2019: Reflecting and learning

Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

Normally, when writing this end of year reflection I have focussed on all the successes that I have experienced and not mentioned any of the challenges or failures that always punctuate academic life. From the missed deadlines for research papers or grant applications, to the seemingly inevitable rejections that follow those that do get submitted, and the sense of being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work - these are common experiences to all of us in academia and indeed versions of these experiences are common to everyone.

It is not a revelation that challenging experiences and failures in life are important learning opportunities - indeed more important than the successes in some respects.  Reflecting on both types of experience to reinforce positive behaviours and identify areas to adapt ones behaviour when needed, but it is not necessarily a given that this learning happens.  My own practice in this regard has been inconsistent, which I now think is a contributory factor to the challenges and difficulties I went through over the past year - reaching a crisis point where I felt unable to continue in my role and a period of feeling mentally and physically overwhelmed by stress.  Coming through this experience, three key things I have learned are:

'Self-Coaching' - when faced with a challenging situation, it is necessary to think things through carefully, but not to the extent of getting trapped in 'analysis paralysis' - unable to make a decision on what action to take. I realised that Whitmore's GROW approach (Goal, Reality, Options, Will), which is adopted in coaching practice is a useful tool in this regard - particularly in understanding the reality of a situation to identify the possible options for action and reminding me that to progress I need to have the will to complete the next action associated with the goal.  I have used this approach to re-establish a sense of control over my work-life balance, using the RescueTime app to get a sense of the reality of how I spend my time and taking steps to adjust my working practices to ensure I don't get swamped by the 'deluge'.

'Getting Things Done' - I have always had a system for keeping track of tasks and maintaining a daily focus on the key things I wanted to get done. However, in the early part of the year it became clear that this wasn't working well - particularly because the overhead of maintaining my system and its focus on tracking large tasks that required significant chunks of my time didn't align to the changing nature of my work. Finding out about the "Getting Things Done" approach to dealing with the 'stuff' that comes my way (see https://youtu.be/gCswMsONkwY), and figuring out how to integrate it into my workflow has made a significant difference to my ability to cope.  In particular, focussing on what is actionable and deciding the next action associated with each task/input in my workflow gets me to an empty inbox far more regularly than at the start of the year.

'Impermanence' - taking a breath and reminding myself that whatever difficult situation I am facing is not forever is important to keeping things in perspective and avoiding feeling overwhelmed. Reflecting on the impermanence of phenomena also reminds me that the successes are also ephemeral but that there are many small successes every day that can be identified and celebrated, learning the lessons of what went right to support that success before this knowledge disappears.

The challenges of the past year were also punctuated with some successes, including getting papers published (e.g., on Privacy by Design for IoT applications, on security and software development practice, and on The Psychology of Privacy in the Digital Age), working with colleagues to to produce an updated version of the "Introduction to Cyber Security" MOOC for Futurelearn and OpenLearn, and helping showcase the work of colleagues in the School of Computing and Communications by organising stands at OpenFEST and TEDxOpenUniversity.

Throughout the ups and downs, the support of colleagues, family and friends has been important in many ways, from taking on specific tasks and delivering successful outcomes, to being the critical voice of reason providing important advice, and just saying thank you and reminding me of the good things achieved during a given day, week, month or year. I continue to be grateful for this help and hope that in some measure I have been able to return this kindness to others as well.

In the year ahead, I hope to continue to draw on the lessons learned from the year just ending and hope that the coming decade will see more practice of the advice in John Tregoning's "Ten rules for (possibly) succeeding in academia through upward kindness".


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