Learning from the un-schedule

Back in September I wrote about my cunning sabbatical plan to organize my life according to an “unschedule”: a daily planner that begins with life stuff, and fits work in around it (or leaves “free” time blank for work, should work wish to happen). I respond incredibly well to deadlines and boundaries, so this seemed the ideal solution to my perennial sabbatical problem: TOO MUCH UNSCHEDULED TIME (IN WHICH TO PANIC).

I’ve now been following, to greater or (mostly) lesser degrees each day, my unschedule for about 3 months; it’s therefore time for me to take stock, and to report on how it’s worked out.

Was it the raving success I was hoping for? Was it a total disaster?

As we might have predicted, it was a bit of both. Which is no bad thing!

First, the good news: I achieved pretty much exactly what I had intended the unschedule to help me achieve. I have a book due in February, of which I had written not one word when I created the unschedule back on 21 September. I now have just over 42,000 of the 50,000 words expected by my publisher, and the book is shaping up really well.

Next, the less good news: while the unschedule helped me to prioritize a very decent balance between “work” and “life”, as I noted in my last post “life” does not equal “rest”, and I did not manage to achieve much of the latter (so much so that my chronic joint problems have been acting up, and I’ve been at least as exhausted as usual much of the time).

That’s not reflective of a problem with my unschedule, though; in fact, it’s something the next version (see below) may help me address.

Third, the fine print: mostly the unschedule wasn’t something I was ever going to use as a schedule. It was, rather, a kind of self-initiated Rorschach Test. And in that, it succeeded brilliantly. Below, I’ll try to take stock of what it taught me about myself, and I’ll share my revised unschedule for winter.

To start, here’s a reminder of what my unschedule, circa late September 2017, looked like:

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The unschedule was never meant to be a test of my resolve; I did not create it in order to follow it to the letter. Quite the contrary: I made it in part to measure my aspirations for my sabbatical days against the reality that is my daily life. I expected the two not to line up perfectly, but I also hoped to learn from the comparison.

To that end, I decided, for the first 20 or so days on the unschedule (roughly, a month of workdays), to keep a brief daily diary with times and tasks noted. The two could then easily be compared to see where my time was actually going.

Here are a few photos of my notes from those early days:

Looking back on the notes, a few things stand out.

First, Stuff Happens. Moreover, the Stuff that Happens is probably not worth judging (because judging it won’t change it). So I got up later than scheduled many times; I AM NOT A MORNING PERSON, AT ALL. Trying to schedule myself to become a morning person is unlikely, at this stage in my life, to change me. Other mornings got taken up with personal things when the man I’m dating stayed over; I panicked about that a bit until I remembered that having a life (including a sex life!) ultimately makes work bearable. And, after a time, he and I settled into a routine where I would write and he would work, too, after breakfast; that solved it. Sometimes I had to travel, or there were meetings, or… or… or… Again: STUFF HAPPENS. What matters to me, looking back, is how I dealt with these intrusions into the hoped-for ideal, since the ideal wasn’t ever going to be fully achievable.

My diary entries also reveal that, despite getting up later than scheduled or having other things get in the way around my scheduled writing time, I still prioritized writing daily, for about 2 hours give or take. After the writing, more or less anything could happen: I’d penciled in workouts and/or house things, maybe more work for afternoons, but the reality, I found, was that after the writing had happened I felt a mix of satisfaction and relief that would then let me get on with my day, in whatever form it took.

Notably, I rarely missed walkies with Emma The Dog. This made her very happy. It also brought me joy, which I think is incredibly productive.

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(Emma on a woodland trail near our new home. She’s distracted by a squirrel, or something even tastier.)

I’m generally a very active person, and my original unschedule included a lot of workouts; the challenge, I found, was that my new living situation (I moved to a new city in August) necessitated me getting into fresh activity habits based on the resources around me. I can ride my bike anywhere, but not when the wind is blowing at 50kph – and it helps if I already know the route home, in case of emergency. I love to row, but with winter coming on I needed to find a reliable place for land training. There’s a yoga studio near my house, but I haven’t loved many of the classes I’ve tried there. I’ve been experimenting with stair climbing, since there’s a lot of that available free in my new neighbourhood. And I’ve been swimming more than I expected.

All of this means that I did not keep to my un-scheduled fitness plan, in part because of all the trial and error. The trade-off, however, was a lot of useful learning about my new surroundings, and some valuable time spent settling into my new place.

Taking stock of the patterns in my diary, one thing has become crystal clear: the ONLY thing that was essential for me every day was writing. I can’t tell you what a revelation this has been!

I have resisted for a long time the common advice given to academics to write every morning for an hour, to “pay yourself first”, just to sit down and do it. Staunchly, I  insisted that such a strategy would not work for me/that I didn’t need it/that my writing does not work that way/fill in any excuse here.

The truth, my activity log showed me, is that sitting down with only my computer (but no email!) for a modest but set amount of time each day is an incredibly productive way for me to write. Requiring myself to make the time to think and write, and thus to think by writing, meant my vision for the book evolved, deepened, and changed for the better as I went along.

