that make it to my inbox are often reminders of future things I can RSVP and snooze until the day of the event or deadline, or they are things I can turn into Trello cards and swipe away. Inbox on mobile devices also has an advanced (and terrifying) AI that provides a variety of automated responses I can (and often do) select from. This is a feature that both creeps me out and ups my efficiency. When I’m done with reminders and to dos, whats left requires more meaningful responses … which get pushed off until I’ve grabbed a shower, real cloths, and sat down at a keyboard with a second cup of coffee. Unless the world is blowing up (which it does do now and then) I can get through all my email in two hours (1 on iPad, 1 at the keyboard) in the morning and 30 minutes at the end of the day. (I have to admit, my time at my keyboard is also speed up thanks to Textexpander.) This isn’t to say every request in my inbox is completed – Just that things have been either handled, snoozed, or turned into offline to-do items I can sprint through.
Giving myself permission to stop
The hardest part of trying to find a work-life balance is admitting I can’t ever have everything done. When I was in grad student, a fellow student made the comment that farmers work slow and steady because no matter how hard they rush through things, there will always be more work left then they can complete in a lifetime. While this parable seems odd, he was trying to make it clear that working myself beyond exhaustion (which I was doing at the time), wasn’t worth it because it just didn’t help. I needed to give myself permission to have a long list of undone tasks and I need to give myself permission to take time to not be exhausted.
Right now, there are very shouty voices in my head reminding me that I have a near monumental amount of work to do so we can smoothly onboard a bunch of new people to CosmoQuest. Today, I woke up with a, “YOU NEED TO…” thought that ended all possibility of staying wrapped up in my nice warm blankets and snoozing a bit. There is also a different shouty voice reminding me that I have laundry in the washer and dryer that need switched, and there are at least three more loads of cloths, towels, etc that needed washed.
But, today is Saturday and I gave myself permission to block out the sirens’ call of my to do list and to be anything but a scientist (and laundress) for at least most of today.
What have I done? I triaged my inbox with Inbox because reasons. I finished listening to The Stone Man and finished knitting the cowl above, I checked if some things I needed to buy anyways were on sale (I need a new suit because mine is shiny after >10 years of dry cleaning). I also did some chores around the house (like starting laundry). Then I sat down to write.
Accountability to self (with help from friends)
I sat down to write for two reasons: First, I wanted a post I can point to when someone asks, “How do you get it all done?”. Second, I’m realizing that maintaining a work-life balance is about to get even harder and I need to ask for help. CosmoQuest is growing and for the first time in ever we’re funded well enough that I’m working full-time and will be posting job ads to hire new people after the first of the year. Between project responsibilities and officers positions with the IAU and ASP, I’m in danger of letting the “You need to…” voices in my head take away the time I carve out for myself.
Blogging here is something I do for me. This space is where I say the things that need said, but that aren’t necessarily work things (those get written on CosmoQuest’s Blog) or even science-related things. Writing has always been part of my identity, and if I stop finding space to write I will be silencing an important part of who I am.
As I move into this brave new future of actually being well funded, I’m going to need to up my discipline and hold on even tighter to spaces like this one. Since I don’t currently own a horse, I’m not spending most of my weekend at the barn, and the time that is no longer going into grooming and such is time I’m going to turn into words.
I’m going to work at getting back to writing essays on a regular basis, and use these digital pages to talk about technology, ideas, and all the things that … I’ve always been randomly writing about. The last time this blog was getting regularly updated, I didn’t own a horse. Since I don’t own a horse again… It’s time to write again.
Will you come with me on this journey? Will you be there poking me with ideas, and pestering me when I go silent?
Will you be louder than the voices in my head?
I have a few online heroes, who I look to as the people to emulate. This need to get back to writing is inspired by Amanda Palmer’s latest couple of Patreon [patron-only] posts about how much has been lost as so many of us went from writing powerful and/or silly stream-of-conscious posts in the dark hours of the night, to instead spattering ourselves across social media in a deluge of sound bites that are designed to be click-bait.
I remember the days of Google Reader, and sitting and reading AFP’s posts, and posts by Wil Weaton, Cory Doctorow, Phil Plait, and so many others. I’d sit and read things that were more than soundbites and clickbait. Pictures were there (mostly), but they didn’t dominate.
Google Reader is dead, but AFP is starting to write again. Wil (mostly) never stopped. Cory and Phil are still there, although their content has wandered over the years. But still, maybe what is old is new again.
Long live the Blog?
And now I’m off to do my laundry…