Gratitude Exercise

Another long day today. I am home, I am tired, I need to do more. But not tonight. Tonight I am finished with work. If I opened it up, I would just inch through whatever it was, hardly making progress, slowly getting frustrated.

One thing might make a difference before bed. A gratitude exercise.

What is a gratitude exercise? You just have to make a list of things, little things, big things, whatever, that you are grateful for. Things that make you happy. Things that make your life better.

Don’t expect a gratitude exercise to fix your bad mood completely, but it helps a little bit in the moment. In general, it helps me to keep a positive attitude, and to keep me happier. We have to see the good things in our lives to be glad to be ourselves and to live this life. And in the end, it is very trite, but also very true that happiness is wanting what you have, not getting what you want.

With that:

  1. I am grateful for a colleague who agreed to write a letter of recommendation for me, and who has been a constant supporter of mine since the day we met.
  2. I am grateful to have a supervisor who understands my values, and agrees with them.
  3. I am grateful for another supervisor (one I don’t like as much) who stood up for me today.
  4. I am grateful I made progress on one of my “missions” for the semester, to get some faculty Wiki space, password protected and away from students, so that we can more easily share course materials.
  5. I am grateful for a visit from a student that I am concerned about.
  6. I am grateful for students who are becoming/have become colleagues and friends.
  7. I am grateful for green beans, grown in my garden.
  8. I am grateful that I managed to run a successful Undergraduate Seminar series this semester.
  9. I am grateful for anxiety medication, a different one, that is actually working. Feeling normal most of the time is so much nicer than feeling like something awful is about to happen most of the time.
  10. I am grateful that I only have to write my Honors exam this time, and not also write a make-up for the common exam.
  11. I am grateful for funky clouds this morning, even though I didn’t get to take a picture of them.
  12. I am grateful that gratitude exercises so often make me feel better.

It is done

I posted about stress and burnout, resolved to take some time off, and then reality started laughing in my face. I’ve squeezed out a few hours here and there, but not a 24 hour block of time. There’s some statement out there about a battle plan not lasting any longer than the first engagement with the enemy, and that’s exactly what I’m thinking about.

Back in May, I submitted an article on the writing we do in my mathematical modeling class to PRIMUS. In September, it came back from peer review. Since that time, I’ve been slammed with work, problems at work, stressors at work, moving my office at work, a major flood at work, and, well, I hope that is enough to explain why finding time for these revisions has been difficult at best. That my job has no time allocated to scholarly work or research sure didn’t help.

And the revisions weren’t easy. I realized back in May I’d picked a huge topic. That came home to roost; my biggest mandates was to cut my article down and focus. I’d work on the article for an hour or two and get stuck. Then I’d think about it for a week or more and come back to it again. Thus has been my effort all semester long.

I got a boost a week or two ago when one of the graduate students heaped some praise on my Epsilon > 0 Exercise Plan. That helped me realize I should apply the Epsilon Is Greater Than Zero Principle to my efforts on the paper. Sit down with the idea of spending 15 quality minutes on it. Just 15 minutes. You can quit after 15 minutes. Get yourself to do that much, and it is amazing how quickly progress is made.

Today’s long hours had a nice reward. The article is finished and resubmitted. I am grateful for friends and mentors who took their time to help me with the final edits. I am grateful for those who encouraged me to just keep going every step of the way. Those who reminded me: just keep trying. Just keep trying. Just keep trying. I did.

Now I suspect I have another 2 month wait to see if I need to do further revisions or if it is accepted. I doubt it will make the special issue on Writing in Mathematics, because I had too many delays. But then again, I may be just in the nick of time before the final resubmission deadline; there may be some hope. I will see.

Today, if just for a few minutes, I celebrate.

Stress, burnout and advice

Sometimes I think I give too much advice. I like to give advice. I like to give good advice! But not everyone needs advice, sometimes people need empathy more than anything else. So I hope that my predilection isn’t a big negative on my listening skills. I hope it isn’t affecting them much at all, but I guess if I’m honest, I have to admit that it probably does, and I should be careful.

But there is one definite upside of giving advice, which is that if I find myself saying it to someone else, then I have to listen to it. Sometimes, the first time you can really hear something is when you find yourself saying it.

And most recently I found myself saying, “You have to take time for yourself. Study after study shows that a 40 hour work week maximizes productivity, especially for knowledge workers.”

I’ve been working some ungodly hours for most of the semester. More than 40? Sometimes more than 60 a week. I haven’t liked it, but I’ve felt like this is what I need to do to get everything done.

And maybe I slipped into that grossly unproductive zone where you are working and working at things and not really getting anything done. And making mistakes. I know I’ve made a lot of mistakes. The first exam proofreading was embarrassingly bad.

So. Stop. Stop it now. I am stressed. And I am feeling a lot of burnout. And you know what? I do not need to be a hero here. I’m afraid of not doing enough, but maybe that is stupid. If I did less, maybe I could do more.

And so, I need to try to take all or most of this next weekend off.

Don’t believe me? This web article is not perfect, but it discusses the relevant research.

It comes down to productivity. Workers can maintain productivity more or less indefinitely at 40 hours per five-day workweek. When working longer hours, productivity begins to decline. Somewhere between four days and two months, the gains from additional hours of work are negated by the decline in hourly productivity. In extreme cases (within a day or two, as soon as workers stop getting at least 7-8 hours of sleep per night), the degradation can be abrupt.

Many of the studies quoted above come out of industrial environments, and it may be argued that the more creative mental work of programmers, artists, and testers is fundamentally different. In fact, it is different , and Colonel Belenky explicitly addresses that:

In contrast to complex mental performance, simple psychomotor performance, physical strength and endurance are unaffected by sleep deprivation.

The ability to do complex mental tasks degrades faster than physical performance does. Among knowledge workers, the productivity loss due to excessive hours may begin sooner and be greater than it is among soldiers, because our work is more affected by mental fatigue.