The sensation of not having achieved enough in a week of study leave, or feeling like you’re getting behind is a familiar one to many academics. I’ve certainly experienced it before, during my 2010-11 study leave. Looking back, I know I still achieved a huge amount. In fact I achieved more than I’d planned, but they were different achievements. Focusing on the possibility for other outcomes and outputs from study leave is key.
When plans need to flex, this can be for a number of reasons:
1. Life gets in the way (you get a cold, your parents need your assistance, visitors want to descend, building renovation work needs to happen).
2. You read something and it completely changes your thinking.
3. You can’t get access to the materials you thought you could (either because they are not available or because you can’t manage to travel to where they are).
4. A conference/public lecture/media interview comes up that you didn’t expect.
It is in making the right adaptations to your plans that you can still make strong progress with your study leave.
For me, that means sifting out tasks that are more process tasks than thinking tasks. I can do a lot of process work when my brain is distracted by other things.
Process work for me includes literature searches (teeing up articles to read for a day when you’ve got clear headspace), editing and formatting work, cross-checking publishers’ house styles and requirements, and doing research-related tasks like sorting conference travel.
Thinking tasks require much more sustained clear time, and I need to turn off email, ignore social media, and work with what’s before me on the page (whether reading / detailed note-taking or writing / drafting a new book chapter, article, or conference paper).
I always feel satisfied after thinking days, and usually very tired. That’s in part because I also often get a lot of housework, baking/cooking, or some piano playing done on those days too, so it’s a double sense of achievement. How does that happen? It happens because of what neuroscientists call implicit and explicit brain activity (see Helen Mort’s blog citing Dietrich on this). The thinking stuff needs time to percolate (become implicit) so doing other non-related activities (explicit ones) helps the work to develop.
So while today hasn’t been a thinking day, and I’ve been feeling frustrated by that, in fact the best I can do today is the process work- and I should align my expectations with that, recognising I’ll still get some good work done, but I won’t get that glow of satisfaction I get on a thinking day. If all days were thinking days, though, I’d also never get anything done…
As one colleague put it via Twitter – if you achieve half of what you plan, you’ll have done enough.