Balance or blend?

Life may not be a box of chocolates, but could it be a cup of tea?

tea2

The term “work-life” balance is much used and much-discussed. Many surveys and magazine articles discuss whether your “work-life balance” is as you want it to be. In our Athena SWAN applications (gender charter mark run by the Equality Challenge Unit) we are asked to discuss how the University is supporting “work-life balance”. Typically we talk about core hours, nursery care, and any family friendly policies we have.

However, many people object to the term “work-life balance” itself, and I can see why. Balance implies the two things are playing against each other… increase attention on one and the other must pay. How meaningful is it to imply that we are only alive outside of work? Many people are at least partially defined by the work that they do, or by their actions at work. Others are predominantly driven by the work that they do… and the term work-life balance somehow suggests that these people should “get a life”.

The alternative term work-life blend has been around for a while. The thinking behind the term is that in the modern world, with new technology etc, then for many people it is entirely possible to take care of some work things from home and some home things from work. Of course this isn’t possible for all roles… particularly those in the front line service industries, and manufacturing. The other reason for adopting this term is also that it removes the negative connotations of “balance”. With a “work-life blend” a much more diverse set of existences seems possible, all equally valid, and things are not in tension with one another in the same way (there are however only a limited number of hours in the day and therefore there must remain some tension!).

I have previously been rather resistant to the word “blend”. Perhaps it’s because I was thinking about it in terms of paint… if you mix lots of different paint colours together you inevitably end up with a murky mess that isn’t particularly enticing. I also worry that it means never being “off duty” from work, and I at least need to give my mind and body a change of scenery sometimes and find it hard enough to be properly “present” at times outside work as it is.

However, I might be changing my mind. Last night was our Edith Morley lecture given by Karen Blackett, OBE, CEO of media.com. She spoke about having “banned” the term “work-life balance” in her company, using instead, “work-life blend”. Uh-oh, I thought. I’m not sure I can buy that. But then Karen talked about having 6 well defined and non-negotiable strands to your blend, for example fulfilment at work, effective parenting, and such like, and using this to discuss your working practices with managers etc.

And this morning I thought of a new description for “blend”  – a careful combination of different ingredients that are not subsumed by each other but together make up something delicious and supporting. In other words…  my favorite English Breakfast tea!

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How (not) to manage my time.

Time management has been a long term challenge for me. I am a classic multi-tasker, love “to do” lists but can procrastinate for England. The challenge increased when I took on the Head of Department role, as the number of meetings and “interruptions” multiplied. Last year I found it really hard to carve out any lengthy period of time in order to focus on any one task. So in October, I resolved to try some time management techniques (again) to see what I could achieve. The basic plan was to ring-fence two 3 hour periods each week, protecting them from meetings and telling my PA that only in exceptional circumstances was I available. I originally had the idea that these would be designated “research time” and I would actually get some hands-on analysis or coding time. The reality is that although many parts of my role have benefited from a focussed period, e.g. designing the work-load model, reviewing a paper, planning a lecture, preparing a proposal or writing a blog, hands-on analysis time is still lacking. But there are many ways to “do” research, and in reality there are plenty of people better at the hands-on stuff than me these days. Last term this seemed to work fairly well. Most weeks I managed to keep at least one of these periods free and spend a blissful 3 hours immersed in one of my “important, not urgent” tasks.

Last week however, this aim led to a spectacular own goal. The flip-side of ring-fencing time is that the myriad of meetings ends up crammed into the remaining days. For some years I’ve tried to put all my research meetings on one morning or afternoon. I still like to touch base with all my postdocs and PhD students weekly whenever I can so when I succeed in lining them up, it can mean 4 or 5 hours of successive meetings on related but quite different topics. Although I am usually tired at the end of them, it is exhilarating to be thinking about so many interesting questions, and I get to talk to lots of enthusiastic people (most of the time). Last week however, I thought I was being “efficient” in lining up 5 hours plus of administration related meetings back-to-back on both Thursday and Friday. On Thursday I went from Head of Department meeting to budget meeting to staff meeting to Royal Meteorological Society committee meeting. On Friday it was 2 research meetings, a staff review and the school steering committee. As a result, by Friday night it felt like all I had done for two days was collect action items, and no space between meetings meant I couldn’t tackle even the smallest of these. I went home feeling panicky and dissatisfied about the working week and woke at 5 am stressing about my work “to-do” list – something that usually only happens in the 3 weeks leading to a field campaign.

