Different schedules ebb and flow at different times of the year.1 Traditionally, academic life slows during the summer and around the end of the year. But for whenever your schedule typically dips—or whenever you’d like it to—it’s helpful to reflect on how you can be really good at taking time away.
Honing your craft as a biblical scholar means getting really good at things like
- handling your current work demands,
- developing that next project, and
- closing out that last assignment of the semester.
But there’s more to life than this. You’re a whole person, and the multiple facets of your life are part of what can make it rich.
So, a core skill you need to hone is integrating the areas of your life beyond the academy. And that skill is often overlooked. But a key way of honing it is by getting really good at taking and enjoying time away.
The Craft of Enjoying Time Away
Fortunately, to improve at this skill, there are some discrete practices you can undertake. Personally, I’ve found 8 particularly helpful. These steps are to
- Recognize there’s more to life than work.
- Clarify how long you’ll be away and what you’ll be away from.
- Start preparing early.
- Identify stakeholders who may need something from you while you’re away.
- Communicate with any stakeholders who might need something from you while you’re away, and address those needs.
- Plan for your time away.
- Set an email autoresponder.
- Keep your commitment to being away.
I’ll talk through each of these steps below. But you might find it helpful to have some additional guidance in working through these steps for yourself. If so, just click the following button to grab a workbook that I’ve created to walk you through each step.
Being away provides a valuable chance to focus your full attention on
- spending time with loved ones,
- investing in other interests,
- pursuing non-academic projects, or
- any variety of other possibilities.
Whatever the case, these steps will help you take time away rather than never quite getting around to it. They’ll also help you make the most of the time that you are away.
1. Recognize there’s more to life than work.
Life doesn’t stop. That includes academic life. So, you’ll likely always have plenty to keep you busy for more than one lifetime. Sometimes, the best use of time in the margins is to prepare for and get ahead of what’s coming next.
But always leaning into the future can also easily mean you’re always leaving and unmindful of the present. Doing so can leave you pushing forward at a frenetic pace. And that pace can easily perpetuate and intensify itself, rather than allowing a natural rhythm for rest, reflection, and reorientation.
So, it’s important to push back on the tendency to use life’s margins only for yet more work. Doing so helps preserve space for other aspects of life that can all too easily get pushed aside.
2. Clarify how long you’ll be away and what you’ll be away from.
Next, you’ll want to decide how long you want to be away and what you want to be away from.
You obviously need to be realistic and plan within whatever constraints you may have. For example, you may have a limited number of untaken personal days at work.
But while you’re being realistic, also don’t shortchange your time away. If you have a spouse, involve him or her in clarifying these key questions.
For instance, my wife, Carrie, and I went through this process before our youngest daughter was born. We decided that, after she arrived, we wanted me to be out of the office for the next few weeks.
Around the time of her due date, however, I also had classes I was scheduled to teach. As it happened, these classes were either just going to be ending or they were ones that I’d taught previously. So, we were thankful for that.
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.
Even with this clear plan, I wasn’t entirely successful in disengaging to this extent (more about that below). But having a clear intention made it much easier to unplug when the time came.
And what I learned from that experience has definitely helped me do a better job since when it comes time to disconnect for time away. As in any number of other things, there’s a craft to being away, and that craft is something that’s well worth honing.
3. Start preparing early.
In my experience, taking time away on shorter notice often hasn’t worked very well. That’s especially true if you’re wanting to be away for what you feel is a comparatively longer time.
When taking time away, I’ve sometimes carried with me mentally whatever research, teaching, studying, or administrative activities I’ve had on my plate. Or I’ve forgotten about at least a few loose ends then felt compelled to work on tying them up during what was supposed to be the time away.
There’s a “no” inside every “yes.” So, naturally, any of this “carrying with” or “forgetting about” or “tying up” ends up subtracting from your time away. You definitely have less of it; you might also end up enjoying less what remains.
On the other hand, if you start preparing early, you can minimize the open loops you have as your time away approaches.
Two Questions to Start Preparing
Your written record will help you minimize anything you may otherwise forget amid everything that’s vying for your attention as you move forward.
Similarly, you’ll want to ask yourself
Are you on track now to be able to unplug while you’re away? Or if you go about “business as usual,” are you likely to leave some loose ends that will shortchange your time away?
