Structuring a sabbatical

We’re now three weeks into September and I’m still trying to figure this whole sabbatical thing out.

In a post a few months back, I acknowledged that a big challenge for me while on sabbatical would be structuring my unstructured time. So I knew I’d have to think carefully about setting manageable goals and milestones for my projects, as well as working with the ebbs and flows of my energy levels, to keep my motivation going and my progress moving forward. I spent a lot of time this summer thinking about how best to accomplish that.

I looked forward to using the first few weeks of September to get back into a schedule of sorts after a less-intense summer and after taking most of August completely off. Unfortunately, the first couple of weeks “back” were anything but typical — my husband was out of town for over a week on a business trip overseas, and about 24 hours after he returned I flew off to a conference. That first week, I juggled settling in to a work routine with handling the first week of school for the kiddos (including the return to sports and such), single parenting, and having to squeeze my marathon training (including a 20 mile run!) in while the kids were at school. Oh, and a full day of retreat/meetings for me, too.

Now things are settling back to somewhat normal: no one’s out of town, I only have one meeting this week, and I’ve started my marathon taper so I’m running less, and less intensely. (Although I am still hungry all. the. damn. time.) And so I finally get to settle in to a working routine.

I decided that at any given time during my sabbatical, I will work on three main “projects”. This gives me some variety in what I’m working on from day to day, but is manageable enough that I don’t feel like I have too many pots on the stove.

Every month, I’ll evaluate where I am with each of the projects. For each project, I’ll then set 1-3 goals for the month, along with week-by-week “deliverables”. That way (as long as I’m realistic about what I can accomplish in a week!), I’ll have specific and measurable tasks to tackle, and hopefully won’t spend as much time spinning my wheels. Once a project is completed, I’ll consider adding a new project to the mix.

For example, this month my projects (by code-name) are:

  1. Conference paper: this is the part of my research that’s furthest along, and for which my goal is to get a paper out by the end of the fall. My goals for this project this month are to finish the first iteration of the model on which the paper will be based, which entails going back to the literature as well as reviewing my own experimental results.
  2. Mental models: this is a brand-new project related to my current work, but with a more pure HCI focus. My goals for this project this month are to see what’s out there in the literature already and to read up on some qualitative research methods that I’m considering using.
  3. Fun exploration: This will be a standing project throughout my sabbatical, in which I learn things for the fun of it or because I’ve had “learn X” on my to-do list for forever. This month, my goal is to learn some Processing.

On a day-to-day basis, I make sure that my to-do list contains tasks related to at least 2 projects (see: avoiding boredom), as well as some other things related to other obligations (this week, it’s a number of things related to Grace Hopper next month, since I’m giving a talk and co-chairing the posters track).

So far this system is working out pretty well. I’m finding that I’m staying focused during the day, even (especially) during the periods of the day when my energy is typically lower and I’ve historically found it hard to stay on task. I’m making steady progress on each project and meeting most of my weekly targets. And I haven’t gotten bored, yet.

The one thing I’m still trying to figure out is email. I want to only be checking it once a day, but I find myself checking more often than I probably should. I’m not sure if this is my attempt to feel connected, or if this is just an old habit that refuses to die. I need to figure out a better plan and stick to it. (Also, I think maybe once a day is actually unrealistic, and perhaps I should aim for twice a day.)

On a related note, I think I need to schedule some time where I spend time talking to other people during the day, so that I don’t feel so isolated. So far that’s not been an issue, but I could see it becoming an issue down the road.

It will be interesting to see how this experiment plays out. I’m confident that I’ve found something that seems workable, that allows for flexibility, and that reduces the chance I’ll beat myself up over not producing enough. We’ll see if that actually happens.

Thoughts on my son’s first day of school

Dear son,

By the time this is posted, you’ll have boarded the school bus, arrived at school, been welcomed by your new teacher, and settled in to the new daily routine. Today you start a new adventure, one you’ve been waiting for and anticipating all summer long.

Today, you start kindergarten.

Kiddo eating pudding with chopsticksI know that you are more than ready for this. You’ve come so far since you joined our family when you were 18 months old, leaving behind your country and culture and language and everything you’d ever known to join our crazy family. You love to read (and can probably read more words that you’re letting on!). You love to learn. You’re crazy passionate for anything science or engineering related. You keep asking when you’ll get to do math in kindergarten. You love art and you have such a creative mind.

You’re the most inquisitive kid I know. Why, why why? you ask. Me, your teachers, the neighbors, any adult within earshot is fair game for your questions. Your teachers and daycare providers up until now have been so patient and welcoming with your questions, so open to your curiosity, so eager to help you learn. I fervently hope you find the same patience and openness in your new school.

Pre-K graduationI’m less of a wreck nervous now than when your older sister started school. We know the school, know the teachers, know the routine. You already know some kids on your class and on your bus, and you’ll know some kids in your after-school program, too. You’ve been to school already countless times, for your sister’s stuff, over the years. That might make the transition easier for me, tomorrow, knowing that you’re in somewhat familiar territory, and that you’ve got lots of older kids (neighbors, sister, sister’s entire girl scout troop) looking out for you. (Might.)

My wishes for you this year: that you continue to ask lots of questions, that you make new friends, that you continue to share your kindness and joy with those around you, that you open your heart and your mind to all of the new experiences that school brings, and that you hone your passions and find new ones.

Your dad and I are so very, very proud of you, and we can’t wait to see what this year brings you.

Love,

Mom

My sabbatical summer

I was having lunch with a close friend the other day. As we were chatting, she noted how relaxed I looked. Outwardly, I smiled and thanked her. Inwardly, I thought to myself, “It’s been a very, very long time since anyone’s said that to me!”

I’m about a month into my sabbatical, and I am re-learning what it means to relax. I’ve been so go-go-go for so very long that the relaxation stuff feels a bit unnatural, to be honest. I do have occasional moments of panic where I start thinking “shouldn’t I be FRANTICALLY WORKING ON SOMETHING?”, but those are becoming fewer and farther between. Hey, old habits die hard!

My summer schedule’s a bit disjointed this year. There are weeks where my kids are in camps/school district programs, interspersed with a week here and there where they’re home with me. Both kids are home with me on Fridays, for the most part. And for most of August, my kids are not scheduled for anything. (School for them starts the day after Labor Day.) The kiddos are both old enough to entertain themselves for a bit, so on some of the days they are home I can get a bit of work done, but I try to focus mainly on them on those days. Part of the reason we went with this schedule was so that the kids and I could have some fun together this summer, so I’m honoring that as much as I can.

I decided at the start of the summer that I’d commit to working (writing, reading, researching, etc.) for 2 hours every weekday through June and July (with some exceptions, like parts of July 4th week and the 3 days I was at Girl Scout day camp with my troop), and that anything beyond that was gravy. This would allow me to make progress on my research, while also leaving plenty of time for my other goals: de-stress, relax, slow down, and enjoy the non-work parts of my life. I’ve since expanded this commitment into parts of August, while leaving most of August free from work to allow me to unplug and recharge.

So far, this schedule has been working very well for me. I’ve been working for at least 2 hours on most weekdays, and I usually end up working more. For example, on Monday I worked on a literature review for 2 and a half hours in the morning, and then ended up going to the pool by myself in the afternoon and catching up on some research reading there. (Read an article, jump in the pool! Read another article, go down the waterslide!)

The best part is that I am super productive and focused, even with (or probably because of) the abbreviated schedule. I’m making a ton of real progress on my work. This morning, I spent an hour sketching out a potential new study. I got the idea for this study while reading a new paper yesterday, and I’m sure I was inspired because I actually have the time and mental space to think and reflect.

I also don’t feel guilty about doing things other than work, which means I can actually enjoy things like kayaking on a random Wednesday morning, or working on a craft project — both of which I did yesterday. In past summers, even when I’ve given myself permission to take days “off”, I’ve still felt guilty for not spending the time doing something more “productive”. I’m starting to realize just how harmful that mindset was for my productivity, ironically.

One thing I did not expect: I’m starting to rethink my sabbatical plans. The time I’ve had to pause and reflect on my work has made me realize that I need to rethink some things about my work: how I work, what lines of inquiry to pursue, how to involve students, what research questions are really important to me, etc. I have a longer post brewing about this point specifically. Suffice it to say that my plans are shifting, but that I’m even more excited and confident about what I might be able to accomplish this year, and that the shift will probably mean my work will be more sustainable for the long term and more personally meaningful.

