Throughout September I’ve encouraged you to kick off this new school year by bringing purpose and joy to the work you do with others. But helping others really only works if you’re also taking care of yourself, so I want to wrap up this “back to school” month by taking a moment to focus on YOU. In particular, I want to suggest a way for you to reframe productivity through the lens of self-care.
I found two definitions of self-care that are particularly useful for this conversation. Oxford References defines self-care as “the practice of activities that are necessary to sustain life and health.” Oxford Languages defines self-care slightly differently – as “the practice of taking an active role in protecting one’s own well-being and happiness, in particular during periods of stress.”
These definitions shift the notion of self-care away from splurges and luxuries – things like bubble baths and manicures – toward practices – notice they both begin with “practice” – that sustain and protect us. The first definition made me think about all the basic things we do to sustain life: we eat, we stay hydrated, we sleep. Every day, we’re already engaging in self care as a practice of sustaining our life. Self-care isn’t extra, it’s not splurgy, it’s not luxurious. It’s something all of us already do.
If I take that as a starting point – that self-care is already part of our daily lives – then the second definition makes space to include not just the functioning of our bodies…eating, sleeping, etc…but also our well-being and happiness. Things like, walking the dog. Spending time with my kids. Reading for pleasure. Other basic, fundamental activities that sustain our souls.
And thinking of these things as practice gives them the heft of intentionality, and gives us a framework for thinking about self-care not as stopping what we’re doing and doing something else, not as scheduling some luxury time into our days, but as a way of intentionally incorporating and integrating sustaining activities into our days.
Before settling on a useful definition, though, I want to layer in another aspect of self-care. This one comes from Morgan Turner, a licensed social worker with University of Washington Medicine. She describes self-care as “anything that leaves you feeling enriched or nourished,” and “healthier, happier and more empowered.”
So for today’s episode, I want to work with this definition of self-care: self-care is engaging in intentional life-sustaining practices that protect well-being, enhance overall health, increase happiness, and promote empowerment.
And now…I want to explore this particular idea of self-care within the context of the competitive and very busy world of academia, especially for women who are balancing leadership roles.
In the last episode I talked a bit about the history of the faculty role as an all-consuming vocation, and how that history contributes to the cultural expectation that pervades higher ed today that all of us be always “on” – always working, or at least, always available for work.
Today I want to explore that idea a bit more by putting that notion of vocation and purpose into conversation with Rebecca Pope-Ruark’s work on burnout. Her book, Unraveling Faculty Burnout, just hit the shelves this week; I’m still waiting for my copy to arrive, but I’ve been listening to her read excerpts from it on her podcast and I’m really excited for my copy to arrive. (BTW, her podcast is called the agile academic and I HIGHLY recommend it!)
If you’re reading this you’re likely working in or at least adjacent to higher ed, which means you’ve personally experienced our industry’s culture of busy-ness. Rebecca Pope-Ruark has devoted her recent research to showing how that busy-ness is counter-productive. Here’s what she has to say:
“In higher ed, we tend to think of productivity as outputs – journal articles accepted, books published, grants written and awarded, graduate students amassed – and this version of productivity can feel like the proverbial hamster wheel in faculty life, as we run in circles chasing the ever moving target of enough. On the other hand, ecologically, productivity means the capacity, richness, and generative possibilities in a given habitat or area. When we think of productivity in this way, we allow ourselves to focus on what is meaningful, important […] – the activities that feed our curiosity and our energy – which ripples out into our research, writing, and work with students and the community.
The assumption that being “busy” is a measure of an active, successful academic is deeply flawed and tacitly encourages faculty to accumulate projects, service roles, courses, and students often against our better judgment of what we can handle. We find ourselves exhausted and overwhelmed. However, busy cannot crowd out our sense of vitality when we do work that gives us professional energy, vibrance, and life. Vitality is a dynamic state of being driven by curiosity, care, and purpose. Vital faculty tap into this dynamism by taking on work that feeds that energy, but they also establish boundaries that allow them to pursue their focus.
