bad academics · best laid plans · having it all · saving my sanity · time crunch

Multitask? Or multipurpose?

I don’t know about you, but I seem to be getting busier every day. The more established I become in my field, my department, my university, and my community, the more my name seems to be top of mind when someone needs a paper reviewed or a chapter written, a committee seat filled, a report written, or a public talk delivered. People ask a lot more of me now than they did, say, when I landed here in Waterloo with a freshly-framed diploma and my excellent collection of ironic t-shirts. And yet, my time available seems to have dwindled significantly in the interim, just like that Astroboy shirt doesn’t quite seem to go over those yoga-powered deltoids and that pregnancy-‘enhanced’ belly roll.

That is, I have way more to do but seem to have less time to do it.

It’s a pickle, it is. Right now, for example, I’m sitting on my couch in my polar fleece pajamas, sipping gin and decompressing after my second public lecture of the week. Next week, I have an article draft due to a peer-reviewed journal, and soon after that, a deadline for my draft of one chapter of a writing handbook revision. I just handed in a SSHRC SRG grant, it seems.

I used to think I could do it all, if only I would be important enough for people to ask me to do it. I said yes to everything, to increase my profile and test my mettle. My mettle, it turns out, is not unlimited. I am, perforce, shifting my work philosophy from an ethic of multitasking to one of multipurposing.

Here’s how it works: Got a contract to revise a writing handbook? Angle to teach a first year course, then assign them the current version of the handbook. BOOM! It’s teaching, and it’s work on the revision, all at once. Scheduled to give two public talks on something about your research and teaching interests in two different towns two nights in a row? Give a thinly reworked version of the same damn talk (apologize profusely to the one graduate student who attends both events). Bonus points if the talk can use as one of its four case studies the survey results that form the backbone of that article that’s due … next week. Bonus bonus points if you’ve organized your grad class to have as its assigned readings material you need to complete this current research. All of this work should be drawing liberally from the literature review from the SSHRC SRG bibliography. Doing university service? Can it be on a web design committee that is great fodder for your digital design seminar?

I am so. frigging. busy. that it is a matter of some urgency, lately, try to wring the maximum amount of product from every research activity I undertake. Perhaps this is a ‘well, duh’ insight for you. Not for me. I used to think (ha!) that every talk, every class, every committee, every article had to be something new. I had this idea that it was somehow cheating to do otherwise, like how students are told not to submit the same paper in two different courses. For me, it’s only ever rarely the ‘same’ paper, but I have really needed to stop creating everything from absolute scratch for every occasion.

So now, I don’t multitask anymore. I multipurpose.

In that vein, if you want to know more about social media and privacy, why don’t you read this newspaper article? The writer wanted to talk to me about my ideas, but I handed him the paper copy of my lecture when it was over and told him to quote as liberally as he liked. No extra work for me, and, bonus! he quoted me exactly, from my own script. (God bless him, he’s made the whole presentation sound coherent, to boot.)

8 thoughts on “Multitask? Or multipurpose?

  1. Hi Dr. Identity — Great comment. Learning to say no to things is the next step in my plan for world domination. I do say yes to too many things, partly because I like to feel important (which is something I can hopefully learn to control, and which is my responsibility), and partly because in my department, I'm the only woman in the Rhetoric program, and so for diversity on committees? It's me, baby. (My colleagues are truly lovely people who realize how this works). And I'm part of the truly tiny cohort of digital media scholars and we are always in *high* demand. But you're right that if I say yes to anything, I'll never have an original thought again, let alone the wit to explore it in print.

    And I have heard of that 'only work on the same two authors strategy,' and like you, I find that unappealing. I don't mind sometimes repeating (tweaked) papers, because I do a lot of public outreach work, and it's only very rarely that the constituencies and audiences for my talks overlap. Academic work, I never repeat.

    I really love your notion of aiming to “delight and provoke”–I think I'm going to write that on a sticky note and attach it to the side of my screen when I write.