Overall, this summer has been just the summer I needed: a little bit of work; a lot of relaxation, reflection, family time — and time to rediscover myself.

On the move….again

In what is becoming a yearly tradition, yesterday I moved offices. (On the hottest, most humid day of the summer too, of course.) I bid adieu to my “home building” since 2003, the good old CMC (Center for Mathematics and Computing), and moved into temporary digs in the library for my sabbatical year.

I learned some new things about my new home right away. First: apparently I’m on a “quiet floor”.

 

sign

Guess I should cancel my office-warming party, then.

 

Second: my office door locks easily. Really easily. As in, I’d only been in my office for 5 minutes when I locked myself out. Lesson learned: always, always carry your keys with you.

Third: there is no women’s restroom on my floor. I’m going to be getting killer stair workouts in this year!

Fourth: I have two windows in my office. One is on my door and looks out onto the library stacks. The other looks into my neighbor’s office. (So yes, I’m in another “fishbowl” office.) Luckily that second window has blinds, but they are on my neighbor’s side. This should be interesting. The lack of outside window/light makes me sad, but I’m primarily working at home so I’ll suck it up.

nook

But hey, at least I have room for a reading nook!

Fifth: I apparently don’t have many books.

bookcase

All of my books fit on this small bookshelf and a small shelf above my desk.

And finally: What at first looked like an insane amount of bulky furniture actually fits pretty well in the space.

weirdly shaped oval table

This weird oval table was the hardest thing to place. I think I’ve mostly gotten it right, but it looks like it needs more stuff on it.

office view

Note the lack of standing desk. Our visitor is borrowing it this year. It will be weird to sit and work!

I do love libraries, so I’m pretty excited to have an office in the library for the year. And being outside my normal building means that I’m not likely to be drawn into any department stuff on the days I am on campus — except perhaps when I have to attend to my testbed network, which is still in the CMC.

The weird part for me, though, is knowing that I’m not ever likely to move back into the CMC. There is no office for me to return to — all of our offices are occupied, and there’s no remaining office space in the building. In 5-ish years we’ll be moving into the new science complex, where there is space for all of us. But in the interim, I’ll need to go somewhere else, and it’s not clear at this point where that “somewhere else” is. It’s definitely not an ideal situation — being outside the building means I’ll miss out on “hallway conversations” and informal mentoring opportunities with our many junior faculty, among other things. On the other hand, it will force me to try harder to be in the loop, which will get me out of my comfort zone, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

I have to be on campus a few days this week, so I’ll have a chance to get used to the new space. I’m looking forward to the adventure and to the possibilities.

And so begins a new chapter

Today is a day for celebration around these parts.

My three year term as chair is finally over. My sabbatical has officially begun. And last night, I handed in my materials for promotion to full professor. (If memory serves, I’ll find out whether my bid was successful next spring.)

I feel like I’ve been working so long without a break, running from one thing to the next, putting out metaphorical fires everywhere. Other than one last report I’ll need to submit in the next couple of weeks (which shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours to complete), my work time for the next year and change is pretty much my own. It’s been a very, very long time since I could say that.

I have some posts brewing about a few things that I’ll try to get out over the next month. Lessons learned as chair, lessons learned from doing 3 tenure track hires in a row, and so on. I am looking forward to having time to blog again.

I am looking forward to having time to BREATHE again.

I’m also eager to start my sabbatical. I realized a couple of weeks ago that I do have something publishable, or very, very close to being publishable. I am pretty sure I can get this out by October. So that’s my near-term goal. In general, I’m just eager to spend lots of quality time thinking about, and actually working on, my research — something that’s been in very short supply lately.

But to be honest, the next week is all about celebration and relaxation. Today I’m taking the day off and spending some quality time with my son at his favorite place — the science museum. Tonight I’ll celebrate all three work milestones with my family. This weekend I’ll hopefully spend some quality time on my kayak. On the 4th, I’ll run our local 5 mile race and eat way too much (vegetarian) barbecue, as I normally do. I did not sign my kids up for any camps next week, so my kids and I will have a staycation of sorts. I plan to spend as much time with them outdoors as humanly possible to take full advantage of our gorgeous summer here.

Today begins a new chapter. I look forward to seeing what this chapter brings.