Reflecting on this from a little distance I can now see my mistake. Whilst back to back research meetings work on the whole, back to back admin meetings don’t. Firstly, with the best will in the world, I don’t tend to pick up any concrete action items from meetings with my postdocs and PhD students (wise on their part). It is entirely appropriate that I pick up actions from the leadership and administrative meetings that I had at the end of last week. But I was surprised how quickly the list became lengthy and how overwhelming it felt to have no opportunity to do anything about them. Secondly, my research supervision meetings tend to take place in my own office or at least nearby. The admin meetings of last week took place in other buildings and rooms, with no escape to my pictures and my coffee mug. So, although I continue to ring-fence “no-interruptions” time, and would recommend this, I also have to be vigilant that by doing so I am not storing up trouble and stress for the rest of the week. Some weeks, it may just have to not happen. Finally, if I do have to stack up these meetings, it might be better to stack them at the start of the week so that the weekend isn’t destroyed by worrying.

It’s probably also a good idea to end this reflection by identifying the time management successes. I find the Important/Urgent matrix (See an explanation here ) very useful, although invariably end up with too much in the “important AND urgent box”, and find it hard to put time in on the  “important but not urgent” tasks. I also find that turning off my email for most of the day (or even just minimising the window) limits distractions, and I no longer have my twitter account open on my desktop. If I want to spend time brainstorming about something, then moving to one of the campus cafes is the best way to do it. It frees me from the feeling that I should be ticking off things on the urgent list, and the buzz of being surrounded by students somehow both grounds and energises me.

Right, so, it’s Thursday again. It took me until last night to get back to grips with everything from the end of last week. So what does today look like? Hmm… perhaps next week will be different.

Happy New Year!

I guess being brought up in a family where education was highly valued, and now working in a University, it is probably not surprising that the start of the new academic year always feels more significant to me than the change in digits in January. As a child, early September was always a time of excitement (and occasionally a little anxiety), returning to school with new uniform, new shoes and a new pencil case. Most of my social activities also depended on it being a school term – the bands, orchestras and choirs only rehearsed in school weeks. As a University student, the start of the new year heralded  an early start, a long drive up the M6 to Manchester (which always included Dad waking me up at Keele services and piloting me around to get a full English breakfast), and new lectures and friendships to build. Only once have I been less than eager to start a new academic year. When I began my PhD here at Reading 20 years ago this week (ouch), I moved from a house-share with good friends to a concrete tower block with 17 rooms sharing one kitchen and one large institutional bathroom on each floor. I actually cried. Dad quite rightly told me not to be silly – I was 21 – he was probably grateful for the shorter drive! Sure enough, although that accommodation was not great (and is now no longer in use), I made friends and had a good time. And as for Reading… well I’m still here 🙂

Of course, since I am not a student anymore, the long summer vacations are no longer. As I continue to struggle to explain to my grandparents, my in-laws and some of the school-gate parents, just because there are no undergraduates does not mean we are “on holiday”. It is true that there is one less type of task or interruption and campus takes on a more relaxed vibe, but our MSc students work on their dissertations from April to August and we are still supervising research students and staff. In our research intensive department, are still grant deadlines to meet and increasing numbers of meetings and conferences to attend or even organise. Undergraduates have resit exams in late August, and the first two weeks of September are spent marking MSc dissertations and exam papers. There is usually around one week between the past years MSc cohort leaving and the new one arriving. Many of my colleagues have commented that this year “it hasn’t stopped”, and it does seem that periods of respite from multiple demands on our time are becoming shorter. As a result it is harder than ever to find precious unbroken periods of a couple of hours to immerse oneself in the latest research or a tricky programming challenge.

This year I am seeing the New Year in wearing my dual hats of Mum and Professor. I took my eldest son shopping for new school shoes and  was unable to resist buying myself a new notebook and pen for old times sake. Today is the first day of the new University term and campus is buzzing with lost but eager students. I still get “butterflies” of anticipation, these days more for their sake than mine. Whilst I like the more relaxed feel of campus in the holidays, by the end of the summer, it feels good to see the campus full with the people for whom we exist again. I look forward to meeting them and learning new things from them.

Traditionally of course, people make resolutions at New Year. So, here are mine:

1. I will accept that I cannot miraculously conjure up time and therefore will use my time more wisely by delegating some tasks, prioritising using the “important” vs “urgent” framework and  blocking out one morning a week for research, and earmark specific time periods for completing all the little admin jobs that I would otherwise allow myself to procrastinate over

2. I will say “no” to any more “opportunities” before February 2014 since my diary is full enough. I will monitor the build up of meetings after that time and stop accepting invitations when I start to feel panicky when looking at my diary

3. I will keep better notes from meetings with students and postdocs.

4. I will have lunch or coffee in the main Met building once per week, and make time for lunch with my closest colleagues in Lyle once per week.

