When I was younger, September held a different significance for me. It was when the trees would begin changing colors. The nights would get a little bit cooler and bearable from the scorching Summer. School had started up again and I got to see my friends after what felt like a long break. It was also the name of song that my family absolutely loved—my aunt in particular—who would turn it up loudly anytime it was on the radio. 🎶“Do you remember? The 21st night of September? Love was changin’ the minds of pretenders. While chasin’ the clouds away” 🎶. We would sing the chorus over and over (mostly because it was very easy to sing as a kid) and I recall always feeling like this time of year was filled with change, new beginnings, and excitement.
Fast forward to now. As a professional in Residence Life, September is more like a blur. Days start early and consist of endless meetings with no breaks in between (that could have been emails), large-scale events and programs to welcome and connect students, and an inbox of emails that seem to come in faster than I can answer them. By the time I finally get home, I am often too exhausted to do basic things like cook a meal, do laundry, or workout so I resort to takeout, catching up on Netflix and going to sleep to start all over again tomorrow. To answer the question from my family’s beloved song, I dont remember much of September with all the things going on!
Does any of this ring true for you? By the time September arrives, surely some of us are feeling the effects of all the work we put into August. And considering the end to this period of high visibility, endless administrative tasks, and time-consuming meetings is likely still a month away, we run the risk of burning out by the 2nd month of the academic year. Over the years, I have learned ways to protect my time, energy, and space to prevent my battery depleting to 0. With the hopes that it could do the same for you, I will go over some tips and tricks to push through!
Reclaim Your Time
Schedule Lunch: How many of you have heard to block out your calendar for lunch? I remember the first time I heard that as a graduate student and found it a funny concept since who would ever want to skip lunch? But over the years, and especially once the pandemic arrived, it seems this sacred time has slowly become a go-to slot to conduct zoom meetings, calls, and even in-person sessions. Ironically, I assume the reason the lunch window is often the best time for a group to come together is that folks are purposely scheduling meetings around it so they have time to eat, recharge, and take a break. However, with the rapid pace of work and an unavoidable sense of urgency that often accompanies the work of Residence Life, this once humorous advice seems now a standard to maintain the ability to recharge mid-way through your day.
Implement Office Hours: Do you find that you lose time to impromptu meetings or folks stopping by your office? Does your inbox get out of control at times and you don’t know where to start? Consider instituting office hours and open office hours on a daily basis (yes there is a difference). Office hours would be blocks of time that you set aside to get work done. It could be dedicating a day every week for the same task like conduct hearings or it could be daily blocks that allow you uninterrupted time to get through your tasks. For me, I have found the latter helpful and utilized it to block the first and last 30-minutes of the work day and to use that time exclusively to review emails and to create a priority list for the day. Knowing that our work is never typical, doing the same process for 30 minutes at the end of the day serves as a great bookend to review any outstanding emails and to also reevaluate what you were able to accomplish on your list and what remains left to be done.
By preemptively blocking off time to complete the work on your radar, it reveals the open spots you have to leave your door open for folks to stop by or drop in. The reality is, we can’t be unavailable to the people and students that need us, but we can engineer our time so we are not at the mercy of others’ whims.
Replenish Your Energy
Prolong Your Weekends: We can all probably agree that a 5 day work week may not be the best approach to maximizing employee productivity. Considering how much time and energy Residence Life Professionals pour into their work over a short period, it can easily feel that we have lost a whole month or at least, all of our weekends to our job. Fortunately, COVID has shifted our view of the workplace as well as of employee well-being and engagement and one of the best things I feel has come from that spotlight has been flexible work schedules. In order to recharge and get yourself back to equilibrium, leverage your institution and/or department’s policy around flexible work to your advantage. An approach that was helpful for me was choosing to telework or take off on Fridays or Mondays because it gave me the feeling that I had a “full weekend.” This felt like a game changer as I always found Sundays to not feel like much of a weekend since I would inevitably be doing something in preparation for the week to come (laundry, drafting emails, cooking). However, by leveraging the beginning and end of the week, I was able to both get necessary work done while spreading my weekly tasks and chores out so I dedicate more time to doing things I personally enjoy and find to recharge my battery.
