Biting off more than you can chew

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lingua_franca
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Biting off more than you can chew

Post by lingua_franca » Thu Sep 20, 2018 3:35 pm

The title says it all, really. I've always had a tendency to do this. In the past it was because I used to really struggle to say no to people (although my assertiveness has improved massively over the past few years, so I wouldn't identify it as a particular issue now). Now it happens more because I'm interested in so many different things, and I often involve myself in projects without realistically evaluating how much time they will take and if I have that time to spare. At the moment I am finishing up a 37.5 hour research contract (funding ends in December), teaching for 24 hours a week (my new job), volunteering with Childline and at a local hospital, doing a Tavistock course one day each week, attempting to get a long overdue manuscript to my publisher, and serving on the board of trustees for a charity. The board meets monthly, but as I am secretary, I have a lot of documentation to keep on top of. Factor in commuting and I barely have time to myself.

I would really appreciate it if you could share your collective wisdom on how you determine whether to get involved in a new thing, and how you prioritise your time more generally. I'm rubbish at judging how much is too much until I'm already overwhelmed, which is no use to me. I need to start solving this problem before it arises!
"Suppose a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?"
"Suppose it didn't," said Pooh, after careful thought.
Piglet was comforted by this.
- A.A. Milne.

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Re: Biting off more than you can chew

Post by Spatch » Fri Sep 21, 2018 9:15 am

If this was raised in therapy context I would start by exploring “why?” before “how?”

For me the reasons someone engages in an activity as well as the consequences for not engaging would guide what needs to be done, one’s priorities, as well as inform how things can be approached.The logistics can come afterwards, and there are all manner of guides around time management, keeping lists and organising time or dealing with procrastination.
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Re: Biting off more than you can chew

Post by maven » Fri Sep 21, 2018 12:14 pm

I used to work with a CP who use to "close" days in her calendar or new referrals to her caseload if she reached certain thresholds very assertively. I think she would have had a sense of how many hours she wanted to work per week, and then looked at current commitments and worked out whether they added up to more or less than her work hours, and then not taken anything new on unless she was sufficiently under that threshold.

I guess I'd be asking why you took on a new job four months ahead of the old one ending, without giving notice or reducing your hours. Also, why are you volunteering in three roles? Do you really love them, enough that it doesn't feel like work? If not, I'd be giving notice on those due to other commitments. But as Spatch says, core to this is why you feel the need to take so much on. What is that about? Who are you trying to impress or where are you trying to get to? Is it really worth this? As I'm sure I've seen on here before, you need to have time to dance while the music is playing.
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Wise men talk because they have something to say, fools because they have to say something - Plato
The fool thinks himself to be wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool - Shakespeare

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Re: Biting off more than you can chew

Post by lingua_franca » Fri Sep 21, 2018 7:27 pm

Thank you both for the thoughtful questions. The prompt to think of the 'why' before 'how' is helpful - I've got to the point where I'm being quite fatalistic about all this and just treating it as a fact of life that I need to learn to manage, rather than something that I could meaningfully challenge.

Since I posted this I've been thinking about why I felt the need to ask for advice here (rather than, say, going to my mentor or other colleagues) and why I listed what my commitments are, instead of just asking a general question about time management and over-committing. Basically I needed to hear people who hold responsible positions telling me that what I am doing really is a lot, and that it would be OK for me to withdraw from a few things. I didn't dare to approach colleagues for this 'permission' in case they are far busier than I am, and they see me as being lazy or ineffective for being unable to cope when they're handling more.

My colleagues are lovely and on a logical level I know that they are highly unlikely to think like this. However, there does seem to be a culture of overwork in academia that sometimes makes it hard for me to judge what is a reasonable quantity of work and what isn't. I see postdocs in the lab until eight or nine at night on a regular basis. I know one person at a different university who got in trouble for not replying to her PI's e-mails over the weekend, and when she pointed out that she is on a 37.5 hour contract, she was told, "You can stick to those hours if you want, but if you do then you can't expect to compete for the permanent jobs." Again, my own senior colleagues are not like that at all. But I worry that if I end up competing for jobs against people who have put that pressure on themselves, I won't stand a chance - they will have more publications, more experience generally, more of everything. And when I hear people constantly saying things like, "I got my journal article finished over the weekend, but I'm exhausted now - I didn't sleep!" it's hard for me not to feel as if this is a reflection on my own work ethic.

