Navel Gazing: On Energy

In a comment to a recent post of mine, Zinemin asked  (and Ana seconded):
I have a question for you. I would be really curious to read what you would say about the topic of energy, since this is something I am currently thinking about.
It is clear that you operate on a very high level of energy. Most people would be overwhelmed doing a quarter of what you do. Why do you think you have such high energy? Is this genetic? Your upbringing? Very high motivation? Your way of thinking about things?
Have you had phases with low energy? Do you feel like you are “using up” your energy over the years, or do you have some way to replenish it?
I am asking this because I feel like I have used up a lot of energy over the years I spent in science and it is only slowly coming back, and I am not sure if I will ever be at the level that I was before. You however seem like you must have only become more energetic with time…. maybe it is like in sports. Some athletes have ruined their knee at 28, others are still successful at 40, and maybe it is small differences in how they move and how they manage themselves that make all the difference….”

I don’t know how I seem to people who only know me from my writing on the blog. Sometimes, when I read some very old posts, I wonder “Who the hell wrote this? This sounds nothing like me.” To be honest, I don’t think I am particularly energetic at all; I actually think I am quite lazy. I am not a poster child for anything really. Plenty of what I talk about falls under “Do as I say, not as I do.”

The way I envision a successful and respectable academic is someone who is lean and healthy, eats organic food and is possibly vegetarian, drinks water and sometimes unsweetened tea (rarely coffee and never soda), gets plenty of sleep and gets up early to exercise (bike or run or swim for miles), comes into work and works with inspiration and creativity and 100% focus for 8-9 hours while bathing in exercise-induced endorphins, then leaves in the evening to spend time with their lovely family. This person has a great work-life balance, spending weekends on enriching activities with the kids, who also run and bike and eat their vegetables, even ask for seconds! Their house is immaculate, as is their office. Order is everywhere. They have a standing desk in the office. This person is very eloquent, even-keeled, and universally loved and respected. Their jokes are PG and don’t make anyone uncomfortable, ever.  This person has a knack for politics and would make a fabulous administrator if they ever chose to go that route. Everyone asks how they do such a marvelous job of being a scientist, teacher, parent, and adventurer.

I know a few such people. They are the ones who should be dispensing advice, but I would be very surprised to find that they read blogs. They also might well be from Mars, as far as I am concerned, because how they operate is very alien to me.

I am basically the polar opposite of the ideal academic, so you don’t want to emulate me. Even I don’t want to emulate me, but I have little choice in the matter. But, hopefully, this essay helps the likes of me a little bit.

I don’t sleep enough, and I don’t exercise. I should lose weight. I don’t run, bike, or swim. I eat everything, and with great gusto. All of my family eats meat. Our younger two kids barely eat any vegetables (not for lack of trying on our part, I promise). Coffee is almost as important as air to me (I drink tea only when ill or when completely out of coffee and too lazy to go buy some). I would say that any semblance of balance I have in my life is because I have a  family and kids don’t thrive on chaos: kids need regular meals and sleep and time with their parents (all our kids are healthy and smart and get lots of rest) , so I do work regular hours and I don’t work too much over the weekends, except at crunch time. When it’s crunch time, I can work like a maniac, 12-14 hours a day, 7 days a week; I am fortunate to have the stamina, I love every second of it, and crave being able to do more of it.  If I didn’t have a family, I would probably lead a very unbalanced and unhealthy life. My family weekends are embarrassingly low-key; we laze about in our pajamas and/or sweatpants, have kids over for playdates, and do chores (of late also chauffeur Eldest everywhere all the time; I am starting to appreciate the prospect of him driving at 16).  But DH and I are spread pretty thin and do what we can to steal some time for ourselves (individually and together). I have blogging, he has video games (hence the late bedtimes). We have a lot of chores between us.

Everyone in the academic enterprise is smart, and most people are smart enough to be successful. There is a great degree of luck in success, but personality also plays a role in how things turn out. There are a few aspects of my personality that I think have been useful for me to have. I am not saying they are necessary or even anywhere near ideal in general, but I think they are strongly correlated with my professional and personal standing (I am happy with both) in the overall mishmash that is my personality.