Another strategy might be to utilize the flexible schedule immediately before or after a particularly time-consuming event—such as being on call or move-in. If you are anything like me, you might have difficulty falling asleep or sleep poorly leading up to some big task you have to oversee and if that happens consecutively over a few days, you start to accumulate what is called “sleep debt” or the buildup of fatigue from lack of sleep. If this debt grows large enough, we start to get sick, we make mistakes and have trouble with comprehension, and our overall performance worsens until we are able to pay the debt back to our body.
Catching up on sleep, taking things at a relaxed pace, and having time to take care of non-work items, are all ways we can feel ready to get back to the grind. The key is identifying when you can take breaks and doing so before your body makes the decision for you.
Meal Prep for Success: A popular phrase goes, “you are what you eat.” That is, what you put into your body has an impact on how you feel and the energy and attention you can give to things such as your work. While some of us are fortunate enough to have the perk of a meal plan, even the proximity and ease of food doesn’t necessarily mean that we are nourishing our body. For instance, too often have I seen busy colleagues skip lunch or simply grab the fastest option they can find because they are overwhelmed and/or had no time to grocery shop and prepare food. The immediate impact of this is not as important as the long-term effect if this becomes a regular practice. That is, if we don’t take care of our bodies by giving it the nutrients and sustenance it needs to function, we enter an endless cycle of feeling off which will likely creep into other aspects of our life (how and when we sleep, our mood, our health, etc.).
During times when we anticipate being stressed or short on time, consider shopping in bulk or investing in a meal prep service to make sure that you always have healthy food on hand. I started meal prepping when I was still a live-in staff member and having the ability to choose fresh ingredients on a weekly basis to cook and separate into several meals for the week saved me at least 30 minutes a day from traveling or waiting in line which allowed my lunch hour to be maximized to its fullest. What’s more, I was able to feel more energized throughout the day because I wasn’t just running to the pizza station at the dining hall.
Have Something or Someone on the Outside: As a live-in staff member, I had a tough time striking a balance between work and life. Even when I wasn’t working, I was still at work, so it was all too easy to fall into traps like responding to an email that came in after hours or helping a student who saw me out and about, or bringing up work in conversations when my colleagues and I would get together to hang out. I found these behaviors carried over to when I moved off campus and before I knew it, my job had taken up so much space in my life that I had an unhealthy attachment to what did and did not happen in the workplace. It wasn’t until I joined a social sports league and began to make connections with folks outside of my work bubble that my perspective and priorities shifted. That is, the extra time I was putting into the one-off work tasks were redistributed into building friendships, hobbies, and having fun. I found that I was happier, I developed better coping mechanisms, and I was more satisfied on a day-to-day basis even when things at work were difficult or overwhelming. A social outlet might not be the solution for everyone, so consider these options as well:
- taking lessons or classes for personal or professional development
- picking up a hobby or pastime that brings you joy
- regularly planning a trip to a location you’ve wanted to see
- Joining an organization or cause to volunteer your time
As Residence Life Professionals, it is paramount to have healthy boundaries to counteract the high-touch, high-visibility, high-energy environment that encompasses our work. Be it a thing or a person, be sure that you have something else to live for other than your work. While the work we do can certainly be rewarding, it won’t take the place of friendships, personal successes, and growth. Remember to invest in you as much as you invest in your residents.
September marks a time for new beginnings, changing seasons, and hopefully, a more manageable cadence to our. By now, we are likely feeling the effects from spending the last month or two welcoming our residents and helping them feel connected and engaged within our communities. While the suggestions I provided are certainly not exhaustive, I hope they might be useful to feeling a greater sense of control over your time and wellbeing both in and outside the workplace.