The precarity of academic work is another contributing factor. I hold a fixed-term postdoc position, and like most junior academics, I had to relocate for it. I don't want to chase short-term contracts up and down the country at the moment. I'd like some stability. That was why I took on a part-time job four months before my main contract ends - it's interesting work, and it's permanent, so I won't have to worry about where I'll end up in December. The short-term stress of holding down two jobs seemed like a worthwhile trade-off for being able to stay in my flat and fairly near my friends and family. I should have negotiated a reduced workload with the employer for the first few months, but I was so eager to get the job that I didn't want to say anything that might put them off. That wasn't my smartest move. They had been trying to recruit to this post for a long time and I think they would probably have met me halfway. Yesterday I asked my line manager if I could reduce my hours to two days per week until my research contract ends, but she says it would be very difficult to adjust things at this point. I really wish I'd stipulated this from the start.

The volunteering I can dispense with. I picked up those roles gradually, and while I do like them I'm not so invested in them that I want to keep them all. I think I need to start doing what a friend does when she buys new clothes - first look in the wardrobe and see if there is anything that needs to be cleared out, before new things go in.

And finally, I can identify some grief here. A very good friend of mine died from an asthma attack in December, three days before Christmas. She and I were so close that she used to come to spend Christmas with my family. We would talk every day. We'd known each other since we were children and she was almost like my sister. I'm aware that after she died I became extremely busy. If the department asked for volunteers to do this or that, I would jump in. The pattern has continued over the intervening nine months. I think that part of me worries that if I slow down I will discover that I'm still very sad, and I don't want to be crying all over the place again.

Writing this all out like this has helped me to think more clearly about it. Thanks again for the thought-provoking questions.
"Suppose a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?"
"Suppose it didn't," said Pooh, after careful thought.
Piglet was comforted by this.
- A.A. Milne.

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Re: Biting off more than you can chew

Post by miriam » Sat Sep 22, 2018 12:05 am

That's a lot of useful self-reflection, lingua.

Take time to mourn your loss, and don't be ashamed about it. Its a human thing to feel pain when a loved one dies, not a flaw or weakness. Anyone that has no empathy with the impact of loss has more of a problem than a bereaved person who is still sad about it.

But have a look at the number of cognitive distortions you've internalised in that post above. You've got loads of should/ought/must rules and self-criticism/feelings of inadequacy there with no objective foundation. Academia is competitive, but you need to find a way to let go of your imaginary competition who work 24 hours a day and say yes to everything, and focus on enjoying what you are doing and doing it well. You need to be confident that you bring something worthwhile to your job, and that is why they appointed you, rather than feeling lazy or ineffective whilst working yourself into exhaustion. We can't do everything at the same time without burning out and/or doing a shoddy job of them. We can't work without breaks, or time off to do things that recharge us. And the culture of staying late, trying to keep up with what you hear about others, or responding to work emails at weekends is part of a problem in modern society. I'd see it as a sign of failure - to routinely not be able to fit the task into the allocated hours, and to be bowing to pressure that keeps the system dysfunctional. I admire the people with boundaries and a life outside of work more than the exhausted workaholics.

You have a permanent job, and provided you work the hours required and get the job done that job is secure. There is no need to do a hundred other things on top of it. So allow yourself to let the things that aren't essential go, and to postpone the things you really want to do but can't fit in until you have more capacity (preparing publications might fall into this category). You may also need to take some leave and/or assert your need to reduce your hours in one post or the other too. Otherwise you'll end up burning out and going off sick, and that isn't in their interest either, as they'll get nothing out of you.
Miriam

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Re: Biting off more than you can chew

Post by lingua_franca » Mon Sep 24, 2018 10:49 am

Thanks, Miriam. Amusingly, when you mentioned cognitive distortions and 'should/must/ought' rules, I started chiding myself, "Are you still doing that? You had CBT for this sort of thinking! You should have got a handle on it by now! You should..." Then I noticed what I was doing and was at least able to laugh. :)

I'm on a writing retreat on the Northumberland coast. Luckily my new job agreed to honour it, as it was booked months ago. I felt a bit guilty about coming here when I have so much to do, but I'm glad I came - I've written more in one day than I did all the rest of the month. I've been taking walks along the beach in between writing bursts. I've discovered that I do still dissolve into tears if I actively encourage myself to think about F, but a lonely beach is a good place to allow grief to appear. Before I go home I will send some emails stepping back from my various volunteer commitments, and hopefully have a more tranquil start to the week.
"Suppose a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?"
"Suppose it didn't," said Pooh, after careful thought.
Piglet was comforted by this.
- A.A. Milne.