If we allow it, the job of being an academic can become a faculty member’s sole identity within a system that values busyness, overwhelm, and single-minded focus. And when we can’t live up to that idealized vision of an academic, we often feel shame or a sense that we don’t measure up. Well-being is more than the elusive work/life balance or easy self-care strategies like getting a massage or going golfing. Instead, well-being is a well-rounded approach to being physically and mentally healthy, feeling a sense of meaning in one’s work, and actively managing stress by engaging in fulfilling activities and relationships outside [of] academia.”
I particularly like the way she sets self-care and busy-ness into opposition, with the recognition that vitality and healthy productivity are rich and generative, not exhausting, demoralizing, and dehumanizing. I love the idea that to be truly productive, we can be driven by our own curiosity, care, and purpose, all while maintaining boundaries that protect our well-being by preventing us from being overwhelmed by meaningless busy-work. I also really appreciate her willingness to call this all out, to say the hard stuff out loud.
So I want to take all this – the definition of self-care as engaging in intentional life-sustaining practices that protect well-being, enhance overall health, increase happiness, and promote empowerment, and, for women leaders in higher ed, also produces vitality by making space for curiosity and purpose – and set it in the context of this month’s theme of getting the new academic year off to a great start.
Other posts this month discussed setting up your year for success by energizing the people you work with by enhancing trust and infusing purpose into your activities, whether you’re teaching a class, facilitating a committee meeting, or holding one-on-one meetings with folks on your team. So much of that work focuses on what you can do for others.
Today I want to explore what you can do for yourself. I especially want you to make some space to explore it now, still in the first few weeks of classes, before the typical workload of a typical semester leaves you buried and suffering.
As I was reading books and articles related to all this, I came across an idea from Peter Bregman in his book Leading with Emotional Courage. The idea I want to share is really simple: invest in your future self. Ask yourself who you want to be, and where you’re trying to go, in the long term. Then today, now, in the present, invest in that future version of yourself by doing things that will get you there.
So much of academia drives us to external validation, and what Rebecca Pope-Ruark describes as the accumulation of outputs. And so, for those of us who are driven to succeed, we spend our careers investing in our future self through higher-ed’s version of productivity – which so often leads to an overwhelming sense of busy-ness and burnout.. What would happen in our lives – how would we think and behave differently on a daily basis – if instead, we invested in ourselves through Pope-Ruark’s idea of ecological productivity as richness and generativity that creates vitality, not burnout?
Obviously it would different for each of us, so I’m going to give you an assignment to explore what it looks like for you.
Spend a few moments thinking about your future self as a leader in higher ed. What kind of leader do you want to be? What do you want to be known for? How do you want to show up every day? What legacy do you want to leave? Take a few moments and think about that.
OK, now with that in mind, think about the end of this academic year. Working with the timeframe of next May or June, ask yourself what you can do differently this year – what can you start doing, or what you already do that you can do more of – so that next May or June you are a little bit closer to the version of your future self you’re seeking.
Even more specifically: What can you do now – this semester, this month, this week, or even today – to help you get there?
I want to be very careful and gentle here, and not think about this as adding tasks or assignments to your life. Instead, let’s frame this through generativity and generosity. Start by looking at your calendar. I’m guessing you’re listening to this episode while doing something else, so if you’re not at your desk, take a few minutes when you get to it, and then open your calendar and do the following. (please!)
Look at your calendar for this week, for the next several weeks, or even the full semester. Just look at it holistically. Look at what’s taking up your time and attention on a daily basis. Ask yourself whether your life, as organized by your calendar, includes activities that help you move closer to your future self. Basically, what I’m asking you to examine is whether you have space in your days to participate in the activities that are going to lead you to the future, the impact, the legacy you want to make.
