An empty wooden bench in the foreground with a misty pink view of trees and and a hazy purple sky.
Academic life

A restful and productive sabbatical

I’m just starting my 2nd year-long sabbatical. A privilege, I know, only afforded those with tenure-track/tenured positions and a decent employment contract. My 1st sabbatical didn’t really go as planned (I guess we all know what happens to best laid plans). But I did learn a few things and get some good advice that I’d like to share, for those who are in this lucky position.

Start with rest

It’s tempting to dive right in to your sabbatical project as soon as you’re officially on leave. From what I’ve witnessed though, this can lead to frustration and a sense of discouragement when your brain isn’t ready or willing to switch gears seamlessly. I think the solution is building in a rest and recover period.

  • Start your sabbatical with a few weeks of down time. Even if it isn’t an outright vacation, allow yourself time to decompress from the years (years!) you’ve been working flat out. Reading, planning, and visioning are good restful practices to start with.
  • Allow yourself ongoing rest times throughout your leave. Whether it’s a daily nap, three-day weekends, sporadic break periods, or a retreat, sabbatical must include rest.
  • Use your email auto reply and mean it. Take a break from regular email checking to pause the cycle of constantly reacting to others’ demands.

Picture the end

When I work with clients going on sabbatical, I encourage them to think about how they want to feel at the end. Not just what they want to do, but how their body will feel and what their state of mind will be like. Then they can begin to plan for how they’re going to get there. Here are a few questions to consider:

  • How do I want to feel at the end of my sabbatical, in body, heart, spirit, and mind?
  • What would let me know that my sabbatical had been successful?
  • What parts of my personal life (family, friends, community, volunteer work, physical activity, creative practices, travel, learning, etc.) do I want to create time for?

Sabbatical goals

Of course our institutions aren’t giving us leave just to rest and paint (though they should!). There are expectations around research advancement, publications, curriculum development, or whatever goals you included in your plan. If I may offer a word of caution, it’s this: don’t think of your leave as the time to make up for years of what you might perceive as less-than-optimal research productivity. Playing catch-up the whole time won’t leave you reinvigorated or give you something to build on when your leave is over.

  • Make a list of your most ambitious goals and outcomes. Throw it away. Just kidding! Keep it but acknowledge what it is.
  • Ask yourself what is the minimum output you need to have to meet your institutional expectations. It’s good to know where the low bar is.
  • Write down your ideal outcomes: the goals that are your highest priority and that you most want to spend time on.

Sabbatical planning

I love a good plan. The universe might have other things in mind, but that’s no reason not to give yourself a roadmap. There’s no one right way to plan, but here are a few ideas:

  • Create a timeline visual. Mark anticipated milestones and goals along the way. Post it somewhere you can see it.
  • Divide your sabbatical into chunks (these could be months or weeks, depending on the length of your leave). Figure out which projects will be prioritized in which chunk.
  • Make a month-by-month plan. This is more fine-grained, but the idea is to plug in rough plans for which projects or parts of projects you’ll be aiming to work on. The later months might be hazy still, so you’ll come back to this as time proceeds.

If your plans go to hell, don’t be too hard on yourself. Things will happen that are beyond your control. Your body and soul might need a lot more rest than you anticipated. Your research and writing could take you in unexpected directions. Give yourself some grace and create your own version of what a successful sabbatical means.