Accepting failure, embracing imperfection. First, I accept that nothing is perfect and I accept that I am imperfect and that I will fail at stuff (perhaps I anticipate failure to a fault). I think I have had this internalized since an early age. This enables me to be resilient, i.e. I do not get completely discouraged in the face of failure, and it the basis for my pigheadedness. Alas, this also means that I am probably too focused on the possibility of failure and am probably less bold in my professional life than I would be if I thought success were a virtual guarantee (I know several people whose self-confidence I wish I had; but then, they may simply be smarter and better at their job than me). Expecting the worst all the time does tend to wear you out. This is in no small part because of my upbringing; lots of gloomy specimens where I come from. But here’s an example of how tolerance of imperfection is a good thing. I used to smoke pretty heavily, and, like many smokers, tried to quit a number of times unsuccessfully, but I always knew that sooner or later I would have to quit. I quit when I got pregnant with baby No 1, then started again about 4 years later, but then about 1.5 years thereafter I quit for good after several fits and starts. During the 1.5 years, at some point I realized something had changed in me, and that I was seriously nearing quitting. I think you really need to get sick of yourself and your habit to do it. I quit for good after having started my faculty position 10 years ago and haven’t smoked since. In contrast, the guy whom I dated for years before I met my husband (15.5 years ago) and who was my smoker-buddy for much of my early twenties, still smokes. He has always waited for some sign from the heavens that he would be ready, because he said he wanted to be sure he would quit once and it would be for good, it would stick. He is a perfectionist all over, which got tedious and is one of the reasons we broke up. After years of him wanting for the stars to align perfectly (where we lived, where we worked) so we’d get on with our lives together or consider kids, at some point I said “Screw this” and I left him and the country. I am guessing stars haven’t aligned yet regarding his smoking either.

As I said above, when it comes to research, I operate in burst of high productivity followed by periods of near uselessness; at crunch time, the high-productivity periods involve long hours with high focus and feeling high on all the adrenaline. When I am feeling useless, I do all the other stuff like teaching, writing homework solutions, various service, book hotels and flights, reimbursement. I can do all these with very little intellectual engagement or inspiration, so I do them. That way I don’t feel like a total procrastinator and the times when I am in top form are spent on the tasks that require it. A big part is also knowing when you can perform intellectually demanding tasks and when you cannot. While I can write homework solution for an undergrad class or file for trip reimbursement even after not sleeping for 2 days, I cannot write a strong rebuttal to a scathing review or a competitive white paper for a funding solicitation without having my wits about. So I believe this also falls under working around imperfection: maybe Tuesday I have no inspiration for research, but I can do all this other crap. Or maybe I have to take a short nap in my office (I cannot stress enough the importance of a chair that’s conducive to napping. Clearly, I will never have a standing desk). But on Wednesday, I might crank out 1/3 of a brand new proposal and successfully troubleshoot with a grad student who had been stuck for weeks.

Restlessness/boredom and inability to adopt traditional organization paradigms. I am not sure this is a good or a bad thing, but it is a part of my personality, and a very important one. I have accepted it  and organized my life and my work around it. I get bored really, really easily, with everything. Every routine that I have ever come up with has to be rehashed frequently because I can’t take it. I can plan and pre-cook meals for a week in advance, but I will get bored with it after a few weeks, then will resort to spur-of-the-moment cooking during the week after work for a while even though it’s more tiring. There are people who are organized, make lists of everything and that works for them. Lists make me physically uncomfortable, because I have never been able to put in a list everything that goes in the crazy head, and trying to do that causes me discomfort; I use a calendar on the phone for things I will likely forget, like dentist appointments and student defenses, and set up two alerts for each, but the rest it just in my head, I can’t do lists.

I also cannot take too many standing long-term commitments (e.g. commit to a collaborative meeting every week on Thursday even though much of the time is wasted and is better spent me writing) because they cause me anguish and I bail on them (my long-term commitments begin and end with my family and my students). God knows it is unbelievably easy to get overcommited in academia because there are heaps of service to go around (some useful, much bullshit) and many people seem to feel useful when meetings happen, no matter how pointless or unproductive they are. I am a horrible meeting-avoider, so instead of bailing, I just automatically say no; indulging this aspect of my personality has done wonders for my happiness. (I also minimized seminar attendance. Sometimes, seminars are fun and useful. Often, they are not. It’s OK to miss them when they don’t seem of interest. It really is.)

