Going with the Flow
Why Slow Work Days, Rest, and Hobbies Make Us More Productive
Academia can sometimes feel like you’re fighting for your life. The pressure to perform, to excel, or to win can make us feel like we constantly have to be working at a frenetic pace. Both graduate students and new faculty believe they must sprint throughout the day in order to do their jobs and do them well. If you've been reading Publish Not Perish for a while, you know that I promote carefully organizing your schedule in order to achieve your objectives and lessen some of the pressure that comes with this job. I argue for planning your writing schedule like you plan your syllabus, for example.
The pressure to perform, to excel, or to win can make us feel like we constantly have to be working at a frenetic pace.
I must admit, though, that I'm not a planner or a type-A personality by nature. Planning and goal-setting are learned abilities that aid me in negotiating the challenging terrain of a career that doesn't actually allow much time for research and writing. This means that for someone who doesn't naturally gravitate toward these strategies, scheduling, planning, and achieving can become exhausting.
To combat this, I take periods of time where I abandon the hamster wheel of planning and achieving and just go with the flow. To illustrate the “going with the flow” mindset, I return to some lessons I’ve learned while training the martial art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu for nearly 10 years. I’ve written about the lessons I’ve learned from my martial arts practice before, and likely will again!
Fighting For You Life
Sparring in Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ or jiu jitsu, for short) often reminds me of academia. Rolling, which is what we call sparring, can be an intense experience. As soon as you slap hands with a training partner, your body is caught up in a competitive, sweaty, and tense game of chess, where one wrong move could result in someone else smashing you for a while or choking you until you submit. Many rolls are competitive and exhausting. This game we play at involves intense adrenaline rushes, discomfort, and even some degree of pain.
Numerous aspects of academic life can resemble the roll I just described. Being on the academic job market while precariously employed is a prime example. I had already invested six years in graduate school when I first entered the job market, and I was determined to find a tenure-track position. Even the most talented among us find those positions to be increasingly scarce. (Allow me to state it clearly yet again: the academy is NOT a meritocracy.) I had a mindset very similar to a competitive BJJ match when I was first on the market. I was under a lot of pressure; adrenaline was pumping through my veins, and I thought one wrong move would ruin my chances of doing this career at all.
You might be wondering why the hell I train martial arts if rolling feels like this! Let me highlight a crucial distinction between fighting for your life in BJJ and fighting for your life in academia: consent.
Rolling in BJJ doesn’t always have to be as intense. To some extent, yes, all jiu jitsu practitioners are masochists, but not in every roll! Sparring is an activity that requires mutual consent and communication between partners. I can tell my partner if I'm injured, exhausted, or just don't feel like pushing my body and soul to the limit that day, and they respect request to train more leisurely. Consent is essential for safely training in martial arts and for distinguishing the practice from real violence. Consent fosters intimate and trusting relationships with your training partners.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just ask academia to roll lightly when we are injured, exhausted, or just don’t feel like pushing our bodies and souls to the limit?
Sometimes I communicate with my training partner that I want to “flow roll.” In jiu jitsu, a flow roll means you train lighter, you don’t finish submissions (i.e., you might hold a person’s arm, but not try for an armbar submission), and you don’t seek to dominate or smash. Instead, you keep moving throughout the roll and remove the quest to win. Jiu-jitsu turns into a dance that you and your partner perform together rather than fighting. With flow rolling, the emphasis is on constant movement and jiu jitsu exploration rather than on winning.
My dear readers already know that I’m an advocate of flow writing. As I write in On Flow Writing and the Shitty First Draft,
Flow writing simply refers to the process of letting ideas freely flow through you and using a pen or the keyboard to record them. This type of writing a) can help us get started writing for the day or b) help us think up new possibilities.
You can tell that my description of flow writing was influenced by jiu-jitsu. Letting go of any preconceived notions of winning, perfection, or being good at something is a powerful way to relieve some of your own pressure and open your mind to new possibilities, whether you're writing or rolling. A similar concept is covered by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang in his book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. He calls it “deep play”:
…deep play is mentally absorbing. It offers the player challenges to face and problems to solve. Like all recovery experiences, that engagement doesn’t require effort: the player falls into the game easily. It may give the player the chance to learn new things, or discover things about themselves…
Flow rolling always opens up possibilities in jiu-jitsu that I haven’t thought about before because I have released my inhibitions. The same holds true for flow writing.
Letting go of any preconceived notions of winning, perfection, or being good at something is a powerful way to relieve some of your own pressure and open your mind to new possibilities, whether you're writing or rolling.
Having Flow Days, Weeks, or Even Months
Another way I incorporate the idea of flowing into my work is by taking breaks from difficult tasks for days, weeks, or even months at a time. I’ve written about the strategy of blocking one’s schedule, focusing on one task at a time, and adhering to a schedule that prioritizes writing first and other tasks after. Even though I think overall this strategy helps me reach my objectives, I don't always work this way. In fact, I couldn’t because I would burn out.
On some days, I work without any specific objectives in mind; I jump from task to task without having a plan, and I concentrate on work that makes me feel good and doesn't consume a lot of my energy. I typically schedule Monday through Thursday and leave Fridays to flow roll through the day.
Point and case: I wrote this post on Friday while watching World Cup matches. Writing these posts is less stressful than writing research, so I tend to view it as more creative, experimental, and enjoyable. I don’t also mind having the distraction of the games while I write, and I find the interplay between them relaxing. I'm not rushing through my day trying to cross things off of my to-do list or feel pressure to accomplish anything. I enjoy working on this newsletter, and even though I won't be given tenure for it, I value the way I can enter a state of flow while I write.
After periods of intense work, like a string of big deadlines in a month, I will take a week or more to work at a slower pace on less taxing pursuits. I let go of any research or high-value goals and just flow for a while. Flowing gives my brain a mental recharge, making me more productive when the demanding work periods return. As Pang argues, work and rest shouldn’t be thought of as opposites.
Flowing gives my brain a mental recharge, making me more productive when the demanding work periods return.
In academia, we frequently associate rest with sleeping or taking a few weeks off from work altogether. But rest also means doing a crossword puzzle, taking Fido for a walk, reading a good novel, or playing mat chess with friends who are trying to choke you. Rest can also mean taking your foot off the gas for a while at work so you can decompress from intense work periods and just flow through your workweek instead.
Find Your Flow
The biggest piece of advice I can give about taking time to have some flow hours, days, weeks, or months is to give yourself permission to work this way for periods of time. According to Pang's research, rest increases productivity over the long term. So embrace your hobbies, slow-paced days at work, and weeks where you completely unplug from the daily grind. Resist the feeling like you should be working harder or longer. That’s ironically counterproductive for your goals. If you doubt rest leads to productivity, then read Pang’s book. It’s enlightening.
Jiu jitsu is restful for me. When I train, I am unable to think of anything else for fear of being choked unconscious. It’s the part of my week when I feel most mindful. You might find it surprising, but having a demanding hobby that requires my utmost attention is profoundly relaxing. I can feel the stress leaving my body when I train; it's cathartic.
Find your jiu jitsu, dear reader, and allow yourself to lean into the flow in work and in rest.