Hopefully you’ll find yourself on a good pace ahead of your time away. And if so, that’s great.
But if you’re even a little unsure, you’re probably overestimating how tidy things will be before your time away. That’s because of a principle called “the planning fallacy.”
What Is the Planning Fallacy?
The “planning fallacy” is people’s “tendency to underestimate how long a task will take, even when they have actually done the task before.”4
You might especially encounter the planning fallacy when you’re faced with more pressure for something to be completed on time.
For example, if you’re talking with others or even mentally contemplating such conversations, you’re more liable to give overly optimistic assessments of how much you can do in a given amount of time.5
How Do You Adjust for the Planning Fallacy?
The consistent problems that you and I have with the planning fallacy doesn’t need to come as bad news, though. Instead, it’s a necessary first step toward adjusting expectations to what reality will likely show.
What Do You Do If You Have Too Much to Do?
With these updated estimates of how long it will take to complete what’s on your plate, you may find you have too much to do before you’re planning to be away. That’s okay. It just means you’re in the middle of life.
You won’t ever fail to be in the middle of life until you’re at the end of it. And at that point, you’ll be required to take “time away” in a much different sense. You’ll also have entirely lost your opportunity to take time away that could enrich the “middle” that constitutes the whole rest of life.
So, a list of things too long to complete before your time away isn’t an argument against taking that time. Instead, it’s an invitation to triage your list of what needs to get done according to two questions:
- Is there anything on your list that isn’t truly essential to complete before your time away but is more aspirational or “nice to have done”? If so, the items that aren’t truly essential become excellent candidates for rescheduling work on after your time away.
- Is there some stage at which an ongoing project is “complete enough” for the time you’ll be away? If so, then anything on that project after the “complete enough” point is another example of work that’s aspirational or “nice to have done.” It too becomes a candidate for rescheduling to after your time away.
After triaging your pre-vacation list of obligations with these two questions, you might still find yourself with a fair amount on your plate. But what’s there is what you’ve identified as truly essential. And the focus of both that list and the upcoming start of your time away can help you address those obligations in the time you have available.
4. Identify stakeholders who may need something from you while you’re away.
Once you’ve made some reasonable plans, you need to identify the stakeholders who might normally need something from you and not able to get it because of your time away.
How to Craft Your List of Stakeholders
If you’re going to be away only very briefly, this list is probably pretty short (or even completely empty). But the longer you’re going to be away, the more people might be impacted by your time away.
From past experience, you probably know who’s likely to have an urgent request for you at the 11th hour before your time away. So, many future “surprises” shouldn’t actually be surprising. Instead, include those people in your list of stakeholders as appropriate.
As you’re thinking about who might be impacted, push yourself to cast the net a bit wider than you’re initially inclined to.
An Example of Why You Want a Wider Net
For instance, before our youngest daughter’s birth, I submitted an essay for an edited volume. And I did so well ahead of when I was going to be away.
I then moved to other projects. So, I forgot to notify the volume’s principal editor about my upcoming time away.
Sure enough, while I was away, I got an email about copy editing the essay. Because I still needed to tend to requests from students in the classes I was teaching, I saw this email also. And its questions were fairly urgent, as they often are.
So, since I hadn’t given the editor the notice needed to accommodate my time away, I felt I needed to accommodate the tight copy-editing deadline.
Thankfully, it didn’t take that long to work through the editor’s questions. But in preparing for that time away, I should have taken fuller stock of not just what was on my plate but also what could possibly come back onto my plate.
Had I done so, I would have recognized this editor as potentially falling into the group of stakeholders who would be impacted by my time away.
5. Communicate with any stakeholders who might need something from you while you’re away, and address those needs.
Once you have a clear picture of when and how you want to be away and who might be impacted by it, you need to communicate with those stakeholders.
In reaching out to your stakeholders, you want to clearly indicate when you’ll be away and what you won’t be doing during that time.
Ask your stakeholders to give you any requests they foresee in time for you to complete those requests before you’ll be away.
In this communication, you need to articulate clearly that any requests made after your time away starts won’t be able to get handled until after you return.
