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Academic Achiever

Why summer is so important

Instead of setting a bunch of unrealistic goals to accomplish, you should be stepping back from work and giving yourself a proper break.

BY ELIZABETH WELLS | MAY 29 2024

I fashion myself as an expert on productivity and organization, but one of the things I also tout about myself is that I am very interested in work-life balance. This is a tricky thing, because depending on who you are, what your personal life is like and what your passion is for what you do, there are different levels of work and life in which people thrive. I know a lot of people (and I’m one of them) who absolutely love working. The work doesn’t always have to be scholarly or teaching, I just like to keep my mind occupied, be challenged and learn new things. I’m in the perfect profession for this, but I have also experienced exhaustion and burnout, so I am also someone who could learn from my own advice.

Although there are different estimates out there, one series of interviews with faculty in the U.S. indicated that academics are working up to 80 hours a week, depending on their field and time of year. This is unsustainable, unless you are Elon Musk, and admittedly none of us are Elon Musk. I would argue that you are probably doing too much. So, the first thing that you need to do to improve your work-life balance is to review all your commitments honestly and aggressively. Academics are notoriously bad at this. We say yes to everything, we tend not to plan our time or energy very well, and we don’t have a clear sense of exactly how long things will take to complete. Energy and focus are finite. Working more than 50 hours a week has been demonstrated to lead to less productivity and effectiveness in the work that you actually do. My first piece of advice to you is to cut things out of your work. We all have email, but there are ways to handle this more effectively. We do not have to sit on every committee in the universe. We can have very organized and complete syllabi that hopefully answer many student questions. I “accomplished” a great many things over about 15 years, but when I reassessed my most recent decade of teaching, I realized I had to cut out tasks from both my personal and work lives. As a result, I have become massively more productive in the areas that matter to me. I don’t work weekends and evenings, and I currently have seven book projects in the works (more on that in a later column).

Summer is the golden time for academics when we can finally get to our “own work” and escape meetings and the teaching grind. However, some people, especially when mid-summer approaches, don’t feel that they have accomplished what they wanted to. Here’s my advice: that’s okay. You probably were too ambitious in what you planned in the first place. But also, summer is not just a time to produce scholarship, it’s a time to renew. I work four days a week in the summer, no matter what my deadlines are (and I meet deadlines). I do four hours of solid deep work each day, and I do a couple of hours or so of “busy work” (email, daily light tasks, catching up on reading). I also take five weeks of uninterrupted vacation in July where I do absolutely no work. I recommend taking longer stretches like this because you need time to decompress and fully relax before the benefits kick in.

Because I prep my classes in the spring (see my last column) I have all of August to get back into the swing of things, try to finish up some writing and approach my work with an incredible amount of efficiency and focus. I don’t give up my four-day week. And on my day off? I do absolutely nothing. Nothing. Well, to be fair, I go to the beach or have social time with friends.

If you don’t take some significant time to recharge in the summer, you will feel more overwhelmed, you will lose balance, and you will be markedly less efficient and productive. Skip one conference that you might have wanted to attend, wait until next year to overhaul the whole garden, readjust your goals and restore yourself. Your future semester-self will thank you for it.

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  1. Rebecca P / June 5, 2024 at 17:06

    Thank you for writing this column!!