Preparing for a new semester: Make plans now to manage your future stress

Originally published in the “Prof. Hacker” blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education on August 28, 2009.

By George Williams (with Oberlin context additions from Steve Volk).

Whether you’re a student or an instructor or a researcher or some combination of those things, your semester is about to get very, very busy. No, seriously. Unfortunately, this means that your stress level is about to go up significantly–unless you’re a zen master who’s learned to bend like a willow in a heavy storm, in which case please contact team ProfHacker a.s.a.p. so we can ask you to be our official therapist or offer you a position as one of our writers. Natalie Angier of The New York Times, reports that your “Brain is a Co-Conspirator in a Vicious Stress Loop,” according to a new study to be published in Science.  (You can read more about stress and anxiety on this NYT “Times Topics” page.)

Fortunately, the causes of your stress are easy to predict because the ProfHacker labs have developed a patented crystal ball that looks into the future the semester-long pattern tends to repeat itself over and over again, with some variations depending on circumstances.

Here’s what you need to do right now: anticipate what’s going to frustrate or overwhelm you and make plans for keeping the stress that results to a minimum.

We’re team ProfHacker, and we’re here to help. What follows are a few specific suggestions learned from experience.

1. Learn to say “No” gracefully but firmly. Students will ask for extensions on deadlines or object to your course policies or complain about a grade. Colleagues will ask you to be on committees. Community members will ask you to volunteer for projects. Family members will wonder why you’re not flying home for the 3-day weekend that’s coming up. Here’s what you must learn how to say when you decide it’s appropriate: “Thank you for taking the time to contact me. Unfortunately, I need to say no right now because my plate is full. I understand your needs, but I’ve already made my plans for the semester and it won’t be possible to make the changes you’re asking for. Here’s a suggestion for what you might do: (fill in the blank, but perhaps point them in the direction of someone else who could help them). I hope you’ll understand my reasons, and (optional: ) I hope you’ll understand why I have to say no.” Women, especially, are raised to be accommodating to the needs of others, and this can be a recipe for disaster. However, you cannot do everything for everyone or be all things for all people. If your correspondents fail to respect your “No,” then say “I’m sorry that you feel that way, but I’ve learned that if I say ‘Yes’ to everything, I might as well say ‘Yes’ to nothing. I can either do a good job on a limited number of things, or I can do a bad job at a great many things. I don’t want to do a bad job at anything. Thank you for understanding.” Updated to add: You should say this as soon as the request is made; don’t make the mistake of procrastinating so that you can think about it or because the idea of saying “No” makes you uncomfortable. Just do it. You’ll be a lot more uncomfortable if you have to keep hearing, “Did you get my email? Have you made a decision? Did you get my email? Have you made a decision?”

[Steve: Knowing WHEN to say know is not as easy as it seems. Sometimes it’s obvious (e.g. when a colleague in asks you to join her panel at your professional conference to present a paper that is only marginally connected to what you are working on at the moment; when a student asks you to attend his lacrosse game on your daughter’s birthday, etc.), but sometimes it’s not. Perhaps your Chair asks you to take on an obligation that is relatively time consuming, or the Dean’s office asks you to be on a committee that you consider very important, but this is the year that you have know you have to finish your book manuscript. If you are unsure – particularly if you are a junior faculty – ask a colleague in the department or elsewhere for advice. On many of these matters, they will know better when you really can’t say “No” and when it’s OK.]

2. Get some sleep. Although–as they say–your mileage may vary on this one, you simply cannot sustain a work life that requires you to stay up until it’s almost time to get up. Either learn to make do with the time that you have available to you or cut back on the number of responsibilities that you have. If you’re not getting the necessary 6-to-9 hours of sleep a night that most people need, you’re going to crash and burn at some point. Even Superman–who doesn’t require sleep (back me up on this one, comic book fanboys/girls)–needs to dream.

3. Exercise. Go for a walk, keep up your running habit, take yoga classes, [go to the] gym–whatever it is that makes your body move and start to release some of those sweet, sweet endorphins, do it. You’ll feel much better and return to the work you have to do with more energy and some much-needed perspective.

[Steve: Some advice from a previous workshop on stress: try to get out of your office once during the day and take a quick spin around Tappan Square – 15 minutes tops, and you’ll feel better. Also: find a buddy who can share your exercise routine; it’s always easier to do with a friend and often harder to say no to.]

4. Eat. I mean, really, do you think it’s a good idea to skip having a decent meal so that you can spend thirty more minutes on that grant proposal? Does your brain run on air and espresso? Are you sure?

5. Consider meditation. You don’t have to be Pema Chodron to embrace the benefits of mindfulness and an ongoing attempt to let settle all of the chaos swirling around your brain at any given time. Meditation is free, it doesn’t take much time, it doesn’t require the purchase of any supplies, and you can do it just about anywhere. Give it a try: start with 5 minutes and work your way up to as long as you like.

[Steve: Don’t forget the “Slow Pedagogy” workshop on September 26 with Allison Pingree, this should be just what you need. RSVP to]

6. Stay in touch with friends and family. It’s easy to think that the argument in the last committee meeting over what typeface to use in the official reports is the most. important. issue. ever. but talking with the people who love and support you can bring you some much needed perspective–as long as you’re open to hearing what they have to say. And if your biological family tends to make things worse–as they do for many people, especially members of the LGBTQ community–then think about who your “family of choice” is and stay in touch with them, instead.

[Steve: Can’t stress this enough. Talk with friends, mentors, colleagues – share. It will help get you through.]

7. Realize that “perfect” is the enemy of “good.” If you keep tweaking and tweaking and tweaking that article, that syllabus, that course plan, that blog entry–guilty as charged–you’re going to reach a level of diminishing returns pretty darned fast. It’s good, just print it out or send it in or upload it and move on to other things. Take my word for it: you’ll be fine.

[Steve: 8. Let go of it. I still remember negative student comments on my evaluations from my first semester here…27 years ago?!? I can still feel a little twist in my stomach when I think on an argument I had years ago. Often I can’t remember what the argument was about, but can still feel the upset. Don’t hold on to that stuff. If someone criticized you, your work, or how you live your life and you felt there was something that struck a chord,  write it down so you can think about it more constructively when you’re not as emotionally engaged. If you really think the criticism was unfounded, leave it behind. Soon it will be hard enough to remember where you left your coffee cup; you don’t need that 2-decade old argument taking up space in your mental hard drive.]

[SV: So, what do you think? What are your strategies for managing your stress? Add a comment and tell us what works for you as you manage stress.]

3 thoughts on “Preparing for a new semester: Make plans now to manage your future stress

  1. Pingback: Reflection and the First Week of Classes | Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence

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