One nudge at a time


We all sat in a circle, 15 or so doctoral students and our proseminar leader.  Proseminar is a cross between group therapy and staff meeting, where we talk about how it's going and receive direction on next steps.

On our minds that day: the balance. How to have a life while you're a grad student.

Two of us are moms--what a lucky thing for both of us to have each other--so the balance between our real life and our student life is a constant topic for us.  But everyone else struggles with this, too.  One woman wants to have children at some point during the program.  Others are dating or engaged.  One or two brave souls are maintaining jobs and adding doctoral studies to their loads.  As we discussed strategies about how to get it all done and still stay sane, our professor offered his theory of rotating neglect. "Anytime you're doing anything, you're neglecting something else.  That's life. Get used to it. The key is to choose whatever needs doing and focus on it and then rotate to the next item." (He said it more sympathetically that it reads.)

Maybe, I think.  But isn't that looking at the glass half-full? How can that ever feel satisfying--rotating neglect?

I think of life as a student + mom like this:  There's a line of boulders.  Big, heavy monstrous boulders that I have to move from that place right here to over there beyond the horizon.  An impossible job to do in one fell swoop, it requires nudges.

There are several boulders representing parts of my program (coursework, papers, internship, qualifying papers, dissertation).  Of course there are family boulders, household boulders, friend/sister/daughter/service boulders.  Every day I try to nudge a few.  Research articles for a paper (nudge). Make a few phone calls to get needed work done on our plumbing (nudge). Outline a possible QP (nudge). Grade five papers (nudge+). Of course, some boulders really need daily nudging or they slide backwards (family ones, obviously) and I try to spend some good blocks of time with them.  But mostly, if I give a nudge to five boulders I call it good enough and feel (relatively) peaceful.  Tomorrow, more nudges.

It's all about the increments, baby.

I had forgotten I had mentioned my boulder theory until a colleague dropped it into a conversation six months or so later ("I just nudged one of those boulders!"). Since then it's become kind of a code word for some of us. A mantra to talk us off of the ledge of anxiety.

Every once in a while I'll look back and see a sad (yes, neglected) boulder way back there and realize I need to make it a priority for a bit (usually it's the negotiable, non-deadline things like my own research). So I adjust.  In one respect, I'm just nudging boulders inches at a time.  In the big picture, I'm strengthening and moving and getting there, one nudge at a time.