Finding Structure & Productivity Despite Stress & Self-Doubt

I think I can remember when it began. Nearly 10 years on, I can faintly recall the comments on that paper, the subtle doubt expressed by a pregnant pause in a conversation with a mentor, the moments that I interpreted as meaning that I was not as strong a scholar as I believed myself to be. Instead of leaning on all of the positive affirmation that I had received previous to these interactions, these moments lodged themselves in my memory, and eventually chipped away at my confidence.

You may be thinking that this just plays like a typical case of imposter syndrome. And it does – Because it is. I am not the first scholar to battle the kind of self-doubt that can wake you in a cold sweat. But I can speak to the long-term impacts of this struggle. Imposter syndrome takes what is your core belief in yourself, that thing that gives you pride in your particular skill set, your ability to construct a deft argument backed by strong data, and punctures it with tiny holes day after day.

Although imposter syndrome slowed my progress, it did not bring it to a complete halt (thankfully). Turns out that needing to pay the bills will keep you doing your work even when your inner demons keep shouting you down. This constant low to medium level productivity enabled me to build a strong network of colleagues, many of whom were working through the same issues. This group of untenured and recently tenured women provided the support and mentorship that enabled me to emerge from the haze long enough to question what I was not doing to help myself succeed.

This process began with some legitimate soul-searching with the help of a therapist. These sessions enabled me to decouple the daily stress of life with an infant in two-body academic household, from messages of intellectual self-doubt. I also realized that I needed to prioritize my efforts. My weakness was not in my teaching, participation in university/college life, or even data collection. It was in the production of manuscripts. By narrowing in on the biggest gap in my record, I was able to redirect my energy to fill this hole. Through this initial intervention, I moved beyond my knee jerk responses to stress, and began to move towards practical daily changes that could bring about improvements in my productivity.

I will share some of these tips below with hopes that one or more of these will help someone else to work in spite of (and in the midst) of their worries. I list these suggestions in the order that they came to me. Thus, they build on one another.

  1. Exercise: I used to read Runner’s World magazine and wonder why mothers always mentioned running at 5:45 am or some other ungodly hour. Then I had a child. After trying for 1.5 years to find (normal) times for exercise, I finally began waking up at these above-mentioned crazy times and heading to the gym. Making myself exercise several times a week  provides me all the well-known benefits, and helps me to begin my day feeling accomplished.
  2. Time Tracking: Instead of making a to-do list, I began to write down what I was actually doing and how long each task took. After only a few days it was clear that I needed to think critically about how I was using my precious morning hours. I no longer allow 45-minute blocks during my most productive time of the day to be consumed with email, social media, grading, or other things that are lower on my priority scale.
  3. Priority Scheduling: Despite my protests about waking up before the sun, I am actually a morning person. Thus, I used to schedule all of my teaching in these early hours. However, this just meant that I gave the bulk of my energy to only one part of the package that will eventually grant me tenure. Over the last 2 years, I have rearranged my schedule. Now, I  don’t teach before 11 am or noon (whenever possible).
  4. Writing Before All Else: Now that my schedule includes a substantial block of time most mornings, I commit myself to at least 45 minutes of writing first thing in the morning – every morning. This new practice means that I am putting my best energy towards the activity that needs it the most. This one step – however basic – has netted the biggest reward.
  5. Utilizing Outside Resources: When I finally stopped beating myself up about some perceived failure of will and intellectual prowess, I began seeking out solutions. At this point, I realized that there is a niche market of scholars, apps, and programs supporting academics that need to kick their work into high gear. One app that has served me well is the Self-Control for Apple computers. It restricts Internet access to selected sites and programs in 15 min blocks. By simply removing all distractions for a set period of time, I leave myself no option but to write. There are similar apps for PC computers as well. It also may be useful to consult professionals. Kerry Ann Rockquemore is the founder of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity. The Faculty Success Program at the NCFDD provides scholars with a toolkit of resources including weekly check-ins, and peer support. I have spoken to several people who have participated in this program, and every single one speaks incredibly highly of the help they received. (Full disclosure: It is expensive and I am still working on getting institutional support for participation in the program. They do, however, have scholarships.)

Turns out that academic work is a bit like working out. Practice begets better practice, and all of that practice leads to comfort with the exercise. Though I now conceptualize myself as productive, my work as strong, I still employ these tools to structure my time efficiently, and I still have to beat back the ghosts of self-doubt every now and then. Although the web is full of these kinds of lists, I hope that my story helps those who may find themselves a bit adrift and needing an anchor (or a tip or two).

10 thoughts on “Finding Structure & Productivity Despite Stress & Self-Doubt

  1. Pingback: Friday links: Hope Jahren’s blog turns 1, Tim Poisot wins the intertubes, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  2. This is a great post that really hits home! I’m chugging along with my dissertation research & side projects, but never feel as productive as I know I can be. Then I find that stress and questions about the quality of my work further reinforce my medium-level productivity. Your focus on diagnosing what area you really need to amp up, finding targeted solutions to do so, staying positive and separating this issue from your self esteem more broadly, and just getting used to being more productive (like exercise) are all great!

    Side note: I have heard many people share their move towards writing a little each morning. I would love to hear more about this. Specifically, what do people work on in these shorter morning bursts (research ideas; paper sections bit by bit; grant apps)? And, how has writing each morning gotten better or more efficient over time?

    • @Dot, I think the timing of writing is a very personal thing. Some people do it best in the morning – I have heard of people getting up an hour earlier sometimes, before the family is awake. But for others that is an unproductive time and they work best if they stay up late (not me, I may think I’m being productive at night but my late work nearly always needs heavy editing the next morning- but it works for others in my family). Then again, some people pick up the threads of yesterday’s work easily and can continue the threads, yet others need a long, uninterrupted session. Some need music, others need quiet. I think the point of this original post is learning to find out what works for you, and more importantly, what fits into your schedule in the most satisfactory way.

      Although I work best in the morning, it has not always been possible for me to set aside time then (children needing to catch an early bus, me needing to commute a long distance, 9am lectures to deliver etc etc). So in those times, I just had to cope with whatever other time was available, and train myself to adjust. Sometimes it worked more satisfactorily than at other times.

      I would also like to hear from others – how they manage this, and if they do different types of writing at different times.

    • With regards to morning writing, I have been working on manuscripts bit by bit. It took me a very long time to get wrap my mind around writing this way. However, I realized that I rarely have 2-3 hour blocks anymore. So, I finally had to consider doing it another way. The interesting thing is that I used to think that I needed 2-3 hours to “get into” my writing – but working on a piece for about 45-1 hour everyday has enabled me to pick right up where I previously left off. If I skip too many days, it is much harder to work in these small blocks. I have definitely gotten better at this – but it took a bit of commitment to the schedule before it began to work.

      And my definition of “morning” is a bit skewed because I have a 2 year old. So when I get up ridiculously early, I use that time to exercise. Many mornings, I wake up, sprint around the house after my son, wrangle him into clothes, get him off to daycare, get to my office, and then sit down at my desk. This marks the official beginning of my “morning” when I write for 45 minutes. So my “morning” is better characterized as “when I sit at my desk.” Again, I try not to schedule anything during this time so that I can use it to write – but I do occasionally have meetings, etc. In those instances, I make myself take 45 min – 1 hr. at some point later in the day.

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  4. Pingback: Tips for writing through impostor syndrome | Mingulay's Blog

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