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Re: Biting off more than you can chew

Post by Victoriomantic » Tue Sep 25, 2018 10:53 am

lingua_franca wrote:
Mon Sep 24, 2018 10:49 am
Thanks, Miriam. Amusingly, when you mentioned cognitive distortions and 'should/must/ought' rules, I started chiding myself, "Are you still doing that? You had CBT for this sort of thinking! You should have got a handle on it by now! You should..." Then I noticed what I was doing and was at least able to laugh. :)
Oh boy do I feel you there..!

This has been a very helpful thread to read, thank you all. Lingua, I'm not quite as busy as yourself but I do have the awful tendency to absolutely ram my to-do list full of impossible tasks (I always underestimate how long something will take me!) and "hobbies" that I am "definitely going to start soon I promise" and then end up doing none of it at all. I definitely need to explore the "why"s more.

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Re: Biting off more than you can chew

Post by miriam » Fri Sep 28, 2018 12:26 am

Yeah, me too! I think I am a bit of a workaholic, and whilst other people say I've achieved a lot, I always feel like there is more I could/should be doing. You've inspired me to write a blog entry about the strategies I try to employ against that pressure to do more. You can find it here.
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Re: Biting off more than you can chew

Post by Spatch » Fri Sep 28, 2018 8:40 am

Like Miriam, I have been reading about the work of Prof. Laura Empson and felt it applies here.

For those of you who haven't been following the work, Empson has researched high performers in various organisations. She observed the phenomenon of the "insecure overachiever", very bright and ambitious people who often cram their time full and endevour to be as productive as possible. However, such people often feel imposters, are never actually able to claim their successes or achieve any lasting degree of happiness, because of an underlying insecurity, which them drives them to do more. What's more many of the systems such as elite institutions or cultures (e.g. prestigious universities, competitive selection programmes, top performing teams) actually seek out such people and create circumstances that turbo charge this.

You can read more about it here: https://hbr.org/2018/02/if-youre-so-suc ... urs-a-week
http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/201809 ... erachiever

Its not hard to see how the DClinPsy process would also come under this potentially for many. This part I found particularly relevant for those in the application stage:

"The evaluation and reward systems within these firms make the fears very real. Promotion is highly competitive and – worse – opaque....People know that they are being directly measured against their colleagues. But because they don’t actually know how their colleagues are doing, they set themselves incredibly high standards, just to be sure. And because everyone in the system is doing this, the standards just get higher and higher, requiring everyone to work harder and harder."
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Re: Biting off more than you can chew

Post by hawke » Fri Sep 28, 2018 9:27 am

That quote really rings true for me, having worked in Iapt too. There's a real secrecy from managers about clinical hours, so you're always left with a sense that someone else is doing more than you - and so you up your own hours, sometimes just to feel like you're doing your fair share. But the end result is this upward spiral of high workloads. The high flyers then leave for the doctorate, or get promoted within Iapt, and then lead from a pace-setting "keep up or get out" style.

The thing that broke the cycle for me was getting an LTHC with fatigue as a primary symptom and self-care as the only treatment. If I don't limit myself, my LTHC will limit things for me! The other thing that helps is having some non-negotiables around sleep and quality time time with the boyfriend, which are more important to me than work.

When I was first diagnosed, it was like being inducted into a secret club of others with LTHCs. Finally people were talking out loud to me about needing to pace themselves, whereas before they'd try to hide it. I had a great supervisor who was honest with me when she was easing off the pace herself. Another great colleague once said to me "you're too good at this job to waste yourself on burning out". I use a lot of compassion based mantras to help give myself permission to slow down or stop, all based on conversations with these people, who I hugely respected as colleagues. And the main thing I have learnt is that you can make a huge difference to workplace culture by being open, honest and transparent about your vulnerabilities, particularly if you're an established professional or team member. Other people then tend to reveal their vulnerabilities, and the mythical high achievers start to seem a bit more human.

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Re: Biting off more than you can chew

Post by AnsweringBell » Fri Sep 28, 2018 10:38 am

Spatch wrote:
Fri Sep 28, 2018 8:40 am
Like Miriam, I have been reading about the work of Prof. Laura Empson and felt it applies here.

For those of you who haven't been following the work, Empson has researched high performers in various organisations. She observed the phenomenon of the "insecure overachiever", very bright and ambitious people who often cram their time full and endevour to be as productive as possible. However, such people often feel imposters, are never actually able to claim their successes or achieve any lasting degree of happiness, because of an underlying insecurity, which them drives them to do more. What's more many of the systems such as elite institutions or cultures (e.g. prestigious universities, competitive selection programmes, top performing teams) actually seek out such people and create circumstances that turbo charge this.

