In my last post I mentioned I’m on sabbatical. When I did that, I bet some of you went: “ARGH! Why can’t I be on sabbatical too!”
Don’t feel too bad, at least not on my account. Because the truth is I suck at sabbaticals: nobody is worse than me at sorting out life during unscheduled, unplanned time. I’m pretty much useless without frameworks and extant demands to concentrate my focus. I joke that I only took on my last book project, Theatre & Feminism, because I was moving across the ocean, changing jobs, and taking on some caring responsibilities for my mom – I needed a work project to help de-stress my busy life.
Alas, I now have ANOTHER book project – the kind with a contract, a deadline, and a hard-at-work-already marketing team – and it needs to get written on this here research leave, which ends in late December. I spent July trying to recover from my winter and spring teaching obligations, August moving house, and September, so far, has been eaten up with a combination of works taking place at my new place, and self-imposed, utterly unproductive angst about all the other kinds of works NOT getting done around my new home office.
In other words: I need to fake up a framework for myself, and fast.
Cue the un-schedule.
What’s an unschedule? Basically, it’s a schedule you create for yourself that prioritizes all the life/fun/”in the way” stuff that normally gets left OUT of a schedule, and which then of course takes over anyway, and guarantees that your schedule is not actually going to function as intended.
I learned about the un-schedule when I first began my job at Western, during a Teaching Support Centre workshop on work-life balance, from my (now) friend Tracy Isaacs, one of the professors behind the terrific blog Fit is a Feminist Issue. I still recall Tracy opening her talk with these words: “I’m on sabbatical right now, so of course I have balance.” What strikes me as incredibly ironic – yet also entirely useful – looking back on that presentation now, is that Tracy located her work-life balance in her un-schedule. Without scheduling of some kind, in fact, sabbaticals do not generate balance; they are not magical work-life re-jiggers. A sabbatical can easily become a stressful black hole for people like me, who are normally workaholics and operate effectively under pressure.
So, how does one make an unschedule? Mileage varies, I’ve found, after some informal googling. The one rule is that you start with the immoveable stuff (food! sleep! school run!), followed by the “for you” stuff (exercise, haircuts, reading, coffee with friends). Then you either schedule, or leave blank, the spaces around them, which can in theory be filled with work tasks, life tasks, or whatever else needs doing. The principal is simply that, by starting with a realistic look at your habits, your commitments, your pleasures, and the actual time each takes, you can more logically set out a day or a week that genuinely represents your needs.
I spent today working at the British Library; in “un-schedule” fashion, I started with immoveable commitments (one fun: lunch with friend Bridget; one less so: adjusting a piece of writing I need to present on camera tomorrow). Then, once they were completed, I turned to my spreadsheet app, created a blank schedule document, and got to work.
Before I take you through my process, here’s what the finished product looks like:
My first order of business was to delete Saturday and Sunday from the picture altogether. I do not work on those days, period. (That’s a hard and fast rule, UNLESS it’s term time, I’m teaching, and something comes up that simply cannot be readjusted into the week. I also don’t check my work email on weekends, which is a decision I made last fall and it’s been a life-saver.)
Next, I tried to work out what blocks of time I needed: an hour? Less? More? I quickly realized that each day, for the purposes of creating a one-page, at-a-glance weekly schedule, needed to include the same time blocks, but that each day would never really look the same, task wise. I decided that this will simply mean that some days “10-12” will be more like “9:45-11:30” or “10:30-12:30”, depending on the day and the tasks at hand. Not a big deal; the schedule, after all, is a guide, not Big Brother. I can adjust on the fly.
My next job was to identify stuff that simply has to happen each day. Right now, given sabbatical, there’s honestly not a lot of that: few meetings, fewer demands on my time from colleagues or students. Cue momentary panic: my life is empty!! How can I be so unproductive?? Then, I closed my eyes and pictured Emma the dog giving me the side-eye she uses for all purposes of emotional blackmail. Problem solved.
(Emma says: you HAVE to take me walkies. RIGHT NOW.)
I began to un-schedule in earnest by filling in my morning routine. I am not an early riser (8:30 is optimistic, people!), and I like to walk Emma first thing (actually, I permit myself to be herded to the door first thing). I like to check email over coffee. This takes time. Empty the dishwasher, make a smoothie and some eggs, tidy up, water plants in the garden… I’m not going to pretend these things don’t happen, and don’t take up to 2 hours, depending, in the morning. That’s the way I like it. So into the schedule it went.
