3 Ideas to Help You Relax

I’ll be taking next week off to rest, relax, and focus on personal development. 2020 has been one hell of a year. 

In contrast with most (former) academics I know, I’m definitely not a workaholic. Once I’ve put in my time for the day, I close the laptop and work is OVER. 

But if you need to relax and unwind, here are a few ideas to help you ease into 2021:

Headspace App:

So many people think that you need to be good at clearing your head to be good at meditating. Not true! All you have to do to be good at meditation is to show up consistently. That’s it! Even if you’re constantly pulling your attention from wandering thoughts back to your breath, you’re still doing it right. 

Dynamic Neural Retraining System:

A relatively simple set of mental exercises, Dynamic Neural Retraining can address a variety of puzzling symptoms associated with complex conditions. I tried this for about 6 months and am thinking about taking it up again. It helped diminish a number of food sensitivities. I also noticed a striking boost in my mood. A great way to unwind at the end of the day.

Our Planet and Night on Earth on Netflix:

I don’t care whether you like nature documentaries or not, these are must-sees. In times like these, it’s helpful to pull back and think about the bigger cosmic picture. These documentaries serve as potent reminders of how small we are in the grander scheme of things. 

Here’s to a better year ahead!

The Dog that Caught the Car: Defensive Pessimism and Preparatory Optimism in the Job Hunt

It’s a strange time to say this, but I’m learning to be an optimist. 

I’ve always considered myself a defensive pessimist. When I was an academic preparing to make an argument in a paper or presentation, I would go through it and try to poke holes in it in order to strengthen it. When pulling together an application, I tried to identify and remedy all the reasons why it might be rejected.

This strategy served me well. By envisioning the ways in which x, y, or z might not work, I was able to more thoroughly prepare, which helped me succeed.

This approach has worked less well outside academia.

I had an informational interview a few months back that went better than expected. As anyone will tell you, the golden rule of informational interviews is “Don’t ask for a job!”. I had internalized this rule to such a degree that I stumbled once when (I think) my interviewee said, “You should come out and work with us!” 

I was the proverbial dog who caught the car. 

What I wished I had said was, “I don’t know if you’re serious or if you mean I should come out to x city or y industry, but, if you’re asking whether I’d be interested in working with you at your company, I absolutely would be.”

To this day, I don’t know whether this person was opening up a potential job offer to me or if they were simply suggesting that there were opportunities where they lived or in their industry. Maybe there was a way to reach out and ask, but I couldn’t quite find the words for an appropriate followup. I don’t remember exactly how I responded; I just remembered stumbling over my words. 

I made the mistake of not being optimistic. 

I did better recently when an informational interview turned into a prospective ghostwriting job. Ghostwriting is high on my list of dream jobs. I love longform writing. I love figuring out issues like structure, style, voice, audience, etc. 

In the interview, my interviewee half-jokingly asked if I would like to write a book. I responded that I didn’t know if they were serious, but that, yes, I would definitely like to write a book. 

The project may come to fruition and the conversation went well. I had learned my lesson, but maybe I could have learned it even better. What if I had prepared for an unexpectedly good outcome? Perhaps I would have developed a stock plan for writing a book, my typical budget and schedule, etc. Perhaps I would have read up on communicating with potential clients in order to finesse my style of communication. 

I say this not to rake myself over the coals (I reserve that for those 2am moments of insomnia). Rather, I think it’s important to learn from the past and adapt to new conditions.

There is, to be sure, a place for optimism and pessimism. But, perhaps in these dark days, we all ought to invest just a little bit extra psychic energy towards envisioning the best possible outcomes so that we can capitalize on them when they unexpectedly arrive. 

I’m Not Going to Do It: Leveling Up in Getting Things Done

Making a career transition during a pandemic and economic recession while managing a chronic illness is no small feat. 

To wrangle this beast, over the summer, I read David Allen’s personal/professional productivity classic Getting Things Done (GTD, for short) and implemented his system using Nirvana.

GTD proceeds from the premise that your brain is for having ideas, not for holding them. By getting all your commitments to yourself and others into a reliable, regularly updated system, you become less stressed, more efficacious, and more creative. 

Learning and practicing GTD is a process. You get better at it over time. And that’s just what happened last week: I leveled up. 

A number of tasks and projects have lingered in my system for months. In and of itself, that isn’t a problem (in a few months, you better believe that I’m going to update my wardrobe, for example). 

But I’ve recently accepted the truth that I’m simply not going to do some projects. To be more specific, I’m releasing myself from my commitment to myself to do them, for the foreseeable future.

Interrupt my job hunt to spend a week editing and producing the unreleased episodes of the academic podcast I used to host? Nope, not going to do it. 