You can read more about it here: https://hbr.org/2018/02/if-youre-so-suc ... urs-a-week
http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/201809 ... erachiever

Its not hard to see how the DClinPsy process would also come under this potentially for many. This part I found particularly relevant for those in the application stage:

"The evaluation and reward systems within these firms make the fears very real. Promotion is highly competitive and – worse – opaque....People know that they are being directly measured against their colleagues. But because they don’t actually know how their colleagues are doing, they set themselves incredibly high standards, just to be sure. And because everyone in the system is doing this, the standards just get higher and higher, requiring everyone to work harder and harder."
Goooooooooooodness those links were informative! I'm going to order the book. I can really see so much of those processes at play within my cohort on individual levels and within my training centre generally. It was quite cathartic to read that sort of view of what's at play in a wider sense, and how this is seen in so many types of organisations. Really interesting!

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Re: Biting off more than you can chew

Post by lingua_franca » Sat Oct 06, 2018 2:46 pm

This was eye-opening to read. I hadn't come across Prof Empson's work before, but I can recognise the dynamic that she identifies. Thinking about it as a pattern that I am participating in rather than as a situation I'm failing to cope with has helped me to step back from some of my commitments without feeling guilty.

I've concluded my volunteering with Childline and the hospital. I'm going to remain a trustee, as I feel personally very committed to the work of this charity, but I've agreed with the chair that I can miss a meeting here and there. I've negotiated an extended deadline with my editor. It feels great. The sky hasn't fallen in. If I hadn't come down with a vile cold, I'd be pretty relaxed right now!
"Suppose a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?"
"Suppose it didn't," said Pooh, after careful thought.
Piglet was comforted by this.
- A.A. Milne.

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Insecure overachievers

Post by Spatch » Tue Apr 16, 2019 11:15 am

Managed to get my hands on an online copy of the actual book, which gives far more information and insight into the phenomenon.

Some good bits, relevant to our discipline are below taken from Chapter 6 of Leading Professionals (Empson, L. 2017). Sorry for the lengthy blocks of text, but the book is about 30 quid and I can't imagine it ever being on anyone's christmas wish list.
I was introduced to the concept of the insecure overachiever by the Director of HR of one of the world’s leading accounting firms. She explained the firm’s policy of deliberately seeking out graduate recruits who fitted this profile. The firm looked for individuals with a track record of exceptional achievement on multiple dimensions throughout their school and university careers. She emphasized that, for these individuals to be suitable recruits, they needed to be motivated by a profound sense of insecurity, which the firm could identify through psychometric tests and interviews. For example, the question, ‘What are your weaknesses?’ might elicit the ‘correct’ response, ‘I am too much of a perfectionist’ or ‘I drive myself too hard’. She explained that, for insecure overachievers, a job offer from her firm provided them with the comfort of knowing: ‘You are special because we want you to be one of us.’ In other words, being a professional within this elite organization would become an important part of their identity.

Once these individuals joined the firm would deliberately maximize competition and uncertainty among new recruits by pursuing an aggressive up-or-out policy. Those who survived the cull were spurred on to ever-higher levels of performance to maximize their chances of surviving the following year’s cull. In effect, the annual cull amplified the insecure individuals’ ‘imposter syndrome’, because it activated their fear of being found to be less good than their peer group. To counteract this imposter syndrome they needed to retain the identity anchor that the firm represented to them. The fear of losing that identity thus became a powerful control mechanism, helping the firm ensure that its professionals conformed and complied with the pressures it placed upon them.

I suggested to the Director of HR of this elite professional organization that she was like a drug dealer, deliberately seeking out vulnerable people and getting them hooked on the high-status identity the firm represented, to (p.110) ensure that recruits would submit to the intense demands placed upon them. She emphasized the symbiotic relationship between her firm and these individuals. The insecure overachievers needed to demonstrate success. Her firm was helping them to fulfil that need.
I hadn't really thought about how the intangibility of psychological work impacts on us outside the therapy room, but this gave me pause to think.
The insecurity that is endemic in many professional organizations results from the interaction of three forms of insecurity: professional, organizational, and individual...

