Distractions

You want to escape from bushfires, coronavirus, university restructures, tragic news stories, wild weather, power outages, uncertainty about the future, politics on social media, other people’s gloom…

Your strategies for working during tough times and staying hopeful seem shallow or forced. You feel increasingly fragile, combative, anxious, or worn out to the back teeth…

You compulsively check apps and websites for bushfires near you, air quality measures, power outages, water quantity in dams, virus infection levels, weather reports…

You look for healthy ways to cope. You try new recipes (Maggie’s Recipes for Life promise to stave off dementia), exercise, meditate, get a massage, laugh, focus on what you can control, increase your step count, vent, plan a day off…

You think longingly of running away, being quarantined comfortably at home, having a head transplant, falling asleep for one hundred years…

Your internal monologue has shifted from ‘You’ve got this’ or ‘Done is better than perfect’ to ‘Decentre yourself’ and then the extreme: ‘I am murderbot’ (after Martha Well’s cyborg character who has hacked its governance protocols and stopped working for the Company)…

You wake at night, or too early in the morning, caught in a loop of what you could or should say and do and be. You overthink the human condition, Western individualism, academia, or middle age. Your 2am escapist fiction has become Why we can’t sleep: Women’s new midlife crisis

Why not choose your own version of the following:

  • music that transports you: Skinner’s The Cradle Song, the Run Lola Run soundtrack
  • a strangely compulsive video game (even for non-players): Dear Esther
  • a podcast that makes you laugh out loud: Ladies, we need to talk (Yumi, a mother of four in her 40s, tells her mother ‘It hurts when you call me a dingdong.’ Her mother replies, ‘Why? You are a dingdong.’)
  • a movie or tv show that takes you into another world: the uncomfortable, angry and funny Fleabag

And when your street looks like this, and you are without power and road access:

You enjoy: playing games by candlelight; sandwiches for dinner; the camaraderie of neighbours; and the simple unspeaking company of a sleepy dog.

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Recharge yourself ready for what comes next.

Take a break

A reminder to myself that might be helpful to you: take a break.

For inspiration, I read Robert Dessaix’s The Pleasures of Leisure. (I picked up a copy for $3 at the local Vinnies; in pristine, unread condition, it is inscribed with a message of congratulations for “twenty years of unswerving, faithful service”).

Dessaix acknowledges the privilege of indolence, sloth and idleness. He quotes many well-known writers on the pleasure of doing nothing, and sums up:

Yes, that’s right—they’re all men. And all of them have nothing but contempt for busy bees. It’s hard to say who they thought would work the fields and slaughter the animals for their tables, build the roads, spin their cloth, erect and heat their houses, cook their food and print the publications they wrote for: those whose jobs it was to do so, presumably.

A thank you to those who continue to work when so many are on holiday (not least the firefighters, many of them volunteers, in Australia right now). I hope a rest is coming.

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In his conclusion (with chapters along the way on  Loafing, Nesting and grooming, and Play), here’s what Dessaix has to say: “Time … is for being happy in … It’s for magnifying your humanity in, for enjoying the flourishing of who you are.”

Here’s how I am hoping to flourish over the holidays.

Staying out of contact

If your work schedule permits, turn on an out-of-office reply and let others know you are taking a break. One of my colleagues has written: “ I am on my way to the North Pole with no or limited wifi.” I hope she enjoys the stay! I will switch it on this afternoon (after I finish some pressing tasks).

Having daytime naps

Sneak away from everyone and put your head on a pillow. It is ok to wake, disoriented, and find the day almost over. Or, if your children are younger, take a moment to ‘rest your eyes’ while watching Bluey.

Enjoying the guilty pleasure of 2am books all day

I have a reading category I call ‘2am books’. (My son did not sleep though the night until 5 years old, so I have been trained to stay awake. Reading a Kindle helps still my mind). 2am books are light page-turners, easy to follow, with simple narratives and few characters. Sufficiently well-written not to annoy, they do not linger on frightening or upsetting scenes. Young adult books work well, or escapist bedtime stories for adults. You can doze off and wake again without losing your place. You can skip paragraphs without becoming confused. At any other time of day they might seem vacuous and predictable. Here are some 2am books I read this year:

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I might read some more challenging books, including my Christmas present to myself:

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Scheduling a little bit, not too much

We have a week of daily swimming lessons in January but not much else booked. I have lots of ideas for fun when the bickering gets too much and everyone is irritable with cabin fever. But the rhythms of our days will be based on walking when we feel like it, eating when we are hungry, sleeping when tiredness takes us, being alone and coming together as our energy prompts us.

Spending time outdoors

The smoke haze and heat in Sydney makes time indoors a necessity, but we intend to spend some time outside every day in the company of our new puppy. Walking the streets, chatting to neighbours, discovering dog parks, collecting leaves and sticks, searching for Christmas beetles.

