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How Women Scholars Manage Stress, Goals, and Self-Care—and How You Can, Too!

We all have stressors. Learn to identify them and move forward.

It's Monday evening and I haven't queued up this week's blog post yet. Some weeks I get ahead; this week is not one of those lauded occasions. Instead, my husband is scrubbing pots in the kitchen (podcast blaring over the running water) and I'm washing the kids' hair (even the kid whose shrill shriek echoes off the tile), while trying to make sure the bubbles stay in the tub, and also come up with some funny anecdote to launch my post on how women scholars handle stress.


Got it.

It's Monday evening and I'm awkwardly typing my anecdote from my phone while my one-year-old falls asleep beside me (my husband is happily reading books with the older two in the living room). A couple more minutes and I can escape to the laptop. The one-year-old is teething again, probably those pesky two-year molars, so it's a tossup how long I'll get before he wakes up again looking for snuggles. Maybe I can queue up an entire blog post. Maybe I'll even have time to work on other writing, but lately I've been too tired at night to work on writing. Maybe after these molars.

Stressors women scholars experience

I'm an independent scholar with the Ronin Institute. The Ronin Institute is an academic community and virtual/remote/distributed organization focused on supporting scholars who don't necessarily follow the conventional academic path. This year, some of us formed a women's interest group. Over the past six months, we met monthly to discuss professional development, work/life balance, and other issues we face as independent women scholars.

One meeting focused on stress and self-care. We started by brainstorming a list of stressors we experience, or that we imagine other women scholars might experience. The list was long. It included all aspects of doing work and achieving professional goals, household management, caregiving (hello, two-year molars), time management, and being different from both other professionals and other mothers. So, in short, all of life is potentially stressful.

Women and men approach their lives and daily labor differently, and we discussed how and why that is. We have different stressors; we often take on different aspects of work. Women tend to take on activities that require more planning, ongoing maintenance, and ongoing management (like many aspects of raising children). Men, on the other hand, tend to take on tasks that are finite—one and done, and then they can move on. This difference is key because it affects your cognitive load: do you have to continually be checking in and remembering about ongoing activities, or can you simply move on to the next task?

Questions to ask yourself: What activities or tasks do you take on? Do you find yourself in planning, maintenance, and management roles, at home or professionally? This is a good topic of conversation with your spouse. What work do you each do, what do you think about daily, what labor are you each doing? Do you acknowledge and appreciate the work the other does?

(Read: The Incremental Method to Achieving Long-Term Goals and Getting Things Done)

Is stress from work inevitable?

We all take on labor—some more voluntarily than others. We all have stressors. Sometimes the labor and the stressors are the same.

In our discussion, we asked whether—and how—we accept our work. If you're frustrated and overwhelmed, how do you accept it, move past it, and get on with your life? What do you have to absorb, and what can you change?

One woman suggested focusing on what you appreciate. Don't regret the choices or sacrifices you've made or the labor you've taken on. It's already done. Your choices reflect something about you and the things you value. So when considering current stressors, look at them in light of your values and your mission. What matters in life? How do you want your loved ones to remember you? If, in ten or twenty years, someone asks them, what were you like?, what would you want them to say?

Knowing why we're doing what we're doing cements meaning. It makes the labor worthwhile. It's for something.

If you're doing work that's not in line with your values, ask: can you change it? Can you reframe it? Can you outsource it? Can you step back? Can you pivot?

(Read: Deep Work for Parents: A 2-Step Strategy for More Effective, Efficient Work)

How do you reframe success and goals?

Here's an activity we discussed that can help you reframe what you think success is. First, find a blank sheet of paper. Write some of your goals for you and your work in the middle of the paper—whatever that work is: science, writing, art, etc. Is success achieving those goals?

Next, brainstorm stressors that affect your motivation and desire to work. Write them around your goals as branches. Then identify where those stressors are coming from. What, who, or where is placing those stressors on you? Is it other people, an institution, yourself? Many stressors are self-imposed, but not all of them are. Identifying stressors like this can help you determine what you can change to improve your situation.

Some ways you might change your situation include:

  • Work less; put time into hobbies, family, or other activities instead
  • Put effort into different projects
  • Ask full-time positions if they're open to part-time or fractional approach
  • Step back from leadership on certain tasks or events (e.g., in the household, in your department)
  • Find social support or mentors
  • Outsource some activities
  • Renegotiate the requirements of an activity or task
  • Change your expectations for yourself to align with what's possible, what's desirable, and what's in line with your values and your current self-vision

Your goal should be to align your current goals, values, and priorities with your actions. Consider both your stressors and the system around you: What is helping, harming, impeding, or irrelevant? Do you want to move out of the system?

In their book Designing Your Life (read my review!), Bill Burnett and Dave Evans argue that we should all try to live coherently:

A coherent life is one lived in such a way that you can clearly connect to the dots between three things:

  • Who you are
  • What you believe
  • What you are doing

Increased coherency, with increased connection between your values and your actions, leads to an increased sense of self, helps you create meaning, and generates greater satisfaction. They write,

Living coherently doesn't mean everything is in perfect order all the time. It simply means you are living in alignment with your values and have not sacrificed your integrity along with the way.

(Read: Productivity and Balance as a Parent: Challenges, Ideals, and Strategies

This is for now

In our discussion, we expressed dissatisfaction with the academic system. (Who's surprised, given that we all sought out the Ronin Institute?) Especially pertinent was the problem that you cannot step out of academia and then back in, whether you're stepping out to raise a family, start a business, or partake in any other experience that enriches you. There's no reason for the academic system to work that way—most other industries don't work that way—except that that's the way academia has been. Plus, both in conventional academia and beyond, it can be difficult to find work that's not full-time, even though flexibility and part-time options are especially appealing to women.

We recognized that decisions and constraints can, frankly, be terrible. It's okay to grieve the decisions you make, even if they're the right ones. Your career trajectory and personal trajectory may involve forked paths and decisions between things that are mutually exclusive, and mutually desirable. You can grieve and notice the loss of what you wanted professionally, even when you know it was the right decision to leave that career or change your trajectory. You cannot turn back clocks; you may not want to; you can still be sad about potential loss of accomplishment.

There's a process of acceptance for the decisions you've made. You can be angry and frustrated that you made a decision; you can grieve it; you can be excited about it; you can acknowledge the rightness of the decision—all at the same time. We are complex emotional creatures. Acceptance doesn't have to be straightforward.

One woman pointed out that decisions aren't final, sometimes. Sure, in conventional academia, there's a common path and a standard "clock" and tenure-track life. But you don't have to follow that. She said she has an attitude of "this is for now." Other opportunities will arise later. Your values may shift; opportunity costs change; the unexpected may happen. You can change. As my dad liked to demonstrate through his series of unusual and interesting careers, you do not have to do the same thing forever. We often think of decisions as being permanent and long-term. But life is often more flexible than that.

As you're considering your own decisions, your goals, and your path forward, embrace your whole self. What skills do you have that are valuable to what you want to accomplish? What unique things do you bring to the world? You have constraints, yes. But you can make progress on your own terms. Even if it means writing blog posts from your phone in bed.

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We're Jacqueline and Randy, a blogging duo with backgrounds in tech, robots, art, and writing, now raising our family in northern Idaho.

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