A column highlighting broader perspectives and observations about science and the lives of those who pursue it.
A few months ago I had a rare opportunity to spend a few hours cleaning up my office. While I was sorting through piles of papers, I happened to come across a number of materials from Fall, 2007. Some big changes happened in my life during this period of time, and seeing these papers made me stop and take a look back at them.
Five years ago was definitely a period of transition for me. At work, I was a newly promoted associate professor and had just moved into the job of undergraduate program coordinator in our department at the same time that our enrollment was about to spike, and later assumed a leadership role in a biotechnology-focused master‘s degree program. At home, my wife and I were expecting the birth of our first child. This combination of events created a perfect storm of new responsibilities that marked a huge step change from where my life had been just a few months before. And looking back now, I can see that I didn‘t weather them very well.
I started off by promptly ignoring all the advice I had ever received about balancing one‘s career and personal life. This is not surprising because I‘m not good at taking advice, preferring instead to learn things the hard way. So my first instincts were predictable... just continue on as if nothing happened. But there was one small detail I failed to consider: although the number of things I needed to do was now significantly more, there was still the same amount of time in the day.
My inability to grasp the fundamental concept of time led me to do some crazy things (although they made perfect sense back then). My typical work week began on Sunday evening as I set off for my office to launch an all night offensive aimed at catching up on all the things I had gotten behind on during the previous week. These sessions were not technically all-nighters because I usually managed to take a ~ 2 hour nap (I had a camping mat, pillows, and blanket set up to make a cozy little bed beside my desk), but the effect was similar. This stunt set the tone for the rest of the week ahead, ensuring that I remained in a zombie-like trance fueled by a steady intake of coffee and Red Bull. By the time Friday night rolled around I was ready to recover some of this accumulated sleep deficit, and took steps to make certain that would happen by downing a few sleeping pills at bedtime (ensuring that I remained groggy throughout the rest of the weekend), and by limiting my caffeine intake to lower the tolerance I had steadily built up throughout the week (ensuring that I had a continual pounding withdrawal headache). By Sunday evening I was finally starting to feel refreshed, just in time to start the process all over again.
I reasoned that this schedule should be a walk in the park for someone like me. After all, I‘d already earned my stripes through countless all night sessions of proposal writing, exam grading, etc. And at first this was essentially true. I could do it. But gradually things began to change. I became more and more forgetful, my productivity decreased. My longer hours at work translated into decreased work actually done. I found myself falling farther and farther behind, struggling to keep afloat. This schedule also began to take a toll on my health. I had run marathons in the past, but now had stopped exercising completely. I was now becoming susceptible to seasonal allergies and taking longer to recover. But because these things happened so gradually, I didn‘t really notice. I simply forged ahead without stopping to look in the proverbial mirror.
A short time after the 2010 AES/AIChE meeting in Salt Lake City, I developed a sinus infection that stuck with me for over a month. I had never experienced this before (either a sinus infection or such a persistent illness). This was a catalyst to make me take stock over the next year and gradually make some positive changes. But this was not easy to do because it forced me to accept my own limitations. I mean really accept them and become at peace with them. The most significant change has been to maintain a regular sleep pattern as much as possible. I have found this to be absolutely critical because my foray into extended sleep deprivation flipped a switch that changed something inside me. I just don‘t have the stamina to pull all-nighters like I used to. I can only do it occasionally now, but it takes me longer to recover.
Other changes that have made a big difference include learning to say “no” more often (I‘m told I still don‘t say it enough, but predictably don‘t listen to the advice), and becoming more organized (I used to be able to remember everything in my head, but I‘ve lost a lot of my ability to do that). Another thing that has helped is to seek out opportunities for training in skills that can help in the workplace environment (conflict management, leadership, etc.). These activities have provided a new toolbox that enables me navigate situations with confidence that I would have previously found intimidating, thereby reducing the accompanying stress levels.
My outlook has changed tremendously during the past year. I am more at peace with myself and have learned to view each day as gift filled with opportunity. I know this is a lifelong journey, but there are little breakthroughs all the time. Last week, for example, I reached a particularly important milestone of being able to take the time to bathe every day for an entire week, something I can‘t recall having been able to do since 2007. Right here, at this moment, nothing could be more satisfying!
Victor M. Ugaz is Associate Professor and K. R. Hall Development Professor in the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering at Texas A&M University. Comments and suggestions are welcome.
Comments on “The Trailing Zone” are welcome. Please enter your comment and your name (optional) below: