Working Over “Break”

Since early November, I’ve spoken with many fellow academics who have been mentioned a decline in productivity and focus. This is always an overwhelming time of year, between the end of the semester crunch, deadlines, various holidays and family obligations, and an increase in administrative burdens with the ticking clock of the coming new year looming over everything. However, 2016 has been a particularly difficult year for many of us, and I’m finding the need for an effective break far greater than usual.

Here’s the steps I’m taking to try to make this break both sane and productive:

  • Make a to-do list–then cut it in half. I constantly overestimate the amount I can get done in any week, but weeks away from the classroom are particularly deceptive in the number of hours available in the day. You may already have been keeping a file with a to-do wish list for the winter break. If it is anything like mine, it is already much longer than what is feasible. Cutting back on goals right from the start can be a good way to avoid feeling overwhelmed and ineffective.

  • Designate at least five days without (academic) work. No excuses, and definitely no emails. If you have holidays you celebrate this time of year, commit to actually be present, and maybe even put the phone in another room to avoid the temptations of email or one more news update from Twitter. I find continuous time away to be the most valuable, but at most universities the actual allowed break from email is fairly short, so it might not be possible.

  • Try picking something to abandon entirely. I use a to-do list system where I’m continually transferring things from the bottom of one week’s task list to the next, which is a good way to be continually reminded what I’m avoiding. Noticing this type of avoidance pattern is only half the battle, of course. If possible, the next step is to abandon that thing completely if it’s a voluntary commitment: the sense of relief that comes of not having another deadline can be worth the opportunity cost. Of  course, it’s possible that the lurking project is something inevitable (a new course prep, etc), in which case you might need to look further up your to-do list for something to jettison to lighten the load.

  • Say no at least once. This might mean saying no to a family gathering, or it might mean refusing a new committee assignment, book chapter opportunity, conference call, or even a collaboration. Check out Natalie Houston’s post on “Five Ways to Say No” for ideas on how to do this, and check out Brian Croxall’s post on deciding to say no. This doesn’t mean saying no to everything, of course, but it does mean recognizing the limits of time and sanity based on where you are right now.

Finally–and perhaps most important–the end of the year is a great time to forgive yourself for the things that have slipped, for the projects that are still ideas and not fully-formed, for the books yet to be written. I am continually working on this myself, as the new year makes me particularly aware of the passing of time and opportunities.

Do you have any strategies for making the most of winter break? Share them in the comments!

[CC BY 2.0 Photo by Nick Ledford]

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