Having that precious, wonderful ability to structure my own time allowed me to work when I felt creative or productive, and to not work when I felt blah. I'm a hardworking, self-motivated, semi-introverted type. I am usually most productive when working from home in my pajamas, coffee or tea nearby. So being able to figure out when *I* want to tackle each item on my to-do list has always been a beautiful luxury, not a productivity-problem-in-the-making. Even after the birth of my first child, when I was writing my dissertation from home, I still enjoyed freedom of time when he was taking his blessed 3 naps per day.
So what do I love best about my first sabbatical? You guessed it: my freedom of time.
It is soooooooooooo wonderful. I am grateful every day that I'm able to use my energy in the way that is appropriate for that day. When I'm in the mood to design experiments, that's what I do. When I'm in the mood to plan my honeybee operations, I do it. When I'm in the mood to fold laundry, or stack wood, or plant some garden seedlings, those things end up on my to-do list for the day.
This morning, I spent 3 hours designing a field experiment that will start next month, so this blog post is my reward for that productivity. After this post, I will eat lunch and then...work on the next thing that I feel like doing.
I'll admit that some days on sabbatical, I've found myself at loose ends. That restless, slightly grumpy and at odds feeling usually happens when I'm in-between projects or waiting for a response from a colleague, collaborator, or journal. At their best, those days end up being used for future planning, creative brainstorming, or some extra exercise or outdoor time. At their worst, those days plod by as I waste time on social media, recognize that I would have been better off meditating or exercising or doing ANYTHING OTHER THAN WHAT I DID, and then go to bed early in disgust.
Cow time and flow time*
It seems to me that there are two major purposes to sabbatical leave.
1) to leave behind the burnout that happens after years of giving your academic job your very best;
2) to achieve as many "flow" days as possible.
Regarding 1, the burnout-inducing parts of academic jobs are probably different for everyone (e.g., I'm guessing extroverted morning people love large meetings at 8:00 AM?**) but most academics work a lot, whether by choice or not. In my case, I have often taught an extra course each semester for the good of my department/students. When I'm teaching 5 courses (15 contact hours, plus many hours of prep and grading time) and also participating in 6++ hours per week of meetings and service activities, the only way to get research accomplished is to work late nights and weekends. But the problem with squeezing research in around the edges like that are two-fold: you get burned out because you have subpar work-life balance, and you never have time to ruminate. Research requires rumination; you need time to be a cow, really mulling over your research goals and questions in a peaceful, contemplative manner. But when I'm not on sabbatical leave, I'm much more like a hamster on a hamster wheel because I'm trying to squeeze in research around my enjoyable and meaningful--but quite intensive--teaching and service responsibilities. Running on a hamster wheel doesn't leave much time for rumination.
So the first purpose of sabbatical is to channel your inner cow and tamp down your inner hamster.***
Cow > hamster.
It's interesting to see that the famous author Barbara Kingsolver in her Civil Disobedience at Breakfast also used the phrase "Cow Time." In her essay, it was used to describe a Terrible Two version of a Senate filibuster, in which a toddler attempts to control the speed at which she travels to necessary but rather boring appointments. My cow time instead refers to a state of mind. It can be achieved at very high speeds on the highway*** and doesn't necessarily mean that you'll arrive late to your appointments. But the two concepts are similar in that toddlers are champions at rumination of all kinds. I can remember watching my kids contemplate the movement of their feet as they walked, in a Terrible Two version of a walking meditation. What I'm advocating for here is achieving a Terrible Two version of the scientific method, i.e., cow time.
The second major purpose of sabbatical leave: flow. I have always recognized and appreciated what is now called "flow" in the pop psychology articles that I've read on social media. Flow refers to working actively, without distractions, and with such concentration that you aren't aware of yourself or time or whether or not you remembered to pay the electrical bill this month. It's like being in the research zone. A fruitful and satisfying sabbatical probably has a lot of days of flow. For me, flow time has happened regularly on my sabbatical, usually while I sit in my favorite armchair by the fire, working on research while the rest of my family is at work/school. When I'm not on sabbatical leave, flow time seems to happen at the kitchen table during the months of May and June, when the kids are still in school but I'm mostly finished with my teaching/service responsibilities for the academic year and can devote myself fully to research.
Overly pampered whining academics
^^Is that what you're thinking? Oh dear. If so, I'm surprised that you read this far--you must really feel like getting mad today. :O
But no, it seems like the public narrative is cranky about professors and colleges lately. And sabbatical leaves probably seem (to some people) like one of the most outrageously pampering of all the ridiculously pampering things that whiny faculty get to experience, amirite? I could respond by discussing in depth my typical daily/weekly workload during the semester, even given my strong time-efficiency skills. I could point out that I often don't have time to eat lunch or use the bathroom during the work day and certainly can't make it to doctors' appointments during the semester. But really that's really beside the point because many jobs have similar characteristics and I've chosen this job and love it, so why whine about it?
So, here is my honest response: yes, I am experiencing the luxury of freedom of time for 16 weeks and I am extremely grateful for it. What I'm doing with it is refreshing myself so that I will come back to my normal job in the fall with strength, energy, excitement, and creative new ideas--things that benefit my students, my college, and my community. I'm also producing new scientific knowledge in several different fields of study. And behind the scenes, I'm volunteering in my kid's classroom and elsewhere in the local and even national community (h/t to Planting Science!). So my goal is that this freedom of time is not just used to benefit myself but also to benefit many others, both directly and indirectly. We'll see if I succeed in that goal or not.
*I just google-searched "cow time" and I'm amused to see that there is a dairy cow-related educational website called Cow Time that actually has a section called Go With the Flow. (Just trying to cite all web sources related to this essay, in the interests of full disclosure.)
**Note: this essay on meetings is one of my favorites. So great!
***Is it possible to achieve cow time when you aren't on sabbatical leave? Yes! For me, cow time is best achieved while walking or driving somewhere, and is one reason I have grown to semi-like/tolerate my commute to work.