What would happen if …
- I answered email when I got to it rather than the second I saw it?
- I said no to a professional opportunity?
- I rearranged my schedule so I could pick my daughter up at school at 3:45 two days a week so I could take her to dance class?
- I gave myself the time to read a novel every weekend (barring unusual events)?
- I worked out 3-4 days per week?
- I wrote (almost) every day, just a little bit?
- I got enough sleep?
These all are questions I have asked myself in the past. They’re all questions I’ve tried to answer through direct experience.
Each question represents a lament I had, and an impossibility that I saw. I was overwhelmed by email, and feared letting it rack up. I also hated feeling like a slave to email, and saw how it was getting in the way of getting other things done. I worried that opportunities could dry up if I said no, and that by taking 30 minutes out of a busy work day during standard business hours to drive my daughter from point A to point B I was being … unprofessional, I guess. However, I know I can’t do it all, and I value being able to do these small things for my daughter. I couldn’t figure out how to squeeze in novels, workouts, and writing very often because there were so many other demands on my time, but reading, working out, and writing are things that make me feel alive. And sleep. I have spent so much of the last decade sleep deprived.
At some point I realized I had to just jump in and do these things. Asking “what if” or longing for a life where such actions and activities were possible wasn’t going to make anything happen for me.
One by one, I made changes. First was email. I just … stopped checking it on weekends sometimes. Stopped answering absolutely everything right away. And my world didn’t fall apart. Next I stopped saying yes to every journal review. I still got asked. I said no to speaking opportunities that felt ill-timed. I still got asked. I became “dance mom” 2 days a week, and discovered that the 30 minutes of time spent with my daughter in the afternoon right after school was precious. I also learned that I could be very effective at making calls and answering emails from my “mobile office” (aka car) and the nearby Starbucks was handy for meeting students.
The next four “what ifs” represent changes made in the last 2 years of my life. First I signed up for the Any Good Thing Writing Challenge and started writing 400 words per day, 5+ days/week. No matter what. And I succeeded! This was monumental not because I have writer’s block, but because I didn’t make my own writing a priority when there were papers to grade, manuscripts to review, emails to answer, classes to prep, administrative things to tend to, and so on.
Shortly after that I signed up for pilates at a new local studio. Pilates is an old love of mine, and I deeply missed it. However, I no longer felt I had time for it. An hour for class. 20 minutes in the car each way. So much time selfishly spent on myself! And expensive, too! I started to sign up for the unlimited monthly pass. Then, not wanting to leave value on the table, I started to go to 3-5 classes/week (9 per month make the pass a good value). The new studio is 5 minute from home, so I don’t feel like I’m wasting so much time in the car. The best part is that I leave each class with a calm, cleared mind. Plus my chronic shoulder problems have gone away.
Third, I decided that being tired all the time was not a good thing. I couldn’t function. And I could feel the need for my body to have the time to repair itself between workouts. (One change cascading into the next.) I started going to bed earlier. That meant I stopped working quite as much or as late at night. After a while, this meant I started waking a little earlier most days. And occasionally I would go to sleep super early or sleep super late, if I felt tired.
The last “what if” I allowed myself to explore was reading a novel each weekend. I read quickly, and I mostly choose fluff for weekend reading, so this isn’t any special feat. But it is special. Reading brings me joy, and allows me to escape my life for a little while.
Laid out here, none of this seems very remarkable. It sounds like a person leading a normal life. However, what is remarkable — to me, the academic slave — is what has happened since I took a chance and explored each “what if.” Each represents a positive action taken in my life, and the things that I feared (the dooming of my career, the fall of my productivity) simply haven’t happened. By all objective measures, I’ve been more productive than ever during the last two years even though I’ve been spending more time sleeping, working out, and reading novels. (I’ll opt to think that I’ve always spent a lot of time with my daughter, and that making time to take her to dance during the late afternoons simply represents a reconfiguration of my time.)
I’m giving more time to myself and my family, which means less time for work. Logically, it might seem like that would mean less work gets done, but somehow it doesn’t. And that discovery brings forth a logical assertion of its own: A person who is well rested, healthy, and happy, will be able to focus and be efficient at work.
More importantly, I’ve learned that I can make a commitment to things I want to do and create new patterns and habits.
Tonight I pondered what would happen if I scheduled in professional reading time each week, maybe an hour at a time for 3 days per week. One of my current laments is that I read all the time, but don’t read as much as I would like in areas of my professional interests. My professional reading is either student assignments or manuscripts in submission. I miss finding articles and just reading them because they’re interesting, or going to the newest issue of a journal and skimming through just because I can.
To be honest, I’m not sure how I can find 3 one-hour time blocks to devote to this kind of reading each week. But what if I did? I think it would be worthwhile. This is going to have to be my next test. What will I give up to find that time? Not sure yet. But in about 6 months I’ll know if “what would happen if …” turned into “each week I … and it’s great!”