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Among the 2015 New Year’s resolutions by American Alliance of Museums (AAM) staff: “Worry a lot less, relax a lot more” Martha Sharma, Accreditation Program Officer

I firmly believe that Martha Sharma has the right idea! In contrast, each of the other 7 AAM staff resolutions reported in the Weekly e-mail of 30 December 2014 involved an apparently new addition on personal & work ‘to do’ lists—only one of which dealt with taking a holiday. See my previous post on the value of vacation.

I argue that this relates to the tendency typical of museum workers to overcommit, overwork, & overfunction because we love what we do for a living. Museum workers are “occupational devotees” who not only very much appreciate our good fortune to work in this field, but obtain strong positive reinforcement of many kinds in this socially valued work (Stebbins 2004: ix, 10 passim).

One might suppose that the ‘just one more thing’ approach among the majority of AAM staff resolutions reported also is typical of the vast majority of New Year’s commitments. One intuits that this piling one more task on already full loads also results in the common failure to follow through with personal resolutions. Often, our assumption seems to be that busy lives of those who “wear maxed-out schedules as a badges of honor” (Barton 2014: L5) can be solved by adding just one more thing to do—corrective notwithstanding. For example, many resolve to read—& hopefully apply—that new self-help book.

Many self-help books are gifted at Christmas or purchased thereafter by individuals at this resolution-formulation time of year. Samuel Smiles scarcely knew what a 21st century trend would snowball when 157 years ago he published his book Self-Help—referred to as the first of its kind. Today, self-help books remain the world’s top selling genre (Groskop 2013).

One new self-help book relevant to this Blog is to be released on the same day as this post. The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work by Christine Carter was reviewed in advance in Toronto’s The Globe & Mail (Barton 2014: L5).

Reviewer Adrianna Barton’s article under the heading Stress & titled “Why ‘B’ can be better,” suggests that one solution to the Post-Modern rat race many of us inhabit can be achieved “with the 70-per-cent rule, the focus is not on maximizing returns but on achieving reasonable goals, with well-being top of mind” (Barton 2014: L5). As revealed above among AAM staff, well-being does not seem to be the most common of resolution types chosen by museum workers.

Citing Carter (2015) as well as fitness experts & work-life-balance gurus, Barton suggests giving up on the idea of pushing ourselves to the maximum effort all of the time. The basic solution proposed is to reduce effort exerted on everything to B-plus for most things & putting out A-plus effort only on the most important.

Burning the midnight overwork oil often is explained by worker motivation to present the hard-working “optics” that, hopefully, will boost careers by persuading supervisors of the employee’s indispensability (Barton 2014: L5). This however ignores what in my view is the unique “occupational devotion” characteristic of workers in the museum & related fields noted above that puts museum workers at particular risk of burnout.

The “optics” motivations for overwork lead to anxiety, irritability, sleep disorders, disengagement from loved ones, other forms of psychological distress, & burnout (Barton 2014: L5; cf. Posen 2014: 10 passim). The same results occur regardless of the motivations behind the self-imposed task saturation—occupational devotion or otherwise.

Everyone must acknowledge, however, the truth is “nobody can sustain their maximum level of effort for very long.” This is according to Jennifer Berdahl, Montalbano Professor of Leadership Studies: Women and Diversity, Sauder School of Business, at the University of British Columbia. She states: “The motivation to go through life at full throttle is often based on the belief that doing it all is what makes us worthy and acceptable” (Barton 2015: L5).

“(C)onstantly pushing ourselves to go the extra mile can have a negative impact on all areas of life” according to Scott Schieman, a University of Toronto prof who researches the interface between work, stress, & health (Barton 2014: L5; cf. Posen 2013: 2, 87 passim). See my related post on unsustainable Do Your Job & Then Some career advice given to museum workers.

It is important to understand, however, ‘extra mileing’ & perfectionism extend well beyond the individual sphere in the museum & wider modern world of work (Posen 2013: 38, 45, 321, 427). Reviewer Barton cites Linda Duxbury, professor at the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University [who has jointly carried out longitudinal studies of Canadian workers, the majority of whom fall under the same professional categories as many museum workers (see Duxbury & Higgins 2012: 2)]. Duxbury has found that corporate cultures are focussed on doing ‘more with less’ & her studies document how workloads are increasing as are expectations that workers will be available 24/7 via IT (Barton 2014: L5; cf. Duxbury & Higgins 2012: 8, 11). See my previous posts Drowning! IT Time Sink Managed With Email Charter & Smartphones and Unpaid Overtime .

Especially in times of ‘downsizing,’ workers are being asked not only to ‘do more with less,’ but many organisations such as museums often end up expecting workers to do “everything with nothing” (Posen 2013: 5). I have argued elsewhere that unabated ‘more with less’ expectations of museum workers are unsustainable—not to say dangerous for our physical, mental, family, & social health—& exploit museum workers unethically (Thistle 2014).

