Managing stress: I want to live past 50

I’m stressed out. I’ve been stressed out for a long time now. I can’t even recall last time I was laid back. Everybody is overworked, everybody complains, but this post is about me deciding to do something about it. Or, at least, trying to decide.

The last time I was relaxed dates back to the summer of 2002. Life was good: I was starting a new job as a researcher at the National Research Council of Canada, leaving a professorship at Acadia University, and I had just won the best paper award at CASCON. It wasn’t the summer of my dreams, but I recall being relaxed and laid back.

Then things went to hell. I got a job as the team leader of a research group, got into the funding application madness. Switch job, switch job again. All along my career is doing fine, I’m getting great jobs, teaching great courses, publishing fantastic papers at good places, meeting great people, establishing valuable collaborations. But the stress levels are not coming down.

Some things have been good. Lohan was my little 2004 miracle, my wife is still around and we still love each other very much. However, I realize that my job has been taking a toll on my well-being. I’ve not been particularly sick and I’m not going crazy. However, I woke up this morning feeling a lot of pressure on my shoulders. Not just symbolically speaking. My shoulders are tense and have been tense for a long time now. For the first time in a long while, I took the week-end off to be with my family. Actually, the cold hard truth is that I simply could not find the energy in me to work more. In short, I’m burning out, or it feels like it.

I feel like I’ve been sprinting for 2 years now. I achieved a hell of a lot in 2 years. I think I’ve met every single objective I had set for myself 2 years ago. And now what?

Where do I go from there?

Some things that are tough:

  1. being actively involved at work, chairing committees, being a member of several committees;
  2. being actively involved in several research projects;
  3. being actively involved in several teaching programs (undegraduate, graduate);
  4. travelling: I don’t do much of it, but it is taking its toll nonetheless.

I think I need to refocus. I need to settle on fewer research projects for a short while and start saying no to new projects since I’ve got more than enough underway. I need to start saying no to committee work (I did my share). I need to be less ambitious with respect to teaching: focus on one course, one program at a time and don’t try to push everything at once. Travelling: I need to consider boycotting any conference which requires airfare for some time.

Notice that almost every single decision in the paragraph above has a possibly negative impact on my career. The question I need to ask myself is whether I’m doing enough, not enough, or too much. I think I’m doing too much, but what would my peers think? What if my peers think I’m doing barely enough as it is? What then? Do I drop out of academia and find an easier job?

It seems that whenever you get a peer review, there are always hints that you could have done so much more. Fair enough. We can always do more. But when is it enough? How do we define “enough”?

Daniel Lemire, "Managing stress: I want to live past 50," in Daniel Lemire's blog, April 18, 2005.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

4 thoughts on “Managing stress: I want to live past 50”

  1. Watch out for burn out. Working too much makes you work more but at the same time actually do less work in a self perpetuating cycle. Been there, done that, and it has the potential to be much more damaging to your career than stepping back and taking it a bit easier… We need 48 hour days 🙂

  2. Ah! Well, obviously, if you forgo the research, then a professorship is a very easy job.

    The committees are often quite a waste of time and just dumb politics. But it is still hard work.

    Teaching is not so bad if that’s all you’ve got to do.

    So, I think that, in theory, academia is a job for the lazy. In theory, you could take the job, work hard for tenure, and then, once you’ve got it, just have an easy ride. Some do it. It is a very small minority.

  3. When I was working in a startup company, I used to work from 9 am to 10 pm with about 2 hrs of break in between. At that time, I was also teaching a course in a small California State University nearby. It appeared to me that the full time professors had a very easy time. Most only show up for the class time. All of them fight really hard to minimize their teaching commitment. Meetings go on for ever without any agreements. None of the faculty members were active in research.

    The startup failed and I applied to the University for a tenure track position and was offered one. However, just before I was about to accept the offer, I got a position in a large company in the Silicon Valley with nearly 3 times the salary and I decided to decline the University offer.

    Sometimes, when my workload is high at work, I think, I should have taken the univerity position. I guess the grass is greener on the other side.

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