Basically, I try to keep my schedule in flux as much as I can. Long term weekly commitments are: teaching, office hours (I cancel them if there’s no homework due or if we’d just had an exam), weekly faculty meeting (skipped when possible), once-a-month university meeting, and my weekly group meeting (skipped when overworked or students have exams or too many people out of town). Everything else is done via email, if possible, or scheduled on a need basis (PhD defenses) or only 0-2 days in advance (1-on-1 with students). I will absolutely not do long-term meeting commitments other than listed above. Instead of having my will to live killed by meetings, I have some big blocks of time to do writing and reading in, and am much better at keeping them uninterrupted then I was as a noob professor, even though I am much busier now.

There is an aspect that people sometimes ignore: people who have a lot of meetings or a lot of travel seem busy and very important. I used to spend a lot of time worrying about looking busy and important enough. I am mostly over it; yet, ironically, I am busier and more important than ever. But with fewer meetings.

Being in touch with what you want. This is really key for long-term sustainability of anything that you do. Being able to somehow sift though everything that you are supposed to want or be, and get to the bottom of what you really want. This can actually be very hard, and it’s not a straightforward process. And even if you know what you want, you may feel like you don’t have the right to go for it, or that it’s not the right time, or that your going for it will hurt someone (all of these have happened to me more than once). Even here it helps to take it easy on yourself and allow for imperfection; maybe you don’t know what you want today, but will in a few months. Maybe you don’t have the guts to go after what you want today, but you might later. I know that I generally always know, deep inside, what I want, but very often don’t act on it, and nearly 100% of the time I delay doing what I know is right (this is balanced by me speaking out sooner than ideal 100% of the time). But ultimately being able to take understand what you want and allow yourself to have it is critical for happiness.

OK, finally, the question of energy. As I said, I don’t think I am very energetic, maybe I just give off a different impression with my writing. I probably would have more energy with more exercise and a cleaner diet, devoid of stimulants like coffee. I have done that a few times, even lost like 30+ lbs on WW, but it was too restrictive and not a sustainable lifestyle for me. After 5 months I felt too deprived to continue and I went off the wagon, then because I’ve been-there-done-that my boredom issue kicked in, so I have never thereafter been able to get back on that same program. I will have to find a way to get more energetic and more fit without boredom or too much deprivation. At least temporarily. I will wrangle some unicorns while I am at it.

As for the energy to do work, people tell me it goes in cycles. I currently feel very good about my work (apparently, has been lasting for over a year now), after having made changes to my MO that I had long wanted to make but thought I shouldn’t. I dropped some collaborations, I dropped some research topics, and I started doing the work I was interested in with my students. Some of these collaborations used to come with meetings that I found tedious, useless, and requiring too much commitment from me. All these “droppings” had a profound effect on my motivation at work. A few years ago, I though I had completely lost my mojo and the professional future looked rather bleak, as in “Why am I doing any of this? Everything is stupid.” But then I realized I was doing way too much what I thought was expected of me and too little what I wanted. So at some point my feeling miserable overcame the anxiety about doing the wrong thing, and that finally gave me the courage to do what I wanted to do all along.

I think people often assume that there is a fault with the things that they want and they deny themselves (I am not talking about candy, although who doesn’t like candy? but things such as changing fields of research, or job, or partner). Sometimes what you want is hard to get or dangerous or imprudent, sometimes it hurts others, but if you are constantly feeling unhappy and tired, but are physically healthy, it’s worth asking whether there are things deep down that make you unhappy and that could be changed, and what the reasons are that you are not changing them.

For instance, I would like to live someplace warmer or where we have more friends. But, I like the department, I am respected, and after 10 years family and I are settled. This is the kids’ home. My husband loves his job. We have it good here. So I am ultimately OK with staying put and not acting on what I want, for now.

But chasing funding fads and not being able to catch my breath because I am constantly pursuing what others think is important as opposed to what I think is important? I have tenure now, I don’t actually have to do that. It used to make me deeply, profoundly unhappy, and it spilled into my personal relationships. So I went back to doing things my way, and even did some work where my personal style was applied to the topics others are interested in, which resulted in unexpectedly warm reception. In research, like in art, you have to be authentic: if you don’t burn with love for your work, no one else will.

So how do you replenish energy? Barring physical issues, I think the key is to understand what you really want, and identify what is stopping you from pursuing it: is the goal truly unrealistic (e.g. a 42-year-old woman playing in the NBA) or a little risky (changing jobs or careers) or at the level of disappointing someone (mom will question why you sunk all those years into a PhD or into a specific boy when nothing came of said PhD/boy)? Give yourself  the permission to go after as many of the things that you really want as you can, without putting anyone in jail or needlessly endangering anyone’s life, limb, sanity, or long-term well-being.

