I always know when I have been stretching myself too thin with work and writing because I become Jane Craig in broadcast news. You know the scene: she finishes her phone conversation, sits quietly on the bed, and then cries long, loudly, noisily before going on with her day as usual. Who doesn’t wish for more downtime? Time to switch off? More vacation time? More time with the kids, friends, or family? Or just more sleep?
Whenever I feel this way, I know that I need to slow down. The last few years I have been going at breakneck speed, and this is probably because I do work in so many different areas. I am writing poetry, writing nonfiction essays, academic peer-reviewed journal arcticles, and working on a monograph. I couldn’t be happier about how the work is progressing.
But I was thinking about this today, when I was listening to a podcast, Secular Buddhism, on the subject of appreciating “the journey.” Noah Rasheta was talking about how very often we are so focused on our goals, the destination of where we are going, that we do not appreciate everyday life. But to appreciate the everyday means slowing down.
Though it’s not always achievable, I very much like the idea of “slow work,” which does not necessarily mean being less productive, but working in a way that is enriching. When someone is under extreme pressure, we often assume that they will work better, but that is not absolutely accurate. People can work that way very well for a while, but only for a certain amount of time, and after that it can have consequences for health.
It is no surprise to me to see recent stories about academics who have been under extreme strain due to unrealistic work expectations. The problematic nature of the neoliberal university has meant that academics are under more strain than ever, and I am very much in support of the new Critical University Studies. There is no easy answer to this kind of stressful work culture, but I do think that slow work is something that is necessary in academic research, which needs careful consideration, crafting, and development. Could we find a better balance between producing work in a timely way, and taking the time that is necessary?
Meanwhile, I can’t help noticing that the US in particular has an extreme work ethic, which finds virtuousness in overworking. This seems to be happening in the UK too with the REF 2021 coming up very soon. This means focusing on goals rather than journeys: the next promotion, the next step towards tenure, the next publication, the next research bid.
I had to exert a lot of self-control in working on my most recent poetry collection. When I was a very young writer, I wrote poems relatively quickly. Five years between collections seemed like a long time to me. But because my most recent work was intensely personal and related to my own experiences of violence, I made the decision to take as much time as I needed. This meant giving myself permission to wait. I am almost done with the ms now, and I am very grateful to my editor at Bloodaxe Neil Astley, who has been very patient and kind, allowing me to send a number of iterations of the ms. It is a wonderful feeling not to feel hurried into rushing a piece of writing that needed great care and attention and time to get it right, and I am absolutely sure that the work is better as a result.
There’s a quotation from Noah Rasheta that sums up the issue with all this: ‘Detachment is not that you should own nothing, but nothing should own you.’ It is probably naïve to wish for us not to be owned by the expectations of the academy, or the academic community in general, but sometimes we have to refuse to be rushed, because the work is that important.
Here’s a list of ways to slow down your work that I adapted from an article on slow work. I realize that these strategies might not always be possible, and that they hardly solve the problems of the neoliberal university, but it is a good place start.
1. Create a short daily schedule in the morning and calculate twice as much time for each point on this to-do list than you would estimate.
2. Take breaks and use these short breaks for a little small talk among colleagues or networking.
4. Be sure to avoid any multitasking. You only should check your inbox twice a day – not every five minutes.
5. Actively add relaxation periods to your everyday life, for example, yoga or meditation in the morning.
6. Be patient – “Slow Work” means producing very good quality work while still meeting short-term goals, but making a better and more worthwhile long-term portfolio.
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