The next thing I noted – and this is slightly un-un-schedule-y, but whatevs – was that I wanted to block off at least 2 hours a day for sitting in front of my computer, email program closed, writing (or trying to write – staring blankly at text I reject as sub-par but have as yet no idea how to fix also counts for something). That damn book deadline means I need to generate about 4000 words a week until Christmas; that’s a lot of writing, but it’s not unmanageable for me. I reason that I’ll need 12-16 hours per week to generate that amount of content, unedited; so two hours each morning, every morning of the week, takes care of the bulk of that.
And so we come to lunch. I always eat lunch, but lunch for me rarely consists of just eating. I am extremely active: an avid cyclist, swimmer, rower, and I practice Iyengar yoga (among other kinds). Which basically means I’m an endorphin junkie. Without the endorphins, work goes less well, period. So, to be realistic, I blocked off 2.5 hours for lunch-hour activities each day; for two of those days I scheduled a bike ride (which, until the snow flies, will likely take the full 2.5 hours), while for one I scheduled a swim, and the other a yoga class.
This part of the scheduling task was actually hard – not because I don’t know how much time I need for lunch-hour activities, nor because I didn’t know what those activities might be, but because I’ve just moved to my new city, and so don’t actually have my new workout routine in place yet. (Will I like the yoga classes I’ve identified as “good timing”? Will I want to swim every Friday?) This realization prompted another brief moment of panic: how can you make a schedule when you don’t even know WTF about your new life yet AAGGHH?? Which I solved by reminding myself of another really important detail: the schedule is not fixed. It’s flexible!
If in three weeks it turns out my exercise routine *actually* looks very different to what I’ve scheduled, that’s fine: I can just change the schedule, moving the work stuff around as needed. That’s the power of the un-schedule.
Which brings us to the afternoon. I am not an early riser/morning person = I like to work late into the afternoons; that’s why that block begins each day at 2:30pm and continues until 5:30, with an option to extend to 6:30pm as needed. I know myself; I’ll get going in the afternoon and might not want to stop. I won’t want to cook, let alone eat, before 7pm, guaranteed. So this is a very logical, practical organization of my time.
And what about the tasks that slot into that 3-4 hour window? I’ve recorded these as “primary or secondary” tasks, to reflect that some days I’ll want to return to the morning’s writing, and some days I know I won’t. I also have other stuff on tap – blog posts to write, new work by colleagues to read, as well as other research projects bubbling to the surface. I edit a journal, Theatre Research in Canada / Recherches théâtrales au Canada, which requires some concentrated time; I’ve scheduled an afternoon a week for that work, and hope (for a change!) to restrict it to that window of time.
In four of these afternoon slots, you’ll notice that I’ve also added a note: “may include travel to Toronto.” I now live within Toronto’s public transit corridor, which means I can visit friends, see theatre or films, or head into the city for meetings very easily. The bus and the train are both options for me; both take an hour, and both are ideal work zones. I know I’ll want to visit the city at least once a week, and I know I can combine that travel with work on public transit very easily. It made sense to remind myself of this in the schedule, so that if someone invites me to a meeting in Toronto I can honestly say: I have M/T/Th/F from 2:30pm; what works for you?
Which brings us to 7pm. “Stop working!” I’ve told myself in each evening slot. Why? Because I might not stop otherwise. I might have not been as productive as I want to be in the day, or I might be stuck on a tricky paragraph; I know myself well enough to know that, if that happens, I’ll keep pushing until I fall down from hunger or exhaustion. (Again, the principal that drives the un-schedule is self-reflexive honesty.) But if I’ve followed the schedule, and it’s 7pm, then, dammit, it’s time to stop. Tomorrow’s another day. And look! Wednesday might include an optional evening activity (there’s nothing scheduled at lunch yet… we’ll see), plus there’s restorative yoga on Thursday nights at the studio near my house. A great excuse to shut the computer down.
(Looks odd, feels great. BKS Iyengar always knew when to stop working.)
How’s this going to go? Your guess is as good as mine. I’m going to stick as closely as possible to the schedule for the next couple of weeks and note what needs adjusting; then I’ll rejig it to reflect aspects of my weekly reality I could only glean from living through the schedule. (I might repost it at that point, if I learn useful things in the process; stay tuned.)
For now, I’m going to try to operate by the following three principals:
- all the activities in the schedule are valuable. I will make time for all of them – even the damn dog walking – as close to the slotted time as is reasonable.
- the schedule is a guide; adjustments on the fly do not equal failures.
- the schedule is flexible; it should flex with me. If I bend too hard to meet the schedule’s “demands”, it won’t be sustainable.
Meanwhile, if you work to a similar (or similarly-spirited) schedule, please let me know what you use and how it works for you! I’m very keen to understand how others cope with the sabbatical conundrum.