Doing even better things

My word for 2018 is metamorphosis, which for me is a lot about letting go. I’ve been thinking about what ingrained habits, automatic behaviours, and stale dreams, I can shed this year as I move towards my next zero birthday and my anniversary of ten years since I returned to Australia from the UK. To move into metamorphosis right now feels like I need endings before I can think about any butterfly-esque new beginnings.

I’ve been thinking on what Professor Dylan Wiliam often says:

We need to prevent people from doing good things, to give them time to do even better things.

It’s not that I am filling my days and nights with wasteful things. I do many fun, productive, worthwhile things. In fact, perhaps part of my problem is my constant feeling that every minute I spend must be worthwhile, as though an unproductive minute is a wasted minute. It was my personal trainer who challenged me to reconsider my downtime. He said my health is being affected by an unceasing stress response cycle and that my body is constantly overloaded with adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine.

I have gotten into some not-so-helpful habits, probably ones that working or studying parents often get into. It started in 2011 when I returned to work part-time after my first period of parental leave. My first child was 6 months old. I felt anxious that I might be perceived not to be working hard or long enough, or that I might be late responding to something, so I put my work email on my phone and responded to emails in the playground, in the supermarket queue, and in life’s cracks where I might previously have been daydreaming or looking around. Then in 2012, after having my second child, I returned to work again. I also enrolled full-time in my PhD (because: nerd bucket list!) and so I spent all my spare time (between work and parenting 2 children under 2) working on my doctorate. I managed to submit my thesis within 3 years of enrolling, and completed shortly afterwards, but I had set in motion a dangerous pattern. Once my PhD was done, I presented at more national and international conferences, and ramped up my academic and blog writing. I went from part-time work back to full-time work.

My downtime had become a different kind of work. I wasn’t having breaks. I was switching from teaching work to leadership work to domestic work to research work. Or I was using my non-work non-productive time to prepare for the next bout of work or productivity. Or I was so tired that in the evenings I would halfheartedly watch bad tv or trawl social media in the name of ‘time to myself’. I continued with all of this through some very rough personal patches and did my utmost not to let work, home, or doctorate, be affected. I had some good tricks, like seeing my PhD as intellectual ‘me time’, using calendars and to-do lists with military precision, and switching off from the rest of the world when I was playing with my kids. But is checking social media or writing a blog after the kids have gone to bed the best way to spend my time? Is it helping me to wind down for a good night’s sleep? Multiple work trips and conference presentations can be rewarding and invigorating, but can also negatively impact family time and lead to more stressful work weeks before and after. Is moving from the paid work of my days to the unpaid writing of my nights and weekends stoking my internal fire, or just exhausting me in a relentless cycle of Doing The Things.

What Things am I doing, and why?

I have begun to pare back my obligations. I have turned my email and social media notifications off and buried Facebook in the back of my phone. I’ve withdrawn from my Book Club. I’m reconsidering how often to post on this blog and am thinking perhaps ‘when it takes my fancy’ would be ok, rather than keeping myself to a schedule. I am figuring out how to protect my most productive time for my most important projects and how I might schedule in regular silence and stillness. My trainer has recommended flotation tank therapy.

I’m hoping that lightening my load will help me to stop doing some good things in order to do even better things. Some of those even better things are those I am passionate about (like writing what I’m burning to say, editing an important book, or serving the community via board-member type positions) and some are in the name of self-care, like getting a good night’s sleep, protecting a regular exercise schedule, and working out how to properly stop.

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The 3MT as a lens into concision, productivity and creativity in PhD research

Perfection is not when there is no more to add, but no more to take away. ~ Antoine de Saint Exupéry

Last week I spoke at my university’s Three Minute Thesis competition, which challenges doctoral candidates to explain their research in under 180 seconds, to a non-specialist audience.

Other PhD students in the competition had been attending multiple workshops, practising for weeks in front of experts, and being given feedback from professors and each other. I wrote my speech the week before, and then attempted to memorise it while teaching, marking essays, parenting, and revising my whole thesis (again), this time for the eyes of my second supervisor. In amongst that week, the universe decided to add night after sleepless night with sick children, and sickness for me, too. Such is the world of the working, parenting PhD candidate!

I found ways to fit 3MT prep into the cracks in my week. I recorded my speech on my dictaphone and played it in the car on the way to and from work, and before I went to bed. At night after my kids were in bed, I ran through the speech. By the time 3MT day came around, I was still full of cold and bleary eyed, but I figured I only needed to be ‘on’ for three minutes. That, I could do. I presented the speech before its first ever audience on the day. I managed to remember my entire speech from start to finish, did it under time (which is crucial) and got some nice feedback afterwards. (Thank you to those in the audience who nodded vigorously, and the two girls at the cafeteria afterwards who told me they think I should have won!)