Send this notification or start this communication early enough to give your stakeholders adequate time to respond.
And because you might have multiple requests coming back to you, you might need to give your stakeholders a deadline several days ahead of your time away to send their requests. That way, you can have adequate time to complete the requests before you head out.
Depending how far ahead your initial notification is, you might also want to send a reminder to your stakeholders as your time away gets a bit closer. That way, they have a fresh prompt both about your openness to receiving and addressing their requests and about the boundaries you have around your time away.
Asking for Work Can Save Work
Reaching out to these individuals directly might seem counterintuitive. After all, things have a habit of taking longer than expected. And I’ve suggested above that you might need to triage what you can get done before your time away.
If you reach out to others to ask for requests from them, you might be more likely to get things added to your plate.
All of that’s true. But the alternative is simply not knowing what your stakeholders might need while you’re away. And that’s not good for them or for you.
If you take that route, you’re setting yourself up for a series of 11th-hour decisions about what requests to cram in. And you’re also likely to have comparatively tenser discussions around requests that you might prefer to handle after your time away.
Instead of leaving yourself and your stakeholders open for such problems, be proactive.7 Contact in good time those who might need something from you. Let them know that you’ll be happy to field requests from them before or after your time away. But also communicate clearly how you’ll be unavailable during that time.
By doing so, you’re being courteous to those stakeholders, who frankly might be trying to plan some time away themselves. And your reaching out provides an opportunity to negotiate a mutually satisfactory plan for when you’ll get what to whom.
Considerations for Your Upline
If you work under someone’s supervision, your upline constitutes a special class of stakeholders who might be impacted by your being away.
And if your work culture is such that you sometimes get requests from someone in your boss’s upline, you might need to consider including that person in your list as well.
Among your stakeholders, your upline is particularly important because they have a special ability to either support or hinder your time away.
So, especially if you’re wanting to be away for longer, it’s best to start having conversations with your upline well in advance.
Whether you’re in an academic, church, or other work situation, talk with your leadership. Clearly communicate when you’re wanting to be away and what you’re wanting to do and not do during that time.
Use these discussions to identify and negotiate around concerns that your leaders may have. As you do, you may feel you need to alter your plans for your time away. If that’s the case, be sure to include your family (if applicable) in deciding what those changes entail.
That said, also don’t be too quick to accept that you need to modify your plans for your time away. Don’t accept “win-lose” agreements that are easy in the moment but less satisfying in the long run. Instead, work at finding a “win-win” solution to any concerns that your plans for being away raise.8
6. Plan for your time away.
Don’t stumble into your time away cold. You might not want to plan it in as much detail as you do a normal workweek. That’s perfectly fine and understandable.
But your time away is valuable, as are the people you’ll spend it with. So, what you want to do with your time away deserves some careful thought.
Even something as simple as a couple short conversations leading up to your time away can help clarify how you can make the most of it.9 It can also help you avoid the temptation to dilute your time away with things that really can wait until you’re back at work.
7. Set an email autoresponder.
When your time away begins, set an out-of-office reply or other automated bounce back on your email or other communication channels.
You might actually consider doing this a little in advance of when you need to start disengaging. That way, you can respond as you’re able to any last-minute requests that come in. But any others will at least get your automated reply about your time away.
A Couple Templates
In your automated reply, you don’t need to give a lot of detail. But you should inform the person who’s contacted you when you’ll be able to get back with them.
If you’re taking a comparatively shorter hiatus, you can try something like the following:
Thank you very much for your message. I am currently out of the office without access to email through [the last day you’ll be away]. Please anticipate a response to your message as appropriate after this time.
Or if you’ll be away for longer, you might consider something like this:
Please resend your message on or after [date you’ll start responding normally again] if it is still relevant and you would like me to respond.
I am currently out of the office without access to email until [the same date as above]. When I return, I will be mass archiving email that arrived while I have been away in order to begin responding to pertinent correspondence again as promptly as possible.
Thank you very much.
Requesting That Messages Be Resent
This second method of structuring the autoresponse may seem a bit abrupt. But it helps remove from you the burden of taking the time to reply to possibly outdated requests after your time away.10
It also eliminates the original sender’s need to process a reply from you to a request that became outdated during your time away. And if the request remains relevant once you’re back, an autoresponse like this one clearly states what needs to be done to obtain your input.
