‘I’ll Be Happy When…’

to-do-list

How often do you find yourself uttering the words ‘I’ll be so happy when it’s done’? The ‘it’ in this sentence could be any number of things, but it usually refers to a particular project or task you are working on.

I found myself saying this seemingly harmless phrase all throughout my time as a student. First it was ‘I’ll be happy when my exams are over’ and then it was ‘I’ll be happy when my dissertation is done.’ By the time I reached the PhD level, I felt as though nothing could give me greater satisfaction than completing my thesis. Surely this was the moment when I could finally relax and be happy – after all, the PhD was the highest degree I could obtain and the culmination of several years of hard work, so what could possibly come next?

As soon as I had jumped over the PhD hurdle, I quickly found out that there was a host of further ‘I’ll be happy whens’ waiting for me on the other side: I’ll be happy when I land my first academic post; I’ll be happy when I publish my thesis as a book; I’ll be happy when I get my first major research grant, and the list goes on and on. It literally never ends, as there is always something else to reach for and something else to be done.

So waiting until things are crossed off a ‘to do’ list before relaxing and taking a breath is not a sustainable approach to work. It also makes us prone to ignoring the importance of enjoying life – even in the midst of writing a conference paper, marking, or whatever the task may be. Moreover, by placing so much emphasis on getting things ‘done’ and reaching our destination, it’s all too easy to overlook the satisfaction that comes from the steps we take along our path.

Coming to grips with the reality that there will always be things on my ‘to do’ list has encouraged me to stop saying ‘I’ll be happy when’ and to instead ask: how can I be happy now?

All Work and No Play: Are 24-Hour University Libraries a Good Idea?

24 Hours

In recent years there has been a noticeable expansion in wellbeing-related activity across many higher education institutions. Nearly every university now has a designated welfare officer or welfare rep, and an increasing number of institutions are starting to organise wellbeing events throughout the academic year. This growing commitment towards wellbeing has, however, occurred alongside another trend which constitutes a significant step back for advancing wellbeing in higher education – the introduction of 24-hour libraries.

In a study conducted by the Guardian, 77% of students that were surveyed indicated their preference for libraries to remain open around-the-clock. In their continuing bid to attract students, many Universities across the UK, including Leeds, Reading, LSE and King’s, have responded by extending library hours.

Among the reasons given by the students who have made this request is a desire for greater flexibility and more convenience. This may stem from the fact that students today tend to juggle their studies with other commitments, and may therefore need to use the library outside of regular hours.

Although the desire for convenience and flexibility is understandable, there is a considerable difference between late opening hours and 24-hour opening. Whatever the reasons are, working through the night and into the early hours of the morning does have a negative impact on wellbeing, as Bridget O’Connell of the mental health charity Mind has highlighted:

“While it is good that universities are allowing students to access libraries at a time that suits them, there is the concern that it could result in students feeling that they should be spending every spare moment studying. This is not a sustainable approach. Extended periods of pressure, including a lack of sleep, not eating properly, a lack of getting outdoors and exercising can all have a huge impact on mental wellbeing.”

Some Universities have opted for something of a middle ground and now offer 24-hour opening during exam periods only. Yet this approach is even more problematic, as it is specifically in times of intense pressure and stress that health and wellbeing so often take a back seat. Keeping libraries open at all hours during exam periods simply buys into the idea that academic performance should be prioritized over everything else (including sleep!).

Another point to bear in mind is that stress does not automatically end the moment a student graduates. Although they may be free of exams and dissertation writing, they will undoubtedly encounter other pressures in life. As such, the higher education community has a responsibility to consider not only the content of the curriculum, but also how students approach their studies and commitments. This includes providing an environment that fosters healthy working patterns and strategies for managing stress.

By having libraries remain open all night, universities are sending the wrong message to their students and enabling a terrible habit that will make it harder for them to cope with stress in the future.

While I can appreciate that Universities want to do all they can to continue attracting students, this objective should not come at the expense of wellbeing.

The Trouble with ‘Keep Calm and Study On’

You are probably familiar with the phrase ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, but do you know where the phrase comes from? It was actually coined by the UK’s Ministry of Information during the Second World War. The Government printed the phrase on a number of motivational posters at the height of the war in order to boost the morale of the British public throughout the war effort. The sentiments behind the poster are commonly seen as a testament to the ‘stiff upper lip’ approach, which is essentially a form of stoicism in the face of adversity.

Keep Calm

Since that time, the phrase ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ has been co-opted for several other purposes. These days it is impossible to walk into a greeting card shop without seeing various incarnations of this phrase applied to other situations. So I was very interested when I wandered into one university book shop and spotted a card that read ‘Keep Calm and Study On.’ Although the card was intended as a joke, the meaning isn’t too far off from the general approach towards work and stress management in academia.

There tends to be a belief that, irrespective of how challenging or difficult a task may be, whenever we confront a stumbling block we should ‘power through’. This was certainly the approach that was practiced when I was a student and I continue to see colleagues adhering to the ethos of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ when it comes to their own work.

But I can’t help but wonder – is a war analogy entirely appropriate for coping with academic stress? The message it sends is that we should overlook how we are feeling in any given moment in order to complete the task at hand.

I can definitely attest to instances when I’ve set aside feeling overwhelmed, stressed and tired – perhaps turning to caffeine or sugar to give me the quick boost I need to power through. In such moments it was as though nothing was more important than completing whatever task I had on my plate, whether it was writing a book chapter, answering emails, marking, or preparing a presentation. Many of us have developed a pattern of approaching our work in this way.

Ignoring how one feels may be necessary in the context of a war, but should we really be stoic when it comes to our work?

The reality is that applying a stiff upper lip approach towards our studies and work can be quite detrimental. The more we ignore how we feel, both physically and mentally, the more we set ourselves up for unhappiness, chronic stress, and a host of other health-related challenges. But irrespective of the consequences, once we’ve grown accustomed to neglecting our physical and mental wellbeing, it can be a tough habit to break.

Our work and studies should not be viewed as a struggle or something to simply get through. This is perhaps what is most misleading about the ‘Keep Calm and Study On’ ethos in academia. It teaches us that our work is meant to be a struggle and that we shouldn’t expect it to be enjoyable.

The truth is that it is entirely possible to enjoy our work and it is actually when we take good care of ourselves that things flow. It’s when we don’t that our work tends to take double the amount of time and feels like a slog.

In order to get into the space where our work can flow, it is crucial that we resist the inclination to power through it at all costs and to start to consciously pay attention to how we are feeling. In other words, it requires us to reject the notion of keeping calm and carrying on.