It’s easy to get tunnel vision when you are a college professor. Your hours are filled with prepping for classes, grading assignments, reading to stay ahead of your students, planning how to engage them in the topics at hand. Then there are meetings, trainings, and the relentless onslaught of email, each one dripping into your inbox, requiring at least 30 seconds to 5 minutes to adequately respond with the information requested. Because there’s never just an email:
Hi! Loved seeing you the other day. You look tired. Are you eating enough spinach?”
“Thanks, it was great to see you, too! Nope, I’ll add some more spinach to my diet. Thanks!”
That only took about 15 seconds and left me feeling pleased that someone noticed how tired I was, and even more so since I just purchased some spinach at the store a little while ago. But it’s never that simple.
I was rushing around last week, on Monday, returning from one of our buildings flung up on the north end of campus to my office in the southwest what I call “idyllic corner.” I was trucking along, at a pace my Dad trained me early to master; in order to keep up with him, it required one practically to skip. I wasn’t skipping back to my office, exactly, but I was powering along when my boot landed on a little perfectly round 2″ long stick, and suddenly I was going down and going down hard, my right hand outstretched to break my fall, my left hand holding my cell phone, grimace on my face, the whole thing, I’m sure in slo mo. My phone and I slammed hard onto the asphalt driveway between the shop and the theatre where my office is.
All I could think of as I picked myself up and dusted off my ego, pride and jeans, was “That would have been a disaster if I’d broken something. Time to slow down.”
Earlier, I’d been listening to this amazing series on one of my favorite podcasts, “Hidden Brain” with host Shankar Vendantam. A summer series, under the umbrella of “You, 2.0,” the episode, entitled “Deep Work,” guest, computer scientist Cal Newport, discussing his disciplined approach to work without interruption. It was tantalizing and extremely helpful. The idea of having large blocks of time where you allow yourself not to be interrupted by every incoming email or phone call in order to focus on the development of writing, or research, or even working on class prep sounds impossible to schedule in the fray of the semester. How do you do that?
I suppose it’s like training a pet. Which is to say it is really more about training the owner of the pet to be consistent and focussed on breaking the behaviors that you are trying to correct. About fifteen years ago, my husband and I had a series of extremely….er… hospitable dogs. They’d “welcome” our guests for about 20 minutes of enthusiastic barking, for which we rewarded/stuffed them with dog biscuits. This made hosting a large party a hellish venture for both us and the guests, but not, I must say, for the dogs, who proceeded to quiet down in the middle of the party and then ramp it up at the end to say “goodbye” to our guests with the same rewards coming. We hired a dog trainer, to the tune of $700.00, but unfortunately we weren’t able to break ourselves of the bad habits that fed our dogs’ bad behaviors. Not even for that grotesque financial incentive to succeed.
And so it is with distractions at work. We don’t block out work sessions four months in advance (Cal Newport does); nor do we currently adhere to the deep work time like he’s scheduled, and end the day with check of the weekly plan, a visit to his task list and a mantra where he basically checks out of work so that it doesn’t bleed into his evening or family life. That would be amazing, though, right? If we could do that?
I can visualize myself at my desk on a Friday afternoon at 6:00PM saying “There is nothing more here to be done this week. I’ll see you on Monday, dear little desk.” And standing up, gathering my things and walking out of the office. Uh. Nope. Not so fast!
Working in the theatre, both professionally and educationally bleeds a lot into your life. Many of the conversations I’ve had with students over the past fifteen years have been to listen to their fears about this idea of work/life balance. Can I have a family? I did. I have a wonderful family who supported my professional and creative work. I wonder if my son understands why I’d made some of those sacrifices, now that he is a working man with deep responsibilities and a young family? I hope he has more success in pulling the plug at the end of the day than I did.
Tunnel vision creates feelings of scarcity and the inability to manage things in our lives. This was illuminated in another episode entitled “Tunnel Vision.” It covered hunger, financial scarcity and loneliness, all of which can become crippling to your normal standard operating procedures. I guess grief probably falls in there, too, as it reflects a scarcity of your recently lost loved one, with resulting loneliness.
A question that my coach asked me recently has stuck with me.
What are you tolerating in your life right now?
Examples she gave were, clutter, poor lighting, broken car. This is an activating question to ask yourself. Last week, after asking myself, I:
- Fixed the motor shield under my car that had been kissing the road for months. And by kissing, I mean sloppy, slovenly, snogging.
- I decided to just remove it ($30) rather than replace it ($465), so also a prudent financial move.
- Cleaned off my desk so that I had some space to think.
- Went to the movies on a weeknight with friends and laughed a lot. (not just tolerating loneliness)
I know that doesn’t seem like a lot, but actually, when you are pulling yourself out of grief, it is quite a lot. Ask any of my BIGs (Buddies in Grief). They’ll tell you I had an amazing week.
The last thing I’m aware is of these days is my physical balance or lack thereof. At the end of each morning’s workout, we have 20-25 minutes of yoga. I’m aware of the difference from day to day or even side to side of my balance. It isn’t physical, but mental, I think. Breathe. Be present. Catch yourself and try again. It’ll come back.