Are you a Giving Tree Academic?

A friend of mine who has an amazing analytical mind and was a Dean at a relatively well known college once told me that “all of my best faculty are doing way too much.”  He regularly gave advice to faculty to take on fewer responsibilities.  In his experience, for the best faculty, taking on fewer responsibilities often increased effectiveness and, paradoxically, enhanced overall impact.

This perspective is quite rare in administrators, but matches well what I have found to be the truth of academic life-  most of us are fully employed–  meaning we already have full-time work to do.   This means when we agree to do new things they are additions to an already full workload.  Unless there are concomitant subtractions, we will be increasingly overworked.  Beyond being assigned work, faculty often volunteer for projects in scholarship, teaching and service that continually extend their obligations, eventually leaving them ineffective, stressed, and thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.

I see the phenomenon of piling loads on top of already full schedules with graduate students, and (bizarrely) with undergraduate students as well. Graduate students who are already overwhelmed by huge science projects taking on some organizing task at the university.  Undergraduate students who dive into a suite of service opportunities beyond classwork and research, eventually driving themselves beyond the brink of exhaustion.  Academics at all levels seem highly prone to drastically overburdening ourselves.

Some academics end up being a Giving Tree. Not being able to say no, even to those who we are fond of, will likely lead, innocently enough to: onlyastumpremains

Learning when and how to say “no” is not a simple thing.

For an academic, effectiveness and activity tend to attract work, and doing well means being asked to do more. Note here that it is critical to differentiate when you are being “asked” to do something from being required to do it.  There are times when you need to find this out, ask specifically if needed!

Leaving aside assignments, and focusing on things where you have a choice: In many cases, the people who are asking you to be involved are admirable people, maybe even friends.  If you are not going to end up a tree stump, you will have to disappoint some of these people, sometimes.

You will have to occasionally say “no” to things that are DEFINITELY worth doing.

You will have to say “no” to things that you, personally, are disappointed in not doing.

You will have to say “no” to things that have potential for impact.

Most of us are terrible at saying “no”, but I do have a friend who is a successful academic and also NOT a Giving Tree.  He is very successful in the classroom, in service, and in research but has managed to keep himself reasonably buoyant and sane.  Here are three things that I know about this person.  These can be taken as action items if you or someone you know is a Giving Tree Academic:

(1) Workload neutrality.  As you consider whether to take on new things, hold yourself accountable to maintaining a stable, total, work load.  What this means is that if you take on new things, others of equal work load must be removed.  Thinking about things along these lines is helpful when someone asks (as opposed to requiring) you to join a committee, or take on a new advising task, for instance.  Will you review this paper?  How about joining the editorial board?  Help organize a conference?  Answers to questions of this sort need to start with asking yourself if in the last 6 months or so you had so much time on your hands that you could have added the task to your schedule to simply fill up the excess time you had available.   If the honest answer is “I didn’t have any extra time and, actually, have been a Red Queen- running like a maniac just to stay in the same place!”  Then you don’t have slack in your work life and simply must either (a) say NO, or (b) subtract other things from your work life to make space.  That is workload neutrality.

(2) Think “Leverage.”  What, precisely, do you want to happen next?  This is a good thing to keep in mind when deciding what tasks to take on.   It might be worthwhile to think of an imaginary scale of 1-10 where doing a 10 task directly contributes to your mission and a 1 is a complete distraction.  If your goal is scientific productivity, for instance, working on a grant would often score a 10 on leverage, whereas joining a committee on campus safety would be a 1.  When someone asks you to do something-  joining a reading group, or help develop a new assessment tool for advising- try to figure out where such an activity lines up on your leverage scale.  Is this high leverage or low leverage?  If low leverage, do you have plenty of time for existing high leverage items?  If not, you must say no!

(3) Outside life.  My friend has made it a point to indulge in a healthy off-campus hobby that makes him happy and is fun.  Many academics end up in a situation where their work life is their whole life.  While that might be good for some people, in others it leads to a Giving Tree mentality.  If there are no guardrails on your work life, it may expand to fill up all the space available…meaning it could come to dominate you.  If that works for you, fine!  But if you are manifestly unhappy, then you will have to build a fence around your work life and do some things on the outside of that fence that you enjoy.

One closing thought that might be a helpful thing for you to embrace, a thought to center on if you feel that you have become a Giving Tree:

It is unacceptable for daily work life to manifest as trying to keep your head above water in a torrent of obligation.”

It does not matter that this seems to be “just the way things are” or that you see others similarly drowning. It is wrong for them, and it is wrong for you and it does not have to be this way.

It is not healthy or sane to live this way.

If you live this way, you will do things poorly that you could do well.

The rational move is to continue to jettison things, and say no, until your life is no longer a torrent, and you are in control.

The Giving Tree is not a sustainable model, and you need sustainability in your work life.  Furthermore, we all need you to stay in science, and be whole, and help move us forward!