Most days since December 21, 2019, I started the day by opening up a note on my phone and writing down the number of podcast episodes in my “unplayed” playlist. I started doing this because I had 180 podcast episodes to listen to, and I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t get back to that number. I needed to declare bankruptcy on some of them, and I figured I could easily set a goal to make sure that no matter what, I got 5 episodes off the list a day to not fall too far behind. I subscribe to about 50 shows, give or take, and that number went up quite a bit this year as I added pandemic podcasts. Most of these shows are weekly, but some have 2-3 episodes a week, or as many as 5 (though they are short in that case). So on an average week I would have 70 episodes–not hard to end up with 180 on the list. This year some podcasts stopped recording for awhile in March and April as they reconfigured, but then in many cases had even more shows as they added “quarantine” episodes that continued on and on. (The best show to come out as quarantine content has been Stay F. Homekins).
Meanwhile, as my March posts indicated, I was very worried about how I would get any work done. I had no idea in March when I wrote that last post how bad it would get and how hard it would be as I ended up having to unexpectedly solo parent while working full time in another city between July and and October, which corresponded with some of the larger projects I’ve had to do in a long time. I also measure my work time pretty thoroughly using RescueTime, so I have all the data for that. I decided to see how many “very productive” hours I ended up working each week through the same period. “Very productive” means “harder” or more focused work in that I’m not in a meeting or Outlook or something that is work, but perhaps merely “productive” or “neutral”. The news was so much better than I had pictured in my head–I actually got on average a couple of very productive hours per day, which again has many meetings and emails not counted.
I often listen to podcasts while I do that type of work, so I wondered if there would be any connection. There is not, I don’t think, but on both sides I think I got a little sense of sometimes measuring something doesn’t really help, and sometime you’re doing better than you think.
I went to the doctor yesterday to confirm that my broken foot was healed. He showed me the X-ray and said “My diagnosis is confirmed. That’s always a good feeling.” What I didn’t know is that it was only the evidence of healing that would confirm that I really did have a broken foot. I had always assumed that unless the bone was ripped apart it wasn’t really broken, but a stress fracture isn’t that visible on an X-ray until it’s healed. He explained it more. “Do you see the blurriness here? This is messy, disorganized bone. It will eventually become smooth again, but it will take a few months.”
The metaphor of this struck me so hard that I almost had to laugh. The evidence of healing is the only way you know there was an injury. How much of life is like this? We don’t believe, can’t believe, that anything is wrong, until we come through to the other side and see that messy, disorganized growth has occurred. He also told me “Don’t try to make up for lost time. Take it slow.” This is the piece that consistently eludes me.
I finally made time this morning to read Meredith Farkas’s brilliant series on “Thoughts at Mid-Career”, which I wanted to read for some time but never did. I decided to sit down in a nice bakery around the corner from my house and just read for twenty minutes, which I spent an absurd amount of time justifying that it would ultimately make better use of my time for the rest of day trying to balance errands, an appointment, and work time. Of cour
se, that justification of spending that time to be more productive was pretty ironic, given that Meredith argued persuasively that that line of reasoning is unnecessary, if not damaging. The concept of “mid-career” has been on my mind a lot lately. The Midwest Data Librarians Symposium, which I attended earlier this week (after being on the planning committee even though I am not technically a data librarian) had several discussions of that idea. What does it mean to be mid-career? What does it mean if you are in a specialty that barely existed or didn’t exist when you were in library school, and you have no idea what it will look like by the time you plan to retire? Is it ok to just like your job and be in it for the next 20 years? A lot of people admitted somewhat sheepishly that they liked what they did and didn’t want to change, but felt wrong about that. I suspect that the rhetoric about “millennials are going to change jobs and careers so much!!!” means that you can sit there in your mid-30s, ten years into your same career on your third job and second institution, and think that you missed the mark somewhere. Being in the middle of your career means there is too much room for comparison.
