A couple Tuesdays ago, I was up in my office at 11 PM working on an important talk I had to give later in the week across the country at another university. And what was on my platter at that time? Three graduate statistics courses I am teaching - one of which is a new prep and two of which I am in the process of conducting long, overdue overhauls. I have three undergraduate seniors in Industrial Mathematics and Statistics I am advising for their capstones theses, one graduate Statistics student I am advising on a tricky research project we are working on together for her MS thesis, and two other graduate Statistics students whose committees I am sitting on. Then I glanced at my email inbox. It was crammed full of requests from students for recommendation letters, help writing their resumes, or help finding jobs (which I will never refuse). An NSF grant proposal I had been working on as a Co-I with a psychologist had been sitting in there for a week along with some draft proposals for committee work I am doing with my department. Looking to my left on my desk, I observed a statistics journal manuscript I had to revise and resubmit, a pile of papers and notes for research I am doing with a colleague from Arizona, and another pile for a PhD dissertation for a student with whom I am writing a paper.
Now we get to the few hours I have left over for my personal life. Last semester, I had the great opportunity to be kindly allowed to sit in on an introductory Chinese course. To say I enjoyed it and learned a lot would be a complete understatement. It had been my hope to take a second follow-up course this semester but now the material was getting harder and requiring more of my free time. Also, I had written several songs and wanted to get into the studio to record a CD. So, I had several other musicians waiting, and waiting, and waiting for me to get my shit together to make the CD happen. Oh, and let's not forget, my daily exercise I have to do and all those wonderful books on my shelf in my bedroom I have been vowing to read (a huge stack of unread magazines just a week prior had made their final pilgrimage to a recycling bin). Then there are some big travel trips I intend on taking this year that have not yet made it out of the planning stages in the fantasies of my mind.
Lest this come across as whining to others, I take full responsibility for how I manage and schedule my time. Honestly, this is something I have always struggled with in my life -- to be the best at everything I do, to do whatever it takes to help others. In short, to be Superman.
On that Tuesday, I realized that I had to make some painful choices. You can only slice the pie into thinner and thinner sections before the crust starts to crumble. I was clearly at that point. So, in terms of my personal life, I decided the first thing that would get tossed over the side of the ship was the Chinese course. Work-wise, I then decided I was going to have set firmer boundaries about taking on more research and service projects for awhile and will have to say and use the word that is hardest for me to utter sometimes, and that word is "No."
For a few hours afterward, I suffered from a mini-shame attack. "Come on, Phil. If you just try a little harder. Shut up, suck it up, and just do it!" But then I realized something I recently read in one of Kristin Neff's books very recently that really struck me:
Suffering = Pain x Resistance
I really love teaching and research. That said, a couple Tuesdays ago, make no mistake, I was suffering and the reason I was suffering was because I was stubbornly resisting the obvious fact that something had to give in my life. And then it occurred to me that I just didn't want to work any harder and suck it up, fashionably lost in my busy-ness, like a twirling top on a path of aimless distraction, perhaps at this point of my life metaphorically running from something at a subconscious level? Quoting Ernest Hemingway, "Never confuse movement with action."
So what is a path to a solution? I believe the path is multi-faceted. It is to be mindful of my thoughts, feelings, and emotions. It is to be authentically compassionate towards others, and, most importantly, to myself. It's ok not to be perfect. It's ok not to be always busy. What is ok it to always remind myself of my values, to reflect on those values everyday, and to think of myself really as valuable cargo that I must always protect first and foremost. For if I don't do that, then I will not be of much use to serve the world.