I’m guessing many of you do – you probably have scheduled time for writing, for research, for mentoring and guiding staff, or for any of the other professional activities that help you become the person and leader you aspire to be.
I’d also like you to explore your calendar with the earlier definition of self-care in mind: self care is engaging in intentional life-sustaining practices that protect well-being, enhance overall health, increase happiness, and promote empowerment, and, for women leaders in higher ed, also produces vitality by making space for curiosity and purpose. With that in mind, explore the things on your calendar that don’t necessarily increase your happiness or feel deeply connected to your purpose but that need to get done – whether those are particular meetings, or certain committees, or projects – that you could reframe through this definition of self-care as a way of investing in your future self?
Where can you make more space for curiosity and purpose?
What could you be curious about that will help draw you closer to your future self? What questions can you ask? In what spaces can you ask them? Whom can you ask?
Or, think about the purpose that motivates your future self.
Where does that purpose show up in your calendar? Be fierce with those places – hold them close and protect them.
Also explore what’s already on your calendar that doesn’t feel purposeful that could be enriched if you infused it with your driving purpose. What are you already going to do – what’s already scheduled – that you could do a little differently if you did with the intention and purpose that brings you closer to your future self?
I once served on a committee that I found deeply frustrating and so I sort of gave up on trying to contribute to it. Now, “giving up” is NOT the legacy I want to leave behind. If I served on that committee today, I would rethink my contributions and engage in the work really differently. Instead of sitting through the meetings and feeling drained and demoralized – which is absolutely NOT investing in my future self – I could have taken much better care of myself by participating in the work through the lens of my own purpose and vitality. That’s the sort of thing I want to encourage you to think about.
I’m encouraging you to think about this because odds are you’re going to have things on your calendar that you don’t really enjoy and also that you need to do. If you can get those activities off your schedule, that’s ideal. But if you can’t, I want to encourage you to rethink the ways you participate in the work by investing in your future self through by participating now in the kinds of self-care that will be generative and creative.
And then finally, look at your calendar and ask yourself how you could build in recurring time to review your calendar with these questions in mind. For example, do you have a time when you review and prepare for your day or your week? If so, can you incorporate this notion of investing in your future self through self care into that review?
Or is there a time – maybe in the weeks before a semester or quarter or term begins – when you map out the full term ahead? Can you incorporate this practice into that mapping?
Or do you have a regular journaling practice that you could use to reflect on how you’re investing in your future self?
My hope for you is that you do this, and you do it more than once. I think in higher ed everything we accumulate works kind of like compound interest – we see exponential growth. If we accumulate outputs and projects that rely on external validation we end up racing to the final outcome – being overwhelmed and burned out. But if we accumulate ways of being that are sustaining, enriching, and generative, we instead live our lives, make the impact, and create our legacy exponentially faster. You’ll get to your future self faster, and with greater purpose and joy.
We know we get better at whatever we practice. Why not practice investing in your future self through self-care? Invest in yourself, my friends. You are so worth it.
So that’s the main idea I want you to carry with you from this episode: you deserve to reap the rewards of the compound interest that comes from Investing, every day, in your future self.
And let me also offer up a small gift, which is also a teaser for an episode coming later this fall. If your investment in your future self includes writing, and you’d like to incorporate an easy, daily writing practice into your life, consider signing up for the Tiny Sabbatical Project, hosted by Shelly Roder and Sarah Moore-Nokes. “The Teeny Tiny Sabbatical Project 10 Minute Seasonal Reset will gently nudge you toward more focused and productive days. You’ll get daily prompts for 14 days, giving you more focus on what’s important and more well-being while you do it.” You can find The Tiny Sabbatical Project by Googling “Tiny Sabbatical Project,” or at Shelly Roder’s website www.shellyroder.com. I mean, it’s hard to turn down a free daily nudge to help you be more focused and productive, right?
So that’s it, my friends. This week’s thoughts on how, and why, you deserve the health and vitality that comes from investing in your future self.
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