Self-reflection, Work-life balance

On life as a working parent.

Three things I often wanted my employer and colleagues to understand about me as a working parent:

1. By the time the official working day starts around 9am, I am likely to have been up since 6.30, getting children up and dressed and ready for school/nursery, dropping them off on an extended journey and then getting in to work myself. So yes, i do need that coffee at the 9am meeting;

2. After lunch, on days when I do the school run, I start to get panicky because my time is running out. I always try to cram too much in and am invariable late for pick-up. Please don’t try to stop me if you see me running down the stairs at 3.10pm;

3. After I have finally got the kids to bed (and mine were actually pretty good at this), the last thing I can face doing is to switch on my laptop. Pretty much the only thing I can face at that point is my pillow. please don’t send me the papers for tomorrow morning’s meeting at 9pm today.

As schools in the UK go back, working parents lives change. For some it gets easier, for others harder. Depends on the parent, child, school and childcare arrangements.

If you manage working parents, please check in with them over the next few weeks to see how they are and whether they or you need to change anything to be most effective.

If you are a working parent, please consider your boundaries, and let go of a) perfection and b) being able to do everything. It isn’t going to happen, and that’s ok. You are enough.

Goal setting, Inspiration, Self-reflection

On motivation, goals, and how they don’t always link the way you would expect.

Ellie outside on a tree-lined path in the rain, smiling to the camera
Ellie outside on a tree-lined path in the rain, smiling to the camera

This is the consequence of taking on a 25km, 16 km bridge walk – the Thames Bridges Trek. This isn’t the day itself (which was sunny and to be honest a little too warm). This is today. 3 days later, in the pouring rain, round the corner from home.

I signed up for a 25km walk over 18 months ago but for obvious reasons it got delayed and moved and altered. During lockdown I walked every morning in the peace and quiet. Virtual challenges ( 100km per month etc) kept me going mentally and physically. When my younger son returned to primary school I walked with him and then carried on. But I’ll be honest, over the summer, my motivation to walk nose-dived. Two weeks ago I really REALLY didn’t want to do the event. I didn’t want to walk and I definitely didn’t want to do trains into London. I thought I would do it because I had promised a friend and had done all the training, and then I’d be done.

But a weird thing happened. The event itself was hard (especially 19-23 km which was hot, seemingly endless concrete and crowds). My feet hurt. On Sunday I didn’t do much, though I didn’t get any other after effects. Yesterday I didn’t walk – busy working, but during the day I was aware that my legs and my brain were itching to be out again. So today, DESPITE having achieved the goal I was working towards, I set off for a quick stroll round the block in the pouring rain.

I guess I’m writing this as a reflection that goals, motivation and actions don’t always link and follow in the way you expect. My motivation really dropped as my goal became closer and has picked up again afterwards, even though I haven’t yet got another similar goal in mind. I suspect this isn’t news to some people – it’s why the UltraChallenge company who run the events immediately email us with discounts for signing up for next year! But, if your motivation has gone missing as you approach your goal, it might be the time when you just have to say “I’ve come this far now so I’m going to see it through whatever” and then use the motivation bounce after you reach the goal to set the next one.

Ellie holding up a medal in the sunshine at the finish line of the Thames Bridges Trek
Ellie holding up a medal in the sunshine at the finish line of the Thames Bridges Trek
coaching, coaching tools, Self-reflection

What would you write to yourself?

She manages to be a top quality student without being at all boring or a SWOT“. Classic letter writing there from my undergraduate tutor to my prospective PhD supervisors.

Today is World Letter Writing Day! What’s been the most memorable letter you’ve received?

The ones that stick with me are usually handwritten, and these days few and far between. But then I don’t write many either. My grandfather, who passed away a couple of months ago, was really the only person to whom I still wrote conventional letters.

My other memorable “letter experiences” include:

1. My mum writing to me weekly when I was an undergraduate – and occasionally including a “Guiness cake” that was so heavy it cost more to post than to make;

2. A series of postcards and letters from undergraduate students telling me what they were up to after graduating;

3. A letter from a Dutch amateur atmospheric chemist telling me all about his pollution measuring bicycle and addressed to “lady Eleanor”. Accompanied by hand-drawn illustrations.

