Thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.
November 17, 2012 11:08 AM   Subscribe

I feel like I'm trying to do too many things at once, all of them poorly. I also feel that I'm doing myself a big disservice by being in this situation. I feel like my life is in total disorder. I feel like I'm losing the race, to be honest. I'm afraid that the only way to win the race is to run faster, which I'm finding very difficult. Sordid details following.

I have a job that can take everything I throw at it and more. Most of what I do is new to me. This would be really cool if the stakes weren't as high. I find myself in scenarios like, "Nomyte, I don't have any graduate students that can do this, can you figure out this byzantine software that my project will be relying on for the next six months, oh, over the next two days?" Or, better, "Nomyte, can you figure out how to analyze these data so our research team can submit this conference abstract by the Friday deadline?"

I really don't like working without a net in an environment where mistakes mean costly setbacks. I get new tasks before I can finish old tasks. I am answerable to an ever-growing array of people. My remaining feelings for human cognitive research are disdain and loathing. (I do really like the technical aspects of the job.)

I am doing my best to get into grad school. I've been taking math classes essentially non-stop for the past three years, ever since I was hired by the university. This semester is my first graduate-level class. It's really, really hard to combine my job with graduate-level math. Classes are only offered during the day. I am late to class and late returning to work (it's a ten-minute drive each way). I turn in incomplete homework. We are assigned interesting problems, but solving them takes time, experimentation, and insight. Several times a week I stay up working on homework late into the night. Several days a week I have to come in to work early. Several days a week I end up staying at work late. I end up working two weekends each month, not to catch up, but because people actually expect me to be available to weekends. I am at work right now. I've spoken to my instructor about this, but it feels like I'm actively hurting my chances of getting into the program. My supervisor sympathizes with me and recommends making up late days and weekends with weekday comp time, but there's rarely opportunity for that. Since we're part of a public university, we really have to make do with the staff we have.

I try to keep up with basic exercise. I'll do a couple sessions of 100 Pushups, but then I'll have a string of days when I get by on 4-5 hours of sleep and can barely function. Sometimes I have time to cook, sometimes I don't. I often forget lunch. I barely read for pleasure anymore, and I can only keep up with Flash games. I'll start something and then be unable to come back to it for a week or more. I used to sketch. I want to sketch!

I try to make time for leisure, and I'm obviously on Metafilter right now. But whenever I take time off, I'm afraid I only slip further behind. If I'm watching a movie, I feel anxious about not working on homework, or reading textbooks, or figuring out new research equipment, or looking at grad schools. I don't have time to attend talks or formal training. Or, of course, I could be working on self-improvement projects, or that book translation that's been sitting on the back burner for the past six months, or, hey, I should've been planning to do independent research if I want to get anywhere. And laundry, gotta make time for laundry.

Is bedlam a big part of everyone's experience? My life is drab and I feel worn out. What steps can I take to make it better? How do I prioritize the pieces? This feels like one of those times when you have to work hard for a while and then it gets better, except it's been going on for years. I find myself getting jealous of the amount of time my graduate student housemates spend on leisure. I want a normal life, I want human relationships, I want personal fulfillment and financial security. I want my efforts to pay off. Help me get back on track and not get discouraged.
posted by Nomyte to Work & Money (9 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
First point, if work will take all you can give and more - You need to decide how much you will give, and don't give any more than that.

Second point - Grad school will still exist next year, five years from now, twenty years from now. Slow down your academic workload to one or two classes a semester (and if two, try taking one real class and one humanities course to balance out the mental load). Burning out won't help you.

Third, yes, everyone experiences what you describe to some degree - The world will always take everything you have to give and then keep asking; we all need to eventually learn how to throttle that to what we can afford to give.