The Importance of Structure
When I was away for our youngest daughter’s birth, I used an autoresponse like the second one above. But the request to resend the message appeared lower in the autoresponse, and I hadn’t bolded it.
So, it was easier to miss, although the information was all there. And on returning to the office, I did have one case where a critical request wasn’t resent. I then needed to handle that matter quite urgently.
That was still better than spending the time to sift through a month’s worth of mostly irrelevant email. But stressing at the start of the autoresponse the request to resend an email to obtain a response may be better. By doing so, you’re helping to ensure as best you can
- that it’s clear what to do when you return if someone still needs a response from you on something and
- that your autoresponse is communicating something besides the usually gloss-overable details about someone’s response being delayed.
I’ve used an upgraded autoresponse when I’ve been away more recently. After my time away, a couple folks did follow up, and I was able to address their requests before they became urgent. But I haven’t had anyone fail to resend something that they felt was critical since frontloading the request to resend.
How to Address Exceptions
If you have exceptions to the “please resend this later” request (see above), you can add something like “The only exception is ….”
For instance, when I was away after our youngest daughter’s birth but still needing to manage a few classes, I had the autoresponse 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. Keep your commitment to being away.
If you have some exceptions like in the example I’ve mentioned, you’ll still need to check in on those while you’re otherwise away.
Saying “Yes” Also Means Saying “No”
As you do so, remember that there’s a “no” inside every “yes.” If you engage more with your exceptions or add additional exceptions than you’d intended, you’ll automatically be saying “no” to engaging with something else.
Be especially wary if part of this “something else” is family with whom you’ve committed to be present during your time away (see above).
Your time away will go faster than you think. You don’t want to look back at the end of it and see that you essentially worked from home, from the beach, or wherever and missed the opportunity to engage more fully with the variety of life that lies beyond the scope of what’s typically understood as “academic work.”
Instead, be fully present with the people and activities for whom you set aside time to disengage from this work. As you do, a tool like Freedom might help protect what you’ve decided to prioritize during your time away.11
What to Do If Things Come Up
If you find your preparations weren’t full enough, try to avoid simply squeezing school or work activity back into your time away. And if something comes up and you feel like it can’t wait, don’t be too ready to agree with that assessment.
You can make the choice to address these pressing items that might come up. Just be aware that saying “yes” to addressing them automatically means saying “no” to the people and pursuits you’ve otherwise planned to be giving your time, attention, and presence to during that time.
And you shouldn’t underestimate the relational cost of that “no,” especially if it’s a cost that repeats either during one vacation or in successive ones. That said, if you really think something can’t wait, start by talking through it with those who will be affected by your decision to plug back in.
Negotiate with them how to move forward from where you are (even if that isn’t where you ideally wanted to be). Then, take away from your experience the lessons that will help you better disconnect the next time you’ll be away.
The scope, content, and timing of time away is different for everyone. It might be a half day at home or several weeks at the beach.
But it’s important to create space to live life as fully in non-academic domains just as much as in classic kinds of academic work. Doing so can definitely be challenging, but it’s well worth the effort.
So, with the steps above, hopefully you can plan some good, enjoyable time away in the not-too-distant future. That time away will then allow you to reengage with academic life even more energetically afterward.
Just like other parts of the craft of biblical scholarship, your ability to unplug from academics and focus on other life domains is also something you can hone over time.
As you do it more and with more intention, you’ll notice yourself gradually getting better at being not just whatever your school or work demands require. You’ll also find yourself getting better at really enjoying the time you spend focusing on other life domains too.
Header image provided by Jude Beck. ↩
See Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, 25th anniversary ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 73–101 ↩
Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York: Crown Business, 2014), 182; italics original; see also Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011). ↩
Cf. McKeown, Essentialism, 181–83. ↩
Cf. Covey, Effective People, 73–101. ↩
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.” Sadly, it appears this discussion is no longer openly available online. ↩
For more about how I use Freedom, see Alexandra Dempsey, “J. David Stark: Creating Systems to Prioritize What Matters Most,” weblog, Freedom Matters, 18 November 2020. ↩