How do you find the time?

In graduate school, I took up crafting — knitting, sewing, embroidering, quilting, making magnets and sock monkeys and jam? I tried them all. I’ve always liked working with my hands, and the grass roots, eco-friendly nature of the DIY movement was really appealing to me. I also enjoyed learning more about what have traditionally been women’s activities. Embroidering science quotes on pillows felt subversive and oddly empowering. I made me feel closer to my grandmother. It gave me something to do. It was a creative outlet. I met new people, and saved money on holiday gifts. My grad student friends and I would meet for weekend stitch-n-bitches and support each other through tough times.

Crafting also helped my mental health. Watching an episode of Buffy or Alias at night to unwind, I’d find myself unable to relax until I discovered that crocheting silenced that persistent little voice saying “Why aren’t you working?” Because I was working! I was making something! My overachieving neurotic brain was just as satisfied by stitches as by words. I was able to relax, and concentrate on Sidney Bristow kicking ass instead of the pervasive feelings that I wasn’t good enough.

When I started my faculty position, I stopped. I don’t know why. It wasn’t intentional, it’s just that self-care is one of the first things to go when you’re busy. Recently, because year three has made me feel like I’m Artax sinking into the Swamps of Sadness, I started again. I made a baby quilt for my cousin. Then I made another for my colleague, and a third for my sister (please keep having babies, by the way. I’m kind of on a roll here). A couple of weeks ago, I picked up knitting again, working on a “baby” blanket I started in graduate school for a pregnant friend whose fetus will start preschool this fall. I’m reaching out to friends to start a book club — something else I loved in grad school — and this morning I looked up when the Zumba classes are. I’m feeling like myself again, or at least the fitter, happier, more fulfilled grad student version of me.*

The other day, I posted my latest quilt on Facebook, and a colleague wrote a comment: “How do you find the time?” I used to get those a lot in grad school. I’ve seen friends training for marathons, or posting photos of their cosplay outfits, get similar comments. They frustrate me, because they imply that we should be working every single waking hour. I don’t have kids (yet?), which frees up a lot of time, I admit. But even my colleagues who are parents have hobbies, even if it’s a weekly soccer league or a monthly volunteer gig at the dog shelter. Heck, even Happy Hour can be a hobby, and there generally seems to be enough time for that. Besides, a quilt can be made in five minute increments. It’s not rocket science (though it does involve a surprising amount of math).

“How do you find the time?” is pernicious. It’s a form of concern-trolling, because the person seems like they have your best interests at heart, but they’re really just shaming you for not being at work all the time. Don’t listen to them. First, you don’t need to work eighty hours a week to succeed in academia, and most people probably aren’t anyway, even if they think they are. Secondly, having hobbies and outlets is good. Breaks make you more productive; this is one reason the tech industry is all about having Lego stations at work, or things like the Pomodoro method are so effective. Strong networks and interests make you healthier and happier. Healthy, happy people are more productive. Knitting, beer-brewing, and tending to your SCOBY won’t get you tenure by themselves, but they’re almost certainly helping more than hurting.

You probably have lots of hobbies already, but you don’t know it — those are those things you used to do before graduate school made you stop because you were too broke or busy. I don’t care if you have to cut up old pairs of jeans you fish out of the  university free box and make solstice wreaths out of them: If you don’t have a hobby or three, get one. I recommend at least one that you can do alone and one that you can do with others. Bonus points if you can schedule your fun (e.g., a weekly trivia night, a knitting group, a dance class), and treat it like anything else on your calendar.

And the next time someone asks you, “Where do you find the time?” resist the urge to say “From the hollow space at the center of the dried husks of my enemies,” and instead say “I find having a physical/creative/social outlet makes me more productive!” and then let your fabulous CV speak for itself.

*If you’re in grad school and feeling like everything is terrible and about to freak out because it’s going to get harder, breathe. It’s going to be okay. Half the point of this blog is so that you learn from our mistakes, rather than repeating them. Now go look at yourself in the mirror and say, get into a power pose, and say “I am a BAMF” ten times. Because you are.


22 thoughts on “How do you find the time?

  1. Yes. Thank you for reminding us all of this important activity – exercising our bodies and other parts of our thinking processes (other than “work”) does help productivity. It also helps us keep healthy, which is important if we do want to keep working at “work”. A very timely post, thanks again.

  2. I still recall the times I could walk out of seminar having silently knitted 10 rows on a vest only to see the pile of styrofoam bits to which one of my professors had reduced a coffee cup. Who was more productive?

  3. Reblogged this on Bookling's World and commented:
    Ahhh, this one speaks to my heart! How DO we manage to have hobbies and do good academic work at the same time? As someone who has a few craftsy hobbies on the side, I can relate to a lot of the experiences and concerns in this post. How lovely to have them expressed so well!

  4. Yes, yes, yes! I made eight sweaters in the 4-5 months leading up to my comprehensive orals and now am on my sixth or seventh shawl/scarf this year as I wrap up my dissertation. Knitting has been absolutely necessary for me to maintain balance and give myself creative downtime. As I begin teaching full-time this fall, I know I’ll want/need to keep this practice alive and it’s good to know it’s possible. I note that it wasn’t until year three that you resumed crafting this way – in retrospect, could you have in years 1 and 2? Thank you for writing about the importance of this!

  5. Absolutely. I remember meeting someone new not long after I’d started my first faculty position, and they asked me what I did outside work. There was a long silence while a little voice wailed in my mind, “I used to be an interesting person…”

  6. Agreed – *especially* about scheduling it in. My calendar controls me now (and not the other way around), so I make sure the fun things are in there as a standing commitment.