Finally, sleep deprivation doesn't count as a viable long term strategy. Once in a while, it lets you get a bit more done; Two or more nights in a row, you end up getting less done overall and making more mistakes in the process.
posted by pla at 12:01 PM on November 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

I sounds like you need a schedule. Very firm and including all the time you spend on work, school, schoolwork, leisure, sleep etc. When given a task it either fits in or it does not get done. Who is ultimately your superior (clue: the person that can fire you), ask them to tell you your priorities and when someone else wants to jump the line they have to first get emailed (cc'd to you) permission. I hear you about the crazy, busy life, I have one too and a big part of my problem is setting up the boundaries around MY time. If your work was not encroaching so much your life would be busy but doable. You really need to be more assertive and push back, despite it being uncomfortable for you.
posted by saucysault at 12:07 PM on November 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

You might find this thread helpful. The initial question was about how to stay healthy and keep weight off while having an overpacked schedule, but a lot of the comments (including mine) are about getting to the root problem, which is that she has too many extra commitments to attend to her main priorities, which should be her own mental health, physical health, and family relationships.

It's OK to have your own needs that take priority over the extra work that you are being asked to do at your job. Yes, of course you need to do your job well--you're being paid to do it after all. But it's also perfectly acceptable to set a limit and say, "I will give X hours a week to this job and no more." If you are an hourly employee and are doing unpaid overtime, that needs to stop. If you are hourly and qualify for paid overtime, you need to have a limit for the amount of overtime you take on. If you are salaried, it is still OK to set a (maybe not hard, but firm) limit of hours per week. After all, when you're a salaried employee it doesn't mean you should be expected to do work every minute that you're not actually sleeping. And speaking of sleep, you are entitled to a decent night's sleep, too.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:56 PM on November 17, 2012

It is great that you are so conscientious about the work you do. What's not great: that it sounds like it is taking more out of you than 1) you have to give 2) you are getting out of it.

That clearly needs to change. You are sacrificing your school work, your chances and preparation for grad school? Why? So people who are further along in their careers than you can get what they want? That is awfully generous of you, too generous, apparently.

Here is the thing, if you don't do something about this now, it is going to be even worse in grad school, if you manage to get in. People, perhaps the same people, are going to want and expect help with their research. Before you know it, you'll be 6 years in and 3 years behind in your own research and even more worn down.

Start setting boundaries, now. At the very least, you need to push back enough to give yourself room to study properly for your classes and to cook, and eat, and exercise. You'd probably be well within your rights to push back further, but there are other ways for you to look out for yourself.

If someone wants you to do them a favor, then it is fair to start asking for favors in return. being available evenings and weekends? That's a big favor. Saving people from their unrealistic expectations and poor planning? That is a huge favor, and they need to start realizing it. So, what do you want in return? Great recommendations for undergrad fellowships or grad school? Feedback on your grad school application?

And really, the fact that this is a public university, or you believe in the research is no reason for you to let yourself be exploited. Start politely but firmly pushing back and negotiating and you may be surprised how much better things get.
posted by Good Brain at 4:58 PM on November 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

It honestly sounds like you have a bad job with bad supervisors. Working with people who don't have a clear idea of how long things take, or a basic respect for your time, is not good. If you want to go to grad school, you'll need recommendations. If you are working with someone who lacks respect for you and knowledge of what your task entails, then you risk not getting a good recommendation. If you're overworked and tired, you'll probably mess up eventually, and a supervisor who routinely underestimates your work demands will possibly blame you. It's a big risk to take. (Ask me how I know.)

I think the right answer here is some combination of:
- politely pushing back and negotiating (like Good Brain suggests above), especially w.r.t your schedule. keep careful records of your work hours if you want to make a strong case.
- looking for another job at the same time, framing it to potential new employers as, "Looking to get into this other line of work that is slightly different." You may not find one that meets your needs, but it's good to look.
- asking for leeway from the professor in the class you're taking, since you have a full time job. it's better to get some accommodation than to turn in late or incomplete work.

It's pretty normal to work like a serf/slave before getting into grad school. This sucks but it's time limited. You work hard in exchange for recommendation letters. I myself did it for 2.5 years. However, if you're so overworked that you are not performing at a level where you'll get good letters, then your hard work might be going to waste. It's important to find a supervisor who fully supports and respects you, and wants you to succeed in your own personal goals. That can make a big difference in getting into grad school.