I have been fortunate enough never to have received hate-mail unlike many climate and diversity and inclusion colleagues, though no-one likes rejection letters and I’ve had a few of those.

I do write letters to myself sometimes (though I try not to make those hate-mail either!). I had one on my wall at work reminding me of all the good things about my previous role. Writing to ourselves can be more effective than giving ourselves a good talking to. What would you write to yourself?

Self-reflection, Work-life balance

Post holiday struggles

This week has been hard. Last week we were in the west of Scotland, 8 miles down a single track road, surrounded by water, trees and hills. Yes, it was a little rainy, yes we did get lost on walks a few times and do some unnecessary hills, but there was a sense of space. Now we still appear to be down a single track road but that’s due to the number of cars parked along our road, and although I am fortunate to have a garden to look out on, there are fences, and hedges and roads. I feel hemmed in. Hemmed in by the surroundings, but also by my diary, and email and the looming new school terms with commitments and schedules. In the grand scheme I know there are bigger problems in the world, but it is possible for it to be simultaneously true that there are people in much worse situations AND for me to be struggling with my own situation.

Loch Goil from the Drymsine Holiday Estate

Mostly on holiday I read fiction – and not all “great” fiction either – it’s good to escape to other places sometimes and books have always been the way I do that. At the start of the week though I finally got around to reading Atomic Habits by James Clear. Whilst a lot of it to be honest were things I had read before about habit forming, one thing has stuck. He points out that lots of people can have the same goal, but the people who had developed good systems pointing towards that goal were the people that achieved their goal. And that although systems can at first glance appear constraining, they can also be free-ing.

On my return to my desk, I was pleased to find that one system I set up before I went away was indeed working to free me up in some way. I finally got around to setting up a booking system for phone calls for clients – through my calendly link people can book discovery calls or coaching sessions without the to-and-fro of emails. Setting up the system has forced me to block out some clear time for these calls and therefore other clear times for undisturbed client work too. And several people had booked calls for the next 2 weeks. One small step towards implementing a system that helps me spend more time on the interesting bits of work and less on the admin!

This weekend’s task is therefore to look for systems that might be useful around the house. In theory we have systems but they have probably be viewed as optional vague ideas by some members of the household. I think I need to present them as “this is what you will do when this happens” instead!

A Coachee's Guide to..., coaching, Self-reflection

How do you know when to end coaching?

This is a really difficult one, but just like other parts of life most coaching partnerships need to end eventually. But how do you know when that is?

Sometimes, it’s clear in the sense that the coaching was aimed at a very particular challenge or issue and the coachee has reached their goal, made progress or at least done enough new thinking to be able to move forward.

Often however, coaching that started out being about one thing, ended up being about something else, and that evolves and needs longer to think about. People who come to coaching because they have reached something of a crisis point often spend some sessions “downloading” their thoughts about their current situation before being able to look at alternatives and options. This can extend the coaching process but is very valuable. However if the thinking doesn’t at some point move on, this can be a signal that something different is needed and that this particular coaching arrangement has run its course. It’s really difficult to raise this as a coach if you know that your client doesn’t talk about the issues anywhere else, but if you are aiming to be useful to your clients, it’s a conversation that has to be had.

As a coach, I generally suggest a minimum of three sessions with clients unless there is a very specific objective for the coaching. This is because there is usually a session where we clarify what the goal is for the coaching and assess the reality of the current situation. The other two sessions are usually used for considering options in different ways and identifying strategies for next steps. Sometimes clients will book 6 sessions to either explore more deeply, or possibly consider 2 or more different challenges. I’ve been working with a couple of clients for nearly a year – but sessions are perhaps less frequent than the shorter term partnerships I’ve been involved in. Perhaps my most fulfilling way of working is when someone does perhaps 3 sessions initially and then several months later comes back for a top-up session to explore what’s happened on their issue.

