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.

Advertisements

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