Make a series of comedic videos to showcase my scriptwriting talent and develop my video editing chops? Uh-uh. No.

Design a relative’s website so I can add Squarespace to the web design platforms I know? That’s a big ole nope.

I’m not going to do these things.

None are bad ideas. In fact, they’re potentially pretty good ideas.

Podcast episodes that help subject matter experts convey their insights to a general audience? Sure, good idea. 

Would it be great to know how to produce video and write scripts? Absolutely. 

Would it be helpful to learn Squarespace? Yes. 

All these projects and tasks would benefit me. There’s a case for leaving them in the category of “Someday/Maybe” in GTD. 

But I decided not to.

It’s not that I’m deciding not to do them: I’m recognizing that I’m not going to do them, I’m accepting the truth that I’m not going to do them.

As an ambitious person with a strong work ethic, I’ve spent years, if not decades, bumping up against my own human limitations. 

But, simply put, I can choose to live in a fantasy of endless time and energy or accept reality on reality’s terms (as Dr. Drew would say). 

My past and recent experience leads me to believe that the latter is superior to the former.

Rather than being in denial or aspiring to what is beyond my personal capacity, I’m accepting my limitations and ruthlessly prioritizing within them. I have 3-5 hours each working day given the complexity of recent tasks and the higher-level strategizing they require. This might change as some things become more routine, but, for the time being, this is the window I have.

It’s been incredibly energizing to focus on a substantial, but not unrealistic, number of tasks that are highly likely to advance me towards my goals. 

By tracking your accomplishments and reviewing your system each week, practicing GTD helps you be realistic about what you can accomplish and what you possibly will do, not what you should do.

Shifting from “should-thinking” to “will-thinking” means that I’m aggressively focused on those tasks I believe will give me the biggest bang for my buck, so to speak. 

Making this shift has unlocked a fountain of energy and focus as I see bigger, more substantive results from my actions each day and more concrete movement towards my goals. Sure, I have to combat all the “should” voices in my head, but I can take comfort in the substantive nature of my gains. Each day is a targeted strike. I’m not doggy-paddling forwards: I’m executing stroke after calibrated stroke towards my goals.

The Value of Going Down

These are stressful times for many of us. An election, a pandemic, an economic recession, and now the winter blues are beginning to set in, at least for me here in Michigan. On top of this, I struggle with a chronic illness called POTS (postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome), that I generally manage well, but can certainly take me down at times.

And that is just what happened early in November. I went DOWN.

Since around August, I’ve almost completely dedicated myself to transitioning out of academia. At the advice of a friend, however, I did pull together an application for an academic fellowship that was significantly less competitive than others (around 30% of applications received funding).

As anyone who works on these applications knows, they can be incredibly time-consuming: my conservative estimate is that this took at least 3 full weeks of work.

When I was nearly ready to submit, my sponsor pointed out a glaring problem: I was applying to the fellowship in order to turn my application into a book, which was prohibited by the foundation.

The wind went right out of my sails. Sunk costs, don’t look back, I know, I know, but still. My last chance at the career I had devoted 10 years to and one of my last chances to receive the support I needed to complete my book went, “Poof!” Gone.

On top of this, I began to have some pretty severe functional difficulties owing to POTS.

Dietary sensitivities often occur with POTS. I have found that I can tolerate certain amounts of foods, but that, if I eat them too often, the cumulative effect can insidiously grow and ultimately become incapacitating.  

This happened right around the time that the fellowship fell through. Which was also the time of the election.

Would the election function in a pandemic? To what lengths might Donald Trump go to stay in power? Would the Pennsylvania legislature overturn the will of the majority of voters in their state? Just how much domestic terrorism and violent voter suppression might take place?

Fortunately, my worst fears turned out to be unfounded. We had a safe and secure election with the highest voter turnout in history. But, boy, was I distracted for a week or so.

Still, I would get up each day, caffeinate, sit down to work, and… nothing. Or rather, next to nothing.

In retrospect, that is *exactly* what I should have done: nothing.

A few days after I hit the wall, I talked to a wise friend who encouraged me to take it easy for a few days to recover. A flight attendant, she had a more worldly view of the work ethic that predominates in American culture. She too had some chronic health issues and noted just how much she would bounce back after a couple days’ rest.

Although taking a few warranted days off to physically and psychologically recover while distracted by the election would have been an indulgence, I’m convinced I would have been ultimately *more* productive that week. Yet the very fact that it would have been an indulgence kept me from doing it.

So I say this as much to you as to myself: don’t be afraid to take the easy way out sometimes. Sometimes the path of least resistance is also the most expedient. Sometimes the quickest way to get up is to let yourself go down.