Sunday, February 26, 2017

Slow and Steady

Recently, I happened upon a couple of texts that have been helping me think about the main challenge I've faced over the past year or two: how to stay productive and not get down on yourself when you can no longer count on feeling “great” (or even just “healthy”) from one day to the next.

It’s an exercise in patience, obviously, but it’s a bit more than that as well. It requires a new mindset.

I gained some insight into how to implement this mindset by reading Anthony Ongaro’s October 22, 2016 blog post, “25 Simple Habits You Can Build From Scratch.” While I’m not necessarily interested in building a new habit, per se, I have been seeking a way to achieve “the consistency needed to make significant changes over time.”

I’m a planner and a doer. If I plan it, I want to do it. So if I plan it and then I can’t do it, I resort to doing one of two things: 1) feeling bad, and 2) beating up on myself for being a failure. Neither of these behaviors is good for the long haul—and they accomplish nothing.

I’ve found myself inadvertently facing a situation not unlike the one that Ongaro describes, in which I find myself “jogging for 10 hours straight then not jogging for 19 days.” Except that I’m not jogging, of course, because I don’t jog. But you get the idea.

As Ongaro points out, “jogging for 30 minutes every day for 20 days in a row” would result in the same number of hours spent on the activity, but lead to a far more productive (i.e., “beneficial”) outcome. But based on my own experience, it can be hard to make that switch to an exponentially reduced level of activity if you’re used to being able to work for 10 hours straight.

It forces us to rethink how we define ourselves in relation to our world and our productivity. I don’t think this is too broad of a statement to make, because it echoes the insights offered by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber’s book, The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (2016). Berg and Seeber suggest that we need to rethink how we define what constitutes “productivity,” particularly when it comes to the profession of college teaching.

Building upon the mindset of “the Slow movement” (Slow Food as opposed to fast food, for example), Berg & Seeber argue that “[b]y taking the time for reflection and dialogue, the Slow Professor takes back the intellectual life of the university” (x).

My goal was much less far-reaching and far more self-involved: I wanted to take back my own intellectual life and productivity, so that I felt less disheartened by the way that my body was not syncing with the dictates of my mind.

Going to bed at night, night after night, thinking, “Tomorrow, I will feel better and I’ll be able to do X. And Y. And Z!! Yes, Z needs to get done tomorrow, and I will do it!!” and then awaking to realize, “I’ll be lucky to do X today,” and midway through the morning it becomes clear that it is unlikely Y will get done and Z is just a pipe dream… well, that can be discouraging, to say the least.

In my own case, it wasn’t that I was simply feeling “lazy” or “procrastinating” (although I’m as guilty of those feelings as the next person), it was that my physical health was affecting my mental focus and determination to such an extent that I could no longer “be” the kind of writer, scholar, and thinker that I had always prided myself on being.

The insights of Berg and Seeber helped me to recalibrate, both emotionally and intellectually, by offering a new way of thinking about how my mindset might have been shaped by the “corporatization of the university”—that is, by the idea that we’re always racing against the clock, fixated on the idea of productivity and efficiency.

As Berg and Seeber point out, there is a “link between time pressure and feelings of powerlessness” (26)—if we feel we have to finish by X date (or hour), the realization that we aren’t going to be able to do that can leave us feeling particularly helpless and drained.

But what if we simply reframe our thinking, so that we don’t succumb to (or, at least, try not to succumb to) “time pressure”? Berg and Seeber argue that this would help us to develop a sense of—and a “place” for— “timeless time” in our lives. Ideally, we’d silence the “inner bully” in our minds, tune out the voices of all of the people out there who think that professors in particular and teachers in generally aren’t “really” doing anything anymore these days (the “must be nice to get the entire summer off” contingent of the population), and realize that any given writing and research task, in order to be well-done, will probably take at least twice as long as you had hoped.

Sounds easy, I know. But reading that sentence actually makes me wince. (“TWICE as long?! I don’t want it to be like that! Because my summers are more relaxed than what most people experience, working 9 to 5 year round, so I really don’t have any excuses, and hey, didn’t I just take a full hour off to watch an X-Files rerun? Well, the research certainly isn’t going to get done if I keep doing that, now is it?!”) 

The point, I think, is not the question of time or productivity—it’s a question of attitude. To do your best work, you have to be your best self, and you simply can’t do that if you’re constantly setting the bar too high and then failing (or crawling to bed bruised and defeated because the bar actually fell from that great height when you accidentally knocked into the goal post… and both the bar and the goal post subsequently hit you on the head). As Berg and Seeber note, “If we think of time only in terms of things accomplished (“done and done” as the newly popular saying goes), we will never have enough of it” (55).

Yes, even those of us with the (alleged) “summers off.”

Because, as Berg and Seeber point out, “Slowing down is about asserting the importance of contemplation, connectedness, fruition, and complexity” (57). The first idea is not always the best idea, and it takes time to work towards what might eventually be the best—the most connected, fruitful, and complex—iteration of an idea.

The Slow Professor reminded me of what I’ve always known, more or less, but chosen not to highlight about the nature of my own work. That “periods of rest” also have “meaning” because “research does not rule like a mechanism; there are rhythms, which include pauses and periods that may seem unproductive” (57). The British novelist Virginia Woolf used to remind herself of this in her journal: when she got on her own case for not writing enough, she would recollect that the creative and intellectual life requires periods of “wool gathering.”

As Berg and Seeber point out, we need to learn to wait (64), to openly acknowledge “the list of detours, delays, and abandoned projects” that we typically hide from view (65), to recognize that “More is not necessarily better”—although paradoxically, sometimes, it actually is (66)—and to give ourselves the time we need to read, think, and reflect (the essence of “research”) so that we can “follow our heart” (i.e., pursue projects “driven by genuine curiosity about a problem even if that is not a ‘hot’ topic at the moment” [68]).

As the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare teaches us, “Slow and steady wins the race.” But more importantly, we need to realize that it isn’t always—because it simply can’t and shouldn’t be—a race.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."