Friday, September 28, 2007

Levels of Busyness

Here is something I was thinking of on my walk today. There's not just one kind of "being busy." There are at least four levels of busyness. Before I define them, I need to define a few other key terms:

A "reasonable workweek" - In academia, this tends to be about 60 hours a week, but for some it may be more, and for others less, depending both on one's "work stamina" and one's "home demands."

"Work stamina" - How many hours per week you can put into work on a regular basis without risking burnout or other stress-induced health issues. This is a function of a combination of your overall psychological/emotional well-being, the healthiness of your work environment, the nature of the stresses of your work in relation to your own psychology, and the satisfaction you derive from your work.

"Home demands" - how much time and attention your family, friends, and home responsibilities require of you in order to function reasonably smoothly.

Level I: Busy Enough

At this level, about 80% of whatever you deem a reasonable workweek is spent on scheduled events (including classes and meetings) and deadline-driven tasks (including preparing for classes, grading student work, getting reports in, preparing conference proposals and papers, proofreading manuscripts, etc.). This gives you 20% for more proactive instead of reactive work: planning new projects (e.g., research projects or new courses); going above and beyond what is minimally expected (e.g., helping start a student club in your department, above and beyond merely keeping your student honorary society going).

Level II: Too Busy

100% of a reasonable workweek is spent on scheduled events and deadline-driven tasks. To do more requires exceeding what works for you as a reasonable workweek. Thus, it cuts in on home time, which may begin to erode your own well-being and/or create stress and tension in family relationships and friendships. Still, it is reasonable to expect that we can tolerate this level for short periods of time. But if work demands settle into this pattern for the long-term, we are tempted to begin to sacrifice the (formerly 20%) proactive kind of work in favor of well-being and relational harmony.

Level III: Way Too Busy

Scheduled events and deadline-driven tasks now require more than 100% of a reasonable workweek. Now it is impossible to complete the minimally necessary work tasks within what is for us a reasonable workweek, and so even with the sacrifice of the proactive kind of work, we must push our working hours higher. Again, we can sustain this for short periods, but if it becomes more long-term, our well-being, relationships, and ability to take care of other home responsibilities become seriously strained. The mildest form of this is when necessary work pushes just a little over 100% of a reasonable workweek. But the most severe form is when every waking hour is spent either on work or the minimum absolutely necessary home chores. But at this level, at least you are not required to cut back on sleep.

Level IV: Impossibly Busy

Like Level III, except that now you do have to cut back on sleep in order to keep up. While not technically "impossible," because this is something that we can do for short periods of time, it really is impossible to sustain for any length of time without seriously beginning to break down our health and well-being.

My life last spring was at the high end of Level III, breaking occasionally into Level IV. Wait, let me rephrase that last phrase: breaking as much into Level IV as I could tolerate.

Happily, my life this semester started off at Level II but last week actually settled back to Level I. It's picking up again, inching back to Level II -- which still feels refreshingly easy after last spring, so I'm not complaining. Most of my life here has been towards the high end of Level III during the academic year.

Also happily, I have pretty high "work stamina," because my work environment is pretty healthy overall (except for the constant pressure always to do more) and my satisfaction with most dimensions of my work is very high.

But still, Level I is "busy enough." And Level I is required as the norm if you want to have time to be proactive in your work: thinking creatively, initiating new projects, revising your courses, developing new courses, etc. Level I is required also to have a balanced and sustainable life, conducive to mental and physical health, and embedded in relationships that are mutually-supporting.

Now I have a goal. I aspire to Level I busyness. If I reach it, I want to live true to it unapologetically. I will try not to become seduced by (or infected by?) the competitive busyness game (or disease?) that my colleagues seem to engage in.

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