April 21, 2012

Academia and Achievements: Why is it So Hard for Us to Give Ourselves Rewards?

A few days ago, Academic Ladder coach Susanne Morgan wrote an excellent article about the need for writers to create habits, and in particular, to follow a system in which we first give ourselves cues to write, secondly write, and finally, after we've finished our writing session, we give ourselves rewards.  This is a great way to build a consistent writing habit, and rewards, both internal and external, are a big part of Academic Ladder's philosophy.  But if rewards are so important, then why are we so reluctant to give them to ourselves?  Many of the writing participants I work with have admitted to struggling with this concept, and  I often struggle with it too.

For many of us, it comes down to the culture of academia and the value that the academy places on product versus process.  Most of us have spent a long time in a culture where the amount of work we do is never valued or acknowledged; what matters is the end result.  Our dissertation chairs don't really care how hard or how long we've worked on writing those chapters; in the end, they just want to see words on the page. Likewise, when we prepare our dossiers for reappointment or to go up for tenure, we are constantly told to explain what we've done and have some tangible result to point to.  Publications matter, and to some degree student evaluations, but no one is going to value the hours or smaller tasks it took to achieve these results.

This is why we have to be our own auditors in a way, and we have to be very kind to ourselves in doing so.  When we complete our writing for the day, we need to spend some time acknowledging what we have done rather than beating ourselves up for what we didn't do.  It helps to have realistic goals that we can achieve, because then we're going to be more likely to meet the goal, and therefore to believe we deserve the corresponding reward.  It also helps, as one writing participant has suggested, to map out the rewards ahead of time, so that you know going into the writing session what the reward will be, and therefore will be more likely to want to work towards it.

Another way to look at this is instead of viewing the rewards as rewards, to view them as what one writing club participant calls "balancing activities," activities that will provide a balance to the intense, often mentally draining work of academic writing.  This way, even if you don't quite meet that day's goal, you can still participate in the balancing activity.  This is extremely important if you are giving yourself a walk or a physical activity as a reward.  So then if you fall slightly short of your goal, should you not work out?  Of course not!  Make sure that you are still taking care of yourself in the middle of all of this.  And continue to look back at your writing sessions and check for the times that you've been unrealistic or overly ambitious in your plan for the day or the week.  Remember to choose small, achievable goals rather than setting your sights on your own personal Everests that you may or may not be able to achieve.  You can certainly have those Everests, but remember that you won't climb the mountain all at once!  And valuing each step along the way has its merits.

What about you?  What rewards do you give yourself?  How do you work past the feeling that you don't deserve the reward?

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At 8:37 PM, Anonymous Rohan Maitzen said...

Great topic. I agree about the 'product vs. process' mentality. It is omnipresent: one recent example in my own experience is that my dept was developing a points system for measuring workload and all the points for graduate supervision are to be awarded only when the student graduates. Within a system like this, it is crucial (but difficult) to acknowledge the work you are doing along the way. I would also add that with the academy acknowledgment and rewards usually attach only to a very particular list of work that 'counts.' Academics who blog know that this work will probably not count: the rewards will mostly be intrinsic, but they don't have to be! And the same goes for non-academic publications (e.g. non-specialized-peer-reviewed articles and monographs). Just because they won't get you tenure doesn't mean they have no value! I have found that one of the hardest mental habits for me to break out of is feeling guilt, rather than a sense of accomplishment, for work of this kind.

At 4:46 PM, Blogger Kathryn Paterson said...

Thanks so much for this comment, Rohan! I want to laminate the sentence "just because they won't get you tenure doesn't mean they have no value!" It's so true, but it's also so difficult to fit in time for anything else when people are so focused on getting tenure. It's hard to feel anything but guilt for doing work that doesn't "count" or for (gasp) actually relaxing or exercising or taking care of ourselves. This is one of the reasons that I started looking at other options besides the tenure track, by the way, because I felt the whole system was not really in line with my values.


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