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Watching TV

I don’t watch a lot of television, but this year I have enjoyed Killing Eve, The Letdown, Cleverman and Fleabag. On my list for the holidays: some dystopian drama in Years and Years and The Commons and Aboriginal horror Dark Place.

Being creative

I want to put together a photo album of our family holiday to Japan—a simple task that has remained on the wishlist for over a year. We will all enjoy reminiscing about the places we visited, especially the 6 year old who holds memories differently (perhaps more lightly). We will also be thinking about future holidays, and I have bought the Lonely Planet Central Australia in anticipation.

Seeing friends and family

I haven’t sent any Christmas cards this year. The 6 year old gave and received more that anyone else. Highlights in the mail for me included “To our most loyal customer” from the chemist (and, to tell the truth, it was addressed to my daughter) and one from the local funeral home. I hope our friends are forgiving, and agree to catch up in the new year for picnics and indolent hanging out. Family won’t get a choice in the matter.

Saying yes

Why don’t we make choc chip biscuits? Can we go to a new park? Do you want to play Scrabble? Can I dye my hair blue? Let’s buy ice creams, wear our pyjamas all day, visit the pool, try a dog cafe, make tea iceblocks, stay up past bedtime… A reminder to myself: say yes.

This is self care

Self-care is critical right now.

Three years after a change management experience in which I felt like a shunted  carriage in Thomas the Tank Engine, I am once again at the mercy of a university restructure. This time I have managerial responsibility for others who are facing redundancy. Supporting them is a good distraction from my own woes, but self care is critical if I am going to maintain health and energy during this time.

In and experimental paper (paywalled)—Self-care for academics: a poetic invitation to reflect and resistSiobhan O’Dwyer, Sarah Pinto and Sharon McDonough write a poem entitled 

Self care: a manifesto

Eat apple pancakes smothered in Nutella.

Practice yoga
Watch The English Patient
Turn off email notifications
Walk…
Wind wool around needles
Survive a spin class
Go to the movies in the middle of the day
Exist.
Write a list of self-care activities
Publish it in a good journal
Encourage your colleagues to reflect on their own self-care
Resist.

This post is a snapshot of what I am doing to prioritise self-care right now, specific to my context: career stage, available resources, caring responsibilities, working conditions and temperament. It is vital that self-care is not seen as the appropriate response to manage complex systemic problems. Universities are frequently workplaces that undercare for their staff. The solution is not to individualise care. Staff do not need workshops on how to manage their time or adopt mindful practices as the only response to role overload and workplace stress.

In the introduction to Mindfulness in the Academy, Narelle Lemon and Sharon McDonough (2018) write:

[We] question suggestions that academics in any university developing mindfulness and compassion practices should simply ‘cope’ with systemic factors such as the stress of poor resourcing, excessive workloads, or aggressive behaviour from colleagues … We do not solve the systemic problems that exist in higher education as this problem solving cannot be done individually. We write this book from a perspective that encourages us, and readers, to examine how we can look at ourselves as individuals within the environment and how might we disrupt those environments through mindful actions and formal or informal mindfulness practices.

The need for individual self-care in universities makes institutional care imperative.

That said, these are my current self-care practices.

1. Focus on health

This depends on your age and your physical and mental wellbeing and ability. For me, it has meant scheduling preventative health checks (blood pressure, cholesterol, cervical cancer screening, breast check, dental check up, eye test). I am also following up with specialists to manage my specific health conditions (including Hashimoto’s disease, increased risk of glaucoma, and chronic pain managed with an implanted neurostimulator).

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I exercise daily with an app that means I can workout at home while the kids get ready for school. My phone counts my daily steps, and I have started to log the food I eat to encourage wholefood choices. I recently sought the advice of a dietician and exercise physiologist to manage having the metabolism of a peri-menopausal woman. (To put that another way: my six year old’s calorie needs are much higher than mine).

2. Reflect on priorities

Self-care can be uncomfortable work. I have been asking myself some challenging questions:

  • Does this matter?
  • Is this what I want to do?
  • What can I control?
  • What do I need to do to look after myself today?
  • What would an ideal day look like?
  • What is getting in the way?

This year I have been fortunate to work with a coach as part of a professional development program, who has helped me think through these questions. (You may not have these resources available to you, but find out what is on offer. At my university, six coaching or counselling sessions per year are available to all staff, including casuals, and their immediate family members).

