Today’s guest post is Part II of Colleen Derkatch’s sabbatical life lessons. If you missed Part I, catch up here.
No, I’m not talking about how I did on my sabbatical. I’m talking about how I did on my first figure skating test in almost 3 decades, an ice dance that I passed this week with the totally fine grade of “satisfactory.”
Let me rewind. When I went on sabbatical, I made a deal with myself to invest some of my newfound time and emotional energy into making myself feel more human again after a devastating and exhausting few years sprinting along the tenure track. I was determined that my sabbatical year would be different. Well, reader, it was! I had space and time to think new thoughts, to get my body and my mind back into shape, and to reclaim my evenings and weekends. It was glorious.
And now it’s over.
I came back to regular faculty life in September and, as I near the end of my first semester back in the classroom, it’s time to give myself a final grade for my sabbatical and to see how I’ve translated what I learned to my post-sabbatical work. First, the Report Card.
Where I excelled:
I lowered my expectations. Initially, I had unreasonable goals for my sabbatical. I thought I would write a whole book from scratch in the oodles of time freed up by not teaching or doing university service. But some wise senior colleagues advised me to spend the first couple months catching my breath and decompressing, which I dutifully did. I caught a taste of what it was like to not have a headache all the time, to not have chronic acid reflux or insomnia. I felt brand-new.
By fall, however, as my friends and colleagues returned to class, my Type-A personality came screaming back, reminding me that I owed it to everyone—my university, my colleagues, my family, contingent faculty who don’t have the same sabbatical privilege—to crank out research. And so I forgot my plan to become human again and had a too-busy fall. Headaches and everything else came back with a fury. I had to do something different.
I tried a new way of working. After ending up right back where I’d been pre-sabbatical, I took a leap of faith partway through the year and started working with a coach-slash-project-manager. As I outlined in Part 1 of this post, I put myself in her hands and let her restructure my working life from the bottom up. It went against all my instincts. Gone were wide-open calendar days of “research.” Gone were long hours at my desk, reading or writing (or, more often, stressing about not doing either while refreshing Twitter every 5 seconds).
I started working in short, scheduled bursts of 15-20 minutes on highly specific tasks, marking each burst on a calendar on my desk. My coach/project manager and I chatted weekly to set a full schedule for that week so I would know each day what I needed to do and how long to do it. We re-jigged the schedule as necessary and I always knew what was on the immediate and distant horizons. My workdays often totalled no more than an hour or two, and sometimes even less. It felt wrong, like I was cheating, but I eventually trained myself to work that way, slowly upping the time until I hit the sweet spot where I was getting tons of stuff done without feeling like I was really trying. I’ve never been more productive and yet I somehow had more free time, too. Evenings and weekends were mine again.
I made time to live. I prioritized non-work activities, like studying French and taking up figure skating again. I cooked, I read, I worked out. I traveled and I spent lots of time with my kid. I also dove deep into my workplace extended health benefits, loading up on therapy, physio, massage, and osteopathy to undo the knots in my brain and body.
Short of spending the year abroad, I made maximal use of my time “off.” But you can probably see where this is going: I went kind of overboard. If I was Type A about my work life before my sabbatical, I became Type A about my non-work life during it.
Where I “needed improvement”:
I tried to do all the things. When I wrote my previous post, I hadn’t yet registered how much I had taken on in my sabbatical “life” project. It’s true I was getting a ton of academic work done with little sweat but, between skating and French and the many types of therapy I was doing, I wound up exhausted nonetheless.
My coach says this is normal: stress and anxiety don’t just disappear when you start working in less stress- and anxiety-provoking ways, they just get funneled in different directions. So all the nervous energy about work that once whirled around me like dust around Pig Pen became a cloud of nervous energy about whether I was relaxed enough. Funny how that works. But, in the end, I think that’s exactly what I needed to do, to swing the pendulum way too far in the opposite direction so that, with practice, it would end up somewhere in the middle.
Final grade: A+
Why an A+? Because I got a lot of stuff done. Because I took good care of myself. Because I tried to do all the things. Because academics are just too damn hard on themselves. Because, ultimately, my sabbatical changed my life.
My sabbatical helped me make some significant changes that I’ve been able to translate into my post-sabbatical life, and they appear to be lasting. The idea I had that I need to suffer to produce good academic work was deeply etched into my DNA but I’ve been slowly de-coding it. Breaking my work into manageable bite-sized bits helped me develop a new relationship to my job because it’s much less daunting to tackle a 20-minute bit of highly specific work than a hulking, amorphous task that could take all day or all week. Add up these small bits and the hulking, amorphous tasks almost complete themselves. I’m not the first to try this approach but the hulking, amorphous task of shifting academia’s culture of overwork can only be done bit by bit, and this post is mine.
But what’s the catch?
Maintaining my commitment to keep myself in one piece has not come without costs. I’m not as good a teacher as I was: I do the best I can but I don’t give every last bit of me to teaching, as I once did. I’m not as good a colleague as I was, either: there are too many committees, too many new initiatives, and I can only do so much if I want to do it well and stay in one piece.
I’ve figured out that if I want to give academia the best version of me—the most productive, the most energetic, the most fair, incisive, and useful version of me—it can’t have all of me. The part I keep back for myself is what allows me to do the rest. And so I’m fiercely protective of my time. I’ve reserved two precious, immovable research days a week. The other days are for teaching and service. I book everything into a weekly schedule, with lots of flexibility built in, and I unapologetically stick to that schedule. I don’t work on evenings or weekends, and I generally pass on work-related evening events, too.
Of course, I have all the comfort and security of tenure. But I think much of what I’ve described here can be parlayed for those who are pre-tenure or off the tenure-track. Being mercilessly protective of my time has allowed me to do well the things I need to do, often well ahead of schedule. And because I take concrete blocks of time off, I’m more rested and ready when I’m “on.”
So where did my cloud of nervous energy go? Some of it simply dissipated. And the rest, I now funnel not into work but into skating. It is physically and intellectually demanding, requiring full concentration and exacting precision, and it takes up a lot of time, skating 3-4 days a week. But making time for it somehow helps me make time for everything else. And it burns off that nervous energy better than any amount of reading or writing or teaching ever could. Plus, I’m getting seriously strong, which makes it much easier to sit down to work when I need to.
I may have only gotten “satisfactory” on my recent skating test but I’ve learned to be satisfied with that.
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