I remember the ‘why are we waiting, we are suffocating’ chant we used to say when we were kids. The last time I sang it, before I grew out of it, I was stood on top of a wooden slide/jungle gym in a freezing, damp park. It was a crisp November night, and I was standing next to my oldest and best friend, waiting for a Guy Fawkes’ night firework display. Her parents were somewhere, watching us, but in those few minutes (which felt like hours) we were just part of the expectant, chanting crowd and feeling so grown-up. It took for-ever. But it was worth it.
No, that was not last year.
Unfortunately, the ECR existence is mainly about these periods of stale time, the dead zones between deadlines and decisions, during which the control passes out of your hands and into the keeping of some external funding body, publisher, editorial board or whoever set the job advert. Even if they aren’t a faceless entity, it’s still something not everyone is comfortable with. For those who have issues around the Dead Zone, more than likely it’s a process that has been bothering you since your PhD years (and long before).
I used to think there was something wrong with me, because as a child/teen this type of concern was always flagged (and therefore minimised/negated) as impatience, a vice that irritated others and had to be combatted. When I realised it was an innate personality trait, not something I could uncouple from Being Me without a serious struggle, like a deeply rooted weed, I decided to work around it instead.
In some areas, I have vast reservoirs of patience. I’ve worked hard on that. But just because I am still fundamentally impatient as a person doesn’t mean I failed at anything. And it’s not just impatience; it’s anxiety, stress, and occasionally hearing my hairdresser ask, ‘Do I see hair loss?’
Passive waiting is bad.
Expectant waiting – active waiting – that’s something different.
Expect the Worst and You Will Never Be Disappointed
… You may be pleasantly surprised, or always right, or worse: if this pessimistic mantra becomes embedded in your psyche, you may always expect the worst, from everyone and everything, and be unable to experience optimism, find trusting people more and more difficult, become increasingly introverted, be unable to properly function in relationships of any type and end up like I was a few years ago.
For me, now a proudly semi-fully functional human being, waiting for things can still form part of this pessimistic negativity. I can convince myself alarmingly quickly that the worst case scenario is a given: it’s a superpower of mine.
I don’t actually mind rejection itself. Once it’s declared, you can deal with it and carry on. It’s the anticipation that puts me on edge. I just want to know.
Passive waiting is not just bad for me, it’s impossible.
And do you know what, that’s not a character flaw. That’s a survival mechanism.
My current strategies to wait expectantly or actively involve the following:
1. Using the Dead Zone to Take Time Off.
Forget the guilt of ignoring the To Do list for 48 hours. Weekends are not work-ends. (Thanks to Ian Bass for that phrase!!) There’s lots more to do, true, but screw the guilt. I’ve completed deadlines, and I should get a treat for that. And taking time off to plan future events (NOT work events: walks, cinema, bowling, drinks, a city scavenger hunt, something FUN), as well as trying new stuff or just going out to see friendly faces, works wonders for me these days. Cake all round! Cake for everyone!
2. Doing Other Stuff.
Don’t worry: there is always something else to do. The worst thing in terms of the Dead Zone for me was submitting the thesis and waiting for the viva. I had no idea what to do with myself. But that’s ok: that’s the time where you can figure out very seriously what you want to do post-viva. If you already know, great: take time off, then figure out your next moves. And how to follow through. It’s the same with any potentially major transition. You can use the time to figure out what happens if you do get the job you just applied for, as well as what you do if you don’t. I’m all for realism, but it helps to have a solid plan for either scenario, regardless of what you think your chances are. And the planning prepares you for the next step as much as it helps you through the waiting.
3. Accepting The Dead Zone Is A Tough Place To Be.
Don’t beat yourself up about your aversion to the Dead Zone. Even if it’s in the back of your mind while completing other tasks, that’s ok. I find it helps to acknowledge how I’m feeling, take a break from my present task to check the status of whatever it is, reassure myself I will check again tomorrow, and then go back to my other tasks. It’s better than adding to the stress by telling yourself to stop it, or that you shouldn’t be worrying about it, or that you’re being silly. You’re not. And it’s fine. It’s ok to not be ok, sometimes.
That’s currently my strategy, anyway… Hopefully you’ll come up with whatever works for you, if you too are locked in a battle with the Dead Zone. Good luck with that!