Like teachers all over the country, I’m in the throes of the beginning of my fall semester. I’ll spare you the gory details of what my schedule looks like for classes and other activities I’ve committed to, but suffice it to say, basically, I’m staring down the barrel of 70-80 hour weeks for the next four months.
I live in a mid-sized town where most everyone in the artist community across the city either knows everyone else or at least has heard of most everyone. It’s an honor and pleasure to teach, speak, and perform on a regular basis because first and foremost, I enjoy the work, and it doesn’t hurt that every now and then extra gigs help grease the wheels between paychecks.
That said, sometimes I just kind of feel like I need a stunt double. Maybe two. My sister calls me a workaholic. She’s not wrong. I do love me some work. I love rising to the occasion of pressure, the slow burn of being able to pull off any number of projects in one fell swoop. I love how I feel when I’m hustling and damn near pirouetting along the edge of the knife that is my calendar. I love how something in me turns shark near fresh blood in the water. Summer is lovely and luxurious, but I could feel myself getting soft, my get-up-and-go getting paunchy. Bring on the fall colors and the snap of cold air. Bring on the crush of deadline after deadline. Bring on the long hours and copious amounts of productivity. And bring on the Netflix bingeing when it’s all done in December.
Two of my most ride-or-die #woes and I spend a lot of time pitching ideas to one another about how to sharpen our mental katanas by making our lives more efficient, so when we do slow down, usually on somebody’s porch or living room over snacks and like an E-List flick, we do a lot of comparing apps for productivity (we all currently like using Simple Mind), caffeine products (between the three of us we like Starbucks refreshers, black tea, and maté—one of us is old-fashioned and likes coffee and Diet Coke), ways to efficiently meal prep for the week, cut spending, etc. We’re like mad scientists—as into how we get things done as much as we are into getting them done.
Lately, we’re all sort of realizing that as we get older, going faster and doing more of all the things isn’t always efficient because our bodies begin to take the toll. Between us, we all regularly nurse migraines, upset stomachs, sinus infections, strained muscles, sleeplessness, taut nerves. True, we’re very productive, but enjoying the fruits of our labor often feels anticlimactic because we’ve become a Jay-Z lyric, constantly onto the next one.
So, as much as it pains me, in an honest effort to become more effective, to deepen rather than broaden, to stop having to wrestle to the ground and hog-tie my calendar whenever I need to work in time for my own projects or y’know, a day off, I’ve been taking the word “no” out for a spin. It’s especially difficult when you happen to be a specialist in a city and region where you’re one of just a handful artists who happens to meet the needs of a lot of organizations. Again, I’ve benefited from this close-knit network. I love the supportive, nurturing nature of my community, and if I could clone myself to just set up shop and tell everyone I’m there, I’d do it.
I’ve come across several people in the last month or so, women in particular, who all have serving-tray sized portions, heaped with the same staggering helping of commitments. Why do we take on what we do and feel obliged to give 1,000% to everyone else? Why do we take on more than our share? Because we can handle it or because we want to see if we can or want to see how much it’ll take before we actually snap, literally and figuratively?
Why isn’t self-care more of a priority? Why don’t we see rest, or allow radio silence and recuperation as more of an investment in the projects to which we’ve already committed, as opposed to something we’ll take care of when we’re dead? Why does downtime always feel like an afterthought? Why do we make ourselves so accessible? And can we even help it, given that we’re obliged to carry our inboxes and voicemails with us everywhere we go now, alerts popping off every few minutes to let us know how many slivers of hours we have left to cram down our face-holes? Why is it easier for us to bend over backwards to meet others’ needs before our own?
This year, I’ve been considering and reconsidering these questions a great deal, remembering the lessons my body tried to teach me two years ago when it brought me to a crashing halt. I’m not nearly in as bad shape as I was before falling ill, and to be fair, that was my quals exam year, but this constant crush of activity feels like familiar tread and I already know where that road leads.
This means I have to figure out a way to let my ego down gently and admit I am flawed and can’t do it all. My therapist has been working with me on erecting boundaries and to exist in that vulnerable space of saying, I just don’t have it in me. To let people think I can do all the things, perpetually keeps me my back to a corner. In reality, the only person with their thumb pressed between my shoulder blades is me. And I do have an escape hatch. It’s called “no.”
