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Eight hours for what you will

Academia’s work hours are weird. So is our approach to work[ing]. So much of our identity is wrapped up in that work. The same could be said of libraries in general; and so I imagine this is doubly problematic for academic librarians. A 2018 study by Tamara Townsend and Kimberly Bugg found that 40% of academic librarian respondents would consider leaving their current position to achieve greater work-life balance, and 31% of respondents would consider leaving the profession as a whole to achieve a greater work-life balance. That is a staggering statistic!

I believe that many of us in academic libraries (for a time, myself included) feel that our work is unique: that it requires us to give up more of ourselves for some “common good” (see also: vocational awe). But the same could be said of a host of other occupations: what makes our work any different?

This thinking is probably why I was so attracted to this opinion piece in the New York Times by Bryce Covert, who writes on the economy, with an emphasis on policies that affect workers and families. As she points out:

Studies show workers’ output falls sharply after about 48 hours a week, and those who put in more than 55 hours a week perform worse than those who put in a typical 9 to 5.

Among the participants in the studies Covert cites we find munitions workers, IT professionals, and civil servants. Add to this the negative long-term effects on one’s health, what benefit is there to academic librarians to regularly push work (especially scholarship) into our leisure time? Covert concludes:

We have to demand time off that lasts longer than Saturday and Sunday. We have to reclaim our leisure time to spend as we wish.

For the past few months, I have been consistently limiting my work hours to be as close to a “normal” 40-hour week as possible. This covers not only my performance duties (ie. librarian work), but my scholarship and service as well. Surprisingly to me (though, not surprising to anyone who has studied this phenomenon), I not only feel more accomplished, but I am able to mentally close up shop each day with less of a struggle.

I continuously encourage my team to do the same, and try to set an example for my colleagues by, for example, not responding to emails or sending DMs outside 9-6 hours, or always trying to estimate how much time I am asking of someone before I request support on a project. Even though burnout is as much (if not more) an organizational problem and not entirely the result of individuals’ actions, I still feel I should make personal changes where I am able.

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On showing up for work

The first time I attended a yoga class was at the invitation of a grad school friend in 2006. It was in a small, second-level studio full of dark oak and warm light. I remember feeling shakey, dizzy, and sweaty for most of the time. I remember the instructor gently teasing me about how difficult the first class can be for newbies. I remember I ached for days.

The next time I went to yoga was 10 years later, this time at the invitation of a colleague. This time it was in a spacious gym. This time it stuck. I attended yoga classes weekly (no, zealously!) for about three years. The class occurred during the weekday (at the campus gym) and I never missed a class when I could avoid it. I blocked the time out on my calendar, refused meetings during that time, and even went so far as to store an extra pair of clothes in my office in case I accidentally forgot my gear. Then the pandemic hit and, like many luxuries, I gave it up to focus what little mental and physical bandwidth I had on family, work, and sleep.

A year later, I am back at it. Once again at the invitation of a friend, I started attending a weekly, gentle yoga class. My body and mind are both protesting, but it’s getting easier each week. Easier to let go, to focus and to show up.

I don’t have yoga experience outside these three instructors. I can’t speak for all the various modifications, variations, and approaches to yoga practice. However, all three of these instructors have spoken about the act of showing up. As an act of courage. An act of forgiveness. An act of resistance. An act of letting go. An act of attention. An act of kindness, to oneself and to others. And as an act of community.

This simple act of showing up, of being present for a moment or an idea, can be such a significant action when coupled with attention and receptivity. When I “show up” to yoga, I move with intention layered in waves of attention. Like the breath our instructors repeatedly remind us to center, my attention rises and falls, but never completely subsides. It’s taken me years of sitting meditation to get to that level of focus. I was surprised to find it again so quickly, even while doing Zoom yoga amidst the cacophony that is working while home.

I wonder if there are parallels between this idea and some of my previous thinking about productivity. As I move through my day, constantly racing between the clock and the to-do list, am I really showing up? No, I’m reacting to a plan. Admittedly, it’s a plan I created, but reacting nonetheless. Am I really here for it?

Instead of thinking about what I need to do this week, what if instead I thought about what I need to show up for this week? More importantly as a manager and colleague, who do I need to show up for this week? Would I schedule my week differently with this mindset? Would this give me permission to say no to things that I cannot (regardless of will) be present for? In the past year, I’ve finally realized that I cannot be my best for others when I don’t practice self care, part of which mostly requires setting boundaries between myself and others, but also between myself and my expectations.

