As so often happens, reading someone’s blog inspired me to write about something.
I am already in a bit of a panic about not get everything done that I want to get done over the next 6 months. And, yet, as I sit here this morning — sipping my 2nd cup of tea in a now empty house — I feel unsure as to where to begin.
I’m sure you are familiar with this feeling.
Sometimes autonomy sucks
The freedom to spend your days researching the topic that inspires you, thinking big thoughts, writing about stuff you are passionate about is an academic’s dream come true.
And yet, faced with those days when you are totally in control of your workload…
We miss the structure of meetings, teaching, etc.
Well, not really, but the responsibility of having total control over your day can be somewhat overwhelming.
The Tyranny of Choice
Let’s face it, you have lots of things you could be doing. And most of them don’t have to be done in any particular order.
You could do a bit of writing, a bit of reading, a bit of analysis.
You could work on one paper for a bit and then work on another one.
You could take a break at 11 a.m. and go to a yoga class. Or meet a friend for coffee.
You don’t have to work a 9-5 and probably don’t want to.
But you are worried that if you don’t impose some kind of rigid structure, with goals, a to-do list, and so on, you will get to the end of your sabbatical and have nothing to show for it.
The Washing Line of Possibilities
One of my online friends mentioned a technique she uses that I’ve recently started using.
I think you might find it helpful, too.
Basically, you break down all the things you want to do into small tasks. Stuff that you could do in one work-segment.
Not “write a paper for x journal”. But “write the introduction for x paper”. Or “analyse those interviews”.
The small steps that add up to journal articles, book manuscripts, grant proposals, etc.
Write them on small pieces of paper. I cut up 8.5 x 11 sheets into 8 pieces.
And then peg them to a string strung across your office.
As you can see, I also used coloured paper to make it pretty. Because your office needs to be an inspiring place to work.
How it works
It’s pretty simple.
You just scan the washing line for something that you feel like doing right now. And then do it.
Then you find another thing.
And sometimes you come up with another idea for something to do and you add it to the line.
And definitely have the looking-after-yourself stuff on there.
You can’t think big thoughts if you are tired, not getting enough exercise, not eating well.
This is what walking down the road looks like
You aren’t looking at the destination.
You are doing stuff that nourishes you. That gets you towards the destination.
You aren’t worrying about how fast you are going or how much you are doing. You are just doing it.
You can schedule time for reflection and adjustment if you need it. But not more than once a week.
This works even if you aren’t on sabbatical
Because some of your time is your own to do with what you want.
And it is really easy to default into doing the scheduled stuff: preparing teaching, grading, preparing for meetings.
But your research is important. To you and to your institution.
You are paid to do research at least some of the time.
So maybe try the washing line and see if you fit more in.
For more on why lack of structure can be less productive: Energy + Focus + Intensity = Higher Productivity
This post was edited Sept 14, 2015.