There’s no set time to think about ending or changing coach but some things clients might want to consider include:

  • Am I using my coach as a general listener and are they the best person to do this?
  • Are the sessions still useful – do they leave me with different thoughts and reflections about my challenges? Or am I stuck in the same thought processes – in which case a different coach might approach things differently and lead to new insights.
  • Would a different professional be more useful e.g. a counsellor, therapist, or mentor?

Most coaches are not, contrary to what you might read in some places, trying to keep clients booking more and more sessions in order to make more income. I have no doubt that there are some coaches who do that, but for me, if the usefulness has ended, then that’s the time to end the coaching. At least for a while.

Just like other endings though, it’s important to end the coaching relationship well. This doesn’t always happen – sometimes people drift away and stop responding to emails, and sometimes it can quickly turn into months since you have heard from someone. This isn’t always a problem so long as it’s agreed that a pause is consciously happening – things come up that mean that someone isn’t in the right place to continue coaching for the time being. Generally I’ll reach out to someone a few times and then try to let them go if they don’t respond. When I do get a chance to work with the client on a proper ending, we’ll look at what’s been achieved so far and plan the next steps. I’ll make it clear how to get in touch with me in the future and I’ll usually ask the client if they want to be kept briefed on offers and updates via email. It’s absolutely fine if not, but some people do.

And then I close the file mentally and physically and wish them well.

academics, Self-reflection

What will you take with you?

Almost exactly 2 years ago I had probably the only truly “good” ending I have had in my life when I left my university job after 26 years. Why was it good? I think that’s a combination of having been able to plan it and be in control of much of it, leaving myself time to enjoy the bits of it I was going to miss, and the sheer physical task of clearing an office after that long meant that it was all very real. Sometimes I spend so much time in my head that physical cues and meaning are especially meaningful. And yes, work did throw me two send-offs where they said nice things, and I hosted one myself – all pre-pandemic – which definitely helped.

A great friend and former colleague of mine is leaving his role this week after a similar length of time. These would be my tips for him and anyone else making this kind of move:

  • Accept that you will never finish everything as neat and tidily as you would like. Pick the three things that are most important for you to leave well and sort those. Then make time for conversations with the people you will miss, and for processing your own thoughts and emotions.
  • All the nice things that people say in the next few weeks and genuine, authentic and true. Practice receiving them generously and don’t downplay your contribution. It might get overwhelming. Truth be told, I can’t remember the details of everything lovely that was said at my leaving do’s, but I do remember a general feeling of warmth, appreciation and love in it’s broadest sense. In both directions! My oh-so-wise research group made sure that I had copies of the presentations and the videos that my former students had made as I definitely couldn’t take them in at the time.
  • Just like you choose what to take with you from your office (in this case this is relevant but it may not be for those working from home or with a different working environment), you can choose what to take with you in your head and your heart. What will you take, and what will you leave behind?

Starting a new role or adventure is a great opportunity to make changes. I’m not saying you should feel that you have to reinvent yourself, but you can choose how you want to start out (and if you feel you can’t because you feel you have to behave in a certain way to fit in, then we need to have a chat about where you are moving to and why!).

coaching topics, Self-reflection

Woman, Interrupted… constantly!

Self-care. Love or hate the phrase, it’s pretty much impossible to avoid at the moment. Personally there are some days I don’t mind it, and other days when it really makes me groan. I’m not sure why to be honest.

However, I belong to a number of social media groups around being a freelancer. One of those groups is having a themed month around self-care, so to join in, I’ve been reflecting on “What self-care means for me?”

Many of the suggestions you usually find in articles about self-care (journaling, long baths, meditation etc) don’t really do it for me I’m afraid, but alongside some very practical things like keeping on track with health checks of all sorts, and trying to find some space in every day where I am alone and there is NO NOISE, I have realised that being able to finish things is a form of self-care for me.

