Getting Myself Out of Crisis and Survival Mode

I’ve been working in academic libraries for more than a decade. This time in the semester always feels overwhelming, like there is a ginormous pile of work that I will never get to and a million people needing my time and meetings, meetings, meetings. At the end of the semester, we live in crisis and survival mode in academia: papers to grade, students clamoring to finally see us, faculty needing support, all of our campus committees asking us for deliverables or cramming in one last meeting. We are racing towards the finish line. Or sometimes crawling.

This semester feels different for me. I am at a weird calm and peace. I am not in crisis and survival mode. It’s my very own end of the semester miracle.

At first, I started to question myself on this feeling. I asked some trusted friends and colleagues if this feeling should be normal. Think about that. I asked people I trust if it is OK for me to NOT FEEL LIKE I AM IN CRISIS MODE. Crisis and survival becomes such the norm in our work lives that when we’ve finally found a balance, we think we’re doing it wrong.

In fact, in a meeting last week, a colleague and I traded pleasantries, as you do. “How are you?” she asked. “Oh, I’m pretty good,” I responded. She stared at me. “Pretty good? Wow, you must not feel like the faculty do. I’m ready to lose my mind and I have no time for anything.”

Hold up. Just because I’m not giving myself ulcers and panic attacks in crisis mode does not, in fact, mean I cannot empathize to that feeling or that I also do not do a lot of work. It means that somewhere I changed the way I work. I changed the way I view my work and my job and I tried very, very hard to keep perspective this semester (and to keep on top of things.) But, I felt like the insinuation there was that I should feel busier if I were doing my job right. I should feel run down and panicking. Come on, it’s the end of the semester!

Let’s be clear. I did a ton of stuff this semester and I lead this library while everyone in it did great things! So, we did a lot. Yay, us! But I didn’t make myself sick overdoing it and that is not a bad thing.

Also, if I’m being honest, this semester definitely had rough patches. But, overall, I got through it (and so will you.)

Yes, work is work. And it sometimes should feel like work. But I shouldn’t feel like I have an ulcer, not be able to sleep, or have a panic attack in the parking lot because the sky is falling and I am so behind and I will never get anything accomplished. But, that’s sort of how end of semesters have felt like for me for at least ten years. It’s a wonder I’ve survived.

I know that I’m not the only one who lived in a world of crisis and survival mode. I know this from just my librarian friends. But, I also know that it shouldn’t be that way.

What makes this semester different for me?

Well, I began to think a bit about what I thought I did this semester, in particular, that had lead me to this path of feeling like a normal human being at work instead of a crazed, exhausted person at the end. Mind you, I am still seriously tired and ready for the winter break. Let’s not overdo it. I am just feeling what I would consider a normal level of work stress (and it is a new and better feeling, for sure.)

I generally am trying to purposely integrate reflection into my day. How is this project making me feel? Do I need help? Do I have the mental energy I need right now to do this? Am I the best person to do this? Can it be done this semester or do I need to push the deadline? These kinds of questions, plus this little list of very purposeful things I did this semester have helped me tremendously.

  1. I stopped caring more than everyone else. I realized I do not have to be the A#1 champion and pusher of everything. I’m reading the cues better. If it isn’t important to most others, I’m not going to fight for it either. This is hard because sometimes I know we can do something better. But, oh well. I can’t push the boulder up the hill alone. Just saving this bit of mental energy has been so healthy.
  2. I am desperately trying not to dwell. OMG, I am probably the world’s worst dweller. You know the type (perhaps you are also one?)….something happens, you replay it, you try and figure out if you did something wrong, you beat yourself up, you do this over and over again.
  3. I am finally making friends outside of the library. Their perspectives and words of encouragement have been so really helpful. It is so good to have people you can tell the honest truth of what the situation is and they give you good advice back and then acknowledge that you are not crazy. If you’ve been in this situation, you know what I mean.
  4. Delegating and trusting others with my dead elk. I am not the only one who can do 75% of what I normally would be stressed about. I have people that I can count on and do it and I have been letting them do it more and more. I want to really and truly create a culture where people are not afraid to fail and that means I have to let them do the good work, even if I think I can do it better. (the dead elk thing is a thing I got from an former Dean. She’d give me a dead elk to take care of it and you did it like a badge of honor.)
  5. Working when I can work. I’ve allowed myself more leeway to get things done at home if I have to. If I need to be physically present for my kids earlier in the day, but I know I can knock out a few tasks when I’m at home, I’m being gentler with myself. You see, I used to believe that true work life balance meant leaving work at work and I’m letting myself fudge that more now when it actually fits my family better.
  6. Managing my time. I’m not saying that becoming a member of the Erin Condren cult has helped me manage my time better, but my notebook is pretty and my lists are getting demolished. So, you know…it’s possible. I’ve also been using the Pomodoro technique to focus on tasks (I am using a timer right now!) and trying to actually stay FOCUSED.
  7. Avoiding the people I need to avoid. Yep, it’s that simple. If you’re going to go negative and bring me down, I can’t do it. Related: I almost became one of those people earlier in the semester. I caught myself being the cynical complainer. I stopped. No one who wants to do good work wants to work with that person.
  8. Relying on my tribe. (And the world’s best partner.) D and I have a sort of no complaining about work thing at home….but he helps me troubleshoot. If I ask for his help on a particular situation, we can talk through it. Same goes for my tribe of librarians. If you don’t have a group of people you trust, please find one. Letting it out helps you move on much more quickly.

At the end of the day, working in crisis mode is not good for anyone. You should not be doing it. I’m here to tell you to stop, take a break, reflect, and adjust. If you need help, ask.

No one is ever going to tell you to stop working so hard.

(Well, I do try and tell my overachiever librarians that when necessary, but I think I am not normal in a lot of ways.)

I hope you all are feeling as OK and calm as me (and I’m also here to tell you that is OK!). If you’re not, reach out to your friends/mentors/peers and ask for some help.

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