Most importantly, after a good couple of hours’ writing, I always felt renewed and strengthened, much as I often do at the end of a good workout. This I found remarkable, surprising, and so valuable – so much so that writing will be at the heart of any “un-schedule” I make from now on.

I also learned one other very important thing about myself from my (predictable) failure to adhere to the letter of the unschedule. I learned that I over-schedule myself, no matter what I do.

If I have down time, rest time, I judge myself: MUST GET BACK TO SOME KIND OF WORK! This might be housework, work-work, or athletic work. I do not permit myself to just sit there with a cup of tea, staring out the window.

But why the hell not? If anything, the fact that – despite unschedule, and despite sabbatical – I am at least as tired as usual this December is indicative of the problem with this sort of thinking.

If I had rested more this past term, might I have been more “productive” in my work-work? Maybe. Truthfully, though, more productive was not what was needed: I objectively produced a hell of a lot of research-related stuff. Had I rested more, though, I suspect I might be better prepared, right now, both physically and emotionally for Winter 2018 – in which I will start commuting to my campus responsibilities in London, Ontario, and in which all manner of winter-related crap is bound to rain down (probably on the highway while I’m driving, among other places).

Rest is in itself productive! We know this – sort of. Culturally, we’re still learning this message; personally, I’ve realized that I need to trick myself into rest, because I am a type-A, professional, middle-aged North American woman and old habits die hard. That’s why my new, simplified, improved un-schedule contains Less Stuff, and more room to manoeuvre.

Kim's winter 2017 unschedule

You’ll note that there’s still something in every block of time (save two), but I’ve made the blocks larger and less specific on purpose. The point is: within that block, everything I’ve listed either has to happen (teaching) or is likely to get done (row, or yoga, or walkies – though only walkies is *truly* essential. Dog owners will understand).

The only other fixed thing, for me, is the writing: I’ve made it a reasonable amount on purpose, just one hour each morning of the week that I am not commuting to classes. I’m hoping thereby to maintain my good new writing practice, and to nurture its tangible benefits, while also freeing myself to move a bit more flexibly around other tasks (and hopefully give myself time for rest, too).

Have any of you tried the unschedule, or variations, since September? If you have, I’d love to know how it’s going. Leave a comment or shoot me an email.

And meanwhile, have a really, productively joyful holiday break!

Kim

 

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Rethinking “Work-Life Balance”

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Ah, end of term. The race to the end of Week 12; snagging some advent chocolate here, or a festive cocktail there, to help the marking go down. Dreaming of sugar plum dreams – dreaming of getting to stay in bed.

Of course, I know nothing about this. I have been on sabbatical.

Being on sabbatical is supposed to lead directly to a recalibration of work-life balance. Spending the majority of my days *not* working at my academic work, and yet still more or less achieving all of my academic work goals, means that I’m supposed to have spent the remainder of my time on this fanciful thing called “life” – and thus that I am meant to be rejuvenated, happier, more fulfilled.

Right.

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(Finding images for this post was like shooting fish in a barrel.)

What have I done this sabbatical? Well, as I’ll talk about in my next post, which will be an update on the “un-schedule” I made for myself in September, I’ve written 3/4 of a book for students. I’ve organized a small conference. I’ve vetted and accepted proposals for a special journal issue that will be coming out in 2019.

I’ve also moved house, renovated parts of said house, gotten used to a new community in a new city, traveled to England twice and Germany once, and worked at sustaining a new relationship. Note: these are all the “life” bits.

Sounds a lot like like work, though – doesn’t it?

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(Here I am enjoying melted cheese in a baguette in Konstanz, Germany. I can officially say that eating this was work. Tasty work.)

This revelation – that “life” is also “work”, and that this fact might pose a problem for the elusive thing we call “work-life balance” – had not occurred to me until about a week ago. That’s when I felt the tell-tale pinching in my right eye that indicates I’m about to suffer a spell of anterior uveitis (aka iritis, the inflammation of the iris joint).

I have an auto-immune condition called Ankylosing Spondylitis; don’t worry, I have terrific healthcare and it’s mostly fine (thanks, Canada!). But it gets active when I’m feeling unusual levels of stress. It manifests in my hip, my jaw, and my eye.

Early in November, I could barely open my mouth. What’s up? I thought. The TMJ isn’t usually a big deal! Where is this coming from?

Eventually the jaw pain subsided. Then my hip started to ache; for a couple of days I struggled to get up out of beds and chairs, and walking was tough. I blamed the shift in my workout schedule, what with the move and everything, and I blamed my new penchant for stair-climbing on the Niagara Escarpment, one of my new home town of Hamilton’s many outdoor pleasures.

But, after the hip pain passed and my jaw was back to normal, I began to notice that looking into the light hurt my eye. (I’ve felt this many times before – I carry the drugs with me.) The iritis typically arrives in times of significant stress. I was confused. I wasn’t stressed! I was ON SABBATICAL!