To do list with a green pen tick in the first box

I have SOOOOO many things that are half-started. This is not surprising in the work context and absolutely fine unless I’ve said “yes” to too many things. But it’s more about the rest of life. I’ve got several books that I am part way through (shudder), we’ve got doors that have had one coat of paint on for months but need two to be finished, and almost everything I sit down to do at the weekend gets interrupted. I love my family but they aren’t always good at recognising when I am in the middle of something, even if it’s cleaning a particular room.

If I’m really going to practice self-care, I am going to need to finish some of these things. Now if everyone could just go away for a bit then that would be great. (Or more likely I’ll realise it’s not them stopping me finishing things, it’s me – but at least I would know that!)

Wish me luck!

Self-reflection

Endings…

Sometimes you know the end is coming. For example, I know that Covid bubbles permitting, I now have just 9 mornings of walking my son to primary school left. Nine mornings of seeing where the baby sparrows have gone today, nine mornings of counting cats (if there is one he wins, zero I win, two his Dad wins… record is five…) and nine mornings of my hand being dropped at a certain point as he whispers “School Zone now Mum”.

Parent and child holding hands

Other times you don’t know it’s the end until after it happens! Who knew that the sports day we attended two years ago that we knew was the last one we would attend with our older son would actually also be the last one we attended with our younger one. Obviously the pandemic has brought many unexpected endings for many people – and missing out on sports day is relatively minor compared to losing loved ones, or your own physical and mental health.

But endings big or small are important. We need to be able to have an end before moving on to the next thing. Sometimes they are clear, sometimes they are blurry, sometimes we only recognise them after the event, but what I’ve learnt recently is that without some sort of recognition of that ending (even after the event), the next stages are much harder. It doesn’t have to be a party or big deal (though if that’s your thing, go for it – safely of course) but acknowledging a change or transition, remembering the good things, and learning from the experience definitely allows me to move on in a more positive frame of mind. There have been a number of endings in my life that I haven’t really dealt with in that way, and I need to work my way through those to free up some mental space and find some peace. I am determined not to add another less-than-dealt-with ending to the list, even though it’s hard to think about and feels like it will take time that I just don’t have right now.

What’s making these last two weeks of primary school harder for all of us is that for obvious reasons, those staging points aren’t as we’d expected them to be. School is doing a fantastic job of helping the Year 6s move on given the circumstances but for us as parents leaving a school we’ve been with for 9 years, we’re missing out on our “proper” goodbyes. No sports day or summer fair, the Year 6 production is being filmed instead of us being there, and we are encouraged to pick up away from the playground so we might not even get to see them all say goodbye, shirts covered in ink.

So what to do? Well, I’m planning on writing a letter to the school saying thank you obviously, and making a donation to be spent on something to improve the facilities for staff. I’ve been collecting science and diversity books to give to the library and there will be the usual farewell present for the teacher. The emotional side is harder. I know I’m going to be a mass of emotions on the last day (I already have a lump in my throat writing this). What I learnt from two years ago when my older son left, is that sharing a bit of this with him, rather than being endlessly positive, was helpful all round. So we’ll probably end up laughing and crying as we remember the fantastic time he’s had there and the brilliant things he’s learned. I’ll try to get him to write them down (though realistically it will be me doing that), to keep as he goes on his next adventure. We’ll have a family meal out at some point in the next week or so, as we do at the end of every school year. And then we’ll be looking forward and moving on. After all, it’s only a chapter that’s ending, the book continues.

academics, coaching topics, Self-reflection, Work-life balance

Boiling academics – a post for Mental Health Awareness Week 2021

Its nearly 2 years since I left my employed role as an academic. I left because there was an opportunity to do more of the things I liked and values, and less of the things I found stressful and de-energising. Whilst being self-employed is certainly not stress-free even outside of a global pandemic, there is definitely a different feel to it when you have more autonomy and aren’t constantly fire-fighting. When I stopped my previous role, I had factored in a couple of months rest before getting going pro-actively business-wise. I expected there to be some emotional readjustment – after all my identity had been defined as an academic for 20+ years, but I didn’t expect the level of sheer mental and physical exhaustion that I experienced. I also found I couldn’t physically go near one of the buildings I had worked in – which was weird. Not so much “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone” but more like “you don’t know what you’ve lost ‘til you stop”.

