January has thus far been a month of gray and cold, with occasional moments of good cheer (most of which, honestly, are about how cute my students and cats are) that do not amount to enough to chase away the blahs.
And as part of this general bleakness, I have been doing no writing at all and the minimum amount of work possible to maintain my acceptable standard for teaching. Work to be graded started coming in over a week ago, and most of it I've just piled up and ignored for days now. Not good, and yet I couldn't seem to find the energy to do any more than I was doing. My classes have gone fine, but on more than one day, I've come home from work and crawled into bed for a nap, and I just haven't been able to force myself to do any more work once I woke up from said nap. And some of the ungraded work is things like vocab quizzes, which I could easily have graded while watching an hour of TV some evening if I hadn't been in major suck-itude.
Fortunately, I have not been alone in this. Almost everyone -- faculty and students alike -- has been dragging around the last two weeks, affected adversely by the cold and the gray and whatever bug it is that's been traveling around.
On Thursday, my next-door neighbor and I have a free period at the same time, and this past week we used that free period to sit like lumps and tell each other how lumpish we were feeling. And at the end of that totally unproductive period, we said, "Okay, that's enough. We've done our bitching and moaning, and now the time has come to stop sucking. Or, at least, to suck less. We start tomorrow."
And it was a real resolution, for when Friday came, we reminded each other, "As of today, we are sucking less!"
It's amazing how fruitful a mantra this has been thus far. I know it sounds kind of negative, and certainly I do have a history of being kind of hard on myself about some things, but in this case, we are completely convinced (with good reason) that we are two of the best teachers and most responsible colleagues in the department, and we were quite explicit with ourselves that, even at our suckiest, we were still getting more done and better than some other folks (as I'm sure is fairly obvious from my last post). So this new mantra is not about self-deprecation but rather about setting the bar low enough so that we actually can work up the energy to step over it.
And by gum, it's working! Not sucking at all would be too much to ask for, at least starting in the sluggish state in which I've found myself, but even the littlest bit of work takes me from sucking to sucking less, an improvement I find curiously rewarding. On Friday morning, I finally took 15 minutes to wrap up the paperwork for a student's incomplete from last term, an administrative task I'd been avoiding for a week. Then in the afternoon, I sorted through the huge pile of student work on my desk that I'd been doing my best to ignore. I separated everything by assignment and class, clipped these piles together with the relevant assignment sheets, got everything neatly stacked so that I could see exactly what I was dealing with, and actually finished off some of the easier grading. And when I tired of that and was tempted to twiddle away the remaining time, I thought, "Hey, WN, just suck less!," which prompted me finally to submit my receipts for my MLA trip, which I'd been avoiding doing for two weeks for no good reason other than that it would take 20 minutes to pull it all together. And it applies to my personal life as well. I've needed a haircut for two weeks now, but the thought of calling for an appointment just seemed too onerous; but when I got home, I thought, "Surely I can take 5 minutes to suck a little less"; I now have an appointment for Wednesday. Sure, after that I crawled into bed and took a long nap, but again, the goal was never not to suck, just to suck less than I had been.
The beauty of this new mantra, I now realize, is that it makes my typical self-deprecation pointless. Today, for example, I was mostly a slug all morning and then took a nap in the afternoon, accomplishing essentially nothing for hours at a time. And under normal circumstances, this would send me into a spiral of shame about how good for nothing I am. But instead, when I woke up from my nap, I thought, "Well, I've sucked thus far today; now it's time to suck less." And I did. Was I amazingly productive afterward? Well, no. But did I suck less? Darn tootin'! And I'm much more cheerful for it.
I don't know why I'm surprised by this experience, since setting the bar incredibly low was how I finally got my act together with my dissertation. After several months of saying each morning, "I will write for 5 hours today" or "I will write 2000 words today" or whatever my goal of the moment was, and then lying around on the couch watching TV instead, clearly heading right into dissertation depression, I changed course and started aiming low: "I will write for 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the afternoon." And really, that was such a pathetically easy goal that I knew I would have met it pretty much as soon as I started, so it was really easy to sit down at the computer. And of course I rarely stopped after 15 minutes but usually kept going for at least an hour or so each time, gradually building up, but I always knew that I could stop after 15 minutes if I needed to and would still have met my goal. So with essentially no pressure at all, I started making really good progress on my dissertation. In other words, aiming to suck less helped me achieve quite a lot.
I'm not sure why I'd lost sight of this valuable lesson, but now that I've remembered it, I want to hold onto this mantra.
Now, what would the exercise and eating version of sucking less be? That's a real question, not a rhetorical one; I'd be grateful for any insights you all might have.
And with that, I'm going to go grade one more paper this evening. Just one -- after all, I'm not aiming not to suck, just to suck less.