...The nature of professional work is inherently ambiguous, bringing with it an enhanced insecurity. Professionals are essentially dealing with intangible inputs and outputs, applying their specialist technical knowledge to the creation of customized solutions to clients’ problems.While the outcome may be tangible (e.g. a completed merger, a complex surgical operation, a newly constructed building), it may take time for clients to be certain whether or not it was a success.It is, therefore, difficult to evaluate either the quality or worth of both inputs and outputs. Those within elite professional organizations must therefore project an impressive organizational image and individual identity to build clients’ trust, and to justify the fees they are charging. ... the intangibility and cost of the service they are offering exacerbates professionals’ sense of insecurity....

...The up-or-out tournament model of promotion exacerbates the insecurity inherent in professional work. Typically, the leverage model ensures that a large number of professionals compete for a progressively smaller number of positions, and at each stage are subject to a rigorous cull of underperformers. Whilst encouraged to espouse the rhetoric of teamwork and cooperation, professionals are pitted against each other in an explicit battle for survival of the fittest
This part talks directly about the sort of person who falls prey to some of the above forces and dynamics.
The third form of insecurity is inherent in the kinds of people who are attracted to the challenge and status offered by elite professional organizations: insecure overachievers... The term ‘insecure overachiever’ combines observable behaviour (achievement) with a subjective judgement about that behaviour (overachievement) and inferences about motivation (insecurity). The concept of the insecure overachiever is more frequently deployed subjectively by professionals themselves rather than objectively by psychologists, but it is closely related to the psychology-based concept of the imposter syndrome...

... the insecure overachiever is a highly intelligent, ‘fiercely ambitious’, and ‘wildly capable’ individual, who is driven by a profound sense of their own inadequacy, stemming typically from experiences of insecurity in childhood. These experiences may encompass psychological, financial, and physical insecurity. For example, children who experience sudden and unexpected poverty may find that as adults they are never able to earn enough to overcome their fear that this will happen again.

Often the insecurity has its origins in parental practices. As Kets de Vries explains, children whose parents are ‘overinvested’ in their achievements and are lacking in human warmth are more likely to become insecure overachievers, believing that their parents will notice and value them more when they are excelling. This attitude may persist as a motivating factor long after they have left home and have achieved exceptional professional success because they have internalized this insecurity as part of their identity...

It is notable that almost all Kets de Vries’s examples of insecure overachievers are drawn from the professions—specifically medicine, engineering, consulting, and investment banking. Academia is particularly prone to this phenomenon.As Kets de Vries puts it, for insecure overachievers grappling with their imposter syndrome, success is worse than meaningless because it increases the risk of their inadequacies being exposed. This, he argues, ‘is the flipside of giftedness which causes many talented, hardworking, and capable leaders…to believe that they don’t deserve their success’

Such individuals make ideal recruits to elite professional organizations. Those who survive the culls are likely to rise to the heights of their firms, assuming they don’t burn out along the way (see the discussion of overwork later in this chapter). As the Chair of a consulting firm explains: ‘A lot of us are very insecure overachievers. I am and I think the best of us are. I think it’s a good thing because I don’t think we ever sit back.’ He goes on to argue: "... the best client relationship builders in our firm are insecure. They are so hell-bent on making their clients feel good about them, that they work overtime. Clients feel their passion and respond to that."

There is, therefore, a symbiotic relationship between insecure overachieving individuals and elite professional organizations. Being chosen by and promoted within an elite professional organization provides huge reassurance for insecure overachievers because the high status of the organization becomes an integral part of their own identity.

In other words, the elite identity of the firm becomes inextricably bound up with the identity of the insecure overachiever—this is the essence of the symbiotic relationship between the professional and their organization, which in turn helps to explain the phenomenon of social control. Given the right combination of circumstances, it is a phenomenon to which any professional may succumb.
There is much more in the book's chapter that is applicable, but probably more aimed at those of us in leadership roles and the expectations we may be placing on those coming through the system. I liked this section in particular.
Greater awareness is a good place to start. Leaders of elite professional organizations should consider the extent to which they themselves may be caught up in the insecure overachiever/social control/overwork dynamic. They have been immensely successful within these environments, and unless they are able to step back and adopt a degree of objectivity and reflexivity, they will be driven to reproduce the more pathological aspects of the organizations in which they have been socialized. So, if you are the leader of a professional organization, or wish to become one, the first step in helping others is to think about yourself—to better understand what is still driving you after all these years, the extent to which it is healthy or unhealthy for yourself and the people you care about, the kind of role model you present to your colleagues, and whether you are willing to accept and respect colleagues whose attitudes and behaviours are demonstrably different from your own.
Shameless plug alert:

Irrelevant Experience: The Secret Diary of an Assistant Psychologist is available at Amazon
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Irrelevant-Expe ... 00EQFE5JW/

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