One of the biggest challenges of summer is figuring out how to be productive in the midst of unstructured time. If you’re anything like me, unscheduled hours are both tantalizing and terrifying. Many of us thrive in busy periods, even though we know the stress isn’t great for us. Some of the most productive periods of my life have been the most hectic, like when I had to finish my dissertation while getting divorced. 🙁 In contrast, I lost a whole summer during my master’s to four hours of Dawson’s Creek reruns every day.
What do I mean by unstructured time? I’m referring to those periods when our more routinized daily schedules – structured by teaching, office hours, weekly meetings, and other predictable items – start to fall away. In the summer, your days and weeks might not be empty but they’re unlikely to have a repetitive rhythm with scheduled blocks of time. So one day you have gym and dentist scheduled, the next day nothing, the day after that you have the neighbour’s kids coming over for a playdate, and so on.
With your day-to-day schedule so inconsistent, it’s hard to set up those research and writing routines that keep us on track with our goals. While the “openness” of so many days seems like a blessing compared to the over-scheduled teaching semester, it can be really challenging to stay focused and set your own schedule. During the busy periods, I figure out how to get a lot done in short chunks. But I always start the summer feeling a little unmoored.
In this post I’m going to share some strategies (which I need to implement for myself, too!) to navigate the pitfalls – but also the joys – of unstructured time.
Moments of transition are hard. If you’ve ever spent time with a toddler, you’ll know they often meltdown at exactly those times when they have to transition from one activity to the next. These days my “meltdowns” during transition times from the teaching semester to research time are more subtle. I oscillate between listlessness and low-grade panic about what I “should” be doing.
One strategy for coping is to simply acknowledge and make space for the transition. Don’t expect to leap gracefully into summer productivity mode. Instead, allow a week or ten days to feel your way into your new goals and priorities. This is a great time to set and clarify those goals, make timelines, and begin to imagine your ideal summer days. I suggest observing and perhaps even tracking how you’re spending your time. This way, you can get a sense of how your time is best spent.
For example, you can start to notice the best times of the day for things like exercise, writing, gardening, running errands, and administrative tasks. Maybe you get a lot done if you leave the house for a couple of hours to work in a cafe. Or perhaps doing four pomodoro sessions alternating with errands and fun stuff works well for you. Maybe your chronic illness or disability has its own schedule to be mindful of. Consider the transition time an experimental period, rather than “lost time.”
Lack of focus
Lack of focus can plague us at any time, but I notice my mind wandering a lot during the summer. Without the relentless march of a tight schedule pushing me to get stuff done, I tend to lose focus more easily. This isn’t all bad. Many folks find that letting themselves daydream is important to let creativity and new ideas flow. When better than the summer to allow time for aimless mental meandering?
When you do sit down to work on a specific task, though, it’s frustrating to watch minutes tick by while you struggle to get in the zone. This is where it can really help to have a super-specific list of tasks. Being able to tackle micro-tasks and check them off is a good way to keep moving forward.
If it’s not practical to create a very detailed task list, then use a timer to break your hours up into small chunks. You can follow the pomodoro method, or make up a timed schedule that works for you. If focus is really elusive, try just 5 minutes on your timer at first. You can gradually build up to longer periods as your focus improves.
When to work and when to play
The worst part about unstructured time for me is that I easily slip into a mode where I feel constantly unsatisfied with whatever I’m doing. If I’m relaxing, I worry about not working. If I’m working, I worry about missing out on the rare warm weather and fun seasonal activities. When I’m stuck in that mode, I don’t work or relax. Instead, I waste time on social media and putter aimlessly around the house.
One solution is to try to mix a bit of work and relaxation, for example, taking a paper or book to the park or pub or simply sitting outside. Minimizing time in the office is a good way to leave some of the stress and strain of the institution behind, at least for a little while. Of course, many of you know that working from home isn’t always super productive; a whole range of different distractions awaits.
Probably the best bet is to actually make sure you schedule your fun or restful activities. Maybe this seems counter-intuitive (scheduling fun? no way!). However, your to do list represents the things that you choose to prioritize. So if you leave all the fun, restful stuff off the list, it tends to be undervalued and it turns into a “maybe.” Then you spend all day wishing you could enjoy the sun, but not actually making any time to do so.
The psychological piece here is a bit tricky. You have to be able to give yourself permission to relax in order to put it in your calendar. But think of it as giving your summer days more structure. And more structure probably means better productivity in the work parts of the day. It’s win-win.
SUMMER WRITING MENTORSHIP PROGRAM
Could you use a little help balancing work and play this summer? I’m excited to launch a customized, one-on-one mentorship program to help you have the best summer ever! The Summer Writing Mentorship program is designed to help you create a balanced summer: one where you’ll be rejuvenated and meet your goals. All the details are right here!