How to Go on a Mind Strike

Define boundaries at your job, and enforce them.

After date night, he locked his keys in his car. We’d been seeing each other for a while, and I had a big project due the next day — plus papers to grade. So I went back inside the coffee shop to work.

“That’s kind of cold,” he said. “You’re not going to wait with me?”

“I’m under some soul-crushing deadlines,” I begged. “I’ll make it up to you later. Promise.”

It just so happened that a friend of ours was also stopping by for a latte. Run-ins happen a lot in college towns. So my friend took it upon herself to wait with my fiance. Why? Emotional support, I guess. Because locking your keys in your car is such a traumatic experience.

They became friends. Overtime, they started discussing my emotional unavailability. You can guess where this led. My fiance and I didn’t last much longer. Mainly because I was too “cold.” He needed someone who would wait for the locksmith with him.

Someone who would always be there for him, even if he might never introduce you to his parents.

After the breakup, a miracle happened. Suddenly I felt lighter than ever. I had so much time and energy. My work improved. I started exercising more. People noticed. “You seem different,” my professors said.

Turns out, I’d been spending all my mental load on a needy, unappreciative little man princess.

But now, I was free.

Everything in my life improved. Journals started accepting my articles. Programs started offering me jobs. Mentors stopped calling me an under-achiever. All because I started giving to myself what I deserved for once. Like only going out for drinks when I had time.

Going for long walks when I wanted, to help me think.

Working instead of soothing someone’s ego for two hours.

Not letting anyone else steer my obligations.

Equality matters in every relationship — not just the romantic ones. These days, my marriage practically shouts fairness. My job, on the other hand… Let’s just say my bosses are all spoiled, needy royalty.

The Invisible Labor of the Designated Worrier

For years now, a couple of us at work have known the life of the “designated worrier.” Writers like Gemma Hartley in Fed Up describe the designated worrier as someone who has to keep track of all the details and logistics. They are the second brain. Sometimes, the only one. They do the crucial but invisible work of keeping everyone satisfied.

The designated worrier at my job has to schedule all the classes. But she also have to abide by everyone’s preferences — except her own. One of our professors yells and storms out of meetings whenever she doesn’t get the times she wants. Another complains because he doesn’t like teaching on Fridays. Yet another insists on offering a special topics course narrowly focused on his own interests, one we already know we’ll have to cancel later for under-enrollment.

The designated worrier has to fix the scheduling mistakes inserted by other people, without embarrassing anyone.

She has to email multiple reminders about paperwork, and send forms through two and three times before they’re processed.

She has to make to-do lists for other staff members, ones who technically don’t work for her. And she has to persuade them to do their jobs.

She has to remind her tenured colleagues to observe her classes once a year as part of her tenure evaluation. And she also has to remind them to actually write the letters. When they forget, and loose their notes, she has to accept their apology with grace and schedule another observation.

The designated worrier is the one who shows people how to use Dropbox so they can actually find their syllabi, or how to configure their email settings so they’ll get to “inbox zero.” Sometimes she has to literally walk over to someone else’s office and show them how to read a travel reimbursement form, without losing her temper.

When someone in her department retires, their service work magically becomes hers. Because she’s so efficient.

She’s not paid extra for this work. Instead, her boss tells her “This will look great in your tenure portfolio.”

A System that Rewards Selfishness

Venues like The Chronicle occasionally publish on the topic of gender in higher education. Female professors get screwed fairly often. They’re expected to publish as much as their male counterparts. But they also wind up doing more of the service work. They serve on more committees. They write more reports that don’t count for tenure.

They do more of the invisible work that keeps a department afloat. They’re not paid extra for it.

If they are, it’s begrudged. Their dean is always looking for a way to squeeze a little more from them.

Men can fall into this trap, too, especially if they teach in one of the “effeminate” humanities programs. They’ll take on their fair share of extra labor, at the expense of their research time. Or they’ll give up more nights and weekends to keep everything running.

They, too, wind up doing more for free.

Meanwhile, look at most business and engineering programs. Their faculty earn a lot more, for less work.

We’re told it’s because these fields bring in more money. They produce research that matters more.

It’s no accident these areas are dominated by men.

Universities love to praise English teachers for their sacrifices. Our president once made a joke that the faculty would probably take over the landscaping if they had to. He was highly amused at the idea of a professor cutting his grass. This same guy is also on record as saluting teachers who “basically work for free, because they’re so passionate.”

Our president drives a luxury sports car. He does nothing for free. Even his personal vacations are reimbursed. They find a way.

Recently, I poured through our university’s budget and discovered that I’m one of the lowest paid faculty-administrators on my campus. My immediate thought? I felt guilty about being pissed off.

Inequality Goes Beyond Gender

There’s a wrinkle here that goes beyond simple gender categories. Not every man automatically makes more than every woman.

A friend of mine from another university explains how he wound up with a salary twice as big as mine. He says, “Every year, I go into the dean’s office and show him my CV. I tell him what I’m worth, and demand a raise. If he dismisses me, I go on the job market. He knows I will.”

There you have it. The people who do well in our values system are the ones trained in the logic of self-promotion.

Frankly, I despise this system. I’m going on strike. Not a real strike, because my university doesn’t have a union.

I can’t afford to risk getting fired.

But I’m going to take charge of my labor. Call it a mind strike. You should, too. No matter where you work.

I hate that a man or woman can earn more money simply by trumpeting themselves louder. And I hate that these same people always manage to skip out on their share of the emotional labor. Every time they demand more for themselves, they’re shrinking the pot for others.

This is what we mean by patriarchy. It’s not just rule by men, but a whole network of ideas and attitudes that reward people for acting a certain way — for valuing only individuals. I refuse to participate in this system anymore, even if it means I’ll wind up making less money.

