Congrats, you have a sabbatical! Now what?

Academics have a wonderful penchant for anti-climax. You got a PhD? Time to worry about getting a tenure track job. You got an article accepted? Time to rush to the next thing to make sure you make the cut for tenure. You got tenure? Here’s more service. You got a sabbatical? Great–but don’t delude yourself into thinking you will accomplish nearly what you sent out to do.

That last piece of advice is what I found overwhelmingly when I went to look for guidance on how to most productively use my junior sabbatical. Largely, this advice is a lot of let-downs: you’ll hear about sabbatical depression, about the disappointment you’ll feel when you don’t accomplish what you set out to accomplish, about how easy it will be to still get sucked into service (particularly external service). All of this is true if you see sabbatical as just another opportunity to bulldoze through your work goals, but that’s never what sabbatical was meant to be. In the olden days, the sabbatical was intended for academics to develop a new skill or knowledge in order to enrich their existing expertise; the value of sabbatical wasn’t in producing products (a book, a grant proposal, an article) as much as enhancing perspective. Today’s academic train has long ago left that station: if you are lucky enough to get a sabbatical, especially a junior sabbatical, you are expected in no uncertain terms to treat it is as a boon for productivity.

You are certainly allowed to be swept up in that feeling–after all, we are in a moment (the coronavirus pandemic) where productivity feels like the only thing we can control, even as we know it can only help us so much. But I would also strongly encourage sabbatical-ers to pause for a moment, breathe, and give themselves permission to disengage from that place of pressured productivity. While the olden day are over (good riddance!), you can still get a piece of that peace-of-mind sabbatical by cordoning off times for reflection–and I would bet that it will increase, rather than decrease, the depth of your scholarship and your productivity.

Set Aside Time to Reflect on Your Relationship with Your Work

You don’t have the luxury of yesteryear’s lackadaisical approach to sabbatical, but you can set aside some time–a week, or even a month–to interrogate your relationship with your work. This doesn’t mean laying out your professional goals, chiseling a five-year-plan, and getting down to business. It means remembering why you are passionate about what you do, what brings you joy in your work in big and small ways, and how can you reconnect with the parts of work that you value and enjoy–such as deep reading beyond your immediate areas of specialty–and that are crucial to your intellectual life but largely unrewarded in the treadmill of academic life. When I took my junior sabbatical, I spent a lot of time at first journaling–about what my ideal “work” day looks like; about why I love what I do; about the parts of my work that I love but have largely lost touch with; about the parts of my work that I want to explore but haven’t had the chance to; about the kind of intellectual I’ve been and the kind of intellectual I want to become. This helped me gain clarity on my big-ticket goals as well as my day-to-day needs. But it also gave me the confidence of having a firm foundation for knowing what I want–which meant it was both easier to wake up in the morning and get motivated and easier to say no when I was approached with opportunities that didn’t fit with my overall goals.

Don’t Burn Out

Confession: I like reading cheesy self-help books and listening to cheesy self-help podcasts. Maybe it’s the optimistic Californian in me? Or the do-gooder Midwesterner? Either way, I enjoy it, both for the life-hacks and for the engagement with the “science” (sometimes more science-y than science, but whatever) of productivity. There’s a lot of debate about how to tweak yourself and your habits into tricking yourself into productivity. But then there’s also the bigger question of how much work is ideal, with or without those tweaks. High-quality, highly creative work isn’t usually sustainable over an eight-hour work day. I personally maxxed out at four hours per day of focused creative work, which in my case was writing a full draft of a book. I had plenty to do to fill out the rest of my work day–more relaxed reading, administrative tasks, and other things that didn’t require heavy-duty focus. But as far as the heavy-duty focus went, I capped it at four hours a day, and I rarely went over that–even if I was tempted to do so.

Plan

Once I was clear on what I most wanted to get out of my sabbatical (a book draft) and the time I’d be able to focus on that goal (roughly four hours a day), I next took to meticulously planning out my approach. I worked backwards from my end goal, and made sure that any “distractions” (for example, trips) were either crucial signposts for moving me forward in my book-writing process (e.g., scheduling a talk on a particular chapter) or provided me with a needed break. I took weekends off. I spent time tending to my personal life. I reconnected with friends. I cooked a lot of food, and I ate a lot of food. I worked out a lot. All of this was possible because I had my foundation–my clear goals–that ensured I would stay on track.

With regard to my process of book-writing, I spent a month per book chapter. The first few days or week, I brainstormed: I read through data, thought through literature I had already read, skimmed new literature, outlined, storyboarded, and thought a lot about how to craft the different pieces of the chapter and the narrative flow that would tie it all together. Once I had done enough of that to feel I had a rough map of where I could go, I planned out a schedule of some combination of reading, writing, and analyzing for the rest of the month. The last few days of the month, though, I’d save to re-read the chapter and do global revisions. And then I’d put it away to move on to the next chapter. I went sequentially, starting with the introduction through the last empirical chapter, then I returned to rewrite the introduction, and then finally I wrote the conclusion and the methodological appendices.

Writing Retreats

Sabbatical, of course, allows you to do all of this pretty much wherever you want to do it. I very much long to go on one of those wonderful writing retreats that convene in places like Italy, Hawaii, Mexico…I’ve been close to taking the jump to do it, but I have never made it happen. During my junior sabbatical, for example, I wasn’t able to travel due to family health issues. I can’t vouch for how amazing they are, except to say: I am certain that they are amazing, and if you have the chance, please go, enjoy, and write beautiful things.

And that’s the sentiment I’d like to end on–it’s tempting to approach sabbatical as an opportunity to put your productivity into overdrive. You can do this, and perhaps nothing bad will happen if you do (and many good thing may happen, too), but I think as academics we have a responsibility not just to work hard to produce great work but also to take the rare breathe of fresh air that aspects of our jobs allow us, in order to think big and think bold. It’s okay to enjoy the life of the mind, and in my view, the best way to make good on the gift of sabbatical is to reconnect with that very joy (and the productivity, I assure you, will fall right into place).

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