Setting Boundaries in the Ivory Tower

September 08, 2000

It's ironic that the term "ivory tower" persists as a reference to academe. The dictionary defines it as a place or attitude remote from worldly affairs, where "the life of the mind" can flourish. But reality presents a stark contrast: The typical academic is consumed with practical demands, forced to balance ever-increasing requirements for promotion and tenure with the all-too-real challenges posed by important relationships in their nonacademic lives.

Balancing work and family requires setting boundaries -- evaluating what you're willing to devote to your work and what you can give to your family, in terms of your own energy and endurance.

But how can you set limits when there seem to be no "edges" to academic work? Your work is never done. The process feels like it's dominated by the "bean counter" mentality, with constantly escalating requirements for obtaining tenure. Most untenured faculty members live with anxiety: You're under continual scrutiny from the institution as it tries to determine your value to it. You worry that without constant momentum you will lose ground.

And how can you set limits with people you love and who depend on you? Children's needs don't wait until tenure is conferred. If you postpone having children until after tenure, will it be too late? Neglected spouses can be understanding for only so long. And if you don't yet have a family, when will you find the time to create one?

Early in your academic career it seems easy to justify putting in long hours -- it's a temporary necessity. It's also natural to expect your loved ones to understand. But the demands continue and imbalance can become a way of life. Seven years of neglect -- of your family and yourself -- can have repercussions that can't be undone when you're granted tenure. And seven years of unremitting stress can have devastating consequences on your physical and emotional health.

Take a moment to compose a short list of all the life roles you now assume (e.g., "academic," spouse," "parent," "friend," etc.) Now rank them according to their importance to you. Next, list the same roles according to the percentage of time you devote to each. Do your lists match? Most people discover that although they rank their intimate relationships as most important, they devote more time to their careers.

Even if you define yourself only in part by your work, you derive self-worth by succeeding in this arena -- by getting grants, having articles published, filling classes, receiving good teaching evaluations, and especially getting tenure. When things go well you experience a sense of mastery and control. In contrast, personal relationships are difficult to control. They make you feel vulnerable. And the more time you spend working and neglecting your relationships, the more you come home to conflict and feelings of failure rather than affirmation.

Satisfaction with life and with work, as well as emotional and physical well-being, are significantly influenced by the extent to which we believe we have some control of the events of our lives. The challenge is to find ways to gain some control over a situation that seems uncontrollable. Peter B. Vaill, a management expert, likens the process to negotiating your way through "permanent white water."

Success requires a guiding vision -- an internal locus of stability within the fast tempo, changing expectations, and uncertainty of the external world. If you live a life that is consonant with your values, you will experience more control as you navigate your way through the white water.

Here are some specific suggestions on how to clarify your vision and define your boundaries:

Write a mission statement.

Go back to your list of life roles. What are your most important goals within each of these roles? What legacy do you want to leave? What contribution do you want to make within each of your roles? What gives your life meaning? How do you want to be remembered?

Many people resist writing a mission statement -- perhaps because it sounds corporate or maybe even touchy-feely. Some don't want to acknowledge the discrepancy between the life they want to lead and the one they are leading. If this is true for you, ask yourself, what are the risks of not writing it?

Look beyond tenure.

Of course tenure is a singularly important goal for you. But try focusing more broadly on the contribution you want to make in your field. Remember, you were drawn to your work because you loved it. Clarifying this can enable you to shift your focus from the tenure outcome to the process of doing the work you love. If your work is truly important to you, if it interests you, if you're passionate about it, then doing it can be a source of satisfaction, rather than stress.

Plan backwards.

Since tenure is probably your most immediate career goal, you can plan for it by beginning at the end. Imagine you've been granted tenure. What steps did you take to achieve this? Review each step in reverse order. Once all the steps are laid out you can block out time for each one. Schedule deadlines for every step of your plan. This schedule isn't set in stone -- unexpected interruptions constantly arise -- but it will keep you on course; permit you to set monthly, weekly, and daily goals; and allow you to see how far you've come and what lies ahead.

Take a weekly sabbatical.

Make a weekly appointment with yourself to reflect upon your goals. Treat this appointment as you would an appointment with a colleague or the dean. Spend time reflecting on your goals within each role. Ask yourself what you could do this week to make a difference in each role. This reminds you to live intentionally, not on automatic pilot. You may focus more on one role today and another tomorrow. That's fine as long as you're always aware of your overall mission to prevent one role from consuming your life to the neglect of the others.

Let your priorities guide you.

Not every task can be neatly penciled into your agenda. Children are notoriously resistant to being scheduled. If your child asks for a story while you're working on an article, think of it as an opportunity to fulfill one of your parenting goals.

As unanticipated things come up, make choices in terms of the priorities you've set. Wait 24 hours before responding to requests to participate on committees or take on new tasks. Ask yourself if this is the best use of your time.

Research on time management suggests that the process of setting goals and priorities gives us a sense of control. "To do" lists are merely attempts to give top priority to the urgent -- not the important -- things in your life.

Maintain focus.

Far more important than managing your time is maintaining your focus. Whatever you've chosen to do, maintain your focus on the specific task at hand. So often, when you work under pressure, there's an ongoing conversation inside your head. It usually includes thoughts about what you "should" be doing, "what if" scenarios, and thoughts about how you can scramble to get everything done.

This inner conversation, the internalization of the cultural and institutional conversations that have always surrounded you, can prove paralyzing. It impairs your ability to focus on what you are doing and makes the work itself painful. You can bring all of your resources to bear effectively only when you are giving your full attention to what you're doing.

This is the important link between your mission statement and your productivity. If you are doing what is most important to you -- what interests you, what you love to do -- then you can focus. Focusing disrupts judgmental self-consciousness and allows you to be optimally productive.

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this state of optimal experience "flow." It is the experience of total absorption in what you are doing, when you are unaware of the passage of time.

Boundaries, focus, flow, satisfaction, a sense of control and success -- you can achieve all of these by writing a clear mission statement and referring to it regularly. Focus can enable you to return to an Ivory Tower that nurtures your work and your self.

Ellen Ostrow is a clinical psychologist and founder of Lawyers Life Coach, which provides coaching services to women lawyers trying to balance professional success and personal lives. She has served on the psychology faculties of three universities and as a staff psychologist at several university counseling centers.