In the past week or so I’ve had a few conversations with clients about the relationship between accomplishing their writing goals for the semester and taking a real break over the Christmas holiday. As one of them put it
How do I not feel guilty?
Here are some elements that were common to the various situations:
- things they had hoped to have finished were not finished
- next semester will be busier with teaching; writing time will be hard to find
- someone else is expecting a full draft
They all recognised that they would benefit from rest over the break, but worried that they couldn’t afford to take it. There was a tendency to think they should try to fit some writing in, even if they had visitors arriving to celebrate Christmas, extra food to prepare, etc. When prompted about whether finding time and the mental space to write was realistic, they almost immediately accepted that it wasn’t.
Often, deciding you have to fit writing in over the break only results in more guilt. You feel bad that you aren’t writing (enough) or that you are finding it hard to focus when you do sit down to write. And you feel bad that you aren’t giving your family and friends the time and attention they deserve, or you aren’t really creating the holiday you would like to have. Even worse, you risk going into next semester already tired, making it even harder to do your work and making you much more susceptible to whatever diseases are going around (and possibly risking real burnout).
How do you take much needed time off to rest and enjoy the holiday without feeling guilty about your work?
Step 1: You aren’t as far behind as you think
When we got into the details it became obvious in every case that although they had not finished the projects they had planned to finish, they had made substantial progress over the course of the semester. The important strategy here is to compare where your project is now with where it was at the beginning of the semester. Like my clients, you will probably notice that you have written a substantial number of words, that your argument is clearer and more nuanced, and perhaps other indications of how far you have come.
It may be that like one of my clients your project has become bigger than you initially thought it would be, and you have done more than you had planned, even though that is now not enough to get it finished. Some stages of the scholarly writing process are very difficult to make accurate time estimates for no matter how experienced a scholarly writer you are.
It is highly likely that where you are isn’t where you expected to be. That doesn’t mean you are a failure. It is just the nature of the work. Look at what you have accomplished. Allow yourself to be pleased with that. Then make a more realistic assessment of what remains. It may be that you are now close enough to finished that you will be able to make good estimates of what remains to be done and how long that will take.
You will note that I have only suggested that you compare where you are to where you were 3 or 4 months ago. A lot of people may be publicly sharing what they accomplished this semester or this year as we approach the end of the calendar year. It is very very difficult not to compare yourself to others. Resist the temptation to do so. You do not know their context. You don’t how much of the work that went into “x articles published” actually happened this year and how much happened in previous years. If you have to avoid reading those posts (wherever they are), do so. Stay in your own lane.
Step 2: Make concrete plans
One thing that will ruin your break is worrying about the unfinished projects and all the work you have to do when you return. For a couple of my clients, next semester will have more teaching than this past semester. That fact was adding to the pressure they felt to finish things now. However, a lot of the pressure resulted from having only a vague sense of how little time they’d have for writing combined with a vague sense of what needed to be done to get these projects to finished.
The best way to alleviate that worry is to make concrete plans. Decide what needs to be done. Schedule time to do it. Put reminders in your calendar. That way your brain can relax and let go (though it might take a couple of days).
If your projects are close enough to finished that you can make a big list of what is needed, make that list. Make it as specific as possible. You want the items to be comprehensible when you look at them in 2 weeks time. i.e. Fix paragraph 4 on page 31, the phrasing is awkward. Or Use Find & Replace to make sure I haven’t overused [whatever word you tend to overuse]. If you feel like a whole section needs rewriting, note the specific issues that have led to this decision. (One client did this and her list only has 18 items on it, providing further evidence that she had made substantial progress this semester.)
There are 2 reasons for this very specific list. First, you are reducing or eliminating the vagueness from “It’s not finished and there is no time next semester to finish it.” The biggest cause of stress is lack of control. Writing a list of concrete actions that need to be taken gives you more sense of control. Once you know what needs to be done, you can allocate time next semester to working on those tasks. Second, the more specific your list the less of your limited time needs to be spent figuring out what to do, too. You can just pick an item on your list and do it. Rinse. Repeat. This also makes it easier to use small amounts of time, thus increasing the total time available.
In one client’s case, we decided that the 2 weeks following her return from a relaxing vacation with friends were for teaching prep & beginning of semester chaos. For the 2 writing projects, she decided to devote the time this week to making lists of what was needed and blocking time in her calendar for AFTER January 15th to work on them. Another client has been using this week to go to the library and do a lot of source checking for her projects so she can be more confident with her draft, tidy up loose ends, and clean up her footnotes.
Step 3: Create transition rituals
Tidying away this semester and setting yourself up for your return is a physical ritual that helps your mind let go of those projects and rest.
Gathering the notes on your writing projects into folders, putting the notes about next steps with the other notes, and tidying them away are a physical way to mentally close the project. The list making is part of this. Your list can go in the front of a physical folder, or at the top of a digital one. (Top tip, put a zero in front of the title to make it first in the alphabetical list.) Make a note in your calendar where you put things. Then you can let it go and relax over the break.
If teaching prep is your priority immediately after your return you can set out the materials you need for that. Or just leave the notes about what needs to be done on your desk where you can see them. Those notes will remind you of your plan and keep you from getting into an “OMG I have so much to do” loop on your return. And they’ll help you keep the quantity of preparation into the container you decided on before you left.
Step 4: Really take a break
You are tired. You need the rest. You deserve time to relax and read books, or celebrate with family, or whatever you do at this time of year. If you’ve not been good at doing that kind of thing between semesters in the past, maybe now is the time to create some traditions, even simple ones.
Know that it will take you a couple of days to really wind down and let go of the work worry. Keep reminding yourself that you have made plans for dealing with things. You will not forget. The last couple of days you may start to feel your energy change again as you mentally prepare to go back to work. This is why my dad always said you should take a full 2 weeks vacation. It allows you to get a week of actual rest in the middle.
Both you and your work will benefit from the break.
You are not being selfish. This is the foundation of self-care that you need to be a good teacher, a good writer, a good mom, a good friend, etc etc. Anything you do to move yourself closer to being able to take a break between semesters is a big enough step for this year. Don’t chastise yourself for not being the best damn relaxer there is.