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Great ideas and mundane work

I recently re-read Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s Rest (2016), which was a major influence in what I wanted to achieve from life and work when I returned from Singapore. I enjoyed the book just as much as the first time I read it, but this time I read it with a year’s experience of restful living behind me. I also happened to start this read-through at the end of what might have been the busiest part of the year for me.

Compared to the scientists, artists and business executives who populate Rest, and what I myself often imagine myself doing, I spend rather a lot of time answering e-mail, processing paperwork, and keeping tabs on student projects. I suppose that the academics and executives mentioned in Rest also spend time doing such things—and older-fashioned characters like Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens are explicitly said to spend afternoons or evenings with letters—but few people remember Einstein for the number of undergraduate projects he might have supervised or wonder if and how Bill Gates keeps up with his e-mail.

In the radio interview that first brought Rest to my attention, the interviewer made the point that it’s easy to see how what Pang says applies to to scientists, artists, and so on, but not so obvious how it might apply to factory workers, say, whose work doesn’t involve the sort of deep thinking and creativity that Rest seeks to promote. I don’t remember Pang’s answer but I realise now that I need to come up with an answer of my own.

In some respects, I find myself in the opposite position to those old-fashioned writers who write all morning, go for a walk in the afternoon, then attend to their correspondence in the evening: the work from which I derive most of my income requires me to attend to my correspondence in the morning, take a walk when I can, and work on my writing and research in the evening.

Yet, as much as everyone loves to hate answering e-mail and completing paperwork, I get paid for it because the particular e-mail and papers that I work with meet a need (or so I hope): students get direction on how they can pursue their studies; student projects get guidance from someone who has been there before; and the university upholds its academic policies. And if those are worthwhile things to be doing, what’s wrong with giving them my best attention?

At the same time, the busy July-August period gave me some experience in feeling unable to get on with big projects while my attention was taken with a seemingly-endless stream of tiny projects, falling into the trap that Pang (and also Cal Newport) warn against. And at the end of it, it’s hard to point to anything that I achieved: there’s no publications, no course materials, no grant applications. So I’m left a little frustrated at lack of progress on those big things even if I could point to hundreds of e-mails, meetings and forms assisting students should anyone ask me if I’m meeting my key performance indicators.

Having been in my current role for the busy period in both traditional semesters now, I feel I ought to develop a better approach for next year, or at least refine my expectations. For the periods around the start of semester, responding to requests from students is my work, and it may be that I’ll have to put aside my other work until later in semester. At the very least I’ll need to figure out when and how to take holidays because my current pattern of work doesn’t match up with semester breaks like my teaching work used to do, and after two months of answering e-mail I feel it’s time for a rest.

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