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?

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