And a Happy (and Healthy) New Year

Academia is certainly not a profession known for the healthy habits it induces. After all, academics spend a good portion of their time inside behind a desk. They spend long hours staring a computer screens, reading books and articles, grading essays, and attempting to decipher student writing. Meals are sometimes quickly procured and consumed in-between classes, office hours, grading, and research, meaning that the vending machine has probably served as the selection for fine dining on more than one occasion. All of this is topped off with countless student questions, department expectations, committee obligations, professional deadlines, and, oh yeah, personal lives.

However rewarding it may be, academia can also be a stressful, tiring, semi-depressing, and even isolating profession. Heck, when I was a TA, our offices didn’t even have windows. I would go HOURS without ever seeing natural light or catching a glimpse of what the weather conditions were like outside. I ate meals straight out of the vending machine more times than I would really like to admit, and I was a solid ball of stress, anxiety, and borderline depression for the vast majority of my time in the program. The most notable exercise  I got, except for the rare occasions that I ventured across campus to the faculty dining hall, was my countless trips between my office and the copier room down the hall. Now that I’m an adjunct instructor, I am slightly less overwhelmed and in an office with several windows for optimal weather viewing, but I still find myself constantly consumed with stress, anxiety, and unhealthy habits.

I’ve decided that I’m going to try to NOT live this way next semester, especially since this next semester also marks the start of a new calendar year. I’m going to try to do small things to live a healthier and happier life within the unique constraints of the academic lifestyle. Whether you’re an academic or not, maybe there are some things that you might want to try too! Here’s my starting list of ideas and recommendations for tackling 2017:

