So many people turn me one way
So many people turn me to stay
Never time to have my mind meet up
Caught in a motion and I don't wanna stop.

The Whitest Boy Alive – Burning


To make a long and well-known story short, after months (years?) of taking on too much work on the name of not wasting an opportunity to do something interesting that matters, I flew back from a conference (one that happened over a week-end, and although I did not attend many talks this is probably quite telling) to find myself utterly unable to leave for the one I was supposed to head to the following morning.

I've had two weeks of leave, a few half-days of work, some vacation, and I am now slowly starting to work again before m Iore vacation. I have spent a lot of time cancelling things, not reading my email, and trying to figure shit out. In that spirit, I am collecting resources and pieces of advice I have gotten on how to manage your time as an academic, learn to say no to brilliant opportunities (and crap ones as well), and avoid burnout (possibly). Here they are, in a jumble, for me to reflect on and others to benefit from.

Understanding burnout

  • Did you slow down enough? Sometimes you think you have slowed down, but it turns out you have not – this is a bit what happened to me: I had already started saying no to so many things! Well, not enough, lady.
  • There seems to be a connection between burnout and impostor syndrome: feeling incompetent, worrying about it, and compensating for it are tiring. Ah, and also, women suffer from both more than men.

While on medical leave

  • Give yourself time. Permission to rest. Time to consider your options.
  • Email: When on leave, have an automatic email response that says you're on leave and will not be able to respond soon. Many problems will vanish on their own. If you're afraid your duties aren't being taken care of properly, or of missing out on a cheering-up personal email, have some trusted person sift through your email for you. Stop reading your work email.
  • Don't be ashamed. There' s nothing to be ashamed of. It's a classic, really. The moment I thought the word "burnout", I had 4 other academics, people I deeply respect as scientists and friends, coming to my mind as friends I could turn towards because they have been through this as well.
  • If you can, find a therapist who is an expert on work stress. They will help you figure out things about how you work in the long run. (Note to self: a therapist who think it "telling" that I am an only child, tells me way too much information about another patient of hers, and gives me – unprompted at that – the same useless bullshit about disordered eating as any issue of Cosmopolitan from the early 2000s is not an appropriate therapist.)
  • I've been told meditation helps. I think coloring, crocheting, doing super simple crosswords, or any other thing that helps you focusing on what you are doing and letting go of other thoughts are similarly helpful. I've also been told of apps that guide your breathing (such as Kardia) and well, I figure there isn't much to loose in trying one of them – worse case, you'll have, what, breathed?

Clearing out your schedule

  • Clearing out your schedule: When preparing to come back from leave, make a list of all your commitments, by chronological order. Mark those you absolutely want to do. Decline all others. Then think long and hard about whether you are absolutely sure you want to do the remaining ones. Be super selfish ­– are they important for you? Will they give you more energy, be uplifting? Or do you feel like a weight is lifting off your chest when you consider the possibility that this disappears from your todo list? Have a trusted person (or more), with a good idea of what every item entails, go through the list with you and ensure it looks reasonable.
  • Remember: Important and urgent are two different things.
  • Allow yourself to back out. The world won't end and no one will die if you back out of this one commitment. Classes can be canceled for one term. Keynotes can vanish from the conference schedule. Someone can replace you. Unless they're utter asshats, other faculty members will be happy to have a chat with your PhD students about their project. The paper can be submitted to another conference.
  • Read about how to back out gracefully from commitments you can no longer honor (see for example Maria Corleo or Fast Company).
  • Checkout the foolproof approach to saying no, and keep a list of a few sentences you can use to refuse invitations, such as "Thank you for thinking of me for this! I would love to do it, but my plate is full at the moment / I have a busy semester ahead."

Avoiding burnout or overcommitment

  • The "NO" committee is a group of 3 people who are close to you but not involved in your work and will help you evaluate any request for additional work. Without going that route, I suggest giving yourself time (a couple days at least) before saying yes. Do not say yes until you can list good reasons to accept. To figure out what a good reason is, imagine it's not you but a prone-to-overwork friend who is given this opportunity or request: would the reason convince you she should say yes?
  • Read Jo VanEvery on saying no. Keep the distinction between importance and emergency in mind, and take the time to define what is important.
  • List criteria to consider before accepting an invitation to give a talk or lecture / review a paper or an application / organize an event / contribute to a grant proposal. Mostly, what will I get out of it and how long will it take (including preparing slides, doing the paperwork for traveling, travel time, etc.)
  • Block time for personal research (reading, thinking, working out stuff, coding, running experiments) as well as self-care in your schedule. Treat this as any other set appointment that you cannot reschedule.
  • Sleep. Easier said than done, but if you need a reminder of why sleep is important, here's a Guardian article. Don't read it if you suffer from insomnia, because you do not need to feel guilty about not being able to sleep on top of everything else. Do tell your doctor you're not sleeping enough, though.
  • Avoiding the scourge that is email: No email before 12pm, or before you've done at least two things, or only at 10am and 4pm... Well, you get the idea: do not spend your day checking your email and reacting to any and every thing that comes your way. And no email at home / in the evening / at the weekend / when on vacation. Do you need to respond to all your email all the time? Read Melissa Fobos's Do you want to be known for your writing, or for your swift email responses?.