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

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