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An Alternative Option to Toxic Productivity in the World of Academia

Creator:
Published:
January 8, 2024
January 8, 2024
Find out why toxic productivity in academia doesn't have to rule your life.

Ping! Ping! Ping! Another wave of texts lights up my iPhone screen as my class’s Discord channel starts collecting notifications. A quick glance at the red square in the corner of my computer screen reminds me I have 50-odd emails left to read, and the to-do list that I’ve hastily scribbled down on my iPad keeps screaming for my attention. The list on any given week may read something like this: a presentation to prepare for next week’s conference, a summary of the field season’s achievements to send to the scientific coordinator of our research vessel, an outline of my dissertation to finally put on paper and discuss with my advisor. There is literally always something I could be doing to advance toward my degree.

“There is this sinking, somewhat uncontrollable feeling that I should always be doing something, that each free moment is a time in which I could be achieving.”

At 31, it’s been a long time since I’ve felt this pressure to be so busy at all moments. I spent many years away from academia, working in the tourism industry for nearly a decade after finishing my undergraduate degree at Notre Dame. Although my hours were long, the tasks to complete for each day were relatively straightforward. We delivered a product to our guests onboard our whale watch tours, we cleaned the boat at the end of the day, and we went home. Done. There was no residual anxiety left in my mind that there was a task left undone, something I should be doing. My return to grad school last year changed all of that.

I’d long prided myself on my ability to prioritize my leisure time and not let work take over my life. In grad school, it actually feels like there isn’t enough time in the day to complete my tasks, let alone maintain a semblance of balance with my personal life. There is this sinking, somewhat uncontrollable feeling that I should always be doing something, that each free moment is a time in which I could be achieving. It’s a combination of capitalism, the world of academia, and my own anxious tendencies, but for a woman who was raised in a society that taught her to please others before herself, the idea of not being able to get everything done is at best, nerve-wracking, and at worst, anxiety-spiral-inducing. How can I manage my own well-being while still plugging away at my goals?

When I look around, I see students embodying our society's culture of toxic productivity. Going into work on the weekend. Running their experiments late into the evening. Complaining about how much they have to do but not taking action to alleviate their load. It’s exhausting to watch, but I don’t blame a single one of them. This is constantly being asked of us — by our advisors, by the academic culture, by our own minds. But even if I know that this isn’t the way I want to live my grad school life, I struggle to escape the anxious uncertainty and guilt that I should always be doing more. We are fueled by the desire to achieve, produce, create. More, more, more. For many of us, this inner motivation is what brought us to grad school in the first place.

But what if we let ourselves off the hook? What if we take the entire weekend off, or plan a vacation in the middle of the quarter because we feel ourselves burning out. What’s going to happen? We fall behind? But from what are we falling behind? A life full of stress and no free time?

“If I don’t prioritize my mental health, everything goes downhill.”

I’ve thought about this a lot over the last 18 months. Returning to the world of deadlines, judgment, and critique in a system that seems to value your output over who you are as a person is certainly jarring to my nervous system. But I also feel fortunate to have spent enough time outside of academia to know what a healthy work-life balance can look like. I am fortunate to enjoy what I am working on (I study the behavior and health of whale species in order to promote their conservation). But I also am a highly sensitive person who requires quiet, space, and hours of blissful nothing-ness to feel comfortable, motivated, and fulfilled. It’s hard to cut out space and time in a PhD program to allow for the time that I need to be recharged and ready to tackle my dissertation. But what I’ve learned over the last few months is that it's a non-negotiable. If I don’t prioritize my mental health, everything goes downhill. And there is space for anxious introverts in the world of academia.

Here’s what this looks like for me: it means recognizing that I feel most creative in the morning, so I should prioritize waking up early and getting enough sleep. It means letting myself off the hook when I’m a bit tired in the afternoon and taking my dog for a walk instead of staring blankly at my computer screen. It means setting aside the entire weekend to not think about work, and acknowledging that I actually feel more focused when I only work during the week. And it sometimes means a half day on Friday (or, you know, taking the whole day off). Because why not?

I’m sitting here now, with my dog on my lap, feeling slightly sleepy at 10:30 am. And you know what? I might just go take a nap. 

Creators:
Lauren Fritz
Published:
January 8, 2024
January 8, 2024
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