Sabbatical Notes

My first month of sabbatical is behind me, and I have a few notes to share about how I’m adapting to it. To be clear, I feel very fortunate to have this time away from teaching and service responsibilities, and I am not suggesting that my workflow or practices reflect a universal experience with sabbatical. And I certainly hope that my comments don’t sound unappreciative of the opportunity to take time to focus on research and out of classroom activities for a year. On this blog, however, I’ve long maintained a thread related to my personal workflow, and the comments below relate to that rather than represent some universal critique of the sabbatical practice.

Last spring, I blogged about how I planned not to waste my sabbatical. Here are my notes so far:

1. Space and Place for Work. This year my office on campus is being used by my replacement so I don’t have access to my usual workspace. Fortunately, my lovely home has an office space that serves just fine for my purposes. I have windows, plenty of desk space, a decent stereo, and a table for piling books and paper in no particular order. What my home office lacks is opportunities to interact with my colleagues and students. 

While I understand that it is popular to see these interactions as “distractions” and “interruptions,” my time on sabbatical so far has convinced me otherwise. In fact, I have to say that I am understanding far better recent office design trends that emphasize common space at the expense of the isolated office. One of my greatest challenges so far this year is the lack of opportunities to interact on a daily basis with my colleagues and students. 

2. Priorities. I am not someone who works better under pressure. If I don’t have a paper completed at least a week before I deliver it, I slip into unproductive panic mode. As a result, I schedule my productive time very deliberately. During the academic year, I know that I have 35 hours of productive research and writing time each week usually distributed over three, ten-hour days during the week and usually about five hours over the weekends. The other 30 hours per week are dedicated to teaching and service responsibilities. I’ve tracked that using the clever Reporter app for iPhone.

What I didn’t realize is that those 30 hours of teaching, grading, and meeting are the key to my week. By limiting the hours I turn over to research and writing, they force me to prioritize my days. Right now, I am struggling to structure my days in a rational way because I have no pressures requiring me to evaluate and organize my research responsibilities. More time to work has not made me less productive, I’m writing and reading more than ever, but it has made my work less clearly directed toward a goal.

3. Taking Breaks. Without the regular interruptions provided by students and colleagues (not to mention that my wife worked in the same building!), I have to force myself to take breaks or risk running out of energy and concentration before the middle of the week. Fortunately, we have a dog that becomes quite insistent on going for walks about 11 am every day. A walk through the neighborhood and a trip to our fantastically depressing dog park usually clears my mind enough to promote a productive afternoon.

4. Shiny Objects. One thing that I’m struggling to figure out is whether I should allow myself the freedom to chase what one colleague has called “shiny objects.” I’ve spend a little over a week on the Tourist Guide to the Bakken, which is a fun project, but it was clearly not part of my pre-sabbatical agenda. In fact, it originated while I was taking a little break on a Wednesday afternoon and since then it has become a 12,000 word manuscript.  It’s been a fun project that has allowed me to bring together lots of odds and ends from my time in the Bakken, but at some point it will impinge on my existing projects. Without the pressure of classes, the schedule of the semester, and the regular drain of meetings, I hope I can make the right decision and manage balance the appeal of new projects against the time and energy I’ve invested into existing projects. 

One Comment

  1. This is something that I think all writers struggle with — when you no longer have to carve out the dedicated time for writing, because all the time is for writing, it’s easy to lose focus, because suddenly there’s time for ALL the projects, instead of just hammering out the one or two you’ve been struggling to finish. May I suggest creating your own hard deadlines? Also reward systems? For example: “If I write 1000 words on x project which is part of my pre-sabbatical plan, then I can reward myself with writing 1000 words on the Bakken Tourist Guide” or whatever other “shinny” idea is beckoning. You can use more immediately gratifying rewards too, like the next cup of coffee or whatever, of course, and I’ve personally rewarded myself with reading time, too, which is still productive but feels more like “fun” in the moment of struggle to get words on the page. (Maybe listening to whatever new album after completing x project might be a good reward choice for you?)


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