Tips from the NCFDD Monday Motivator: August edition

by Chava Nerenberg, Graduate Programming Assistant
Monday, August 02, 2021 7:00 AM


Are you feeling like you just can't get anything done with everything that has been going on recently? Read on for an article from the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD), an independent professional development, training, and mentoring community of over 71,000 graduate students, postdocs, and faculty members. 

To take advantage of this amazing resource (free for UCSB students!), you must register with your UCSB account (see how to register here). Once you register, you are automatically subscribed to the Monday Motivator -- your weekly dose of positive energy and actionable steps to increase your productivity and motivation. This week's Monday motivator focuses on strategies to help you recalibrate your standards this summer.

Monday, July 19, 2021
Recalibrate Those Standards

by Kerry Ann Rockquemore, PhD and Anthony Ocampo, PhD

As academics, we are so used to holding astronomically high standards for ourselves. So many of us pride ourselves on being perfectionists. But if there’s anything this year has taught us, it’s that we must exhibit more grace, especially to ourselves.

Let’s do something interactive. Raise your hand if you’ve:

  • Missed a meeting.
  • Avoided writing that manuscript draft.
  • Ate fast food for every meal.
  • Totally forgotten to eat all day.
  • Been short with your partner and/or kid.
  • Had the hardest time on earth getting out of bed.
  • Avoided cleaning the house.
  • Spent all your time just cleaning the house.
  • Forgotten a deadline for some article or grant because you spent the day binging Netflix.
  • Forgotten to respond to an email.
  • Felt like you’ve been letting your family, friends, or community down.
  • Felt like you're failing—at everything.

Is your arm getting sore yet? Yeah, us too.

We know academics really well. Even before the pandemic, we noticed a pattern among the faculty we encountered. When academics feel like they’re failing, their go-to response is to double down on work. Tell us if any of this sounds familiar:

  • “I told myself that I’d have two chapters of my book done by July, and it hasn't happened, so let me try to get four chapters done by September.”
  • “My teaching evals weren’t the best last spring. I know there is a global pandemic and all, but I better spend twice as long preparing for the fall semester.”
  • “My university, for once, is addressing racism on campus, so I better make sure I’m on the diversity and inclusion committees at both the college and university level. Heck, since I’m doing the work at my university, it won’t be much harder to do that work for my discipline’s professional association too.”

In short, when academics feel like they’re losing control, they try to do everything in their power to over-control situations, both in their professional and personal lives. Please believe, we are guilty of doing this ourselves.

For this Monday Motivator, we offer a strategy that for some might sound counterintuitive: Lower your standards. We know that academics tend to be high achievers, but we are still surprised to find that so many faculty—even in the middle of a global pandemic—are holding on to unrealistically high expectations. Obviously, we always want you to dream big, but setting unrealistically high expectations for yourself can become a recipe for anxiety and avoidance. For example, we want you to write that book manuscript you’ve always dreamed about, but telling yourself it’s going to get written in six months is probably unrealistic. On the teaching front, we’ve chatted with faculty who are planning a hybrid version of their courses for the very first time in their careers (like really planning as opposed to triaging).

We hear their worries about trying to get the class to be perfect on their first try when the reality is that teaching a course takes more than a few iterations to get right. We know there are probably some of you thinking that when we say “lower your standards” we are encouraging people to be lazy. Au contraire. Lowering your standards, at its heart, is about recalibration: setting modest goals that you can consistently hit—so that you can build the momentum you need to move forward with whatever project you’re working on.

If you're reading this column, you’re probably someone that prides themselves on the ability to go above and beyond the call of duty. In fact, there are some of you for whom going above and beyond the call of duty is your default. A lot of times, these expectations are often anchored in a certain belief about who we should be, how we should feel, what we should write, and the impact our work should have in the world. Unfortunately, we’ve seen too many of our beloved colleagues grind so hard in their attempts to be super-professors that they end up burning out.

