Welcome back to Ought Experiment! Today’s letter is from a graduate student that’s hoping to break the cycle of unproductive summers… you know, sometime later this summer:
I worry this is one of those confessions that proves I won’t make it as an academic, but here goes: I squander my summers. I mean, not on purpose! I actually spend the final weeks of spring semester making ambitious plans. But I’m so burned out after grading that I have to spend a couple weeks doing nothing. And then I keep doing nothing because I’ve convinced myself that summer is infinite, and a few more days won’t hurt anything. By the time I notice how little time I have left, I’m so dismayed by the amount of work I have to somehow fit into 4-6 weeks that I’m too stressed to even start. So I waste more time on stress and guilt. I eventually pull off a couple weeks of manic productivity, but then I have to stop and prep for the semester that’s a week away. And as an added ‘bonus’, I start the semester so burned out from the manic push that all I can handle is teaching and my daily busywork. Meaning that I fall into a routine where I’m not really writing during the semester, either.
I’m sure the answer is something simple like “Hey, genius, maybe don’t take two months off this time,” but burnout is real, and I need to recover, and then I’m into the familiar pattern. So how can I better manage my summers?
Wince And Repeat
Dear Wince And Repeat,
I’m glad you reached out to me. As someone who couldn’t be arsed to do his side gig for the last month, I’m clearly an expert on summer productivity.
So, look, I’m going to be blunt: this job is 90% time management. (And 10% knowing which talks or University events include free food.) I’ve never seen a grad student flame out because they weren’t smart enough, or creative enough, or because they were too poor a teacher, or because prioritizing writing made them reliably late on their daily clutter-tasks. Every time someone couldn’t hack it, it was because they just didn’t do the work.
Academic time management can be difficult for a couple reasons. First, most of our time is unstructured. When you don’t have a boss you have to listen to or an office you have to spend eight hours in or a time card that you have to punch, it’s easy to forget that you’re employed in a job-type thing, with expectations and paychecks and stuff. And because our most important deadlines also tend to be vague and far off, it’s easy to conflate your job with getting through your to-do list of daily clutter. (“I went to a meeting and answered some student emails – I worked today!” boasted the doomed academic.) This problem is only compounded by summer. After all, if you think that attending talks and taking seminars and teaching and answering emails is your job, then it’s natural to think of summer as one long break from your job. But summer is actually one long break from the non-writing parts of your job. Summer, in other words, is the jobiest part of your job. The part of your job you keep telling yourself you wish you had more time to do…
The second reason academic time management can be hard is the sheer number of psychological pitfalls we have to vault over in order to stay productive. Thinking you have more time than you do. Agreeing to tasks without considering the opportunity costs. Beating yourself up, or feeling like you lost so much time that the amount you can still get done isn’t worth doing. Approach avoidance when the pile gets too high. Impostor Syndrome that makes you delete everything you just wrote. The Spotlight Effect that makes you panic about being evaluated even when no one is actually thinking about you. People-pleasing that makes you write for no other reason than to stave off committee disappointment. Self-fulfilling prophecies that make you rage-quit or despair-quit a document if you can’t get a tricky sentence right. Envy at another’s success. Paralyzing doom when you contemplate the job market. I could go on, but you get the point.
The double whammy of unstructured time swamped with distractions and traitorous brains that clearly have it out for us can make it really hard to do the work. It’s why a number of people don’t make it, and a sizeable chunk of those who do rely on epic, back-to-the-wall writing sprees. Hell, if I’m being honest with you, I find myself in that latter group more often than I care to admit.
So no, I’m not going to robotically tell you to sacrifice your summer vacation on the Altar of Max Weber. No, this column isn’t going to be one long Shouldn’t You Be Writing meme – but for the record, this one is objectively the best of the lot. I’m a proponent of work/life balance, and of using at least some portion of the summer to recharge your batteries for the marathon ahead. (Although note that there’s a difference between getting in the habit of doing nothing and budgeting a generous but finite amount of time for a vacation or a road trip or a party or some other genuinely restorative activity.)
No, I don’t think your problem is that you take the first two weeks of summer off to deal with burnout. Err, I assume we all do that. The problem is that you seem to think that writing and rest can’t happen on the same day, and so have to be scheduled for sequential months. You treat work and play like oil and water: two substances that just won’t mix. Summer is actually the perfect time to mix the two together. That’s right, my dear hare: it’s time for a sermon about Leisurely-Paced Tortoise Writing.
In your letter to me, you mention a flurry of writing in the closing moments of summer. Let’s quantify that. Say you spend, oh, 10 hours a day writing during those two, panicked weeks. That’s 140 hours of work. According to the back of my napkin, you’d get more done if you spent 94 minutes writing during every single day of that 90-day summer. 141 hours instead of 140, to be exact. With the added bonus of never burning out, and never taking a ride on the emotional rollercoaster of stress and shame and self-loathing. A little over an hour and a half first thing in the morning, and then you have the whole day ahead of you. Wake up at 10 am, write until 11:34, and then go lay on the grass for a dozen hours straight. That’s not asking much of you. That’s not a ratio you have to dread. In fact, there aren’t many jobs that will pay you to spend your days that way.
This is a little like exercise. If you want to lose some weight, you could sit on your couch for two months straight, then spend three days and three nights on some kind of frenzied uphill hike. Or you could just walk 20 minutes every day. Even if the calorie loss ends up roughly equivalent, only one approach will leave you with both the energy and the habit necessary to exercise the day after you hit your milestone or deadline. Same thing with learning to play the piano. You could practice a little every day, or you could try to go from Mary Had a Little Lamb to Rachmaninov in the month before your recital. It won’t work, for the same reason that unrealistic, hare-brained schemes that rely on spontaneous and dramatic change never work, but hey, you could try.
