Reflections on a Babybatical, Part 2: Strategies for Unplugging (without Actually Taking a Semester Off)

In our last post, we explored four strategies for unplugging without actually taking a semester off. Picking up where we left off, here are four more.

AltFamily together by Jehu Christan

5. Identify partners and colleagues who may need something from you during the time you’re planning to be away.

You don’t need to inform the world, but you might want to cast the net a bit wider than you think you need to initially.

In my case, I turned in an essay for an edited volume well ahead of when I was going to be away. I then moved on to other projects and forgot to include the principal editor in those I notified ahead of time about my time away.

Sure enough, while I was away, I got an email with questions about copy-editing the essay. Since I hadn’t given the editor the notice he needed to accommodate my time away, I felt I needed to accommodate the schedule he was running on.

Thankfully, it didn’t take that long to work through what remained. But, this was definitely something that I could have set up better on the front end by recognizing him as potentially falling in this group of other partners and colleagues.

6. Notify the partners and colleagues you’ve identified in step 5.

Clearly indicate when you’ll be away and what you won’t be doing during your break. Ask those on your list to give you any requests they foresee in time for you to complete those requests before you’ll be away. Stress that any requests they may make after your time away starts won’t be able to get handled until after you return.

Send this notification early enough so that you’re not imposing an unreasonable expectation on the recipients. It’s probably also good to forward it back to all of the recipients as your time away gets a bit closer to remind them both about your openness to receiving their requests and about the boundaries that you are setting up around your time away.

7. When you start your time away, set an email autoresponder to notify or remind anyone who contacts you about what they should anticipate.

If you’re taking a comparatively shorter hiatus, something like the following should work:

Thank you very much for your email. I am currently away and unable to respond to your message until [date you’ll start responding normally again]. Please anticipate a response to your message after this time.

If you’ll be away for longer, consider something like this:

Thank you very much for your email. Please resend your message after [date you’ll start responding normally again] if it is still relevant at that time and you would like me to respond. Otherwise, when I return from my time away, I will understand that your request has been handled or is no longer relevant.

This way of structuring the autoresponse may be a bit abrupt. But, doing this helps remove from you the burden both of tracking all the requests you receive while you’re away and of taking the time to reply to possibly outdated requests when you return.1 An autoresponse like this one also helps stress what action the person making the request should plan to take to get input from you if that’s still needed after your time away.

In my case, on returning to the office, I had one case where a critical request hadn’t been resent and then needed to be handled quite urgently. But, I’d framed the autoresponse this sender received a bit differently that what I’m suggesting here. In particular, I’d included the request to resend any still-relevant messages farther down in the autoresponse where it was probably easier to overlook. Stressing the request to resend an email after a certain date by putting that request at the start of the autoresponse (and perhaps in a different font) should help keep this from getting overlooked quite as easily.

If there are exceptions to the “please resend this later” request (see step 3 in the previous post), you can then add something like “The only exception is ….” For instance, I had the autoresponder indicate that I would respond to an email if the sender was a student in one of my classes or someone with a time-sensitive request about a student in one of my classes (e.g., needing attendance information).

8. While you’re away, keep firmly to your commitment to unplug.

Especially if you have some exception like I did for which you still need to touch base with work or school obligations, remember that “inside ‘yes’ is ‘no.'” If you choose to engage more on these fronts than you’d previously decided while you’re away, you’ll automatically be saying “no” to engaging with something else.

You should be especially wary if part of this “something else” is family with whom you’ve committed to be present during this downtime (e.g., in step 3 in the previous post). The time away will go faster than you think it will, and you don’t want to get to the end of it only to look back and see that you essentially worked from home, from the beach, or wherever and missed the opportunity you’d planned to disengage from academia for a bit and be more fully present with other elements of life.

Conclusion

What shape a feasible and desirable break takes will be different for everyone. But, with suggestions like these, hopefully you can either schedule some time away or turn at least part of natural, upcoming downtime into an enjoyable break that allows you to reengage with academic life even more energetically afterward.