    Also good if you can find a hobby that keeps you physically fit; that’s another thing that is so easy to neglect.

    Another good answer to the question: “I’m more efficient than you!” 😉

  7. I love this so much. I’ve been on a bit of a self-care kick lately and the idea that you can almost trick yourself that you are working by doing an activity like knitting or crocheting is a brilliant idea to me. Also, as far as the time thing … so many people have time to watch a million different shows on netflix or cable yet no one seems to question that. The idea of engaging in useful, healthy activities like knitting or training for a marathon are so foreign to people. It’s bizarre and should stop.

  8. Nothing against sports, but picture the talking-about-sports conversations that always seem to fill the idle time before faculty meetings, in hallways, at happy hours etc. Can you IMAGINE if someone asked those guys/gals “Oh, how do you find the TIME to watch sports?!” It’s silly that some hobbies are seen as “a given” and others are seen as frivolous enough to even ask that question. Good for you for using your hands and your creativity.

  9. Very nice post. I have found that there is often time within our “busy” workdays for the fun and rejuvenating parts of the job.

    Two years ago I had a field program that required my presence for one day a week at a very nice native prairie site about 15 min from campus. Rain or shine, for four months, I was working a maximum 4 day week in the office. The other day was spent with my students doing repetitive sampling tasks that allowed conversation and time to observe the plants. Looking back, my productivity over that time in terms of writing, keeping the administrative wolves at bay etc., was no different than I would have normally achieved. My productivity in terms of mentoring quality, generating new study ideas etc. was greatly enhanced.

    As PIs we often feel that we don’t have time for the parts of science that were the reasons why we first went in to science. I think that if we make that time too, we will be better (and happier) for it.

    • I love to hear this! I am in year 4 as a PI and have been feeling increasingly remote from actually doing science, rather than managing and helping others so their science. I love to help them but at the same time I did all of this so I could be a *scientist* not an editor, manager, grant writer, and sometimes cheerleader. I think those other roles are all part of my job and I enjoy them but without getting to do my own science I’ll go crazy. Thanks for bringing this up and inspiring me to plan my own experiment.

  10. Thanks for this. But I do think a considerable number of such questions are out of genuine curiosity. I migrated to Germany 5 years ago for my PhD and still I can’t catch up in terms of energy-levels for some of the things that others do while I have to navigate the banking system or learn how to prepare for my defense. I stopped creative writing and camping not necessarily because I don’t have time, but because I don’t have time during which I have enough energy to plan and move. And that’s sth I guess one has to re-learn, and that’s where people like you can help!

    So, if we ever met in real life and I asked you this, I want you to know, right here, that I’m asking more out of curious jealousy than supervisor-like admonition ;))

    • I think it’s one of those cases where, like benevolent sexism, even a comment that was intended as positive or complimentary ends up doing more harm than good.

  11. Pingback: Friday links: Ilkka Hanski passes away, Ed Yong vs. David Attenborough, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  12. This. So much. Knitting while watching Buffy or the X-Files was maybe (along with weekly Happy Hour) the only thing that kept me sane through part 1 of graduate school. I got all the questions too, and for me, there was also this really important political component. It was my way of saying, whether it helped me succeed in school or not, that I didn’t believe we should be working all our waking hours, that having hobbies and creative outlets and being well-rounded were just as an important part of a good life.

    Now I have a baby and am trying to figure out how to have a creative outlet because while it feels like I have no time, I fully believe I would ultimately be more productive and happy and effective if I could get over that initial hump of getting started. But that’s a whole other kettle of fish . . .

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  14. These things are important to refresh one’s commitment to science and for mental health. Dont give them up!! I had many hobbies all my life: sewing, cooking, reading, gardening-I used to make all my own clothes, music. I used to paint and draw, and I also collect art-engravings and mezzotints. I never saw any of these interests as conflicting with loving science. I was trained in the UK in the 70s and we were encouraged to have a full life. My graduate supervisor, who had the best mind of anyone I ever knew, certainly did-he went shooting on the weekends- and he was an FRS. This civilized life ended with my 2 postdocs, one in Europe and the other in the US. My second postdoc supervisor, a woman, actually told me “You cannot be a Renaissance Person and succeed in science”. So I gave them up. At the faculty level, the Chair of my Tenure Committee-an LGBTQ woman who should have known better, but hey, she is really an OLD WHITE DUDE, actually told me to my face “You will not succeed in science. You have too much art on your walls”. I was gobsmacked. Guess what? Because of this woman’s shallow, essentially frivolous judgement, I didn’t get tenure. It was ok for the Institute Director to have cheap Matisse prints on HIS office walls, but I couldn’t have genuine mezzos? How did she know I didn’t inherit them? What am I supposed to do, throw them away? I always had a huge passion for and commitment to science. I was a woman of color entering science years before anyone from my community did. I gave up a great deal and received neither mentoring nor support. I have nothing to show for it today except a modestly successful career OUTSIDE academia. I would NEVER recommend research as a career today. Further-the entire tenure process is simply absurd. My niece, who works for a large non-profit, received 3 promotions this year, decided by the people she works with. Why does academia think it is so necessary to bring on a panel of people who really have no idea who you are and give them the power of life and death over your career? It’s idiotic. It’s pretentious. It’s stupid, wasteful, and inefficient. In England we have a saying, “The definition of a barbarian is someone who can do only one thing”. This applies to most of the scientists I know.

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