5. I will focus on activities central to my core mission, understanding the world around us, empowering others, and communicating science and my science-life

All the best for 2013-14!

Arran 2013 Part 1: Why I like teaching on fieldcourses

This week I have left the family and the office behind to teach on the joint Leeds and Reading Atmospheric Science field-course on the Isle of Arran. This course has been developed jointly over the past few years and has come to be one of the highlights of their degree for many of our students. This is my 5th year as a module co-convenor, and despite the organisational and logistical stress, and being away from my family, it is one of my favourite teaching activities. Here are the reasons why:

Total Weather Immersion: These days, I get all too little time to really get “into” the weather during office hours. On Arran, we are governed to a large extent the evolving weather situation. The main issue is scheduling the walk up the 875m high Goat Fell. Whilst we don’t wait for blue skies and sunshine, it would not be sensible to go up on days with high wind and torrential rain, so for the first few days we have to keep a very close eye on the forecast.  In 2011 we just about made it up there before we were all confined to the classroom during the passage of Hurricane Katia. The students take a range of measurements on the walk and at the field-centre, probing the local boundary layer and linking local observations to forecasts and balloon launches. A key educational benefit of this course is the opportunity to integrate knowledge and skills from the previous 2 years of work. Although I have email access and will clear the inbox daily, there is little time, energy or inclination to do anything else resulting from my role as Head of Department .

Prolonged contact with students: We take a maximum  of about 30 students drawn from the final year  of BSc and MMet Meteorology degrees at Reading, and the final year of BSC Meteorology, BSc Environmental Science and BSc Climate and Atmospheric Science from Leeds. These are split into small groups of 4 or 5. This year we have 5 teaching staff as well as 2 technical staff, so there’s a really good staff:student ratio. We (and the students) work 7.30am to 9.30pm for 6 days solid, and it is fascinating to watch how the groups and individuals develop over that time. To have the time to sit down and really explain a bit of theory, get the students to draw out the key results and see them have a “discovery” or “realisation” moment is a rare treat in our (and their) busy learning journeys. I *think* the students appreciate this too.

Teaching collaboration: My involvement with this course, came about largely because the current Leeds convenor @JimMcQuaid and I were on a research detachment with the FAAM aircraft in Treviso in August 2004. I routinely collaborate with colleagues at many institutions on research projects, but collaborations in teaching activities, particularly those that contribute assessment towards undergraduate degree courses are much rarer. There is much we learn from each other, not just concerning our subject, but also teaching and communication skills, assessment ideas and feedback methods. I really value this time to reconnect with my teaching skills.

Simplified work-life integration: As well as the total immersion in the weather compared to other “work activities”, Arran is undoubtedly a chance to immerse myself in work compared to the rest of my life. I cannot deny that this is in part at least pleasurable. I feel very guilty leaving my young family for an extended period of time, and my 3 year old at least will take a while to forgive me, but it is a pleasant break from the constant plate spinning and transitioning. Any down time can be spent writing proposals or blogs or reading papers and manuscripts without feeling guilty that I’m not doing “domestic management” tasks. I am fortunate indeed that my support network at home accepts and understands this part of my job.

Expect some more field course related blogs in the next few days…

Breakfast contrasts

Going away overnight for work is now once more a possibility as my sons are slightly more self-reliant (and my other half is willing and able to cover for me). Having returned from my most recent trip yesterday, it struck me again that one of the most challenging things about work-life “balance” can be transitioning from different roles. This can perhaps be summarised with a description of  two recent breakfasts.

Wednesday 1st May: Manchester Premier Inn, SAMBBA meeting, alarm at 7.45, full English breakfast accompanied by discussion of TV programme on air quality, the potential impact of raising entrance grades for undergraduates, and the comparative membership benefits of various learned societies.

Thursday 2nd May: Home, normal work day, alarm at 6.20, cereal, Thomas the tank engine and Noddy. Conversation featuring which cuddly toy to take to nursery, whether PE will be indoors or outdoors,  and what isn’t in the fridge for dinner tonight.

I’m not saying that one is necessarily better than the other… but they are definitely different. Returning from trips accentuates my different roles, but in a small way this transition happens every single day, and  managing it successfully is one of the keys to work-life balance. I’m still learning…