I did not do any work for the majority of August. Instead, I decided to focus on me. It's easy to put everything first: the peeps in my lab, colleagues, students, Big Problems, Small Problems, Urgent Issues. I've been getting a lot of feedback that I should perhaps care less about certain things and not try to fix everything. Part of me thinks these people are right and part of me doesn't agree. On the one hand, it is easy to waste a lot of energy on things that are outside of my circle of influence. On the other hand, I have always cared about my surroundings and the people in it and I also derive some joy or satisfaction from listening to people and advising them or nudging them towards the next step en route to their problem solution. But after collapsing on the couch like an imploded zombie, I had to admit to myself that if I keep on doing what I am doing (working all the time, not taking proper care of my body), I may not even make it to the end of the tenure track.
In the end I am surprised with how little soul searching it actually took. I just needed to step away from work. I was obviously exhausted, out of energy and did not feel good about that. Rationally, I knew I was caught in a trap of sedation, chronic stress and unhealthy eating habits. For some reason, that had always seemed like an insurmountable obstacle to tackle. And then it just happened. I decided that I was so sick and tired of not having this one fundamental aspect of my life under control, that I just started. I made a plan. A concrete plan. With how much weight I needed to lose (ouch) in order to reach a healthy weight. With a time schedule that would basically give me a whole year to reach that goal. With a healthy diet (as in food plan, not as in depriving myself of everything that's good). With moderate exercise (the minute I realized that walking also counted as exercise I already felt less guilty about not going to the gym). I dusted off my Fitbit (I really, really like that thing). I put new batteries in my scale. I made an Excel spreadsheet to track my progress. And then I just started at step one.
Then the best thing happened: I went on a holiday, all by myself. And I lucked out: the weather in my Holiday Country was better then expected. And whereas I had planned to do a lot of writing and reading, I decided that I could just not sit inside when I was surrounded by so much nature and sunshine. So I started walking. And I found out that my body, which had basically been stuck behind a desk for two plus years, was capable of so much more than I had given it credit for. That I was capable of so much more. And so it turned into a solo hiking holiday where it was just me, the great outdoors and a map. Where the only decisions I had to take were extremely basic: did I bring enough water and where shall I put down my foot. It was an eye-opening and transformative experience.
I've been back for a week now. The first weight has come off. I've also gone back to work, but I am still eating healthy, packing my own lunches and trying to squeeze in an evening walk when I get home. Part of me is scared to death that as soon as the Old Madness returns (my class starts tomorrow, all of my colleagues will be back, all of the old to do lists are still there, only with a few things added) I will fall off the wagon again. But I cannot let that part win out.
Funny enough, I have noted a few unexpected changes: As I am eating healthier and cooking, I also have more energy to clean the house. Which means that for the first time in twenty years, my apartment actually looks like a home instead of like a shag occupied by a hoarding bachelor. I am actually loading the dishwasher every day, instead of letting stuff pile up in the sink. I stop staring at screens at 11 pm and go to bed, preferably a little earlier, with a book. Sure, I've managed to miss basically everything that's on tv, but it does allow me to get up at 7 am relatively rested and I consider that a pro.
Here are the changes I've made at work so far:
- Last year I implemented a strict division between Teaching/Admin and Science. I am continuing that this year. Monday is my main teaching day (including office hours). It's when I will do prep work, meet with students, read and score reports, etc. I will allow this to run into Tuesday if needed. The same holds for Admin/Service related tasks: I try to keep these limited to a Tuesday, with some going into Monday if meeting schedules etc. require. This coming year I will be super protective of my research time (Wed-Fri). This is when I am only meeting with my own lab peeps, where I will read, write (papers/grants). I try to keep it as free of other meetings/obligations (of course some classes and outside events are impossible to move) as possible - because I need to focus on getting output for the second half of my tenure track.
- I jumped off the e-mail train. I changed the preferences of checking e-mail "automatically" to "manually". And I stopped checking it first thing in the morning, as well as on Saturdays. I now check e-mail for the first time around noon and once more around 6pm. Oh and I have also begun purging my inboxes, which had thousands of e-mails in there. In two weeks time (I am scheduling the purge into small sessions over my lunch break), I will have an empty inbox.
- I leave on time so I can cook dinner at a reasonable hour. I still feel a little guilty, but I also think that "setting an example" does not mean that I always have to be in the lab. In a way, this should be the easiest time in my career to take off in time, because I am not stopped by late-running experiments. I've done the 12-13 hour days in the lab and there may be times when it's required again, but I cannot be on all the time. I also need to be alive and sharp in order to be there for my lab peeps. So at least until the weight that needs to come off is off, this is how it is going to be.