I’ve focussed on the things that sustain me and contribute to my wellbeing—spending time with family, outsourcing home tasks (such as online food shopping), going outside and reading for pleasure. I’ve identified what detracts from my wellbeing, and I have set myself specific tasks (which are works in progress):

  • Schedule two half-hour slots per week in my work calendar for unstructured time
  • Rearrange my morning routine so that I don’t check work emails first thing
  • Take a daily iron supplement
  • Make time to text friends at least twice a week
  • Give my parents a thank you present for taking the kids to daily swimming lessons during school holidays
  • Read from my TBR (to-be-read) pile before buying or borrowing new books

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3. Get help and support from others

Self-care is not an individual pursuit.

Putting your own needs first, however briefly, means letting go of things you usually control, requesting help, relying on others, saying no to things, knowing work has to be done by someone else, leaving work undone, asking for more time. During a stressful time at work, the company of like-minded souls is more important than ever. And the retreat of time with family and friends, and the nourishment of time alone, are crucial.

4. Enjoy yourself

In the midst of workplace upheaval, I’m looking forward to many things in the coming weeks and months:

  • getting a dog
  • lunches with old friends
  • young adult book club (for adults only). This month we’re reading boarding school books
  • seeing collaborative research writing (completed over many, many years) submitted for publication
  • visiting a ryokan (Japanese inn) in Sydney without the kids
  • going to the beach during January school holidays
  • receiving Narelle Lemon’s mindful self-care cards
  • the next book(s) on my shelf. I was going to list just one, but who am I kidding? Let’s make it the four I can’t decide between next: The TestamentsThe Old Lie, Imaginary Friend, and Girl, Woman, Other
  • visiting Japan Supernatural at the NSW Art Gallery
  • discovering the Australian bird of the year. Will it be the endangered black-throated finch?

Not too many work tasks made the above list, but I will look for enjoyment there too.

Writing in company at home

A couple of weeks ago, I hosted a writing retreat at home with former colleagues and current co-authors Lilia Mantai and Vanessa Fredericks.

We are finalising a journal article on time pressures for PhD candidates and early career academics. The retreat immersed us in writing away from the interruptions of the office. Planning and writing was interspersed with conversation, food and laughter. (This off the shelf vegan cheesecake was a hit).

Much as I would love a lengthy writing retreat in an exotic locale—I dream of attending one of Helen Sword’s—writing from home appeals to the frugal hedonist in me.

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Collaborative writing was not the norm in my first discipline (Cultural Studies) but is common in Education. Indeed, many of my colleagues in Higher Education have few publications as a single author. The change of discipline and shift to co-authoring has proved fruitful for my research output.

My academic positions to date have been teaching and learning or administration focussed, so research has typically constituted 20% of my workload. Until this year, I was part-time (three days a week from 2010-2017 and four days a week in 2018). Twenty percent of a part-time job does not allow a lot of time for research!

I recently updated my count of co-authors. Since graduating from my PhD in 2010, I have published 25 book chapters, journal articles and conference papers. I was sole author on just 6 of these, and have written with a grand total of 28 different people (often more than once). I am not including chapters and articles currently in press (one of which has seven authors!)

The benefits of writing in company go far beyond increased publication outputs.

I have learned a lot from co-authors—working with theory, research methodologies, the craft of writing and academic publication processes. Colleagues and I have written about the friendship and intimacy that develops through writing together. Above all, collaborative writing has been a lot of fun!

The experience is captured in Laurel Johnson, Sonia Roitman, Ann Morgan and Jason MacLeod’s (2017) article ‘Challenging the productivity mantra: academic writing with spirit in place’. The location of their writing group in members’ homes in a particular suburb of Brisbane is noteworthy:

Most members live in the area. They have chosen to live in this community due to its affordability but also its diversity and difference compared to the balance of the city. The suburb provides cultural safety for some members. The suburb is not the usual residential address for the city’s academics. The site is stigmatised and it is distant from the city’s universities. The choice to reside and meet here illustrates a point of difference for the writing group membership compared to other academic writing groups …

The move away from the place of work to home for meetings changed the quality and function of the group. The writing group members began to share more of themselves and their lives. The group membership expanded to include local residents (such as creative writers and community and ethnic leaders). The membership diversified … As well as challenging typical academic writing styles, group members came to know each other as friendships formed, bonded around place, interests, identity and shared concerns and values.

The emphasis on place and home has added a spiritual dimension:

The value of a diverse and mixed academic and non-academic membership, a shared commitment to social justice, the relational and democratic processes of the group and the importance of place (off campus in a socially disadvantaged suburb in the city) work together to engender a humanistic spirituality in the group. The value … to its members transcends the expected material benefits of increased writing production, a regular writing habit and consistent writing review. The non-material benefits of a shared community of practice, the renewal of ideas and affirmation of shared humanistic values, connection and empathy with others and permission to flourish as writers and people, bring spirit to the group.

I can only aspire to writing with spirit in place. But Lilia, Vanessa and I have made a start—reading Derrida, eating soup, looking at trees out the window and writing together.

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