One of the supposed perks of academic work is the flexibility to set your own schedule. With regular breaks from teaching built into the academic calendar, it should be easy for scholars to take time off, relax, and recharge. Unfortunately, this very flexibility often translates into a lack of boundaries and an inability to truly unplug from work.
Because academic work – especially writing and research – is continuous, with many overlapping projects and new deadlines, there actually aren’t a lot of times where we feel we can truly take a break. Even during summers, when many faculty members are unpaid, work is ongoing. Even when officially “on vacation,” folks pack grading, rough drafts, articles to read, and more. Conference travel is officially work in itself, but we’ll layer more tasks on top of it, stuffing those carry-ons with grant proposals and thesis drafts. Underneath it all lies perpetual access to email, where the daily grind of administrative tasks churns on.
Dedication or automation?
The pressure to always be producing, publishing, etc. is real. However, the belief that we need to be constantly available is just that: a belief. If you’ve never really unplugged, it might be hard to imagine that things will function smoothly without your presence and attention. Checking in, staying connected becomes automatic. It might feel like dedication, but it might also just be an automatic habit, one that hasn’t yet been challenged.
No academic emergencies
Here’s the thing: there’s very little in the world of academia that rises to the level of an emergency. Nonetheless, we very easily confuse importance with urgency, and urgency with emergency. What I mean is this: Not everything that’s important is urgent. And even things that are urgent can often wait with few consequences or be delegated.
Let’s be honest. There are few deadlines in academia that are truly final. Some grant applications and job applications might have hard cut offs. But most internal administrative deadlines are just there to keep us more or less on track. I don’t advocate missing deadlines, but if you’re organized you’ll know when they are and they won’t surprise you in the middle of a day off. And someone emailing you because THEY missed a deadline is not actually your emergency.
This might sound harsh but I mean it in a very loving way: you’re not that important. At least, you’re not so important to the ongoing functioning of your workplace that a few days off will make or break the whole institution. Days off won’t destroy your students’ lives or ruin your colleagues’ careers. However, if you never take time off you’re teaching people that you’ll always be the one on call to solve their problems. It’s amazing how once you’re not available, problems will seem to get solved anyways! This is a very freeing realization to have.
Schedule your breaks now
None of what I’ve said is meant as a license to blow off your obligations. But you can loosen your grip a little. And that can be made easier with some planning. I firmly believe that if you actually want to take time off – even a few days! – you have to plan for it. This means that you can’t just say: I’ll relax over the summer or the winter holiday. Nope. You need to specifically block out which days or weeks will be days off. Otherwise the creeping nature of academic work will find you.
Once you do this, you can set yourself up for a truly uninterrupted break. This is where long-term planning really helps me. If I know I won’t have the third week of July to work on that book chapter, I can make sure to build in adequate time for it in the weeks ahead and afterwards. That way I don’t feel guilty or pressured to work on it.
If necessary, let collaborators or students know you won’t be available. Provide an alternate contact person for urgent issues. (The fact that no one actually contacts this person should tell you how few emails are truly urgent!). Set an “out-of-office” auto-reply. Take your work email off your phone. Have a notebook or note on your phone where any “to dos” or brilliant flashes of inspiration that come to you can be jotted down for later.
But vacation is a privilege!
That’s true! Not everyone can afford a trip. Not everyone can find a whole week to set aside. Nonetheless, these tips work just as well for evenings and weekends, for stay-cations and statutory holidays. Importantly, setting time off is not purely a luxury. For one, no employer actually pays you to work seven days a week, 365 days a year. Why are you cheapening your labour and enabling your own exploitation? And two, if you don’t take a break, eventually your body or mind will force you to take time off for the much less fun reasons of illness or burnout. I don’t care how much you love your job. It doesn’t love you back so much that it doesn’t take a toll over time.
Sometimes we just need someone to give us permission to rest. Well, consider this your permission. It took me many years to give that to myself. I always brought work with me when I traveled and I was always on my email. It didn’t really occur to me to not work whenever I could. Now, I consider 30,000 feet over the earth to be a no-work zone (i.e. I never work on the plane). I make sure to have genuine days off throughout the year. I encourage my colleagues to do the same and respect their boundaries. Summer might seem a long way off still, but I challenge you to open your calendar and block in your vacation days right now. You deserve it.
Interested in learning more about how a coach can help you find time to take a much-needed break? Check out my services, reach out here or over Facebook messenger, or jump right into booking a free call!