Strategies for working during tough times

Last year, while the centre I worked in was being disestablished, I watched an episode of Thomas the Tank Engine with my son. My daughter was railing against the absence of girl trains on the show. I replied: ‘those carriages being shunted are the girls.’ In that mundane moment, I had a startling insight: the change management process at university was making me feel like a shunted girl carriage (as in ‘Annie and Clarabel had been shunted into a siding’). The awareness of this feeling has stayed with me, although thankfully the feeling itself has not.

Related image

© Image: Annie and Clarabel in the shunting yard via Thomas and Friends Wikia

It was extremely difficult to continue working during this time. My colleagues and I felt distracted, had difficulty concentrating and doing focussed work, were on an emotional rollercoaster, felt overwhelmed, struggled to make decisions, did not want to be at work, had trouble sleeping, felt anxious, lacked energy and so on. During times like this, confronted by imminent job loss, illness, relationship breakdown or caring responsibilities, the bad feelings can dominate.

As I have described in previous posts, work has also been challenging of late. My daughter is slowly improving—she spent two hours at school yesterday which is cause for (a small) celebration—but I continue to spend many hours working less effectively than usual. This post offers some short-term strategies for working through difficult periods. I have worked this way as a casual in the past but, like so many things, it is more forgiving with a secure job.  Much of this post runs counter to advice about how to be a successful (productive, efficient) academic. This is not a post about how to work harder, better, faster (although Daft Punk may inspire you). Some of this advice might sound trite, but these strategies have helped me through some tough times. Thanks to colleagues who offered feedback on these ideas, and shared their own experiences.

Get support

This is crucial. Rally your village whoever they might be—colleagues, managers, HR, union, family, friends, health workers. You are not alone. Combined, this mob can make up your shortfalls, ease your load, offer an opportunity to vent, manage administrative tasks and put dinner on your table. Sometimes people are not sure how to help, but will happily do something specific if asked: send an email on your behalf, put a sign on your office door, pick up groceries, play with a child, give you a break from a hospital bedside, distract you with conversation, make dinner. I am still sending regular text message updates to family and friends who have helped in innumerable ways while my daughter has been ill.

Control what you can

When life is curly, you can feel that you lack any control at all. I went to see a psychologist (part of a workplace assistance program) when I was struggling at work last year. This advice is based on what she said to me when I shared the shunting analogy. She asked: ‘What can you control in your work life? Focus on that.’ Last year, this enabled me to work on my CV, apply for Higher Education Academy (HEA) senior fellowship and write some journal articles. This year, it has meant having meetings online instead of in person, and focussing on small, manageable tasks.

Take the pressure off

Don’t expect to do your best work right now. Last year I had a series of rejections which make sense in hindsight since my work was not up to its usual standard. If possible, be prepared for this, and prepare those around you. What are your options? Pause some of your work, make apologies, get input from others, negotiate your current responsibilities, don’t take on new committments.

Do one task at a time

I am focussing on doing one work task each day. This feels manageable, and there are always more things to do should I find one task easily achieved! I used to end each day by reviewing my (endless) to do list. I haven’t looked at it lately. These tasks are not going anywhere, but I have freed myself from feeling I had to achieve a dozen (or more) things each day. Emails are slower to be answered, but so far no one has complained.

Prioritise the short-term

I am currently participating in a university pilot of individual career coaching. I am thankful for this opportunity, but I am not yet up to completing my homework: ‘Planning for a significant, impactful and esteemed academic career’. I don’t mind the sound of that, and I’ll get there … slowly. Right now, I am taking one day at a time. A similar fallow period actually proved fruitful during my PhD.

Focus on shallow work

I read the first few chapters of Cal Newport’s Deep Work following the review on The Thesis Whisperer. While retreating to a tower in the wilderness à la Carl Jung has great appeal right now, it is sadly not realistic. Focussing on less cognitively demanding, able to be performed while distracted, shallow work has been a boon. I am getting, often quite necessary, administrative work done. This is a short-term strategy. I am sure to crave more challenging work soon, especially writing, so I have scheduled two to four hour blocks of deep work in the next couple of months in my diary.

Spend less time in your head

This is a tough call for thinking types, but when times are anxious, the right kind of work can be a welcome distraction. It is not the time to launch into deep reflection. My daughter accused me of spending all of my time at work talking to people and drinking coffee; I countered that I was relationship building. These are some of the tasks I am enjoying right now: providing feedback on other people’s writing, reading (this week it was Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture), going to various workshops and seminars that I usually don’t have time to attend, and talking about future research and teaching projects over coffee.

These strategies may not work for you. Take a look at these alternatives:

10 thoughts on “Strategies for working during tough times

  1. These are some good ways to stay afloat when things aren’t going well. It’s definitely not easy to start with, and even harder when things outside of work are less than optimal. Your advice focuses on the small important things instead of just handing out the same old tips we hear that don’t often help. Thank you for sharing and best of luck. Thanks for linking to my post.


    • Thank you, Gaius, for your comment and your blog. I very much appreciate the way in which you write about the complexity of life and work. Your recent post about moulding your future like a piece of clay was a timely read for me.


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