I understand now that it was my body and mind finally having the time and space to “stand down” from constant state of alert. The rebalance of cortisol/adrenaline and other hormones was powerful – I hadn’t realised how much I was living in a constant “on” state. Constantly switching from task to task and most days full of meetings. Always another thing to catch up on. Since then I’ve learned that my inability to focus at times and my tendency to overcommit weren’t purely a function of my employer, but I don’t know how I kept up that meeting schedule.

A pot of boiling water.
Green tree-frog by Brian Gratwicke, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Having managed, coached and mentored academics at all levels I continue to see the extent of this inability to see the strain. It’s classic “how to boil a frog” urban myth territory – throw a frog into boiling water and it will jump straight out, put it in cool water and gradually turn up the heat and it will stay in until it’s cooked (note this is actually probably not true but I am not prepared to do the experiment to see – no frogs harmed here). Watching academics burning out, filling in every moment even when I had removed duties from them to help, always wary of missing out on an opportunity to the extent that they take on more and more is heart breaking and frustrating in equal measure.

It’s heart breaking because the load on academics now is horrific and institutions have largely failed to acknowledge this in any meaningful way. Yes, it’s been compounded by the pandemic with its need to duplicate teaching into online/hybrid mode, support students and colleagues from afar and maintain research regardless (never mind having to do this from kitchens, bedrooms and alongside co-workers or homeschoolers). But it was already bad before then. Academics are pulled in so many different directions these days that they are constantly stretched and risk snapping. This matters not only because we are compassionate human beings and these are people we are talking about, but also because some of these people may hold the key to solving the world’s biggest problems or educating the next generation of pioneers. When academics do finally reach breaking point, it rarely results in “a couple of weeks of sick leave”. The resultant adrenaline and cortisol crash means we are usually talking months off work, if not the end of a career, and often heavy personal cost.

A piece of string frayed and ready to break

Frustratingly, most institutions do have the power to support staff mental health better. Most institutions do have online employee assistance programmes and counselling but often the counselling team is overstretched and focussed on students. One thing that sometimes gets underestimated is the degree to which a stigma around “not being a proper academic” and admitting you need help remains. Compounding this is the strength to which academics identity is tied up with, well, being an academic – not surprising when people tend to have invested a huge amount to get to that position. I remember saying and often hear “I don’t want to do this anymore, but I just don’t know what else I could do”. This feeling also leads to a feeling of hopelessness which then contributes to the spiral.

As with most mental health and wellness issues, it is far more preferable to de-escalating the situation before it reaches crisis point. Whilst coaches are not generally mental health practitioners and should always refer people to a mental health professional where needed, coaching certainly supported my mental wellness by:

  • Getting me out of my head – academics are brilliant thinkers, but its not always helpful to spend all that time in our heads. Getting the worries and concerns out into the air via talking, or onto paper (be that writing, drawing or whatever works for you) is a big first step.
  • Strategising how to manage short-term survival on a day-to-day basis – prioritising tasks based on real importance rather than perceived importance can return a feeling of control and autonomy that supports mental wellness. In the longer term this means reconnecting with the reasons you do what you do and re-considering whether this is the way you want to do things going forward.
  • Helping me practice saying “no” – having planned priorities for the next few months can feel empowering – like you have permission (even if it’s just for yourself) to say no to things (or at least negotiate part way).

What we really need is an acceptance that current demands are unsustainable and unmanageable. Until then, I’d settle for a recognition that mental health is not just for students, and I’d love to see larger scale coaching programmes for mental wellness support available AND accessible for all university staff.

coaching topics, Self-reflection

Who am I? Identity, purpose and role.