On non-teaching terms and productivity and mental health

This was supposed to be a post about how I spent my non-teaching term. This was supposed to be a post examining how one structures a term when one is not teaching but is not on sabbatical either. This was supposed to be a post about productivity and workload and the other parts of my job beyond teaching. I tried to write that post. I really, really did. But I finally realized that I could not write that post without addressing the twin elephants in the room, and the roles they played in my non-teaching term: anxiety and depression.

I was diagnosed with mild-to-moderate anxiety and depression in April 2011, after I had a panic attack on a treadmill at the gym. Looking back, my anxiety and depression likely have been around since 6th grade. (Looking back, that panic attack at the gym was also not my first panic attack.)  But I didn’t grow up knowing what anxiety and depression really were. I assumed the voices in my head, the ones that constantly told me I wasn’t good enough or lovable enough and questioned everything I did and second-guessed every decision I made, that made me worry worry worry about everything, plausible and not, all the time, 24-7, the brain never ever turning off….I thought that was normal. That was my normal. I thought I was flawed, that I wasn’t good enough or lovable enough, and that I just needed to work harder, and harder, and harder still. And when I found myself stuck, not able to work, paralyzed by self-doubt or fear of failing and proving the voices in my head right…well, I just assumed that was a moral failing on my part, and beat myself up for not trying harder.

The diagnosis in 2011 was a revelation. My doctor was telling me, finally, that these voices are in fact NOT normal, and that in fact it’s not normal to go through life with your brain on hyperdrive 24-7. She gave me language to understand what was happening. She prescribed some meds. She sent me to a psychologist. And for the first time in years, when the meds kicked in, my brain calmed down. The voices backed off. It was a revelation. So this is what “normal” feels like, I thought! It was…freeing.

I am fortunate that most of the time, I can control my anxiety and depression without meds and without therapy, by taking care of myself: sleeping enough, eating well, exercising regularly. Running and swimming are especially helpful for me. But I have triggers that make it harder to successfully apply these strategies. Extreme stress is one trigger (which I’ve had in spades over the past year and a half). Spring term, for whatever reason, is the other. My latest working theory on the latter is that I’ve used up a lot of my mental reserves in fall and winter terms, and that I start to realize just how many things I haven’t accomplished in the year that I intended to accomplish. The voices in my head seize upon this as proof of my incompetence, and the cycle begins again.

This spring term has been especially rough. The anniversary of my dad’s death weighed heavily on me in April. Things came up unexpectedly at work that demanded my attention, putting more on my plate than I had planned. We were still hiring into April. I fell behind on my research and on my carefully constructed project plans. And I’ve been dealing with on and off insomnia for months. So my reserves are shot…and this has brought a perfect storm for the anxiety and depression to rear their ugly heads again.

I spent a lot of this term beating myself up over how “unproductive” I was. When I’m in the throes of anxiety and depression, I don’t and can’t recognize that they are there, and I fall back into my old patterns of assuming I’m flawed. It took me a long time to be able to take a step back and recognize what was happening. Now that I can, and have, I’m doing what I can to keep them at bay. I’m cutting myself some major slack. I’m spending time on research activities that don’t trigger my feelings of failure as much: designing experiments, collecting data, rewriting code, reading the literature. I’m spending more time reading in general, the things that have piled up over the last year that I’ve intended to read but never got around to reading. I’m making a game out of other aspects of my job (“Let’s see how much of this policy document I can write in the next 10 minutes. Go!”). I’m digging my way out of the hole I made for myself, slowly but surely. And I have an appointment later this month where I’ll discuss with my doctor maybe going back on meds for a while, just to help me regulate myself again.

I’ve also recognized that the unstructured time of my non-teaching term likely made things worse with my anxiety and depression. All that free time leaves a lot of time for the voices to note that you’re not working hard enough, or fast enough, or producing enough, which feeds into a cycle of paralysis and self-doubt, which in turn feeds the voices. This is something that I will definitely need to watch for on my upcoming sabbatical.

So the story of this term was not the triumphant story of Amy Conquering All Of The Tasks. It was not the story of the Successful To-Do List. It was not the story I wanted to write, or wanted to live. But it was the story of Getting Some Things Done Despite Myself and of Recognizing My Limitations. And that, I suppose, is a good enough story for now.