Sunday, April 05, 2009


As I was driving to work one day last week - events in the last 7 days have merged together somehow - I realized something odd. Sleep-deprived, frustrated and otherwise dismayed, I looked around at the emerging sunlight sparkling on the river as I crossed a quaint little bridge, beheld the gently rolling hills where grains are grown and felt happily settled. I belong here, I thought, and even given my current salary and my post-doctoral workload, I would not return to Former Institution.

"It'd be interesting to do a study," Adam decided as we sipped beer and nibbled chicken wings one night. "Since we all left rather luxurious careers to come here and work our asses off."

"Adrenaline," Best offered simply and I peered around Adam to send him an inquiring look. "We'd do this or heroin," he elaborated and I shook my head at him fondly. "Seriously," he said when Adam and I exchanged dubious looks. "We're people who can't stand being bored - who need constant stimulation and stress to feel engaged. It's not good, but I think that's why we're here - to prove we can do insane amounts of work and please incredibly difficult customers."

I paused to think, staring into my beer before taking another sip. I do not enjoy beer as a rule, but my head felt satisfyingly woozy. "I do feel really good when things go well," I decided. "A near-euphoric relief that I used to only get after I'd give seminars. Now I feel it at least weekly, but at the cost of intense stress otherwise."

Given that I do seem to like this - despite pages of complaints that indicate otherwise - and plan to stay for at least the next 18 months, it seems wise to set some limits on what I'm willing to give.

The 7PM rule
If I pull into my garage after 1900, the laptop remains on the passenger seat. I have worked enough for the day and require rest to be productive tomorrow. (If I arrive prior to 7, the laptop may come in and likely consume my evening.)

Accept invitations
I have this weird tendency to assume I'm somehow incredibly unique and only I suffer from these stresses and problems. I then feel isolated - either in a superior or inferior way - and am unable to see alternate solutions from within the spiraling panic. I did very well in the beginning - making time for lunches and breaks with colleagues - but have since reverted to old habits of unceasing work. When invited out, work can wait. So I'll slip off campus for coffee if asked. I can spare 30 minutes to sit in the cafeteria rather than working through lunch. I'm joining the group for breakfast in an hour to decompress and socialize.

Check Sanity
Given that we all tend to enjoy the drama, it is important to step back from heated arguments and passionate discussions and think about the goal. Is this truly important or do I just want to win? Adam and I bet $10 over a rather trivial question after spending some 20 minutes arguing about it. I lost so he often teases me, offering to bet on any number of issues. Before I start to yap at him like an provoked terrier - gesturing as I talk about flawed data and skewed samples and how I still think I was right (!!) - I pause to decide whether I actually care. So I sometimes (pretty rarely, but I'm working on it) shrug indifferently and return to what I was doing.

There are thousands of customers. Our academic partners are incredible - I consider meeting with them a major perk of my job description. But, as research folks, they are smart, intense individuals and sometimes get very angry. In those situations, I panic. I respect status and understand they are Very Big Deals and hate that they feel disappointed or frustrated. But there are too many of them. And I am not the sole source of their negative feelings, nor am I the only one who can fix the problem. We try to delegate appropriately, but - given some of these folks - it's tremendously difficult to read email updates and not chime in when I think there are mistakes. There's one site in particular right now and I think our strategy is wrong and their demands unreasonable and it infuriates me that people are making asinine comments as they work through this. But it's not my problem. I must let it go.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Perhaps from undergraduate courses, I have this aversion to using old material for new purposes. I tend to remake presentations (using pieces of old ones) rather than just calling it good enough and using what I have. I lose a lot of time tweaking documents when changes are highly unlikely to be noticed. I'm not a perfectionist at all - I can easily call something good enough - but after being here for quite some time, I have a lot of material. I need to be OK with just using it.

Volunteer Sparingly
If everyone in the group is to be assigned a task, volunteer for the piece you want. If it appears that only some people will get additional work, sit quietly and hope you're not one of them. When awarded a project, immediately note conflicts and problems with meeting timelines. Hope someone else has to do it instead or at least provide major assistance.

Keep Records
If I'm working very hard and can't articulate what I've been doing, there is a problem. Save old revisions - especially if material is getting cut for time/space - to indicate you knew a lot more than was presented. I also keep a spreadsheet with new columns for each week - listing items to do and accomplished. There is a notebook on my desk where I detail customer interactions. When consumed with many, tiny tasks, I can lose track of progress. So I keep notes.

Devise Sleep Strategy
I'm tired. Perhaps I need vitamins to perk up. But feeling like I'm desperately stealing time to rest is not working out. I'll see if my breakfast companions have any suggestions.


Amanda@Lady Scientist said...

Those are excellent guidelines. I'd have the largest problem with disengaging, though. I tend to be like a dog with a bone when I have a problem/dispute and just won't let it go.

Psych Post Doc said...

These sound like great guidelines. I really hope you're able to stick to them. :)

Psycgirl said...

I think those sound awesome.
I would have a really hard time delegating. I have a difficult time accepting something less than perfect is sometimes okay if it meant I saved the time doing it myself :(

Jenn, PhD said...

Count me in as liking the guidelines too. Hope it's ok if I write a little post inspired by this one at my place...

Anonymous said...

I love the 7pm-and-laptop guideline. It makes perfect sense to spend quality time with family and friends rather than sit in front of the computer all day long.

Great guidelines you have, Jenn! :)

DocElectron said...

You know, I just started to do some of these things in recognition that I too have some of these bad habits. The laptop after 7pm is definitely one of them - as is my ability to purposefully eschew social activities when I'm overly involved in my work or even "hiding out" in my work.

Good reminders as always.... Oh and the post about your running dog... so similar to my weekend. Do we share a dog? Have a good day.

ScienceWoman said...

Good list - I may have to adopt some of them. I think "volunteer sparingly" is an especially important one for me. Also "reuse, reduce, recycle."

saxifraga said...

Those are excellent rules. Thanks for sharing. I think I need to start using some of them as well.

Anonymous said...

these look like great guidlines!

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