The most useful part of the 3MT for the PhD researcher is the decision making that goes into writing the speech. At around 500 words the speaker has to make tough decisions about what to put in (in my case, from research which has resulted in a 100,000 word thesis) and what to leave out. About how much to popularise and entertain, and how much serious research detail to foreground. I think my balance was a little off, but the experience of writing it – like writing abstracts or short papers – was a worthwhile thinking exercise in distilling my PhD down into its essence. It forced me to ask: What is the crux of what I am doing? Why should anyone care? How might I encourage them to want to know more?

my 3MT slide with thesis illustrations by me

my 3MT slide with thesis illustrations by me

Above is the image I used for the static slide which projected behind me as I gave my 3MT competition speech. It gives an idea of the way in which I’ve conceptualised my research about professional identity, professional learning and school change. It’s an approach which might be perceived as a bit whacky and non-traditional by some.

I’ve used narrative method, but taken the notion of story further, including using a well-known literary novel as conceptual frame and even providing illustrations in my thesis. These decisions emerged from systematic working through of research problems such as the ethical issue of protecting anonymity, as well as the storytelling challenge of making meaning for readers. I’ll be presenting at this year’s Australian Association of Research in Education conference about the use of extended literary metaphor and known literary characters as analytical and conceptual tools.

In reflecting upon this slide and my 3MT speech, I was heartened by Helen Kara’s new book, Creative Research Methods, and by this recent podcast from Tara Brabazon and Steve Redhead. Helen, in her book, does not encourage researchers to be creative for the sake of creativity, rather she notes that being open to creative solutions to research problems acknowledges and respects the complexity of research work.

Tara and Steve, in their discussion of interdisciplinary PhDs, make a point about doctoral (and other) research that resonates for me; select a university, supervisors and examiners who will protect your journey and respect your work. This has been so important for me. My supervisors, neither of whose own work is in my specific area, have been supportive of my ideas and my journey. That is not to say they have not challenged me! Quite the opposite. When I first floated the idea of creating illustrations for my participant stories, for example, they were sceptical, but not dismissive. I worked on the theoretical rationale for using illustrations in my thesis and once I had articulated my argument convincingly, my supervisors told me that I’d effectively made the case. This is one example of a number of moments in my PhD journey in which my work has been respected and my journey supported, rather than controlled.

So as I presented my 3MT speech, before my idiosyncratic slide, I felt that I was presenting research in which my journey, my voice and my work has been – challenged, certainly – but also respected.

Giving ourselves permission for a break: time away as self-care and strategic productivity

“What day is it?” asked Winnie the Pooh. “It’s today,” squeaked Piglet. “My favorite day,” said Pooh” ~ A.A. Milne

Villa Artis, Bali by @debsnet

Early tomorrow morning I will be on a plane to an island destination for a holiday with family and friends. I should be dreaming of silky cool pool water, fire-coloured sunsets over the ocean, meandering rice paddies reflecting blue skies, the sizzle of seafood on the beach and the clink of ice blocks in cocktail glasses.

Canggu beach, by @debsnet

And yet I have been thrashing around trying to decide whether or not to work or study or blog while I am away. Or whether I can leave it all behind and take a real break, despite ceaseless deadlines. I wonder if this is a common phenomenon in a world in which we are constantly connected to each other, constantly available to our workplaces and constantly curating, creating and sharing vignetted content of our lives and work. While flexible working hours can allow us to make adaptable life choices and social media can allow us to connect with others, do they also contribute to a cycle of relentlessness which we find difficult to break away from?

rice paddies, Umalas, by @debsnet

I have decided that I need to take a full thinking, writing, marking, everything break from my worlds of work, research and writing. One of my three words of 2015 is ‘presence’, so partly this break is about a commitment to being present with my children, husband and friends during our trip. But it is also about being ok with taking an actual break and with a commitment to self-care. I am someone who sees blogging as a break from PhD writing. Or PhD writing as a break from marking. So the idea of a break from all-of-the-things is foreign and has taken some self-convincing.

offerings, Bali, by @debsnet

There are others who have reflected on the importance of self-care, even as we catapult ourselves towards our goals. Raul Pacheco-Vega wrote on self-care in academia and the importance of privileging your own health and wellbeing. New Zealand author Celia Lashlie, who I’ve had the pleasure of hearing speak about her work, died in February after releasing a statement which read, “My wish is that others will learn to stop before I did, to take into account the limitations of their physical bodies and to take the time to listen to the yearnings of their soul. It is in the taking care of ourselves we learn the ability to take care of others.”

Seminyak sunset, by @debsnet

I love my work and my research, and most of the time I find a tenuous work-family balance. I wrote on the PhD Talk blog about the way that normally it works for me to have many things on the go, as doing any one of them feels like a holiday from the others. I also spoke there about the importance of quiet in-between times. That is, often I make the most cognitive or creative progress, on my PhD thesis or a strategic work problem, when I am walking, or driving, or taking time to be quiet and still. So luxuriating in a full, unadulterated, brazen break is also a strategy to vacation, to vacate the demands of everyday life, in order that I might return with some mental clarity and physical energy to tackle the rest of this year, which includes for me, finishing my PhD thesis and successfully implementing the professional learning and growth model at my school.

So give yourself permission for a break, small or large. To unplug from emails, tweeting, writing or planning. To take care of yourself, curl your toes in the earth and immerse yourself in somewhere, somehow or someone that gives you joy.

(Photos in this post are from a previous trip.)

(How did it go? The post-script to this post can be found here.)

Sea Circus, Bali, by @debsnet