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.


One thought on “Structuring a sabbatical

  1. Thanks for your post! I agree that isolation can be a problem. I’m enough of an introvert that I enjoy spending lots of time by myself, but even for me it eventually gets old. The challenge is to see people without getting sucked into campus work/politics.

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