If you’re having trouble with the idea of lowering (or recalibrating) your standards, here are some strategies to get you started:

Rethink Your Career As A Book With Many Chapters 

Find a half-hour this week to journal about your career from a bird’s eye perspective. Instead of feeling like you have to do everything in your career now, imagine how your career could unfold literally like a book with many chapters. Think of each chapter as a five-year span of time where just one type of activity is front and center. For example, a lot of junior faculty might see their book manuscript, a series of articles, and/or a major grant to be the anchoring goal for this stage in their careers. Let yourself imagine a different set of goals for the next stage of your career, whether that’s becoming a public intellectual, creating organizational change at your institution, inaugurating a center, untethering your identity from your work in favor of other interests. Of course, you’re not bound to whatever you end up journaling about, but the point is to get yourself in the habit of seeing your career as a marathon as opposed to a sprint. 

Develop A Metaphor To Understand Your Writing Process

Whenever our standards get way too high (e.g., trying to write an entire article in a weekend, trying to get through 200 pages of book edits within the next 48 hours, trying to include a hundred major research studies in an undergraduate course on the sociology of race and ethnicity), we turn to metaphors. There are a variety of different metaphors that get us to slow down.

The sculpture metaphor. Sometimes when we are working on a first draft, we engage in a whole lot of self-editing (i.e., typing a sentence, deleting it, typing an ever so slightly different version of that same sentence, fiddling with the words, deleting it, rinse and repeat for three hours). Whenever we do this, we pause and tell ourselves: Look, you are just trying to get the shape of this sculpture right first. You can focus on the intricate details later!

The marathon metaphor. Other times, we find ourselves trying to want to write like thousands of words in a matter of a day. There have definitely been times earlier in our careers when this binge model worked. Here’s the problem, writing thousands of words in a day may work for one day, or maybe even three days, but it definitely is not sustainable, especially at this moment. Whenever we find ourselves trying to grind too hard, we ask ourselves, How would you feel if you ran a marathon today? And then tomorrow? And then again the next day? This is when we are able to finally convince ourselves to slow it down and mix it up. Not every writing day should feel like race day.

By the way, neither of us is a sculptor or a marathon runner. But you know what? The analogies manage to get us to slow down. We know you’ve got your own version of a metaphor that’ll get you to hit the right pace with your writing.

Experiment With Lowering Your Expectations

One of the homework assignments that scholars do for the Faculty Success Program is to lower one of their standards every day for a week. It’s amazing what happens when our overachievers in the room experiment with intentionally lowering their standards each day. First, they hate it. And then they hate us for suggesting it. But then something funny happens. They encounter some major challenge and realize that it is easier to muscle through a lowered standard than a high standard (writing just 30 minutes instead of 2 hours). Because they were able to muscle through on that difficult day, they don’t end up spending time beating themselves up for not meeting an unrealistically high expectation.

A personal story. Three years ago, Anthony was on the way to a conference, where he was slated to give two presentations and meet with several scholars about some collaboration opportunities. On the way to the airport, he gets a call from his doctor saying he had a blood infection and had to head straight to the ER, where he ended up having surgery hours later. It was scary, and obviously, he was in no condition to travel or have meetings of any sort. In fact, he ended up canceling an entire week of class and pre-recording lectures for another week. And guess what? Nothing happened. The conference continued on without him. The collaboration opportunities were postponed for a few months. The students got through the material (albeit imperfectly). And he spent a few weeks concentrating on his physical recovery at home. In other words, his career didn’t implode.

We thought this story would be worth sharing because we’ve met so many faculty who truly believe that they can’t lower their standards on anything. And that’s just not empirically true. For Anthony, it took a health emergency to realize that, and his hope is that folks can arrive at this same lesson without learning it the hard way.

Our Weekly Encouragement

This week, we encourage you to do the following: 

  • Write every day for at least 30 minutes.
  • If you find yourself procrastinating or avoiding your writing, ask yourself: How can I recalibrate my writing task for the day? Can I try setting a modest goal (e.g., writing 100 words, making a list of 10 key points, writing for 15 minutes) just to get me to stop avoiding the writing?
  • If your resistance to writing is driven by unrealistically high standards, try journaling about your career as a book with many chapters or developing a metaphor for your writing.
  • Lower one standard each day this week and see what happens.

We know how scary it is to recalibrate your standards, especially because so many of us are tethered to that high-achieving version of ourselves. We hope this week brings you a spirit of curiosity about your writing habits, a willingness to try new techniques, and the increased engagement that comes with spending time each day with your summer writing project.