Intro – I coach a lot of academics. Higher Education in the UK is going through some very tough times at the moment. Many institutions are looking at cuts across the board. If you are facing possibly not being able to “be an academic” either temporarily or longer term and are wondering how you can be “you” in other roles, I hope my experience over the past year may be useful and always happy to talk with you individually. If not, thanks for reading anyway!

female-look-people-mirror-dissatisfaction-black-white-reflection-girl

So, it’s now more than a year since I left my employed roles as an academic and HE leadership team member. There are lots of things I could talk about having learnt over that year – not least the fact that even if you plan for scenarios A to E, scenario F with a global pandemic and 3 months of home school (so far) will be the one that hits you. But one thing I worried about at the time was what would be my “identity” once not an academic? Who would my “tribe be”? Where would I fit in?

As it happens, my new tribe revealed itself fairly quickly. Thanks to a few key individuals who were already free-lancers I have found a very supportive community on Facebook, and some more local ones through meeting people in a co-working space and in some networking groups. Also a group of us who did our coaching training together are finding our way as “coaches” together. But my “identity” has been a whole different thing – and is still a work in progress. Definitely not a Hungry Caterpillar situation where you  “eat” all the courses and training, disappear into a cocoon of personal development and emerge with a fully fledged beautiful new identity.

I should say here that identity and identity politics is a fascinating and complicated discipline in its own right and can often imply very specific things as in gender, sexual orientation, politics, race and ethnicity. We also describe our identity or identities in our social media profiles “Diversity and Inclusion consultant, Coach, Parent, STEM Ambassador” etc.  What I mean here is closer to the second set, the “identity” that we use when we complete forms that ask our occupation, or introduce ourselves to someone new. The very practical and day-to-day experience as a person. And specifically my tendency  to equate “occupation”, “role” or “job” to being a significant part of my identity. I know not everyone does this (my husband would not consider his role as a local government officer as a strong part of his identity), but I do know through the people I know and work with that it’s a particularly strong association for academics, teachers, doctors, nurses and many other so-called vocational professions. (I also recognise that my tendency to do this for myself could lead to bias/assumptions in how I view others and I am ever watchful of this)

Nonetheless, a year ago I needed new words to define myself on forms and at meetings  – I still have to resist the urge to start my introduction by saying “I used to be an academic” or “I used to work at the University of Reading” which is a) defining myself by saying what I am not and b) conflating who I am with what I do. I am a little allergic to the word “consultant” due to experiences in previous organisations – though I still use it, and a lot allergic to the word Executive (as in Executive Coach). But again, I’m defining myself by things I am not.

With hindsight, I don’t think I was even asking myself the right questions. The role of “academic” or “freelancer” is only part of my identity – it’s how parts of who I am present themselves in the world where I need to earn an income and be able to fill in forms that ask for my occupation. My true identity is what is really at the core of who I am (some of it I am comfortable with, other stuff less so) and what the external expression of that is. It’s figuring out the complex relationships between who I am and what I do.

The more meaningful questions I’ve worked on are “What is my purpose?”, “What are my values?” I’ve come to realise that these are the things that are constant – to help others develop, to make the world a fairer place, generally believing the best of people at least initially, expecting perfection from myself despite being more forgiving with other people (those nearest and dearest to me may disagree with that one), kindness, authenticity, love of learning. These things ARE my identity – and that identity can be expressed in roles and job titles in many ways. As an academic, as a free-lancer, as a volunteer, and as… well I don’t know what in the future!

My coaching supervisor has been known to challenge me to stop worrying about what a coach is and just be one. While I can see her point, I do think a little thinking about who I am has been helpful. But endless reinventing and reflecting can lead me at least to procrastination and stagnation. So now it’s time to get on and BE me.

Edit / update: It has been rightly pointed out that for many people, being themselves is not possible due to systemic and institutionalised racism, homophobia or other prejudice and discrimination. I therefore recognise the role that my white privilege plays in being able to write this blog and do this work. This underlines that developing and maintaining an inclusive mindset is always a work in progress, as well as the additional importance in making sure coaching is available to ALL in academia – not just those who know how and who to ask.