Of course, 94 minutes of work a day isn’t particularly ambitious. I’m assuming you don’t just want to get by. You want to thrive, tackle fascinating projects, secure a rewarding, permanent position, and all that jazz. 100 minutes a day guarantees you the most productive summer you’ve ever had. 120 minutes a day, and your summer output will start to approximate the fantasy output you imagined yourself having while you were grading. And that’s true even if you split those 120 minutes into two, 60-minute chunks. Work for an hour, play for six hours, work for another hour, and then play for the final six of the day. Still a damned comfortable schedule. Maybe you can eventually inch that up to two, 90-minute chunks a day. Even that’s still spending roughly 80% of your waking hours on Parcheesi tournaments and fencing lessons and all the other staples of idle summer. That’s still, by any reasonable definition, a vacation. But now your output is just shy of double what you currently manage to accomplish in those epic, end-summer sprees. And guess what? Even though you’re doing double the work, you’re not tired, and you don’t hate yourself. Doesn’t that sound good?
The funny thing is, even if you spend half of every summer day reading and writing, you know what you’re also doing? According to the ever-trusty Mr. Napkin, you’re also taking a month and a half off. The only difference is that the month and a half vacation is spread throughout the summer instead of being frontloaded into May and June. Which is a more realistic way to think of long vacations, because it doesn’t indulge the delusion that you’ll turn into an inhuman workhorse come July, and pull off some kind of improbable, come-from-behind sprinty victory. And what do you get in exchange for spending half the day reading and writing? Nearly five times your current level of output. Heck, take Saturdays and Sundays off, and you’re still at well over triple the output. Or scale it back to five hours a day and take Sundays off. Almost as good. Would you like three times as many publications? I bet that you would.
So no, I’m not going to say “Hey, genius, maybe don’t take two months off this time.” Instead, I’m going to suggest you limit yourself to a month and a half off. Just make sure you integrate that month and a half off into your daily life.
And yes, the final calculations in the last two paragraphs were a bit sneaky, because by recommending half a day of work every Mon-Fri, I essentially pointed at the modern work week and tried to call it a summer vacation. But that’s where we come back to this being a job. Short of acquiring a trust fund, there really wasn’t going to be any solution to your problem that didn’t involve treating this job more like a job. That was inescapable. I’m sorry. The key is to look at all the other hours as your vacation. You want a bunch of time off. You can have it! It’s just not a sizeable block of weeks that precedes work. You’ve proven that sequential scheduling doesn’t work for you. Stop trying to make it work for you.
Of course, attitude often isn’t enough. If you’re still having trouble treating your work like a job over the summer, take steps to forcibly convert it into a job. Go to the department or the library, instead of sitting at home. Make yourself accountable by scheduling writing sessions with a friend or cohort member at a coffee shop. Create mid-summer deadlines by applying to conferences, or by emailing your committee and informing them to expect your next draft in two weeks. Yes, there’s no substitute for doing the work, but if you’re having trouble doing the work in the midst of all that unstructured summer time, it can help to dress the work up in fancy job clothes.
Admittedly, there’s probably no way you’ll actually stick to the schedule I outlined above. I don’t. But you also don’t have to. In my experience, the difference between academics that really produce and those that simply get by is not whether they occasionally burn out or fall into unproductive ruts, but rather how quickly they dowse themselves or climb out of those ruts and get back to work. Falling victim to mid-summer approach avoidance is totally survivable. Just try to limit it to weeks, instead of months. Then when you’ve got the hang of that, try to limit it to days instead of weeks. How? Never trust the fantasy that you’ll do things differently tomorrow, because that’s just a way to rationalize taking another unaffordable day off. Always start today. And start by giving yourself the smallest possible assignment. Something like: “I will open up my draft document and re-polish the first page of what I’ve already written.” If that’s all you have to do, then that’s not so daunting. It’s no “I will finish this paper” or “I will finish this dissertation”. You can totally re-polish a single page. And if you’re like me, once you’re actually looking at the document and doing a little bit of work on it, the hardest part is already over. The baggage deflates, you get sucked back into the prose and the challenge of it all, you feel pride at a clever sentence, and suddenly you’re back in work mode. And then the work is self-sustaining, because there’s nothing quite like writing from a place of peace and joy.
You don’t have to be perfect. If triple the output is pretty good, then nearly triple the output is still pretty good. And yes, so is 2.5. The fallacy of the procrastinating perfectionist is thinking that only an entire day of work is any good or enough to get things done, so if you’ve already screwed up today then there’s no point even trying until tomorrow. Bullpoop. Any amount of work is always better than no work. Spend just five minutes writing, and the streak is over. You have to do the work. Find whatever excuse is keeping you from doing the work, and expose it for the excuse it is. There’s no way around this simple truth: you’re not on summer vacation. You have a job to do, and you’re not doing it. And there’s no way to do it unless some amount of almost every day is spent doing it.
Outlook and attitude aside, I’ve suggested a few, specific accountability and time management tips. Write in the mornings, create artificial deadlines, physically remove yourself to different locations, take actually-restorative vacations instead of engaging in panicked, avoidy vegging, and so on and so on. But those tips are personal. They work for some people, and not for others. So readers, what works best for you? How do you keep yourselves on track during the summer?
— Louie Generis