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Please Don’t Be Productive This Summer

“Enjoy your last few weeks of summer freedom!”

This was how my department chair signed off on an email, over a decade ago, as I prepared to return to teaching after a semester on maternity leave. Completely triggered, I shot back: “Caring for a five-month old is not my idea of summer freedom!” It wasn’t my chair’s fault. Once again, I had been painfully reminded that the gloriously unstructured summers I’d taken for granted as an academic had evaporated with the birth of my first child.

I tell this story because I’m reminded of it every time I talk with Duke faculty about their many professional and personal obligations year-round, including the summers. Many — but not all — faculty get relief from teaching and other contractual obligations in the summer months. If you find yourself with less to do, you’re also keenly aware that the summer offers a precious window of opportunity to advance critical research, professional and personal goals. And that awareness in itself can generate a panic-inducing tsunami of “shoulds.”

Perhaps you’re telling yourself, for example, that you should produce more research, or should overhaul that large lecture course, or should take all the trips you missed during lockdown. And it can be hard to reconcile the ever-growing pile of responsibilities on your plate, with some dim memory of a past summer when you had more time for focused work (or leisure) in the lab or library or on the hiking trail.

Since you may already be stressed out, the last thing I want to do is urge you to have a “productive” summer. Rather, I entreat you to be intentional, strategic and realistic about what you can accomplish. Or, I might say, what you want to accomplish (that’s the intentional part).

Let’s face it: the things you most want to do are the things most likely to get done. And those things may or may not be work-related. Many faculty I talk with seek help with getting more work done. Paradoxically, often the biggest obstacle in their way is the difficulty of figuring out how and when to stop working.

So you might begin (if you haven’t already) by generating a list of all the things you want to get done this summer, professionally and personally. Perhaps it’s a long list. No one can tell you how many goals to have, or what sorts of goals they should be. But people tend to do better with a limited number of goals. As I’ve also noticed, people can find energy and satisfaction through having a variety of goals (that is, not all about work). One idea is to set a work goal, a wellness goal and a “people” goal:

  • What’s your highest-priority work goal this summer? What makes it such a priority for you?
  • What would an appropriate wellness goal look like for you?
  • What kind of “people” goal would help you most right now?

I’ve found that people can typically rattle off the work goals, but require a bit of nudging to bring serious attention to questions of wellness (especially if they’ve showed up to coaching to talk about work!). But work and wellness are not only related but complementary. And the larger task here is to consider work, wellness and people as mutually dependent (like legs of a stool), rather than to consider them (as we tend to do in times of stress or panic) in opposition to each other.

It’s easy to see how sleep, exercise, nutrition and meditation can help us work better. Too often, however, people view cultivating relationships (personal, professional) as diametrically opposed to work goals. As I explain elsewhere (“What is the Real Cost of Academe’s Fixation on Productivity?”), this is neither a true nor helpful assumption. And in a summer when we’re all trying to clamber back to some sense of normalcy post-COVID, rebuilding existing relationships and creating long-postponed new ones might, for some people, reasonably take the spot of highest-priority goal.

A “people” goal doesn’t have to be building new relationships (especially if that still feels overwhelming). More reasonably, how can you maintain or even improve existing relationships, as you navigate the inevitable shifts to summer work and travel? How, for example, will you keep in touch with doctoral students (if you have them) and other mentees who depend on your guidance for moving their own summer projects forward? In the years I worked exclusively with Duke doctoral students, one of the most painful conversations I had, every summer, was with grad students who’d hit a wall on their dissertation research, while waiting weeks, even months, to hear back from their advisors. I do not think this kind of thing happens regularly, but even one incident (let alone several) is too much.

Even if you don’t have graduate students or dedicated mentees, it’s a reasonable question to ask: how can you put up healthy boundaries over the summer, to protect both personal time and research, without damaging important relationships? It’s not an easy question, but it goes back to the need to integrate the goals that matter to you most, without feeling forced into a panic-fueled, “either-or” mentality. It’s about being intentional, strategic and realistic. And please don’t think I’ve figured this out either. That five-month-old is now a teenager, taller than I am, and happy to spend hours on Minecraft while Mom is tempted to overwork. This situation offers me new challenges, but the solution, I believe, remains the same: integration, not productivity.