What other strategies do you have for unplugging from the normal ebb and flow of academic life? What do you do to maximize the time while you’re unplugged?


  1. For this excellent suggestion, I’m particularly indebted to Michael Hyatt and Michele Cushatt’s discussion, “How to Vacation Like a Pro: 7 Steps for Recharging with Intention.” 

Reflections on a Babybatical, Part 1: Strategies for Unplugging (without Actually Taking a Semester Off)

We recently welcomed our second child, and after she was born I spent some substantive time out of the office.

Whether you’re headed for a similarly significant life event or you’re just moving through the regular cycle of the academic year toward a natural break time, here are some suggestions for planning ahead and making the most of your time away from the regular flow of academic life.

AltThailand photo by Eirik Uhlen

1. Recognize there’s more to life than preparing for the next class, plunging into the next project, or kicking off the next initiative.

Life doesn’t stop, and that includes academic life. So, you’ll likely always have plenty enough coming down the pike to keep you busy for more than one lifetime. And sometimes, the best use of time in the margins is to prepare for what’s coming next.

But, always leaning into the future can also easily leave us always leaving and unmindful of the present. It can leave us pushing forward at a frenetic pace that only perpetuates itself rather than allowing a natural rhythm for rest, reflection, and reorientation. So, it’s important to push back on this tendency on occasion and create space for other aspects of life that can all too easily get pushed to the side.

2. Start preparing early.

At least in my experience, unplugging on shorter notice hasn’t normally worked very well, especially if it’s been for a comparatively longer period of time.

I’ve tended to mentally carry whatever research, teaching, studying, or administrative activities into the break rather than getting the benefit of actually disconnecting. I’ve also tended to forget about at least a few loose ends I’d left untied and then feel compelled to work on tying them up during what was going to be the time away.

On the other hand, if you start early planning and preparing, it’s definitely possible to minimize the number of open loops you have as the time to unplug approaches. “Begin with the end in mind,”1 and start writing down what would have to be true for you to truly unplug during your time away. Your written record will help you minimize anything you may otherwise forget amid the myriad of obligations vying for your attention as you move toward your planned break.

3. Clarify how long you’ll be away and what you’ll plan not to do.

Be realistic, but also don’t let yourself shortchange your time away. If you have a spouse, involve him or her in this clarification process.

For instance, we wanted me to be able to be out of the office for the next few weeks when our baby came. But, I also had classes I was scheduled to teach in order to meet my load. What to do?

We decided on a 30-day window when I’d be out of the office and completely unplugged. The only exceptions would be actions I had to take because they were necessary for teaching those classes. (It helped that the classes involved happened either to be ending or to be ones that I’d taught previously.)

I wasn’t entirely successful in disengaging to this extent (more about this in the next post). But, having and working toward a clear intention made it much easier to unplug more fully when the time came. And what I learned from this experience will make it easier to do a better job disconnecting the next time a season like this comes around.

4. Get buy-in from your upline.

Especially if you’re wanting to be away for longer, it’s probably best to start having conversations with your upline somewhat farther in advance.

Whether you’re in an academic, church, or other work situation, talk with the leadership that works above or alongside you. Clearly lay out what you’re wanting to do (and not do).

If need be, negotiate around concerns that your leaders may have. But, as you do so, don’t be too ready to modify what you clarified in step 3 above. If modifications are necessary, be sure to include your family (if applicable) in deciding what’s a workable change to your plans.

Don’t accept “win-lose” compromises that are easy in the moment but less satisfying in the long run. Instead, work at finding a “win-win” solution to any concerns.1

Conclusion

Whether it’s a half day or several weeks, it’s important for us all to create space to live life as fully in non-academic ways as we do in our academic pursuits. Doing so can definitely be challenging, but it’s well worth the effort.

In the next post, we’ll explore four more strategies for creating space to recharge and engage more fully with life outside the academy.

What advice do you have about leveraging these four strategies to maximize your downtime between semesters, or even within a semester?


  1. For discussion of this principle, see Covey, Effective People