I’ve just put a library hold on “Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving” by Celeste Headlee. I imagine there will be corollaries to some of this thinking to be found there, and I look forward to it.

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The door in my head remained wide open

This video hits close to home. I think most of my anxiety about work can be attributed to a habit of ruminating rather than recharging. This quote in particular struck me as telling:

“We don’t stress about work at work the same way we stress about work at home.”

Guy Winch

I’ve been giving more thought to how I can do better at compartmentalizing my job. I’m forcing myself to sleep instead of working an extra 2-3 hours every evening. I’ve turned off push notifications from almost all of my mobile services. Moreover, I’ve been working to stop thinking of my profession as a part of my identity.

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Constantly tweaking the work-life equation

Living in a large, urban area has afforded me the luxury of being able to work for multiple academic institutions without having to relocate. Unfortunately in academia, moving around is the norm and, as Margaret Kosmala points out, is risky for individuals and families alike, especially those who identify as racial or ethnic minorities, are part of same-sex relationships, or come from underrepresented groups in higher  ed.

“Frequent moving needs to stop being the norm for early career academics. It’s harmful in many, many ways.”

Kosmala looks at how this practice in academia negatively impacts diversity as well as its extremely harmful effect on mental health. In the same vein, Marria Accardi has written a post about keeping burnout at bay. These are the types of posts that catch my attention of late.

In my own life, I’ve adopted practices similar to those in Marria’s post, including scheduled quiet time, meditation, weekly pre- and post-review sessions, and daily walks. I’ve also begun meeting regularly with a therapist to address my (albeit mild) anxiety and depression, exercising a few times a week, and dedicating myself to 7-8 hours of sleep (infant and toddler notwithstanding). This of course means sacrificing some projects and quite often saying no to new ones.

The most difficult practice for me has been changing the way I react to stress. When someone walks into my office with an urgent concern, I try to make a conscious effort to remain detached and examine the issue as a puzzle to be solved, not as a fire that needs to be squelched. I am guilty more often than I care to admit of making too much to do of what objectively are minor issues and this undoubtedly contributes to my elevated stress levels.

The one problem I have yet to solve is the lack of time for research. This can’t happen at home (unless I am willing to sacrifice sleep or attention to my family) and so my only option is to find time during the work day. I am currently experimenting with various scheduling methods and tricks, like setting meetings with myself and slightly closing my office door, but these are often undone. If anyone has solutions to offer, I’m all ears!

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An academic librarian through and through

The get-more-done, put-off-leisure mindset that is common to American work culture can easily be found in the library professional as well.

Hi, my name is John, and I’m a workaholic. 

I love what I do and get immeasurable fulfillment from my work as an academic librarian, but I also realize the need to step outside Libraryland to recharge.

Liz Danzico has good advice for people like me. From “Banking time“:

“While we’re taught the value of saving money, we’re never really taught the value of saving time. Not saving time so we are more efficient elsewhere, but actually banking time. Saving it for later.”

Danzico briefly offers five recommendations:

Max out your vacation days: I’ve already put in a request for a day off in Febrary “just because” and I’m planning a family road trip for the summer.

Keep 10-20% of your day, every day, free: This is more difficult. I have a rule that nothing goes on my calendar unless it must be accomplished at a specific time. Blocking off free time works against that philosophy, but I could do a better job of saying no to meetings that phone calls could easily replace.

Schedule make-up events on a monthly basis: If it’s an important event/meeting, I should do this. I may start making this part of my weekly review on Sundays.

Pay attention to recurring meetings: I have 24 hours of recurring  meetings each month. It’s hard to figure out what I could ignore. I could certainly reduce some of those down to 30 minutes, especially if I did a better job of planning what I want to accomplish ahead of time.

Promote your time of: Last year, I detailed my work week. I’m planning to do that again in my new position but I also want to do a librarian anti-day in the life during which I record everything I do during the week that isn’t work related. It’s not much, but it’s worth celebrating.

When it comes to my relationship with the profession, “work-life balance” is not an ideal to which I aspire. Instead, I try to focus on the creative benefits that time off, reflection, and distance can bring to my work. I also try to remind myself that stress in any portion of my life can negatively affect my productivity, my relationships with others, and my health. There are some portions of my life, mostly family related, that I keep separate from my work, but for the most part I am an academic librarian through and through.