A Well Graded Trail

Cathy Manduca
Author Profile
published Sep 9, 2009
This year we took the family backpack into the Spanish Peaks in Montana. Our first day was 9 miles and 3,000 feet with full packs- not much for a geologist who is in shape, but I'm a 51 year old slug who spends her days in the office. However, this all went much easier than anticipated because Montana has come to understand the value of switchbacks - something rarely found on the trails of western Idaho where I had been warming up for the trip. As I plodded along, I found myself thinking about the value of a well graded trail in supporting a sustained effort and wondering what we could learn from this about the way we pace our work. How do we create switchbacks in our professional lives that get us up the steep grades?

These ruminations came on the heels of a revelation from the bicycling book I got for my birthday "Every Woman's Guide to Cycling" by Selene Yeager. The author describes how she became irritable and didn't want to go out riding (previously her passion) as the result of overtraining. The point of the section is that it is easy for overtraining to creep up on you. I look at my behavior over the past 18 months and I have all the same symptoms related to my work life - I've been overworking. The key to not overtraining is taking appropriate rest days – something I was shirking as the need to get a few extra things done every weekend crept in.

So, if overwork looks a lot like overtraining, are there lessons can we learn from wisdom on designing training regimes? The subtitle of the chapter on training is "A little structure goes a long way." The essential point is this - your training week should have different kinds of days including days where you go hard, go long, go easy, and rest days. My work week doesn't have this structure- it mostly consists of trying to clear out little but important tasks so that I can have time to do big tasks that require a clear head. These latter are what was being pushed onto the weekend leaving me no rest days.

I've observed some individuals who are masters at managing their work regime. They mostly fall into two camps – those who set aside days for writing or research tasks (those requiring longer blocks of time and a clear head) and those who structure these elements into parts of each or many days. As far as I can tell, both of these things work and I know some very productive, happy people who do this. They of course are disciplined, and have the capacity to say no. How can I develop these talents?

There are three success stories in my life regarding managing my schedule. First, when my kids were small I managed. If I didn't get myself out the door and over to daycare by 5:30 I had to pay a major fine and endure the scorn of my daycare provider who was of course the key element in allowing me to go to work in the first place. So, one strategy that works is serious penalties -- hard to impose those on yourself- but perhaps I could consider a reward plan? Second, I've been successful in getting to the gym. I can do this only if I go every day at the same time, before I get sucked into work. Maybe the lesson here is that I need some rigidity in my work schedule - maybe I should always write before 12 or on Tuesday and Thursday. Perhaps the key here is that the discipline is regular and comes with a reward (feeling better for the rest of the day). Third, I've managed to carve out August for vacation. The key to maintaining August for vacation turned out to be pretty basic- I put it on the calendar and don't schedule things for this time. Somehow it is easier to say no when there is a clear reason far in advance. Perhaps I should try this for other things? I had a couple of instances last year where it was clear to me that others are doing this - perhaps it works.

So this year, one of my key goals is to develop and enforce structure in my work life that allows space for 'clear head' tasks, and leaves me with some easy days, some hard days, some travel days and some regularly occurring rest days. Continuing with the training analogy this should make me stronger in completing productive work. However, it begs the bigger question of grading the trail. What can we do to help each other have productive, long-lived careers that are not characterized by exhausting pushes separated by periods of collapse?

I don't have answers here, but here are some thoughts in the spirit of provoking discussion.
-Anticipate the places where demands will be high and manage for them at both the departmental and individual level. We do this more than we used to. The first two years of teaching are very hard because all of the classes are new. The two years immediately in front of tenure are characterized by a research/publishing push combined with tremendous stress for many. Some time not too far after tenure, many faculty get tapped heavily for service either in their institution or their research community. We are getting better at managing teaching loads and sabbaticals to help particularly those who are new to teaching and coming up on tenure, and I think we are becoming more supportive of those who make choices (that is, those who say no to some things) in order to manage their workload during these times. I'm not sure that we are as good at anticipating the disruption of a move to a new building or lab. Thinking beyond our worklife, individuals with new children, faltering relationships, or failing relatives are also on steep pitches.
- Spread things out to lessen the grade. Do all four of these things really have to be done right now? Or could one wait a year? Or could I do them all now but some on a longer timeline? In my head, this is like ductile extension. I can make the work demand at a given time less by extending the packet over a longer time.
- Plan time for switchbacks. I'm a failure at this, but my observation is that part of the steep grade comes from unexpected but very important (or fun) opportunities you can't bear to pass up. I'm beginning to believe that we should plan for these. In the old days, budgets were constructed with 10-15% buffer for unforeseen contingencies. Putting this buffer into our time management (again at the individual and departmental level) might do a lot for making a more even grade.
- Make use of teams. Here I do have successful experience to draw on. More times than I can count, at a point when something was critical and I was exhausted, one of my colleagues gave me a hand. Sometimes this was just encouragement, but lots of time it has been real help with some task that was more than I could take on, or standing in the way of doing something only I could do. I hope that I have been as generous and as helpful to others. I have a few close colleagues where we can do this very effectively, and then it is really fun like a well executed give and go in a soccer match. I wonder if we underutilize a team approach in thinking about developing sustained research funding or managing the tension between time for research and teaching. Departments are increasingly functioning as teams where teaching, research and service can be balanced on timescales longer than a semester - perhaps this opens up new opportunities to grade the trail. Of course this will only work if every member of the department feels that they are coming out ahead and that all are pulling evenly.

How have you or your department successfully graded the trail? I think that a few successful examples would help be of help to all of us.





A Well Graded Trail --Discussion  

Hi Cathy, I am reading a wonderful book called "Thinking in Systems" by Dana (Donella) Meadows. Her comments on balancing feedback loops fit well with your thoughts about needing time for rest days. From p. 153:
"A complex system usually has numerous balancing feedback loops it can bring into play, so it can self-correct under different conditions and impacts. Some of those loops may be inactive much of the time--like the emergency cooling system in a nuclear power plant, or your ability to sweat or shiver to maintain your body temperature--but their presence is critical to the long-term welfare of the system."
"One of the big mistakes we make is to strip away these 'emergency' response mechanisms because they aren't often used and they appear to be costly. In the short term, we see no effect from doing this. In the long term, we drastically narrow the range of conditions over which they system can survive. One of the most heartbreaking ways we do this is in encroaching on the habitats of endangered species. Another is in encroaching on our own time for personal rest, recreation, socialization, and meditation."

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