The Cost of Worrying for Everyone

Everyone tells the designated worrier to delegate more. But delegation comes with its own host of emotional responsibilities. In the end, you’re still responsible for the work happening. Now you’ve got a person and all their psychology to manage, too.

One time, a grad student came into my office and tried to explain to me how I could delegate more. He spent a long time talking about his qualifications and his vision for the department. Then he gently criticized me for not being “available” more. By that, he meant keeping my office door open all the time. Letting anyone stop in for a chat, regardless of what I might need to get done before picking my kid up from daycare.

“It’s really important to build a sense of community,” he said. “I remember when you used to give students directions when they wandered into your office by accident. You’d answer their questions about anything, and even look up stuff for them. It was so nice.”

Yes, and so exhausting.

Also, this happened in the land before parenthood.

When I mentioned this conversation to a colleague, he sided with the grad student. It was too hard for people to set up an appointment with me via email. Students, teachers, and staff should just be able to come see me whenever it suited them. My schedule wasn’t important.

Since then, I’ve stopped asking this particular colleague for advice. He’s the type that shows up twenty minutes late for a meeting, then complains when you have to leave. The type that doesn’t read the report you wrote, but will still offer you his opinion about it.

What these two didn’t understand was how a department operates, what it’s responsible for, or what’s expected of professors who help run one — on top of their other duties like research and teaching.

Still, guilt won. After that visit, I guided the grad student through a small set of tasks he could manage that would “help me.” I cobbled together some readings for him, and created a list of steps and resources.

A few weeks went by. No response. We met once to follow-up, and he had done nothing. “I’m really overwhelmed with work right now,” he said. “You understand. Right?”

“Sure,” I told him. “You have to take care of yourself.”

When you’re the designated worrier, other people can waste your time. But you can’t get upset about it.

Taking Back Control

It’s ironic that someone on the spectrum like me might wind up as my job’s designated worrier. And yet, it also makes perfect sense. The skills you pick up when managing your own emotions come in handy when dealing with other people’s. The downside is that nobody believes me when I suggest to them I might be autistic. Apparently I’m way too likable.

Thanks, I think. That happened by accident.

Likability becomes another form of invisible labor. You get so good at composing yourself under stress, nobody wants to recognize how much energy it takes. They don’t respect your need for downtime.

So you have to draw boundaries, and enforce them.

Or as Tiffany Dufu writes, you have to Drop the Ball. You do it on purpose — not the big things. But you show people that they can’t always get exactly what they want out of you. At some point, you have to displease someone.

An upper-administrator might offer you a big project. It doesn’t come with any extra pay, or even a real chance at promotion. He simply dangles his approval out there, as a vague promise for further advancement.

Or the university makes up a new award, which comes only with a plaque.

You have to decide, is this extra chore really worth your time?

Other people’s expectations can eat you alive.

Over the last year, I’ve overcome the guilt of keeping my office door closed. I’ve trained people to set up appointments.

No more walk-ins whenever they feel like it.

Making the department a warm, cuddly place can’t be my job alone, or even my top priority.

I’ve also been spending more time on my annual review letters. It used to be a place where I bragged about publications and accomplishments. Now, I’m using them to articulate all the invisible work I’m doing. I also sneak in statements about the need for resources that could be useful in getting this stuff done.

Making Your Labor Visible

You might not even realize how much work you’re doing for free. Don’t stay blind to your invisible labor. Start keeping track of all the things you do that nobody sees. Come up with language to explain it.

Consider using a program to track how much time you spend on these tasks. There’s a dozen out there, some of them free. Even if you don’t show those time reports to your boss, it helps to say, “I spend X amount of hours per week on this thing that’s technically not in my job description.” That will get you some attention.

Once you understand everything you do, then you can make better choices about what to mind strike. For example, I realized how much of my week was disappearing into the void of random office chats.

The IT guy comes buy, and he wants to talk for 30 minutes. He even starts telling me how to each my classes.

A textbook rep knocks on my door while I’m trying to finish a lesson plan. Even as I’m trying to end the conversation, he won’t stop talking about some new online tools I’ll be really excited to try out. He takes fifteen minutes total, and leaves me scrambling to my next class.

An office aid — not even one of my students — asks me to read his novel in progress. He sits down and spends 20 minutes talking about his career goals, and “bouncing ideas” off me.

A tenured professor comes by and asks me to lead part of a workshop next week. So I spend an entire day preparing materials. At the workshop, he commandeers half my time with his own activity.

Another grad student comes by and tells me I make her nervous in class. She says it would help if I “opened up” and shared more of my personal life with everyone. You know, like this other professor she loves.

All of these little anecdotes have one thing in common. Somehow it became my job to do what everybody else wanted— my students, my colleagues, grad students, the deans and all their staff. Our upper administration constantly talks about creating a “warm and inviting atmosphere,” but they hardly leave the boardroom. They mean we should do that. Not them.

All this time I spent listening to students and colleagues was killing my productivity. So I cracked down on myself.

That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped it altogether. No, I simply decide when I have time to chat. Some weeks — it’s not much. I also decide where it happens — namely, not my office. I’ve reclaimed that as my place to get things done, or take a breather between meetings.

Making other people feel good all the time isn’t my primary job duty.

Going on a mind strike doesn’t mean you refuse to do all emotional work. The authors who write about emotional labor acknowledge its value, including to yourself. A mind strike simply means taking ownership, and barring others from establishing your agenda, especially when they don’t make any effort to appreciate what you’re doing.

You should have one boss, not twenty spoiled princesses. Finally, stop feeling guilty. You work hard, and you deserve a voice. That’s not self-promotion. That’s just holding others accountable for a change.