Throughout the thought kept occurring to me that mid-career is highly contextual. You don’t actually know that you are ever in the middle of something. You can think that you are doing something for a certain period of time, and assume that you know what the middle of that will be. But the end can come at any point, or even a lengthy hiatus that puts you off track even if you do eventually return. What you think is the middle may be the high point, and that can be scary if you think there is this other thing you are “supposed” to do, especially if you’re not sure what that thing is. Being open to everything and trying to do everything so you don’t miss anything is one option. It’s often the one I choose, and the one that so many other data librarians at the conference took as well, either by choice or necessity. These are services that libraries are often tacking on to other things, and that means that all the needs are going through one person. But those “needs” are often not truly needs. Certainly, there are jobs that are all-consuming and inflexible, but not so many in academia. Rather, there is an administrative apparatus around nearly everything (and this goes for most jobs outside academia too!) that feels all-consuming and to make work rather than being based on actual needs. I don’t know that I actually believe this, however. I think everyone has their own motivations in planning work or trying to get something done, and those motivations and approaches are not all that understandable to everyone else. “Why would they do this thing that way? That is clearly an inefficient approach to a low priority project.” And it may be, but without a crisis, you end up muddling through things for a long time without stopping, and that builds up until you have the committee to study the committee for committees. I am not being facetious. There are zero institutions of any long standing who have not have had such a committee, and I wrote a whole book about this. (Writing the book is why I haven’t written a blog post in a long time, among other reasons.)
Perhaps being at mid-career means that you have the insight into why certain processes are taking place, and why people would do such a thing. I think you can continue to throw yourself into the mix with vigor that leads to exhaustion and burnout, or treat it with utter disdain and cynicism. We all know people who have gone one of these ways. I am trying to take a lesson from my third metatarsal on my right foot. The evidence of healing proves there was an injury–I wasn’t just imagining the pain or challenge–but the healing will take time. Pursuing that future carefully and thoughtfully is the only thing you can do.
Everyone likes to talk about the importance of self care. I did a podcast episode on it last fall. I think where we are in the discourse on this is that what we call self care for some people we call indulgence for others, and this is tied to class and race. For some reason pedicures seem to be the thing people talk about the most. That isn’t at all appealing to me, and speaking of class and race problems, pedicures are also a gold standard for those.
What I call “self care” is usually a not all that fun thing to do. Getting exercise or going out to professional networking events aren’t necessarily fun, but you rarely regret having done it. Self care is about creating an appealing life for yourself, but with the recognition that creating long-term happiness requires a lot of day-to-day unhappiness and sacrifice. The reality of this struck me about six weeks ago when I did a 168 hours time tracking project, as described by Laura Vanderkam. She’s a prolific writer and has four kids, so she knows about making use of time. I read her book I Know How She Does It last summer and expected to disagree with it. I’d been a devotee of Cal Newport and Deep Work for some time, but the ideals of that book are hard for me to work right now, and I was spending a lot of time feeling bad about myself because of that. Basically the two are saying the same thing: figure out what you need/want to happen, and make the time to do it. But I Know How She Does It is about looking at the entire tapestry of your life and figuring out where things go, and not feeling bad about how it looks. You can work a lot, spend a lot of time with your kids, and sleep a lot, but it takes some thought to see how things are going and what needs to happen to improve it.
The way she has people does this is to fill out a spreadsheet with your entire week in 15 minute increments, and then track how much time you spend on each thing. For instance, the week of March 28 I got approximately 7.8 hours of sleep on average per night. Not bad! I spend about 4.5 hours a day on average with my kids, though with a lot more of that on the weekends, and some at 3 in the morning. On the other hand, I only spent 4.5 hours total the whole week doing what I would characterize as truly relaxing. My other non-work time was (that week) doing an 8K race, going out for a pre-race dinner, doing yoga, attending a book group, pumping milk (4.25 hours), shopping, podcast recording, and many other things. It was a weird week, but showed me I could get a lot done in a week that made an interesting life. I did this for another week as well, and got similar results, but managed to not fill out the whole thing. It was a good exercise to make sure that I was thinking about what way I was using the next 15 minutes.
And that, right there, is the crux. You can’t do everything. If you want to work out for 15 minutes, you can’t spend that 15 minutes cleaning. If you want to read for 15 minutes, you can’t write during that same time. You can listen to an audiobook while cleaning, or write while commuting by train, etc. But mostly, you have to pick what to do. Looking at that tapestry of a week you have to figure out what to sacrifice to make something else happen. And with kids or other care taking responsibilities, you often don’t get to pick–your plans can change in a moment. I meant to write this post weeks ago, but kept postponing because other things came up. Today I am procrastinating on another project, so I decided to spend my 15 minutes writing. I’ve sacrificed another opportunity, but in acknowledging that I can also acknowledge that what you do shapes your life, and you should choose when you can.