The Horror of the Sabbatical

Sabbatical sounds like the best thing that can happen to researchers: plenty of time to read and write without teaching and administration. Before someone starts a sabbatical, they typically tell me all about how much work they will be able to do and how much they are looking forward to it. After the sabbatical, their enthusiasm may have waned: they didn’t get nearly as much or the right things done or perhaps did nothing at all. They are frustrated and look forward to teaching and administration – or anything else that can take them away from writing.

I’m exaggerating a bit. Nevertheless, I don’t remember hearing from anyone who took a sabbatical and accomplished everything that they had wanted. Having time off or being abroad presents many alternatives to writing.

Just recently a client told me about his year abroad. He had planned to use the time to write his PhD. Big city life sometimes lured him away from his desk, but he also worked a lot. After the year, however, he had to admit that he hadn’t done what he should have. His PhD was nowhere near where it should have been with so much time on his hands. I told him that he was by no means the only one who had had this experience.

What’s the problem? Many writers hope for big chunks of time to write their theses, articles or books. During the semester, with all of their other obligations, they allegedly can’t find the time to write, and so they will tend to wait for the holidays or a sabbatical. But how can they use these big chunks of time when they are not used to writing regularly? How do they think that they will have enough energy or motivation to work for hours, for several weeks, or even months without practice? Would they run a marathon without having trained for it?

Writing takes practice; writers need to cultivate a writing habit. If you already have a writing habit before starting the sabbatical, you will very likely accomplish most of the tasks you plan. If you don’t know what a writing habit is and don’t think that you need one – “I just write whenever I feel like it” –, then you might be in big trouble. Writers without a productive writing habit will try to work as many hours a day as possible, but will soon find out that that might not work after all. Having a writing habit means knowing exactly when and for how long you’re able to write. You know how much work you can do before your energy and motivation disappear. And you know how much work you’re able to produce in a given time. Only by knowing these things can you productively plan your sabbatical and accomplish what you have set out to do. If you don’t have experience with making the most of your time and discover that deficiency during the sabbatical, it might become frustrating. Although it’s never too late to learn about and change your writing habits, it shouldn’t require a sabbatical to discover it.

If you want to use your sabbatical or stay abroad to the fullest, prepare yourself and plan ahead – not only what you will write about, but also when and how. Only then can you focus on getting things done. Then you can enjoy being abroad or having some time off in addition to writing.

  1. What a great observation. Taking a sabbatical does not automatically lead to “output”.

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