This is a word that my #woes and I typically avoid. It is that which must not be named. And if there's a spare moment in our schedule, the impulse is that yah, sure, I can fill it. Because filling that space, like with any other vice, means we don't feel empty. Means we don't have to sit alone with our feels and think about even more feels. Ugh. Gross. Feels. Filling that empty space with work is a society-approved coping mechanism and! Bonus! Allows us to judge other people who don't meet our astronomical standards of productivity and Vulcan-brand imperviousness to letting life get to us. We say things like, "Hah. You got too many irons in the fire? Well I've got TEN fires and sixteen irons in each of em!"
But what does that accomplish other than a lack of empathy? Especially towards the self?
So, in the interest of self-preservation, of the commitments I’ve already made personally and professionally, I’ve been practicing the art of saying no. Because saying no to someone else actually means saying yes to my own projects, my health, peace of mind, and ultimately, makes me better at what I do when I do commit.
When I say no now, I try not to make too many excuses. I typically just say I am over-committed, which is absolutely true, and I thank the interested party for thinking of me. Depending on who it is, if it’s a gig, I offer to find a replacement speaker, or I say they can try me again after a certain date (which is six months to a year away). I’ve also been obliged to not only be more selective about the events that I choose to speak at, but I’ve raised my honorarium prices and I stand firm on what has heretofore been a sliding scale. So, best case scenario, they pay what I ask and worst case, they pass and I don’t do the gig. No hard feelings. Business is business. It’s always a touch subject with artists and I can’t say it doesn’t sometimes feel slimy and stressful having to declare what you think you’re worth, but hey man. These two hungry and growing kittens aren’t gonna feed themselves!
In terms of school obligations, we are encouraged, at least in my department, to only spend X amount of hours a week lesson planning and grading if we’re TA’s because our priority is supposed to be on our own research. So things like setting a timer while grading, or only lesson planning within certain windows on certain days and what I get done gets done before I have to move on is it.
Same with email. Man. Email. Just returning emails can take hours. And it’s a tricksy sense of productivity because you can feel super productive responding to all of these messages, but you’re not actually getting anywhere in real time. So, I have decided to check and respond to personal emails the last hour of work a day before quittin’ time. Professional emails get the same amount of time first thing I do once I pop my laptop up. And then everything goes into airplane mode. This also means, I the odds that may see your FB inbox message, which I hate those anyway for some reason, always have, are slim. I feel like if it’s urgent enough, someone will either just email me or get a hold of me through my website address contact form.
Speaking of quittin’ time. I have a quittin’ time now. I shut everything down at 8 PM. Because I’m looking at 6 AM to wake up, that means I only have a couplafew hours to get ready to do it all again the next day.
When it comes to personal requests for my time, dinners, drinks, whatever, this is the hardest part because I really enjoy being sociable-like in the true spirit of work hard/play hard and misery loves company. Going out feels like I am letting myself live a little, because who wants to just eke out an existence day after day, but even during play for me anyway, more often than not, I’m still “on” and am entertaining someone, and because I’m not bright, usually another project or collaboration comes out of what was supposed to be a simple happy hour. So, basically, I’m sort of trying to live like a recluse. In-person Bianca sightings will be increasingly rare until further notice. But that’s cool. I’ve always wanted to be a unicorn/mermaid. Unimaid? Especially since my sister who’s the brains of the operation, is helping me keep my personal finances in line these days. She put me on a strict extra-curricular activities budget month to month. More tea at home and over-the-phone meetings. Fewer $5 chai lattes at Starbucks meetings, etc.
Saying no so far feels very freeing, and I know it's ultimately in my best interest as a survival strategy, but I also tend to feel guilty about it. So, I’m not going to say I have this all figured out—I’ll let you know about how all these new policies play out at the end of the semester because old habits, but this has honestly been the first time I am consciously making the choice to say no so I can avoid my annual end of the year ugly-cry when I look back at the sixty or so gigs I’ve done with like a handful of sawdust to show for it.
I am trying to remember too, that at the end of the day, writers write and artists art. If I want to continue to be effective as a public servant through my art, the quality of that work should always be my first priority and anything that stands in the way of that will just have to wait.
I’m curious though and would love to continue the conversation—how do you handle saying no? When do you know when to say it? How do you let people down?