Serendipitous thinking time

Flying back from a family trip this weekend, too exhausted to read, I put on my headphones, dialed up a podcast (Teaching in Higher Ed, which I absolutely love), and closed my eyes. Instead of dozing, I listened and let my mind wander a bit, stopping to jot down notes as the mood struck — some about the podcast, many about random things that popped into my mind as I listened that were tangentially related to the podcast. I noted a few tools and productivity tips to try. I jotted down ideas for my upcoming fall classes. I sketched out a possible model for a new evaluation piece in my Software Design course. I didn’t intend to do any of these things, but having the time and space to just sit with my thoughts and no agenda led to some creative thinking and planning.

As I exited the plane, my first thought was that this sort of time for serendipitous thinking is what I will miss most when coming off of sabbatical.

My second thought: time for serendipitous thinking, as I’ve learned this year, is absolutely essential for my productivity and for my well-being.

Spending time on things not immediately related to my work — like listening to TIHE, or reading more broadly in my field and across fields and disciplines — allows my brain the opportunity to step back, to learn new things, and the space to make new connections. Some of my best ideas for class activities, projects, case studies, etc. have come from leafing through ACM interactions or Communications of the ACM, from articles that often have little to do with the course’s subject matter. Listening to The Hilarious World of Depression podcast caused me to reflect on my course management policies and think about how I can be a more compassionate, yet still fair, professor to my students who are struggling. These are just a few examples from this year alone.

Sure, I can still do these things while not on sabbatical. But it’s hard to justify time to sit and really listen to an episode of TIHE, or flip through back issues of interactions, when you have a line of students outside your door and 100 emails to answer and a class to prep and grading to do and a paper deadline and and and…..

Yet my work is richer and more fulfilling when I do make time for these things. So how do I successfully make time?

In the past, I’ve tried blocking out specific time to, say, read journal articles each week. The problem is that even though that time is blocked out, I still view it as fungible — if something else comes up, or I’m stressed about getting other things done, well, this is not immediately due so I can just skip it, just this once. And then once becomes twice, and then it’s 3 months later and the journal articles are sitting there gathering dust.

Yet I am able to successfully block out research time every day on my calendar, even though most of the time there’s not anything immediate about getting research done (besides paper or grant deadline time). I’ve gotten past the mindset that research time is fungible and convinced myself that research time is important, despite the lack of immediate deadlines. I think I just need to do the same with “serendipitous thinking time”. Maybe not every day, but I think I can manage at least once a week. That seems like a good starting place.

Do you carve out time for serendipitous thinking in your workweek? If so, how do you manage it and keep that time sacred?

Summer plans

Well, it had to happen eventually — my year-long sabbatical is now over, and I’m officially into summer. Which means it’s time for summer plans and setting summer goals.

Since I’m a visual person, this year I decided to make a big ol’ summer calendar and write/draw out all of my responsibilities, goals, etc. on it. I found this exercise immensely helpful — and as a bonus, it helped me figure out which weeks the kids have various camps. With 2 kids in 2 different age groups (for camp program purposes), you can imagine how complicated this becomes. In fact, there are only 4 weeks this summer where both kids are in the same camp/location at the same time.

Summer calendar

Summer calendar, in progress last week. It is much more filled in now!

We also decided this summer to purposely not schedule the kids for the entire summer. So there are weeks or partial weeks where the kids are hanging out at home with me. After a disastrous day last week where I spent more time dealing with kid shenanigans (my own and the neighbors) than on the work I needed to complete, I came up with a daily task list for the kids to complete on the days they are home with me. So far it’s worked really well.

Summer to-do list for kids.

Thank you, Pinterest, for inspiring the entries on this list.

What’s also worked is setting a strict time limit on my own work for the day, letting the kids know how much time I will spend working and when I plan to be done. And reminding them that every interruption moves that time back. And scheduling fun things to do together after I finish working, like going to the pool or playing games. (I’m not sure who looks forward to that time more, my kids or me!)

We have a couple of shorter trips planned, plus like last year I blocked off the entire last week of August for Mom’s End Of Summer Fun Camp, which was a big hit with the kids. And I am back to teaching in our high school summer program, after a year off from that. Having those sketched out on the mega-calendar helped me visualize the time I have available to work on other projects.

I have a few projects that I’m working on this summer:

  • I received an internal curricular grant to get things up and running for my HFOSS Comps project. I’m going to spend that time getting involved in the developer community and making connections; figuring out how to contribute to the project, and how my students can contribute; and creating/modifying learning activities for and from the foss2serve community.
  • Starting to conduct interviews for my interview project. I’m a couple of months behind on this because some other projects consumed my time this spring, but I hope to get at least 5 interviews completed this summer. I’m hoping to load these up in the weeks that the kids are in camp/summer programs.
  • Continuing my state diagram/model project. The paper continues to evolve, the modeling language is mostly complete, and now I need to get the event/transition part of the model working in simulation.  I don’t expect to finish this over the summer, but I hope to get the bulk of the design done so I can finish coding it up in the fall.
  • Prep for fall term. There are some minor changes I want to make to Software Design, which I’m teaching this fall and winter. I’ll need to touch base with my community/campus partners for the other 2 Comps projects I’m supervising. I need to update my website. I’m also taking over as mentor/director of the Summer Science Fellows program at Carleton, so I need to figure out what happens when with that program and figure out what to do in the fall seminar I’m leading for this summer’s fellows, along with some other logistical things.