I looked at the date on the bottle of drops I’m currently carrying in case of iritis while traveling (I’m in England this week). I was sure my last bout had been this time last year. But: the prescription date said 27 April 2017.

What was happening in late April? I thought to myself. My term was over. Marking was complete. Sabbatical was just ahead!

And: I had just started house-hunting.

The penny dropped.

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Where does stress come from? For me, it comes from any labour I need to do, or expect myself to do, or am expected by others to do, that pressurizes me in some way. If I do not do this thing I will let someone down. I will let myself down. If X is not done now, Y cannot get done next. Things to do, work ahead.

“Work” in this case is a pressure born of expectations internal as well as external, and it does not actually distinguish between “paid” and “unpaid”, “professional” and “personal”. Ask every woman who has ever worked at home for free, keeping a house and raising kids. Not stressful? Not pressurizing? Not labour? NO WAY.

As a feminist scholar and a cultural materialist, I am very well aware that what has historically been called “women’s work” – the work of caring for lives, maintaining a life, for self and others – is every inch “work”, though it is often disregarded as “just life”, which is one key way that patriarchy systemically denigrates domestic and social labour as bon-bon eating privilege.

(FYI, I’d like to invite everyone who has ever had someone else maintain their home comforts for them to give home-work a shot for a week or so and see how many bon-bons you manage to swallow.)

So, anyway, as a clever feminist, you’d think I’d have cottoned on, long ago, to the fact that I was not actually working less on my sabbatical, that I was not just busy recalibrating and bouncing through the daisies.

Nope. I was actually working more.

Here, let me revisit again the things I have done on my sabbatical. This time, I’m going to list everything, all mixed together, that has been a source of pressure or anxiety – a source of physical, intellectual, OR emotional “work” – rather than distinguishing between “paid job” and “just life”. Suddenly things get both scarier, and clearer.

On Kim’s sabbatical she:

  • wrote most of book (37,000 of 50,000 words)
  • bought house in Hamilton, ON
  • sold house in London, ON
  • organized conference (with four other amazing humans who read this blog – thanks friends at Central!!)
  • moved out of house in London, ON
  • moved into house in Hamilton, ON
  • read a whack of article abstracts for Research in Drama Education
  • had new house painted up and down
  • prepared new issue of journal I edit (Theatre Research in Canada)
  • had new bathroom, carpets, skylight installed in new house
  • helped dog manage moving stress
  • discovered asbestos in new house, coped
  • peer-reviewed book manuscript for a major university press
  • peer-reviewed applications for fellowships at a European university
  • collected non-driving new boyfriend from his house 30km away many times
  • coped with having new boyfriend in house often, which is wonderful but also a source of disruption, of course
  • wrote a bunch of reference letters for students as well as peers
  • answered about a thousand emails
  • met about 25 new neighbours (all of them splendid – yay! – but small talk is hard work)
  • found new cycling club and new rowing club, tried them out, joined
  • forwarded a bunch of emails not meant for me because SABBATICAL
  • cooked a Thanksgiving turkey.

I know there are things I’m forgetting. But even so, oh my, what a lot of work I’ve been doing! And when you factor in the part where I’ve only actually been considering about 1/3 of the above list as actual “work” in my mind, and therefore shaming myself for being so tired and anxious all the time, it’s no wonder my lovely AS has gone into overdrive and knocked me sideways since early November.

I’ve been mulling all of this stuff over for the last week or so. I began by thinking to myself, “work-life balance” is total bullshit! But then I realized that what we are up against here is not a problem concept, but rather problem language. Words actualize our expectations; they caused a problem for me this autumn because I failed to see the “work” in “life” and therefore was very hard on myself.

What I really needed was not more “life”. What I needed was more REST. A lot of it.

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What would it mean for us to recalibrate our expectations around work-life balance by renaming it “work-rest balance”? I don’t mean here to suggest that there aren’t many among us who could not do with a lot less time at the office, and a lot more time with spouse and kids and cooking and so forth, however much work those things might also bring with them. And I know for some of us the work of things like cooking and vacuuming is actually quite pleasurable. (In fact, I relax by ironing. NO REALLY.)

But we can’t stop there, because playing with your kids is ALSO tiring, right? And dressing them, feeding them, and taking them to soccer most certainly is. It’s essential we get enough rest, outside of all the work commitments in our busy work-lives; otherwise we will not be at our best, and we will not feel good in our bodies, and we will not feel good in our hearts.

This is a lesson I first learned from a cycling coach years ago, and it’s a lesson that I think applies universally. You need to rest your body and your mind in order to improve your performance next time. In order to sustain the gains you make, and make more gains, you need a lot of down time. It’s part of the cycle of renewal that leads to doing the good work we all want to do more of at home and at the office and out in the world.

It’s almost the winter break, for most of us. Let’s pledge to rest for real. Take stock of the work you need to do over the holiday – the home-work as well as the paid-work – and then set aside times for rest that equal, as much as possible, the time needed for the tasks on your plate.

This is the true purpose of the un-schedule, I suspect. More on that next week.

Warmest wishes,

Kim