Your job might work out fine, I'm just saying to consider cutting your losses if it's not the right job, to look at the bigger picture of where you want to be in 5 years.
posted by kellybird at 5:49 PM on November 17, 2012

Woah honey, you have this totally backwards. If you keep saying yes to these people, they will keep asking. You are Pavlov, and every time you say yes, you ring the bell.

Nomyte, I don't have any graduate students that can do this, can you figure out this byzantine software that my project will be relying on for the next six months, oh, over the next two days?

"Gosh, I don't think so. Maybe ask around again?"

Nomyte, can you figure out how to analyze these data so our research team can submit this conference abstract by the Friday deadline?

"Gosh, next time if you can give me more notice I'd love to be able to help. My week is fully committed."

It's a university. It has a cumulative IQ of twenty bazillion points. If you say no, there are other resources and other people to figure it out. You are carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders whilst missing the crucial, happy fact that you are just not that important. If you geot hit by a bus tomorrow, the world of work would carry on without you.

Instead of focusing on the horrible consequences you imagine, focus on strategies for saying No cheerfully. Also remember that you can throw everything you've got at this job, but in 10 years someone else will be doing it.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:39 PM on November 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

What steps can I take to make it better?
Well, you can use a calendar, and start scheduling your life. Plenty of people have non-negotiable scheduled items. Pick the kids up from day care sorts of things. Throw classes and commute time on there. Calendars are basically time budgets, and you should be using one to determine whether you're properly balancing your goals of financial stability, personal fulfillment and human relationships.

How do I prioritize the pieces?
Which pieces pay the dept the most? Which "clients" are you most eager to keep? They get top priority. The rest get what I call "best effort" service. Which is code for "we won't be losing sleep over this request." Ideally, you'd have a system in place to track requests, and your supervisor would have an idea of a) how many outstanding requests you have in total, and b) how long it will take for a new request to be serviced.

What your post ultimately comes down to is a question: if your lab replaced you with two techs working normal 40 hour work weeks, would the department be okay financially?

If no, then you're basically keeping this venture alive at the cost of your sanity, career, and sleep. Document carefully the hours you're putting in, and consider your hourly wage. Because walking should always be an option, and one you should consider since this uni venture isn't really viable long term.

If yes, then spending your sanity, career and sleep for no good reason! The budget cuts, hiring freezes, etc. can be worked around, but only by managers sufficiently versed in techniques common in the public sector. Things like saying no to urgent requests to jump the queue, and reminding people the consequences of closing down your operation. Your supervisor is probably busy dealing with other "fires", and you may need to put some pressure on management to ... inspire action on their part. Sympathy is free, after all.
posted by pwnguin at 1:17 AM on November 18, 2012

Reading your previous question, the only way you are going to be able to lead a happy balanced life is to put some hard boundaries down at work. Do not let yourself be taken advantage of. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that you are the "workplace savior" - the number of people whose workplace truly cannot do without them is vanishingly small. If you made a practice of saying "No, that won't be possible," putting down boundaries, and working reasonable hours, I will bet that your workplace will find a way to fill the gaps.

These people are taking cruel advantage of you and eventually your health will suffer. Do you want to have to drop out of grad school because you are ill? Do you want to have your health so permanently shot that you wind up only being able to work part-time or not at all, perhaps forever?

You must set boundaries at work. Everything else in your life will improve after that. The only reason for you not to set boundaries and stop allowing yourself to be used as indentured servant labor is if 1) your supervisor is likely to push back hard and make you twice as miserable and 2) losing this job means living under a bridge or kissing goodbye forever your chances at grad school.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 7:48 AM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

nth'ing boundaries. When people request work of you, flip to your schedule and say, hnmmm, "looks like I can get to it a week from Thursday". They understand that.

Here's Randy Pausch on time management:

"I am late to class and late returning to work (it's a ten-minute drive each way)." How's parking? Maybe bicycling would be faster? Time it, seat to seat. Maybe buy a beater bike you leave at work. If the weather's a problem... "there is no bad weather, only bad clothing".
posted by at at 7:35 AM on November 19, 2012

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