70% Solutions Suggested:

In order to help ourselves to deal with such ever-increasing expectations, Barton reports that Carter (2015) recommends the following. Rather than constant A+ or 100% effort, we need to “dial it back—by about 30 percent—and put your own well-being first.” Overloaded & stressed workers need to stop “giving it your all” to every task in life. We must make carefully considered choices & experiment with devoting B+ or 70% effort to the non-critical areas of life, most of the time (Barton 2024: L5).

Apart from the rather radical 70% solution, Christine Carter’s 2015 book The Sweet Spot recommends other coping strategies to avoid burnout such as to schedule mini-breaks, define clear limits at the outset of projects, & identify what you won’t take on.

Barton finds additional support for the binary categorisation of effort level strategy, referring to life-balance coaches who go as far as recommending reserving 40% of your energy for yourself in order to emphasise personal well-being (see Trudeau 2008)! Also see resources on well-being on the web site Exploring the Well-Being of Museum Professionals created by Andrea Michelbach (2013), author of important research on museum worker well-being. Indeed, following Dr. David Posen (2013) who has been treating stressed workers for more than a quarter century, both employers and employees must understand that maintaining personal well-being is the only firm foundation for productivity at work.

Taking adequate time away from work to recharge one’s energies also is necessary to avoid health problems (Barton 2014: L5). After all, the original meaning of the Latin term from which the word vacation derives is time “empty of work.”

Further to Carter’s (2015) advice on the need to take breaks, Barton also introduces the notion of “haiku productivity” propounded by Leo Babauta in his 2009 book The Power of Less & in his blog ZenHabits.net. Time has rated this among the top 25 blogs (Barton 2014: L5). Haiku productivity proposes the need for arbitrary limits on daily tasks, paralleling the 17 syllable stricture in Haiku. Such tight constraints on work projects compel workers to “evaluate what’s important and what doesn’t make the cut” (Barton 2014: L5). Lives then can be streamlined by focussing on a few essential tasks broken down into manageable chunks & eliminating the unnecessary so as to increase efficiency (Babauta 2009).

Such self-imposed limits also are useful for reducing the time sink effects of checking electronic messages constantly & avoiding the consequent stress. It turns out that curbing digital communications is a simple way to reduce stress. Barton (2015: L5) refers to an uncited University of British Columbia study published in December 2014 that found adults who were limited to no more than 3 checks of their electronic media per day ended up with significantly lower daily stress levels than those who were allowed to checked it an unlimited number of times (Barton 2014: L5). See my IT-related Blog posts above.

In the end analysis, possibly the best resolution for the coming year is to slow down, put important things first, & spend our maximum energies only on the important things. AMM staffer Martha Sharma is headed in the right direction to work-life balance & should be regarded as an exemplar for us all in the museum field—& beyond!

Potentially, 70% is one more useful task saturation solution.

References Cited:

Barton, Adrianna. 2014. “Why ‘B’ Can be Better.” The Globe & Mail division of Globemedia Publishing Inc. 15 December, L5.

Babauta, Leo. 2009. The Power of Less: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Essential…in Business and in Life. New York: Hyperion.

Carter, Christine. 2015. The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work. New York: Ballantine Books & Random House of Canada.

Duxbury, Linda & Higgins, Christopher. 2012. Revisiting Work-Life Issues in Canada: The 2012 National Study on Balancing Work and Caregiving in Canada. Ottawa: Carleton University and the University of Western Ontario http://newsroom.carleton.ca/wp-content/files/2012-National-Work-Long-Summary.pdf (accessed 20 January 2015).

Groskop, Viv. 2013. “’Shelf-help’ books set to fill publishers’ coffers in 2014.” The Guardian 28 December. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/dec/28/self-help-books-literature-publishers-growth (accessed 19 January 2015).

Michelbach, Andrea N. 2013. “Are Museum Professionals Happy? Exploring Well-Being Across Domains and in the Workplace.” A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts. Seattle: University of Washington. https://digital.lib.washington.edu/researchworks/bitstream/handle/1773/23533/Michelbach_washington_0250O_11485.pdf?sequence=1 (accessed 20 August 2014).

Posen, David. 2013. Is Work Killing You? A Doctor’s Prescription for Treating Workplace Stress. Toronto: House of Anansi Press Inc.

Stebbins, Robert A. 2004. Between Work and Leisure: The Common Ground of Two Separate Worlds. New Brunswick, USA: Transaction Publishers.

Thistle, Paul C. 2014. “Museum Worker Overload & the Ethics of Exploitation” presented at the Canadian Museums Association Annual Conference, Toronto, ON, 9 April [PPT slides are available at https://solvetasksaturation.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/museum-worker-overload-the-ethics-of-exploitation-final-final-project.pptx . A narrated version is forthcoming]

Trudeau, Renée Peterson. 2008. The Mother’s Guide to Self-Renewal: How to Reclaim, Rejuvenate and Re-Balance Your Life. Austin, TX: Balanced Living Press.