Sabbaticals. Academics look forward to them more than canceled faculty meetings, payday, and Beyonce tickets – combined. The prospect of so much unstructured time is exciting and overwhelming. Exciting because you finally have time to work on your writing! Overwhelming because there’s a lot of pressure to do all. the. things. during your sabbatical. You (and your department chair) want to:
- finish your book
- start a brand-new project with new data sources and new bodies of literature
- write that successful proposal to secure the grant you need to keep your job
There’s no shortage of high expectations. That’s why it’s important to get clear about what’s actually possible during your sabbatical. The first step is debunking some myths.
Your Sabbatical Isn’t As Long As You Think It Is
When you’re on sabbatical, you think you have all the time in the world. It rarely works that way. Here’s an example: I recently worked with a writer to plan a semester leave. After accounting for travel to conferences and a short vacation to visit their spouse (who wouldn’t be on leave with them), we determined that there were about nine weeks of writing time available. From those nine weeks, we then subtracted the time for mandatory attendance at workshops. Our conclusion? For a 3.5 month sabbatical there were about eight full weeks of writing time. That’s about 40 days of writing.
That’s why you should calculate the time you have for writing before you do anything else. Not every sabbatical is the same. You might be relieved of teaching responsibilities but still be participating on a hiring committee, or be obliged to attend faculty meetings. You might have increased responsibilities in other areas of your life.
Deep Work Doesn’t Just Happen
In our romanticized academic worlds, Day One of your sabbatical would look something like this: you’d run to your desk, turn on your computer, and just write. You’d be immediately immersed in your work, the words would just flow, and by the end of the day you’d have a full draft of your manuscript. Perfection!
Not so fast, friends.
If you aren’t used to writing for long stretches of time, you’ll likely need to ease into your new writing-intensive schedule. Also, you might need to reacquaint yourself with your work if you’ve been away from it for some time. Start with a few shorter work sessions instead of expecting to work for eight hours with intense focus. Don’t blame yourself if the first few days of your sabbatical are a bit rough. Set small, easily attainable goals to build momentum. With a bit of coaxing, the deep work will come.
Now that you’ve abandoned the idea of a perfect sabbatical, it’s time to talk about what you can do to make the most out of this time.
Make a schedule, and stick to it. Make a master calendar: sit down with a monthly calendar and mark off all of your obligations. Will you be traveling to give talks? Taking a vacation? Attending workshops? The goal of this exercise is to determine how many days you actually have available for working. Once you determine how many days you have, decide when you’ll write or research and for how long.
Declare your goals. What do you want to complete during your sabbatical? Now that you’ve determined how much time you have, you can set a realistic goal. If your goal doesn’t align with the time you have available to achieve it, you’ll have to make some hard choices. This might mean skipping a conference or writing two chapters instead of three. Be honest and kind to yourself.
Take a break. I suggest that clients take a week break at the beginning of their sabbatical to recharge. If this sounds too stressful to you, then spend the week setting up your sabbatical – get your office ready, organize your literature, plan your calendar. Try to also take a few breaks during your sabbatical. You don’t have to go on a vacation but schedule an afternoon or day off.
Know your limits: It’s a rare (nonexistent) person who can write for forty hours a week. I suggest no longer than four hours of deep work per day. This is what most researchers would say is the upper limit of intense concentration. Figure out your peak time. You don’t have to wake up and run to your desk. Maybe you’re more focused if you start the day with meditation or exercise. That’s fine. In your off-peak time, schedule the work that’s routine or mindless. This can include ordering books, updating your reference manager, or whatever administrative minutiae comes your way.
Set your expectations appropriately. Many people plan for sabbatical assuming they’ll work seven hours a day five days a week with no interruption. But just because you’re on sabbatical doesn’t mean the rest of the world has stopped. You’ll still have family obligations, professional obligations, and you know that journal article is going to come back for revisions with a tight deadline just as you’re digging into the 3rd draft of your 2nd book chapter. Build buffer time into your schedule to deal with emergencies and unexpected commitments.
Protect your time. Make yourself unavailable. Set designated email times and use an autoresponder. Be selective about the meetings you take and the collaborations you agree to. I can’t emphasize this enough. You should be doing this all the time, but it’s especially important during a sabbatical.
Be friendly. Sabbaticals can be lonely. Meet with writing partners, fellow scholars, and friends. You might need external accountability, someone to bounce ideas off of, or a friendly chat. While the solitude of writing can be glorious, isolation isn’t.
Make it easy. Try having theme days to easily build a routine. If you’re working on more than one project, this will be especially useful. For instance, Mondays and Tuesdays might be your book days, Wednesdays will be for grant applications, Thursdays can be a reading day, and Friday can be a “catch up” day where you attend to whatever tasks you didn’t finish during the week. Alternatively, you can write in the morning and spend afternoons reading or analyzing data. Make your days predictable to limit decision fatigue. You’ll spend less time wondering what you’re going to do and more time actually doing it.
The reason it’s so important to be thoughtful about your sabbatical is because it’s so easy to crash and burn. Don’t return from your sabbatical more exhausted than when you started it! I’ve seen writers suffer panic attacks from the stress of a sabbatical. Scholars return from sabbaticals empty-handed because they’re so overwhelmed by their unrealistic goals that they freeze. They blame themselves for being incompetent when their only mistake was poor planning. That doesn’t have to be you. Follow these tips, be easy on yourself, and be mindful of your progress. You’ll end up using your sabbatical in ways that make you proud.