This year in general, our theme is giving your scholarship some love. But today, we want to take a moment to reflect on how being gentle with yourself—giving yourself some love—makes you a better scholar, helps you to get to your scholarship better, as well as some ways you could try to cultivate that gentleness.
We’re writing this on Valentine’s Day. Honestly, we kinda hate Valentine’s Day. One of the only useful things about Valentine’s Day, in our opinion, is that those of us who hate it might spend some energy rebelling against it, and in the process create something else that’s better than Valentine’s Day.
Something we see a lot of, particularly at this time of year, is y’all (academics, that is) really beating up on yourselves: feeling crappy when you don’t nail things perfectly, for example, or trying to use shame as an incentivizer.
It’s an observation that everyone’s heard before, maybe so much that it’s just background noise now. It just kind of seems to come with the territory.
But let’s put that into context. Academics, like basically everyone, are super busy. You also have tons of scholarship to do, and your to dos include things like “write a book” or “get a grant that will support me for the next 5 years.” Clearly these kinds of tasks are overwhelmingly large and can’t be done in one sitting, and so you diligently break them down into smaller, more manageable pieces. But no matter how diligent you are, stuff happens and those smaller, well-laid-out tasks get delayed (or just take longer than you thought) and the big pile of undone scholarship gets ever bigger. Or at least that’s the illusion. What it really is is that you have less time in which to do the larger project, so you feel like you can’t afford to break it down. Before you know it, you’re back to “write a book,” staring down a giant undifferentiated mass that’s due next month, or yesterday.
That’s not you messing up. That’s just what happens when there’s a massive undertaking at play, especially if it’s competing with other important things that make up a career and a life.
And the only way to address that is to come back to it, break the task back down—and possibly in a new way to accommodate your changing situation—acknowledge that you’re going to take a little longer to get it in, and keep going. In the moment, it’s easy to give yourself a “pep talk” that becomes a chewing-yourself-out session, or to get all drill sergeant on yourself, like “just write the damn book, maggot!”
But that’s not how you’re going to get the book written—and you know it, too. You also know that you want, in the long term, to find a sweet spot, an equilibrium, in which you can get to your scholarship regularly, in necessary and even fulfilling ways, without feeling like you had to be cruel or neglectful toward yourself or others.
What’s really going to happen is that you’re probably not going to just find it forever; you’ll find it and lose it again, because things will change: you’ll become more senior in your career, have different commitments, and other things will happen that are manifestations of time moving forward. But you can grow your skills at recalibrating, at finding that equilibrium again when you lose it.
People who are busy hating on themselves are generally not very good at recalibrating. Doing that might get you to push yourself through some late nights or even some larger deadlines, but it’s not going to get you what you want in the longer term. What you’ll need is self-compassion, which in turn keeps you in a space of curiosity and problem-solving about yourself and your circumstances, enabling you to be responsive rather than reactive.
Now, the logic of what we’ve said so far seems obvious, and there’s a good chance that what we’ve said so far is just walking you down a path you’ve traveled before. This is where we run into another issue: the problem with self-compassion isn’t that it’s a bad or controversial idea; it’s that it is really incredibly hard to practice consistently. The thinking people have done on what self-compassion is and how to get it spans centuries and fills libraries.
With that in mind, here are two starting-point mantras that we’ve found extra effective for academics trying to get to their scholarship and be happier about it.
(If you want some next steps, get in touch with us and we’ll give you ideas or further reading based on your situation.)
- If you’re like most academics, there literally aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything you need to do. That sounds pretty discouraging, like it means that you can’t possibly succeed, but it’s also objectively true, and facing that reality frees you up in 2 ways:
- It helps you not take it personally. If you’re not getting to All the Things, it’s not just you. This isn’t some failure on your part. You can’t work 16-hour days. If you’ve ever tried billing hours—counting only the time you spend actually working, like we do when we’re editing—you’ll find that it’s not even sustainable to actually work 8-hour days. And even if you could work 16-hour days, you’d still have more stuff to do.
- Acknowledging that (ironically?) helps you gain clarity on what’s really important. You don’t have time to do All the Things—and you don’t even have time to stress about the things you’re not doing. Just grab the things you need, want, and choose to do, and put the rest down and walk away.
- Don’t ever forget that you don’t have to nail it perfectly in order for it to count. People get hung up on should statements like “I should write for at least 45 minutes a day” and then think that if they didn’t hit the mark, they failed. But this isn’t true; it takes incremental steps to get to your destination, and 44 ½ minutes, or even 10 minutes, will get you there eventually. You know that adage “the perfect is the enemy of the good”? Or its variant, “the perfect is the enemy of the done”? Stop trying to do it just so.
- In some ways, that’s the #1 takeaway of the dissertation as a genre. Is your dissertation perfect? Probably not. There are basically 2 reasons for shoddy dissertations. The far less common reason is that the person wasn’t doing good thinking and/or writing. The far MORE common reason is that the person had to throw it together in a hurry because they had other stuff going on—like a postdoc or a job. Read that way, that bad dissertation is a sign of success. This isn’t to say you should do bad work. But the time comes to let everything go, and it’s always worthwhile to keep that front and center when you’re working on your scholarship.
- Aiming for hitting all of your goals sets you up to fail and perpetuates self-punishment and shame. How? Because when you focus on what you didn’t do, that all-or-nothing thinking creates an incrementally punitive system in which you punish yourself for not hitting 100%, which makes you not want to try unless you know you can hit the 100%. What you want to do is create an incrementally rewarding system in which hitting, say, 50% makes you feel good, so you go back for the other 50%.
In the end, all of this background self-talk and ruminating that gets you to your scholarship (or doesn’t)—and this is another thing we know you already know—is YOUR voice. You’re the one saying this stuff. The voice you give yourself doesn’t have to be critical. It can be compassionate and forgiving.
What kind of internal voice do you think is ultimately the most motivating for you? Is the one you’re currently using the version that would serve you best? Is it the kind of voice you hope your best friend, your spouse, your kid uses for their own self-talk? If not, why is it okay for you?
This is your internal voice. You can command it to be stronger and love you more.
You’re the author of this dialogue. In the end, it’s the most important thing you’ll ever write. Give it the attention—the love—it deserves.