  • Do some writing that isn’t for work. This could be fiction, poetry, stream-of-consciousness mental wanderings, journaling, diary-keeping, letters to loved ones…the list could go on and on. You can certainly write about work (by which I mean vent about work through writing), but this shouldn’t be writing for work. No assignments, no articles, no conference papers, no book proposals, nothing with a deadline and/or a professional purpose. This is writing for you and you alone. While I do all sorts of writing, one of my main things is that I consistently keep several journals at once…a teaching journal, a health/fitness journal, and a general life journal. Writing about these different areas helps me to reflect on them and gives me dedicated personal time to just think about and write for myself.
  • Make time for exercise. And by that I mean real exercise, not “I’ve walked to the copier and to the mailbox so many times today” exercise. Not only does exercise contribute to overall fitness and wellbeing, but experts often note how exercise can be a great stress reliever. The beauty about this is that, if you’re used to pretty much zero exercise, there’s no wrong way to start exercising. Experiment with different methods and styles to see what works the best for you. This is something I personally really need to work on; I’m going to try to get back into yoga because I love how yoga offers exercise and meditation all in one.
  • Strive for three healthy, balanced meals a day. Teaching 8 AM classes makes it difficult to wake up and get breakfast in before reporting to the classroom. Especially for adjunct instructors, teaching several classes across different campuses within a single day often means that lunch isn’t until late in the afternoon. Otherwise, “lunch” ends up being fast food hurriedly consumed in the car, or a “meal” slapped together out of vending machine food. Not only does this pattern have the potential to make for some hangry faculty, but not eating nutritious foods at regular intervals can lead to headaches, mental fogginess, hair and skin problems, and a weakened immune system. This is something else I really struggle with, so I definitely need to work on this in the coming year.    
  •  Join a writing group (or start one). Writing groups are nothing short of the best thing ever. I have been in graduate student and faculty writing groups and have found them to have countless benefits. Basically, a group of individuals gather together (usually at a coffee shop) for dedicated work time. At the start of the session, those present talk briefly about what they’re working on, and then a timer is set. While the timer is on, the members cannot get up from the table, talk to each other, get on Facebook, check their phones, grade papers, or do anything that isn’t directly writing related. When the timer goes off, then the members can discuss their progress, share bits of their writing with others, and ask questions. While they may not always be as regimented as what I’ve laid out here, writing groups are a great way to establish a sense of community among peers, give individuals dedicated work time, and make everyone accountable for getting something done. I honestly don’t think I would have done as well as I did in graduate school without writing group, and it has been a practice I have continued regularly as an adjunct.
  • Spend time with others who understand what you’re going through. Going along with the benefits of writing groups is spending time with your peers outside of your offices and department meetings. Your fellow academics are enduring the same things that you are. They, too, are negotiating busy schedules, conflicts between their personal and professional lives, teaching and grading woes, and the ever-present dread of deadlines. Basically, these guys and gals get you. So spend time with them. I use faculty writing group for this purpose, but I also try to stay in touch with members of my TA cohort. Even though several of my TA friends (including my boyfriend) are not currently in academic jobs, they’ve been there and done that. Establishing relationships with others in your department is an invaluable resource for advice, ideas, a shoulder to cry on, and a place to vent.   
  • Invest in an essential oil diffuser. One of my TA friends is a huge advocate for and user of essential oils. She has a small diffuser in her office and always has some sort of fantastic blend running if she’s in there. When I was still in the program, her office quickly became the popular spot to hang out because it always smelled so good, and we all just felt different breathing in that air. I became super interested in getting a diffuser for myself, and this Christmas I finally got one. While I haven’t purchased a full set of oils yet and am still perfecting blends of the oils I do have, there has been a noticeable difference in the way I feel when I’m diffusing oils. I highly recommend that every academic considers getting an essential oil diffuser, whether for work or for home.
  • Create the perfect playlist(s). Music can have a great influence on mood. Spend time perfecting a playlist for different situations. Find an upbeat, motivating mix to help push your workouts to the next level. Put together music for grading and writing. Create a refreshing, relaxing mix for when you are unwinding at home. Think of what music you might even bring into the classroom for writing days and workshops.
  • Reorganize/redecorate your personal spaces. Especially at mid-terms and finals, being in academia can make you feel like you’ve lost control at times. While you might have little to no influence over university regulations, department expectations, student learning outcomes, and grade submission dates, you do have control over your own personal spaces. Use stylish containers to reorganize your supplies, or invest in some new décor for your office walls. As a TA, I found that my office was a much more welcoming work space when I cleared former TAs’ stuff out of my bookshelves, bought cute storage for my office supplies, and hung up meaningful artwork on the walls. I even brought in Christmas lights at the holidays. This helped make my corner of a shared office feel more like mine and more like home, and not having this opportunity now is one of the things I dislike most about being an adjunct; I don’t have any personal space to make my own. If you have already personalized your office to the max or are not allowed to make these kinds of adjustments, then consider doing something at home. Move your furniture around, buy new bedding, paint a room…just make some kind of change to reinvigorate your living space and renew your sense of self.
  • Remember to let yourself break down once in a while. It is okay to cry. It is okay to have a complete meltdown. These are natural consequences of working in a stressful environment. The key is not to let these moments of overwhelming emotion take over your life. Allow yourself to break down once in a while, but, when the breakdown is over, let it just be over. Instead of helplessly thinking how you will never get everything done or will never be able to fix the problem you’re facing, take a deep breath and start thinking of an action plan. In my academic life, there have been plenty of meltdowns and freak-outs where I was convinced I would never make it all happen. But, spoiler alert, it always came together in the end. I always made it happen. Going forward, I want to try to remember this. No matter how lost and overwhelmed I feel, I need to take a moment to collect myself and then push on forward.

So there you have it. Some of these are things I already do that I would like to continue, some of these are things that I know I need to try to do more, and some are things that I’ve been neglecting completely up until this point. If I incorporate all of these things into my life, I am convinced that I can live a happier, healthier, and more productive life in 2017. Maybe a few of these ideas can help some of you in the new year as well!

Do you have any of your own ideas and suggestions for staying sane in academia in 2017?  Or just living a better life in general? If so, please feel free to share them in a comment!

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