My main goal this summer, though, is to not stress about the things that don’t get done. There are only a few things that need to be completed this summer, but for the rest, the world will not end if I fall a bit behind. I need to make sure I am relaxed, refreshed, and ready to tackle the academic year, and that is really my number one priority this summer.

Reflections on marathon training

This coming weekend, I will be running my third marathon. This is the first time I am running a marathon other than Twin Cities (although I will also be running that again, later this year!) and my first time traveling to a marathon.

It’s also the first time I’m running a spring marathon.* This, along with being on sabbatical for the entire training cycle, made this marathon training experience much different from my two previous training cycles.

Training through winter and spring and into unofficial summer meant temperature and weather extremes. The week before I started training, in mid-February, I ran in wind chills of -15. During my last 15 miler, 2 weeks ago, temperatures soared into the 80s. Lashsicles and heat exhaustion in the same training cycle! I’ve run through snow, gale force winds, driving rains, fog so thick I could not see my hand in front of my face**, black ice, and blazing sun. But, luckily since I HATE the treadmill, the weather only forced me indoors a couple of times.

Temperature extremes while running.

From negative temps to heat advisories…

Spring is notoriously windy around here, and that I found was the most challenging part of this cycle. The worst run was a 14 miler with hills, where the 2nd half was pretty much all uphill but the first part of the run was into 20mph headwinds. I have never been so tired after a run in my life! I usually tried to plan runs so that I’d have the wind at my back at the end of the run, but this was not always possible. Grandma’s is a point-to-point course, though, so at least this was good training for potential unfavorable winds on race day.

When I train through the summer, I plan long run routes so that I hit water fountains at key points to refill my water bottles. Up until the end of April, though, the water fountains around here are turned off. This made planning long runs logistically interesting. Instead of doing big loops or long out-and-backs, I planned shorter loops so that I could circle back to my car or house and refill my bottles. (Bonus: I could also shed layers if I was too warm or add layers if I was too cold.) I enjoyed these more than I thought I would — in fact, my favorite long run was the first (of 3!) 20 milers, which I did as 2 hilly 10 mile loops around my town.

When planning running routes in the winter, I also had to be cognizant of which paths were plowed, which streets were likely too icy, etc, and be ready to reroute on the fly if I guessed incorrectly. Which I often did.

Being on sabbatical meant that I had more freedom in terms of scheduling my runs, which meant that I ran later in the morning than I usually do (usually after getting the kids on the bus). This also meant that I had time to go explore new-to-me running routes, and I found a few nearby that I hope to keep in the rotation as I train for marathon #4 this summer and fall.

Minimum maintenance road.

Adventure is calling!

I ran more in Minneapolis too, doing 2 runs (20 and 21 miles, respectively) around the Chain of Lakes/Lake Nokomis, and several runs in the Minnehaha Falls area (discovering a new-to-me path in the process!). Minneapolis runs will be tougher to work into my schedule this summer and fall, but hopefully I can make it up there once or twice this summer.

I decided to use a more aggressive training plan this time around.*** I ended up doing 504 miles (not counting the week leading up to the marathon) total. The training plan was tough but manageable, and other than a bout of bronchitis that sidelined me for a week, I got through it injury-free!

Miles run per week, June 2016-2017.

Graph of miles I’ve run this past year, by week. Can you tell which 2 weeks I took off from running post-marathon #2 and which week I had bronchitis?

The plan called for some strength training exercises, which I was mostly good about doing. I also found that doing taekwondo 2-3 times a week really helped my running — it improved my core strength and balance, as well as my overall strength and mental toughness, and likely kept me injury-free. Plus there is nothing more therapeutic than taking out your aggressions on a punching bag!

I felt like I ran slower this cycle, but looking back on my long runs, they were on par pace-wise with those in my last training cycle. I did do my easier runs at a much easier pace than I normally do, which was probably the right decision, since I tend to go out too fast and too hard on easy runs.

Finally, this was my second time training with a virtual group, and I have to say that this was the best part of my experience. I’ve made some friends through these groups, and am hoping to meet up with a few fellow group members this coming weekend! It’s inspiring to read others’ race reports, and helpful to commiserate with others who are slogging through the same training runs while juggling work, family, kids, and the rest of the shenanigans life throws at you. I’m so very grateful for this online community. And I’m so very grateful for my family, who have always supported my crazy training cycles and who encouraged me to try 2 marathons this year when I was debating doing so.

I have no idea what this weekend will bring. I deliberately did not train with a time goal in mind knowing that the weather in June in Duluth can be quite variable. But I know that I’m ready, I’m well-trained, and I can’t wait to see what marathon #3 has in store for me!

* Technically it’s still spring!

** I wisely aborted that run 2 miles in. Too dangerous!

*** The plan called for 5 days/week of running. I dropped 1 day per week (the easiest run/shortest mileage) because I didn’t want to risk injury or burnout.