Strategies for Academics to Avoid Burnout
As we take a breath after the last few years, many of us have lost the space for reflective thought. Our need to triage the priorities of students, emergency remote learning, and our personal needs, health, and safety, have left us feeling exhausted and overwhelmed.
Yet maintaining a reflective practice can provide a sense of control and purpose in our work, especially in busy times.
For decades, scholars who study reflective practice assert that maintaining consistent and ongoing habits of mindful thinking can provide a sense of control over our work (Schön, 1984). When we can connect what we are doing with a broader, more holistic sense of purpose, we are better positioned to feel positive and to be more effective in our work.
As the authors of The Critically Reflective Practitioner share, “A key underlying principle of reflective practice is that the busier we are, the more reflective we need to be” (Thompson & Thompson, 2018, p.4). When our time is limited, it’s more important than ever to build in space to think about our goals, our priorities, our strategies, and our supports, to best carry out our roles intentionally.
Reflective practice allows our work to be informed by our values and personal priorities, rather than feeling that we are operating in a reactionary way or conducting our work by mindless habits and routines. That sense of control, especially when things are overwhelming, can keep us grounded.
How can we build reflective space back into our lives?
First, we need to literally carve out time for reflective space. If we consider time for reflection as a way to put ourselves first, this time becomes easier to schedule around and prioritize.
We may need to be creative in finding time. Although our calendars may be full, and we need to be wary of trying to multitask, perhaps some space could be found in the margins (mornings, before bedtime) or routine aspects of our day (commuting, cleaning, walking)?
Here are a few popular methods and mindfulness hacks:
- Passwords as mantras – Why not create passwords that remind you to pause, take a deep breath, appreciate the moment, or even just sit up straight. Every time you have to type in that password you are adding a moment of mindfulness to your day.
- Schedule around your work style – Do you have an awkward 30-minutes between a class and picking up kids? Are you a morning person, or do you do your most creative work in the evenings? Seek out the time in your day when you have space or are able put your mind to rest for scheduled reflection.
- Immediately after teaching – Although it’s not always possible, many instructors find that taking a few moments immediately after classes can be a good time to write a few notes about what went well, what didn’t go so well, what could have been done differently. Using a format like Steven Brookfield’s Critical Incident Questionnaire (meant for students but also useful for instructors) can help structure this with just a few questions.
- 30-Minute Daily Writing/Reflecting – This popular technique is often used to prioritize scholarship by setting aside a 30-minute chunk of time every day to write, and it can also be used for reflective time. Some people take the first 5 minutes as space for open journaling, or aim to alternate between reflective and scholarship goals.
- Use an app – take advantage of the many meditation and mindfulness apps out there (many are free through insurance companies) that walk you through a meditation, provide quiet space, or otherwise help you structure and make use of even just 5-10 minutes of free time.
What do we reflect about?
Although there are numerous definitions of reflection, most agree that reflection occurs when we think and consider our experiences, ideas, beliefs, perspectives to discover new ways of thinking and to guide our future actions. We reflect to make sense of what we are doing, and to help us make better choices in the future.
As humans, we are naturally drawn to “transform a situation in which there is experienced obscurity, doubt, conflict, disturbance of some sort into a situation that is clear, coherent, settled, harmonious” (Dewey, 1933). We reflect to try and put our minds at ease and make meaning from our experiences.
It can be helpful to have some guidance in our reflection to help us create meaning. However, some people prefer more structure than others. Keep experimenting to find what best suits your needs.
Reflection can occur an emergent way, and we may even find our bodies and minds forcing us to reflect during stressful or exceptionally busy times.
- Daily morning pages (for example, write for 10 minutes or write 2 pages on whatever comes to mind).
- Find a trusted and critical friend to meet with regularly about your teaching, your role/career, or other aspects.
- Try Interstitial Journaling, quick journal entries when we transition between tasks to help refocus our attention.
- Take a long walk at the end of the day (without your earbuds!) to process events.
Reflection can occur in a directed or intended way, such as when we respond to a set series of questions at regular intervals.
Questions could include:
- What aspects of my work do I enjoy most right now?
- How are my current tasks aligned with my personal or professional goals?
- What are my passions? What are my priorities? How am I spending my time and where does this overlap with my passions and priorities?
- Am I clear about the expectations that others have of me and that I have of myself? Are these realistic?
- When I’m struggling with a person or an issue, can I identify the assumptions am I making?
How can we build reflection into our planning?
Many academics have a good proportion of work that is internally-directed, including research agendas, scholarship activities, and even engagement with service. However, this freedom can lead us to feel reactionary, pulled in a multitude of directions, and prioritizing others’ goals and deadlines over our own.
A personal retreat, where we identify our own personal mission statement and strategic plan – can identify that thread that pulls together our otherwise scattered work, and help us intentionally choose which committees, projects, and tasks best support our personal mission and goals.
Once we have our personal goals established, those can be used as the basis of ongoing reflection, to keep our priorities in line and our focus on track.
Ongoing reflection can occur as weekly planning sessions, monthly check-ins, and quarterly mini-retreats. For example, a monthly planning session can involve not only setting goals and to-dos for the upcoming month, but also reflecting on our progress on goals, sources of stress, and identifying lessons learned and intentions for the future.
By analyzing how well we are aligning our work with our goals, we go beyond just creating to-do lists and create reflective practice.
What if I just don’t like to reflect?
Although reflection sounds like a valuable use of time for many of us, others do not view it with such fondness. Many individuals feel frustrated or uncomfortable when asked to reflect.
If it is helpful, perhaps reframe reflection as useful time to prioritize your tasks, to articulate what aspects of an event feel stressful, to make a list of the most valuable aspects of an experience for future use, or just to reaffirm how you are spending your time.
Reflection can be a personal endeavor and we need to find what is right for us and feeds our needs and our style. If journal writing has never been your thing, try audio recording your thoughts, sketching/drawing, or setting up time to talk with a trusted friend or colleague.
There is no right way to reflect. But the benefits are numerous. During those times when we have a strong sense of purpose in our work, even long hours can feel productive when spent on valuable and achievable tasks.
We may never get that elusive goal of having more hours in the day, but reflective practice can help us feel control over how we spend the hours we have.
Dewey, J. (1933). How we think: A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. DC Heath.
Linder, K. (2018). I May Have Found My Life’s Purpose. Jul 27, 2018. https://www.drkatielinder.com/lifes-purpose/
Schön, D. A. (1984). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action (Vol. 5126). Basic books.
Thompson, S., & Thompson, N. (2018). The critically reflective practitioner. Macmillan International Higher Education.