Dear readers, what helps you replenish energy? 


  1. I really like this.

    One of the most “successful” academics I know–huge superstar in the field–is the most miserable. She happens to be my diss director, and it took me a long time to figure out I didn’t need to do things like her. The colleagues I most admire are those, like your fantasy above, who seem to have balance (although not necessarily vegetarian!); they have family lives and health and exercise regularly and are patient with students and plug away steadily at their work. But who knows how they feel…

    I think we have some similar habits, in that I relegate those mindless activities for those times I’m most likely to be mindless. I could be better about many things…but I’ve spent most of my career having “lost days” (migraines or fertility treatment or insomnia) and know when I’m having a good day I really need to make the most of it. So far it’s worked pretty well…

  2. I do consider myself a high energy person, so factor that in when reading this comment….

    Exercise always helps me re-energize, but I have an absolutely terrible track record on remembering that and acting on it.

    If I’m feeling low energy at work, I try to remember to check for a physical cause. Don’t get me started about the number of times its turned out to be a UTI- I don’t get typical symptoms w/those post-babies and it takes me ridiculously long to remember to check that when I’m feeling run down.

    If there is no physical cause, then it is usually because I have something on my to do list that either scares me or bores me. Either way, I find it helps to break the item down into really small steps- so small that even if they’re really boring I’ll do them because they don’t take long, and so small that if they’re scary I can’t find a way to rationalize NOT doing them.

    I have other tricks I use, too, but that is the most powerful one for me. (I talk about them all in Taming the Work Week and probably in some old blog posts.)

  3. Thank you! I love this post. This has given me lots to think about.
    What I learn from your post is that it is really important to structure your life and your goals around the personality and wishes you have, and not around the personality and wishes that you think you should have. Not that I don’t know this intellectually, but I find it still very hard and it is very interesting to read how you have done this. I hope I will achieve the same thing in my life at some point.
    When I was still in science I had a long list of things that annoyed me extremely, like certain colleagues and certain meetings, but I did not have the courage to avoid them like you did, and so in the end I completely burnt out. I hope I will be more wise in my next job. I also really like the bit about not being a perfectionist. Perfectionists are really often blocking themselves and others and can be very annoying to work with.
    The part where you can easily work 12-14 hours a day and not sleep but still do things like writing homework solutions is still a bit a mystery to me though. 🙂 I cannot do this, although I exercise, eat healthily, my flat is a mess, and I don’t even have kids. So I still think you have a huge amount of extra energy that I do not have and I do really know where it comes from. You probably don’t even notice this, because it is normal for you.

  4. I mean: “I don’t really know” of course. Or maybe my subconscious is telling me that I do know. My guess is that you are working in the job that is really right for you, otherwise you would not have this energy. 🙂

  5. If I weren’t so busy doing eleventy things today, I could’ve written this (except the smoking). I find that my energy goes in cycles. I so wish I could figure it out so I could anticipate the “I will nap until retirement and if you wake me up, you shall perish in fire” days as well as the super charged ones. I do know that energy suctioning activities like all-day faculty meetings and end of year report writing can induce marathon napping. Maybe some bright, energetic grad student should do a study on the energetic patterns of faculty? heh.

  6. Zinemin, my restlessness and tendency to work long hours in burst might well be borderline pathological (adult ADD has been brought up), so I don’t think you are failing at anything by not working 12-14 hour days.

    As for energy levels, part of it may be age. At 17 I felt invincible; even at 25 or 30 I had considerably less energy. I am sure you did a medical checkup already, but just to throw it out there: I had lifelong sinus infection problems, and had sinus surgery a few years ago. It did improve my quality of life. There may be some chronic physical thing going on that’s sapping your energy (like hypothyriodism). And based on my past experiences, toxic relationships especially if they are close can really also drain your energy. The long-term relationship I mentioned above was really suffocating, which I see clearly in hindsight. Also, it was really good to put a whole continent between me and my primary family and their incessant drama. Leaving my home country was good for me in many ways. People we love have a great capability to make us feel like crap. So perhaps re-examine your closest relationships and see if you need distance from some of those people?

