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Stop Using August as an Excuse

Stop using August as an excuse - taking the spaciousness of summer to redefine the fall

Even if you’re halfway scrolling through Facebook or Instagram — it’s hard to miss it. Vacations. 

France, Alaska, the Bahamas, U.S. National Parks. Y’all are out. Or at least those of you in higher education were out this summer. Where did you escape to?

I was out, too — for nearly five weeks living in an RV with my fur baby Luna and co-pilot Lloyd. We covered 3,400 miles through Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Utah.

The timing of our summer trek wasn’t great with the horrific gas prices (reaching as high as $7.25), but it was ideally scheduled during a period when we could fully clock out. I wanted to apply the lessons and skills I learned last summer, which I wrote about in You are Essential.

I crafted my out-of-office email response: “Thank you for reaching out! I am currently away from my home office, living out the lyrics, “Josie’s on a Vacation Far Away…” 🎶

 I bet you’ll have that song in your head all day now ;).

I’m happy to report I reached a new level of achievement on this trip. The “old me” would never have believed it: I didn’t open my laptop for three weeks!

Josie and Lloyd posing with their RV on their summer trip.

But who’s thinking about vacations by now anyways? It’s August — it’s go-time in higher ed! I want to talk about how we can spend our time this fall with spaciousness, a little like the summer.

I had one client recently describe the turnover of staff in their division as “hemorrhaging.” Another used the exact same word to describe their student enrollment. In either crisis, we need significant campus culture changes to tackle recruitment and retention.

One piece of the troublesome pie is how during the start of school, we throw out all self-care common sense – which may, in the end, hurt larger aims to take care of and keep your students and staff.

This fall, how do we prioritize spaciousness and ensure our teams do the same?

Stop Using August as an Excuse

It is time to re-think how we approach August. Just because you’ve always “done it that way” doesn’t mean it can’t change. Instead of planning a jam-packed August, or welcome week, consider spreading out events throughout the semester. The good news is that these incoming students have never experienced August — they don’t know the difference!

For far too long, we have accepted how crazy the fall is and that it will eventually get better by October. We’re promised comp-time or wellness days in exchange for working through weekends and evenings. These are “fun” events — and a critical time for students.

Of course, the literature points to the first six weeks of the student experience as critical, but not the first six days. Why do we throw the entire kitchen sink at students immediately?  

That’s why it’s so important to audit everything. 

Audit Everything

How many meetings (in-person or virtual) really could and should be turned into an email, Slack conversation, or Teams text chat? What programs or traditions have had declining attendance or impact for years? What technology platforms (social media included) aren’t resonating with your community? Do you (and your team) work better in the early morning or later in the day?

Get into the habit of compassionately but critically questioning everything. Why is there a two-week training for new RA’s and RD’s that stresses everyone out? Why do we open our office at 8 a.m., when on average students don’t come in until 9:30 a.m.? Why do we have a Facebook page when the engagement has been tanking for the last two years? 

But don’t stop at the why — as higher ed is actually pretty good at pointing out the problems. Consider the what if’s. What if you only have 1-1’s that last 15 minutes? What if staff meetings were only for group work and all updates were shared in Slack or email? What if you went all in on Instagram and put out a weekly Reel vs. trying to post on all platforms daily? Has your team ever thought about the what-ifs?

Logging Off Isn’t Just for Vacations

In a needs assessment at a campus I’m working with, we found that leaders overwhelmingly gave their teams support and approval to be logged off, but they were not practicing the same for themselves. The data showed 75% of the divisional leaders were checking and responding to email daily while on vacation.

We need to role model what it looks like to log off, not just for vacations. Even if it’s just a Tuesday night. Administrators especially have been crafted to always be on, and some are even rewarded for doing so. But this comes at a cost. The price is not only for them, but also the message it conveyes to their teams. Sending a non-essential email after hours on a weekday or on the weekend creates an expectation and reinforces a work culture. 

In addition to email practices, I’d encourage you and your team to look into away messages on Teams and Slack. This communicates when you are offline, as well when you’ll be back online. Role modeling technology boundaries is an important skill set, no matter your level in the organization.

Finally — as you consider digital wellness practices, I can’t advocate enough for you to create physical space between you, your phone, and your bed. Get it out of the bedroom. There is plenty of research on this. You’ll sleep better. Set a goal for a period of time before bed and after you wake up that you don’t check your phone. Even the “fun” apps like TikTok, which further activates your brain, can be problematic at night. 

Aggressively Protect Your Calendar

Outlook, shared calendar tools, and scheduling apps can be a type A person’s dream. The problem with these efficiencies and openness is when your days, weeks, and months are booked up beyond your control. You reach a point where showing up to work is sitting in meetings, not actually doing the work.

It’s not just meetings that can be problematic. You need to account for your internal clock and flow. More specifically, when do you work best? As I asked earlier, are you the most creative or administrative in the morning? Do you light up later in the day to tackle strategic planning? I have blocked off my Monday mornings for strategy and Wednesday afternoons for pure creative work. I also know after 3 p.m. on Friday, I’m not at my best, so I adjust my scheduling tool around this. How about you? If you asked your staff or student this question, how do you think they’d respond?

Finally, I’d like to put out a challenge to carve out a variety of times throughout the fall for you to log off fully.

Especially if you are a supervisor — please make this an active check-in with your team, too. Maybe it’s just a Monday morning, a three-day weekend, or an entire week. Block it off — now! Look holistically throughout the fall: when do you usually crash and burn? And then back track and create some buffers, even if they are baby breaks. Or when does it get a bit more steady so stepping away will feel even more spacious? And then block it off — right now.

“Remember that if you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”
― Greg McKeown

PTO Is for More Than Vacations

A “vacation” may not be what your mind and body need during your time off. The saying, “I need a vacation from my vacation,” is so common because it is true. Travel, time zones, experiences, events, logistics: all that can quickly accumulate to feel like your time off was a whole lot of work.

This is why I’d encourage you to take some PTO this fall doing absolutely nothing. It may be hard. I know it has been for me. Sure, you might read an entire book or complete an overdue house project, but this unstructured and spacious time will fill you in unexpected and beautiful ways.

No matter what — without debate or question — just take it. Take your PTO. Period.

Re-Defining Fall 2022

For over two years, COVID-19 has taken away so many hopeful and well-planned vacations. So no surprise we are seeing a whole lot of adventures playing out in the summer of 2022. We are vaxxed, boosted, and ready to relax. I hope you were able to take the trip, see your family, build the deck, or whatever was on your summer bucket list.

And here comes August. Just saying the word might put a lump in your throat. 

But what if this August and September could look and feel different?

I ask that we not simply accept the extremes we had put ourselves through in the past. 

What if the start of the academic year didn’t have to be this way? What if doing less but more over time, actually was more sustainable for everyone — from students, parents, staff, and everyone in between?

I hope this letter gave you pause and permission — whether it’s blocking off your calendar, planning out PTO, or pressing pause on a program. 

How will you prioritize spaciousness for yourself and your team this August and all academic year?

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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