As a result of the pandemic, the working-from-home paradigm has transformed not just the work day but the work week. Thrilled that I could avoid the commute and work from the comfort of my home, I was perhaps overly enthusiastic in opening up my calendar for work related meetings and activities. I knew that students often worked on assignments over the weekend, and I encouraged them to reach out to me for real-time help. Quite often, I would be working on something and get a message on MS Teams from a student who needed help, and would drop everything to do a video call with the student so he or she could share their screen and we could work through their problems. Since I have a habit of working late into the night, students would see that I was on Teams at 11 pm and would reach out at such late hours. Some of them were hesitant to do so, and often apologized for speaking to me at such a late hour, but I put their minds at ease, making it look like this was no problem at all. Somehow, without realizing it, I had become on-call 24/7. Creating such unrealistic standards for myself, I ended up working more than 12 hours every day, including both days of the weekend. It had become such a routine for me that I didn’t even notice what was going on. While I’m not against being productive and dedicated, the work was weighing down on me and keeping me from doing other things. Although my particular context might be unique, it is not uncommon these days to hear that people feel pressure to be available 24/7, that meetings are scheduled at all hours of the day, especially if you work across time zones, with an unspoken expectation that everyone should be able to attend. Responding immediately to MS Teams messages and email sets up an unrealistic expectation not only for the sender, but for the receiver as well. Yes, some messages might be urgent, but treating every message with that urgency makes you lose sight of priorities, and this flattening of priorities leads to bad decision-making
I will provide some context on how all this came about. Your situation will likely be different, but you can probably draw some parallels. I started teaching in the computer science program at a small private engineering school with a long-standing reputation for rigor, quality and a strong focus on the students. I had prior teaching experience, and had been recognized for excellence in teaching through a number of awards. However, the new job was different in two important ways. One, the domain area of teaching was different- I am a computer engineer and was now teaching computer science. This might not seem like a big distinction, but with limited experience in object-oriented programming and a gap from any kind of programming for several years, it was quite a challenge to teach 6 courses in my first year out of which 5 were programming-intensive. The second important distinction is that my current institution is a small predominantly undergraduate school with a mission that is centered around student success. As a result, the expectation from faculty is that they dedicate a majority of their time towards fulfilling this mission of student success. As most of my colleagues had been around for a while, they were not only much more familiar with the coursework, but had worked out how to be committed to the students without skewing the work-life balance towards all work and no life. I somehow missed the last point, and inadvertently started comparing myself with my colleagues in terms of how useful I was to the students. While it is good to have benchmarks, what I subconsciously did was to take each of my colleagues’ strengths and tried to push myself to achieve those targets. For example, if one of my colleagues provided detailed feedback to the students on each lab assignment within 24 hours, I thought that I should do that too. If another created incredible high-quality videos, I believed that I must do that as well. While it is good to make note of what one can aspire to become, it takes a while to get there, and it is important to prioritize things based on your strengths and your teaching philosophy.
It was only recently, when I had to make time for a conference and had to tell my students that I would be unavailable all of Friday and all of Saturday that I realized what I had been up to. The fact that 4 out of my 6 half-hour slots on Sunday (yes, I somehow thought that holding office hours on Sunday was a good idea) had been booked by students further brought home the realization that I needed to recreate a balance in my life. It was quite a relief for me to see that being ‘away’ for two days didn’t make the world stop. And even though I did some grading and attended the conference for a few hours on both days, I turned away most of the students who reached out to me during those two days, telling them that I was off until Sunday. Just telling the students that I was off was such a liberating feeling, that I smiled to myself as I wrote those messages. When you get joy from blowing off something that you love to do, you know that you’ve gone wrong somewhere along the way! By setting such high standards, and trying to achieve them as all costs, I have not only done myself a disservice, but I have also created unrealistic expectations among my students, ignored my family life and set a bad example for others to follow.
So what steps am I taking or planning to take?
To start with, I am going to take one day off every week, which will give me the confidence to even attempt to take both Saturday and Sunday off. This seems like an obvious thing, since traditionally, the work week tends to be 5 or 6 days in most cultures and countries. However, working from home has blended work with home life in some strange ways, and the additional pressures we put on ourselves makes us forget that society has created these breaks for us for a reason. By setting Saturday to be off, I want to make sure that I don’t treat it as my safety day for getting to work tasks that might not get done by Friday. It is going to be strictly off from now on. And hopefully, next term, both Saturday and Sunday will be off.
Secondly, I need to figure out where I can be more efficient. I generally tend to do things slowly. If grading a lab takes my colleagues 4 hours, it will take me 8. While I cannot increase my skill and intelligence overnight, I can certainly look at where I’m spending my time and then map that to how it benefits the students. This will help me focus my efforts on the things that are most beneficial to students, and make me feel less guilty about lowering my standards on the things that have the least impact on the students. The longer you teach a course, the easier it is to teach, grade, and determine what works and what doesn’t. Thus, some of the efficiencies will automatically kick in as I teach the same courses again. However, being conscious about it will help.
Thirdly, I think I can be kinder to myself and set somewhat lower expectations. Writing the previous sentence made me uneasy, and that is exactly what I need to get over. I have several years of teaching experience, and during all those years, I have always prioritized the needs of the students. By relaxing my standards a little, I am not in any danger of becoming a terrible instructor- there is a lot of room there, especially if I do a good job with the previous point about being judicious in choosing what is important and what isn’t in relation to student success.
Without going into more details, I will lend with a a short list of some steps all of us can take:
- Tell yourself that it is ok to say no to something someone is asking you to do.
- Make realistic goals. Aiming too high is just setting up for failure.
- Enjoy your free time. Pursue your hobbies with passion, and don’t let work pressures weigh you down during your personal time.
- Budget enough time for sleep, and sleep well.
- Work-life-balance is a misleading term. There is no work without life.
Associate Director, IUCEE
Professor, Computer Science, Milwaukee School of Engineering
The author appreciates feedback from Sheetal Sohoni and Derek Riley on the initial drafts of this article.