  2. This is a timely post. My guy and I were talking about the words “yes” and “no” last night. We acknowledged that part of establishing oneself – as a grad student, post-doc, and new hire – is saying “yes” to everything, but it becomes a nasty habit that's hard to break, especially as it does feed into one's need to be needed. But a senior (female) colleague just stopped by my office to congratulate me for saying “no” in a department meeting today, and revealed that other (female) colleagues have been talking about me, worried that I'm taking on too much and will burn out. I'm taking their, and your, and my husband's advice to heart, but perhaps the most usefull point here is that our colleagues are aware of how hard we work, and they don't want to see us kill ourselves over what is, ultimately, just a job. Perhaps if we see ourselves from their eyes, we can feel better about saying “no.”

    As an addendum, the only person who has not graciously accepted a “no” from me, is a male colleague (and in a circumstance where he really didn't need me on the committee). I'm not willing to extrapolate from a single instance, but I wonder if there is a gendered aspect to saying and accepting “yes” and “no.”


  3. Great points. And I agree about multi-purposing. Everything does not need to be created from scratch, and it probably won't be exactly the same twice. Thinking about the audience and what they really need (and what will be new and/or interesting to them) is probably the best way to think about that in terms of talks, papers, etc.

    Saying “no” is very important. I'm not even sure that saying yes all the time in graduate school is very helpful.

    Also, remembering that it is not your personal responsibility to meet the diversity requirements. If the university hasn't got enough women to meet its own diversity requirements on committees it should actually see that. There should be committees with no women, and demands for the situation to be redressed, without making the women that are around do more service than everyone else. (Same for other minorities.)


  4. Love this post, love the concept of multipurposing, love the conversation. However, I worry about “just say no” as a solution. (Apologies for riffing on this when I didn't get to read Dr Identity's initial comment, which is currently gone.)

    For one thing, a lot of these seemingly extraneous things are enormous sources of learning and development – terms which sound mannered in this context, but by which I mean: you learn how the university beyond your dep't works. You learn how to get things done. You learn how to negotiate, how to talk to the great unwashed and to the powerful. You learn how to do new things. You often find mentors that way, too.

    For another thing, the “around the edges” tasks (aka admin?) are often the source of institutional change. Do we really want to leave the status quo of recognition and reward unquestioned, while we beaver away on our sole-authored scholarship? Since when are WE not “the university” (JoVE's point)?

    I am not arguing for women to work themselves into the ground. But why couldn't we arrive at a common frame of reference for our service obligations and insist on being rewarded for that work? A common breakdown of professorial work is 40/40/20. 20% parses into one day a week – all year. By my rough calculation (be gentle! i'm an english professor!) that's something like 12 hours per week over the 8-month school year.

    If we really were working equitable loads (NB not “equal,” not “identical”) – maybe assistant profs s/do 40/50/10, maybe we look to full profs to do 30/30/40 – I'd feel much more comfortable with the “just say no” advice. And it relieves the burden of requiring junior colleagues, esp, to sort out what to say yes to and what to turn down.

    When I run the zoo … ! 🙂


  5. Woah! I just found this blog and it looks awesome!
    (Actually my sister found it and passed it to me with the quote “I am so. frigging. busy” and her question “sound familiar?

    Now I know it is not all about me, but I'll give you a run down of what I am up to (note, I'm in a coffee shop working and this is my 10 min break).

    Side note: Is it cruel that I am taking extreme comfort in finding our other people are “I am so. frigging. busy?”

    I teach elementary school almost full time (cue: report cards, parents, planning, etc etc.)
    I am also teaching a undergraduate class for the first time (cue: prep, assignment, marking etc, etc)
    and in my “free time” I am taking a grad course towards a Masters degree (cue seminars, papers, smart sounding discussions.

    Due this week:
    1. Critique and seminar (grad class) 2. Administer and mark final (teaching undegrad class) 3. Report cards and IPPs (elementary class)

    I look forward to reading your blog.
    AgirlCrushingLife (unless it crushes me first…)

    ..and back to work on the seminar…)


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