In the Weeds

Hello, midterm!  Most of us, I suspect, are hitting that midpoint of the academic term.  We’re grading midterm exams and papers and juggling an increasingly busy calendar of committee meetings and advising appointments.  Maybe, just maybe, you’ve managed to carve out some time for research, or at least finishing the edits on that article that was due back to the journal two weeks ago.  And then there’s that book you need to read for the review you’re supposed to write.  Wait, is that your phone ringing?  The dean’s office needs a report on how your faculty interface with community groups.

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Among restaurant staffs, this is called being “in the weeds.”  You’re overwhelmed, you can’t keep up.  If you’re waitstaff, your finished orders are backing up and need to get out to the tables.  If you’re on the line in the kitchen, you’ve gotten behind on the orders and yet the tickets keep piling up.

The good news for those of us in the weeds in academe is that no one is going to go hungry if we’re this overwhelmed.  That said, however, we still need to find a way to manage that crushing feeling that we’ll never get caught up.  So a few thoughts:

* There is no such thing as “caught up.”  Caught up is a lot like the illusory concept of balance (I’ve written about this before here).  So cut yourself a break and acknowledge that you will not get caught up this weekend, next week, or over the holiday break.  It is the nature of academic work that there is always something else to do: book to read, report to write, papers to grade, etc.  Instead, prioritize and figure out what must get done, which deadlines can be bent, and how many of your expectations for performance are self-imposed, and perhaps not iron-clad.

* Things always seem worse at the end of the day.  At this point of midterm overwhelmed-ness the end of the day is not the best time to assess your workload or to take your emotional temperature.

* Make a list.  Sometimes the trick is to impose order–even if only superficially–on the chaos.  Lists help empty the swirling thoughts in your brain onto paper.  They also may help in setting priorities.

* Take a break.  Seriously.  Although time may feel like the one thing you don’t have, staying mired in your to-do list may only make you feel more overwhelmed.  Take a quick walk, drink a glass of water, breathe (it is amazing how much stress constricts our breath–try taking some deep breaths when you’re in the weeds and you’ll see what I mean).  Step away and clear your head.

They’re not called the weeds for nothing.  You’ll notice that the phrase isn’t “in the field of beautiful flowers.”  But try these and any other strategies you have–and you have others please share them in the comments!–and maybe being in the weeds will be at least a little less overwhelming.

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