Thursday, August 28, 2014
“It is music and dancing that make me at peace with the world.” ― Nelson Mandela
My father was hiking in Mammoth Lakes with his wife, their 5-year-old daughter, and one of his cross-country runners last month when he unexpectedly had a heart attack and died. He was 75 years old and still went to work six days a week, eleven months a year. He had just arrived for a high altitude training camp for his runners. It was his favorite week of the year in a job he loved.
The only thing he loved more than coaching was his family. Thus, at the age of twenty, when he had his first of seven children, he began a lifetime tradition of packing up our entire family (and often a couple of neighborhood friends), driving us to the 405, and asking, “North or South, East or West?” We never knew at the beginning of these month-long vacations whether we would wind up in the Canadian Rockies, a Kansas farm belonging to a third cousin, or the White House. These summer journeys became our sacred time--a time to rejuvenate, reflect, and cocoon as a family, away from work and school.
When I learned of my father’s death, I was in the midst of one of these sojourns with my older sister and our two families. We had just arrived in Ireland for a work-free week of family vacation. Somehow I had managed to complicate my first two weeks away from campus with two law conferences, a grant application, the presentation of two papers, and several professional meetings with potential collaborators. Needless to say, I am no John Binford.
Returning to campus three days after my father’s burial, I immediately threw myself headlong into work—focusing on meeting the end of summer writing deadlines, and preparing to survive the late August tsunami of students and clients and committees. I became friends with midnight and a stranger to my children.
Transitioning from work to sleep one early morning, I read the following article in Times Higher Education (“THE”) on the link between relaxation and work, which reminded me that working longer hours can often compromise productivity, not increase it. It brought to mind a New York Times essay I read last year that cited similar research. Somehow between infancy and high school, I became caught up in America's "Busy Trap," and here in mid-life, I have still not learned to break free. Was this busy-ness compromising my productivity as a professor? Did it make me a poor role model for my students? Was I missing out on motherhood because I mistakenly thought that working 14 hours a day would make me more successful or helpful to those in need or a better provider or whatever it is that is driving me?
What would happen if we stepped back and experimented with some new approaches to productivity, such as those suggested in this Forbes article? What if we set aside three hours a day, away from our students and family and clients and colleagues just to write, and broke those hours into 90-minute blocks? What if we made it a priority to sleep at least eight hours a night? Should we turn off email for hours at a time as suggested in this New York Times op-ed? What if we silenced all notifications when we wanted to think or needed to meet with people? Could we stop sleeping with our iPhones next to us? Better yet, what if we declared our time away from work a digital-free zone? Would that make us smarter, more present, productive, efficient, relaxed? Is it possible to be at peace with not at least trying to answer every email every day? Would it possibly make us more professional to manage our time and communications more proactively, rather than go through life with an “Always Open” neon sign across our chests? Maybe my dad was right about the sanctity of summer vacations. Should we, could we stop trying to work on vacation? According to NPR, adults need recess, too. What about dancing and singing and loving? Will these make us better teachers, scholars, attorneys, people? Maybe we should find out.
Care to dance with me this semester?