“A quiet place is the think tank of the soul.” —Gordon Hempton and John Grossman
It’s the Monday after a conference, and I think you know what feeling I’m having.
I’ve got a pile of notes from the sessions, thoughts about how they connect with my work, and ideas about presentations I might organize for next year’s conference. To say nothing of all the cards I collected from people I genuinely enjoyed talking with, and want to stay connected to.
My luggage sits unpacked next to the washer. There’s nothing but eggs, soy sauce, and wilted parsley in the fridge. I’m not sure what’s going on in the news. And while I haven’t looked at it yet, I know there are a heartstopping number of emails in my inbox.
In the midst of All the Undone Things, it’s hard to resist the urge to work double time to “catch up.” It feels like I’ve been away from work, when in fact I was doing a different kind of work. This kind of work does not immediately result in words or phrases or pages. Instead, it results in questions. It leads to insights and ideas. It forges connections, both intellectual and social. In short, conferencing results in many of the things that make writing and thinking and coaching a delight. All of which are absolutely necessary for producing great scholarship but are not defined as productive.
Which is why I’m sitting at my desk, pretty close to overwhelmed, and not sure what to do.
This post-conference panic is a particular version of something we face frequently—the return to our full list of work commitments after time away to focus on one work commitment in particular. I’m talking conferences. Retreats. Talks. Guest Lectures. Residencies. Fieldwork. All give us the gift of supreme focus at the cost of a somewhat hellish return.
Of course, there are a number of things we can do before we leave to make the return easier. For example, I suggest this to every scholar who comes to an InkWell retreat: I put an automatic out of office reply on my email—giving myself extra cushion on either end. That way I avoid last minute requests and the pressure to process the backlog of email in a single day.
Strategies like this are helpful because they buffer me from external demand. But the real problem here isn’t the demand that anyone else is making of me: it’s that I keep forgetting that I was working while I was away. And my insistence that I immediately return to some imagined equilibrium, where I’m on top of everything in my life. As if I were on top of everything before I left.
And no out of office reply can help me with that.
One thing that can help in moments like these is to focus on our inner response. This isn’t the same thing as saying it’s our “fault” when we get stressed about All the Undone Things, or that we just need to “get over” whatever stress we feel. Instead, focusing on our inner response involves setting aside the details of the todo list and instead paying attention to what we feel and what we say when we see it.
Maybe you feel guilty about the backlog of work and find that you keep calling yourself “lazy” when you “only” work a 7 or 8 hour day. One thing that can help is to ask yourself how true that “lazy’ label really is. When I ask myself that question, I’m reminded of several things I say to scholars who attend the Composed Writing Retreat:
It sounds dire, I know. But the nice thing is that interrogating the story we’re telling creates just the tiniest space—within which we can wedge a bit of reality. Once we do that, it’s easier to come up with new strategies to handle the situation that might be more helpful.
Maybe you cut a reading from the syllabus that was filler anyway and bring in a documentary (and cookies). Maybe you draft that overdue article review on a voice recorder, and send off a response that’s a third shorter than you typically send (the journal editor will thank you).
Maybe you do something as small as what I do—repeatedly open up my calendar to the first week with some blank space, and recite to myself itwontlastforever, itowontlastforever. Then, once you’ve found that pocket of calm, you can go back to All the Undone Things, look them in the eye, and slowly, steadily, sweetly, knock them down one by one.