    Recently I spoke with a grad student of mine who is planning on graduating. He’d always planned to go to industry and he told me that, like another student before him, what he wants is to be given what to do, then work on it, get it done, and then move onto something else. He doesn’t want a job like mine where you constantly have to brainstorm and come up with new things to do (these are his words). What he described as desirable would be my definition of hell; I really am not good at taking orders or working for someone, but I am happy with the flux and flow of the academic world. As long as I can work at my own (crazy and erratic) pace, I am happy. So I am very fortunate to have the job that I think suits me ideally; I would be royally miserable in corporate America, I am sure. Perhaps if you find a better-suited job, one that really grabs you, you will have no problem happily putting in long hours into it?

    One other thing that came to mind: I was a kid and teenager with a very regular schedule. I think I developed these binge-work habits in college. For each course, one- or two-semester long, I had one 4-hour written final followed by a very lengthy oral exam (no homework or midterms). You could take the exams in January, June, or September; usually in Jan you take the exams for one-semester fall courses, in June the one-semester Spring courses, and you spend the whole summer studying for the September exams for the two-semester courses (the new academic year starts in October). So for a two-semester course, you’d easily spend 2 months over the summer just studying non-stop so you’d be able to take the 4-hour final and do well and fast enough and then take the oral. It was very rare for people to finish in 4 years; I did. I was smoking and caffeinating myself like crazy during college. My stamina remain caffeine-fueled.

    Do you have a job and a roof over your head? Great! Everything else can wait. Take some time to just pamper yourself, do only the things you really want to do. Alone is great. Maybe you just need a serious cleanse from all the years of surplus in human interaction.

    Lastly, sometimes I get tired of introspection. I try to give myself a break from me, and not think about myself all the time. Just do and look and listen and learn. If you have creative outlets, pursue them. Getting a break from being in your own head can be very relaxing.

    Here’s a blog I stumbled upon some time ago. She’s totally amazing. At some point, I cannot find the post, she basically said — I am happiest when I just do and don’t think about whether I am happy. Words to live by.

  7. Thank you, those are good points. You are right about being overly introspective, this happens to me a lot and I am always insanely grateful if someone gives me something to do. I increasingly feel I cannot figure out better what I want by being introspective, I need to do stuff. This is why I wrote an application to an insurance after all today. I can’t sit around and figure out in my head whether I can work in a big corporation. I need to try to get an interview and see how I feel then. Maybe I even need to start working before I will know. I agree to some degree with your student that having constantly to figure out what you want to do next, as you have to do in academia, is very hard. It is like being an artist — too much pressure for me, too much spotlight, maybe this is why the academic career did not work out. I would prefer to be given a big and open task and then being able to solve it as creatively and independently as possibly, but I do not want to have to figure out what the task is in the first place, this is just too open for me, and I would like to be given a deadline. I think I lost a lot of energy with working in an environment that might have been too free for me…. maybe the energy would come back in a work setting that fits better… but I can’t know, and I cannot get there by thinking about it….
    I am not sure if a corporation will be able to be give me the kind of environment I want, it could get too uncreative for me quickly. Maybe teaching at a high school comes relatively close, as teachers here have still a huge amount of freedom, with only rough guidelines of what to cover. But I’m afraid I will get bored when I have my material and it becomes less creative….

  8. @zinemin Some industry jobs can grant a lot of freedom. For my first 6 months I was basically doing other people’s projects, though they were still very intellectually stimulating. For the past few years though I’ve been able to run my own groups with our own ideas. You just have to play your cards right if you want to be creative in industry.

    Regarding keeping the energy up: never letting family and hobby time become low priorities, eating healthy, a little bit of exercise, staying intellectually stimulated, a good long bath and a book, caffeine, and lots of laughter keeps my energy at high levels!

  9. Thanks for the post, lots of good stuff in there. I think the low energy I’m feeling lately is a combination of low-grade health stuff (I seem to be getting colds/sinus infections/bronchitis back to back from November-March every year), anxiety about personal stuff, and the fact that maybe this job isn’t the best fit for my personality. The latter is something I’m still trying to figure out, but like you, sometimes I get sick of introspection and just want to get shit done. I’m in the get shit done phase right now. I find I have remarkable focus when I’m writing grants or papers—thinking about what I WANT to do, vs. being bogged down in the actual B.S. of DOING the work—both the administrative crap and hurdles needed to be jumped and the inevitable disappointment of when the plan goes awry and you need to change course.
    I also need to be better about recognizing what kind of mood/energy phase I’m in on a particular day and tailoring my tasks to that mood. I tend to just stick with a schedule but it makes much more sense to save travel reimbursements and office organization for a day when I have a headache vs. just doing them quarterly on a given day.

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