Busy Season: Notes from the depths of scheduling hell

We public health workers are busy people.  Most of us don’t just work from nine to five, even if those are our scheduled hours.  Even when we’re not on the clock, we’re learning, hanging out in Twitter chats, reading blogs, going to public health book clubs, or informing some poor, unexpecting strangers at happy hour about alarming STD rates in their city.  We’re not in the highest-paid of fields, so many of us wind up with side gigs.  We work in a culture that places a heavy emphasis on continuing education and advanced degrees, so a lot of us wind up taking classes while working.  Given that we’re humans, we’re also trying to build and maintain friendships with families, friends, and partners.  And maybe have some fun every once in a while.

Did I mention that we’re busy people?

That being said, we all have times that are busier than others.  I’m going through one of those times myself.  It’s probably the busiest I’ve ever been, so I’m going to share how I’m getting through it in hopes that it proves useful for your own busy seasons.  I’m not, however, going to lecture you on self-care.  After all, you know what they say about people in glass houses.

Plan ahead (if you can).  

You’re probably a smart cookie that can tell the difference between when you can and can’t do this.  Don’t enroll in classes for the spring semester in November and then act surprised when they actually start in January.  Same goes for annual busy times in your work.

Set expectations and boundaries.

This applies anyone that expects things from you.  This is probably a lot of people.  Be clear that you will need to be less available for a period of time (and be specific about the length of time, if you can).  Focus on what you most need to get done.  If you wind up doing a lot for the benefit of other people, you’re going to have to cut back – unless someone is asking you for a favor that will take less than five minutes.  Then, just do it.

Identify your support system.  

Try to spend most of your limited time with the most supportive people you can find.  If you’re getting a rare night off and want to see someone, make sure it’s someone that won’t try to harass you into staying out later than you want to – even if it’s good-natured.  Sounds obvious, but allocate that time to people that will build you up.  Last week one of my oldest friends was in town for an interview.  I couldn’t rearrange my schedule for normal evening hours, so we had a weeknight sleepover party at her hotel instead.

Recognize that this too shall pass.

Really, it will.  Remember, this is not advice about how to survive a chronically intensely overscheduled life.  I can’t help you with that.

Choose working hours.  

Right now, mine are 9am-10pm on weekdays and 10am-10pm on weekends.  How I work within those hours is somewhat flexible, and it varies by day of the week.  There are breaks in there, but I don’t consider myself done for the day until 10.  I have somewhat loosely allotted time blocks that have an excessive amount of time built in for schoolwork.  That way, my whole week isn’t thrown off if I can’t focus one day.  For example, here’s my Tuesday schedule:

9:00am-3:45pm Work

3:45pm-4:15pm Drive to school

4:30pm-5:00pm Meeting with advisor

5:00pm-7:15pm Studying

7:30pm – 8:30pm Gym

8:45pm – 10:00pm Studying

10:00pm Go the hell home

I do make room for additional events in my pre-set weekly schedule when necessary, but only at my own discretion.  (I try to do this at least one evening a week.)  The rough criteria for this are some combination of the following:

  1. The event is time-sensitive.  My friend was only in town last week, so that counts.  Meetings or meals to prepare for upcoming events that I am helping to plan also count.
  2. My presence is important to the event.  This does not mean “I think I should be there.”  This does include “I have to run this meeting, so I should probably show up.”
  3. The event is deeply important to me.  Self-explanatory.

Figure out how you work best.

I usually work in pomodoros, which are series of twenty-five minute periods of focused work separated by five minute breaks.  If I’m working on my computer, I use Focus Booster.  If I’m reading, I just use the timer on my phone.

I’ve also found noise to be incredibly important to how I work lately, especially for academic reading.  When I’m reading, I need either complete silence or some combination of background noise and music.  My background noise app of choice is Coffitivity.  If I’m doing less intense reading or completing work-related tasks, I’m pretty much always listening to the same massive playlist.

Move around.  

Splitting my time between different locations has been pretty essential to not falling asleep on top of a binder.  It jogs my brain, even if I’m just relocating to another room in the house or to the other side of the dining room table.

Eat.

I’m not going to explain why good nutrition is essential to having a body that can Get Things Done.  You know this.  Even so, the busier we get, the more likely we are to subsist on a diet of coffee and vending machine snacks.  And we’re also more likely to stop for food while out, which adds up fast and still isn’t great for you.

To avoid devolving into a diet of Ramen, I acquired a number of shelf-stable foods.  (Have you been in the applesauce aisle at the grocery store lately?  Talk about choice paralysis.)  I bargain-hunted on Amazon Subscribe & Save.  I signed up for Graze, which sends you 4 new snacks every other week for $6.  I had a cooking marathon during the first weekend of the semester, which included roasting two chickens at once and stuffing my freezer with dozens of containers of ready-to-eat food.

We’re a month into the semester and I don’t think I’ve bought lunch out once.  I usually wind up eating my dinner while working too.  And breakfast.  I’ve managed to keep a varied, filling, non-soul-sucking diet the whole time.  Although I do occasionally buy snacks out, because mozzarella sticks.

Behold, my office snack drawer.

Behold, my office snack drawer.

And finally, sleep.  

As tempting as it is, don’t compromise on this.  Sleep is essential.  Seven to eight hours a night.  I’ve minimized my morning routine to ensure this happens by declaring a moratorium on makeup and hairstyling except for special occasions.  I’ve even started taking short naps on the weekends when I can, in order to better process all the new information I’m taking in.  It works.

There you have it.  How do you cope with particularly busy times?

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