I like nano-sabbaticals. [Weekly Head Voices #39]

This past week I was away from work, doing a nano-sabbatical in my secret lair.

Example of some random evil lair. Mine is exactly the same, except that it's not in a hollowed-out volcano, doesn't have my face on the outside and is not near the sea.

I thought I was being original by dubbing my week-long self-imposed working isolation a nano-sabbatical, but google knows better. It turns out other people call their week-long sabbaticals nano too.  Durn. In any case, as you will recall I also went away on a month-long micro-sabbatical in 2009, but this time I wanted to experiment with spending almost a whole work-week focusing on a single task, trying to finish a survey article I’ve been working on for almost two years. The week is now over and the article is not ready for submission yet, but it has become a completely different and much improved animal during the past week. I’m a happier person too!

I would like to share with you some of the high-level conclusions I’ve drawn from this experiment:

  • Over the past years, I’ve had to get used to multi-tasking. Switching to focus mode was quite a challenge, as my reflex is to switch, switch and switch. Judicious application of pomodori, killing of browser windows and general self talkings-to mostly helped. I have it mostly under control, but I’m sure I could push up my effectivity further with more practice.
  • I did manage to work quite efficiently from day one, but only by the end of the second day did I find myself in the right frame of mind for writing this kind of paper. It’s one of those cases where you can work really hard, but if you’re not in the right frame of mind, you’re not being effective.
  • At the beginning of the week, I had configured a vacation email auto-reply, keeping the exact reason for my absence vague. The idea is that I would act as if I were on vacation, that is not responding to email and not taking care of any other work-related issues. Still, I couldn’t help taking care of the bare minimum of important matters, which acted as an extra distraction. I think for any sabbatical, nano to mega, it’s important where exactly you draw the line. During my 2009 sabbatical, I had the strict rule that I could only do normal work-related things during the evenings, which worked quite well.
  • By the end of the week I was completely embroiled in interesting article-related issues, with very little else interrupting my concentration. It was refreshing having almost all thought-processes dealing with one topic, instead of bouncing between too many concurrent projects.
  • I truly love the process of writing, even if it is scientific writing, which requires a different attitude regarding the structuring of one’s text and the willingness to rewrite a piece of text as many times as it’s required to get it exactly right. There’s nothing like looking at a single short sentence that concisely communicates the thought just so.

On the nerd front (skip to the next paragraph if you’re feeling non-nerdy): eclipse, texlipse, mercurial, jabref and dropbox make for a beautiful LaTeX editing workflow, on Linux and Windows machines. There’s nothing like continuous LaTeX builds for the gainful utilisation of the idle and overpowered CPUs in your workstation or laptop.

There will definitely be more weeks like this one just past, and perhaps even a real sabbatical in the not-too-distant future. It is unfortunate that multi-tasking has become so de rigueur in modern life. There is a whole lot to be said for the zen of pouring oneself into just that one important thing.

13 thoughts on “I like nano-sabbaticals. [Weekly Head Voices #39]”

    1. Martijn!! I knew that at least one astute nerd would have question concerning that omission. :)

      I’m mostly working alone on this article, and I have this huge dropbox thing, so I can save some Mendeley space by using jabref.

      1. Saving mendeley space while an extra few giggers only cost you 5 (eu)bucks a month. Somewhere I think, even when working alone, it is worth it :). One collection to search in is quite nice.

        In addition, it makes me feel I sort of made it possible =], though I do not have that shiny t-shirt you have!

  1. What about a pico-sabbatical every day?

    Arrange for 4 hours of uninterrupted time to do real creative work.

    Mornings at home works best for me.

    1. Certainly also a good idea, and I do something similar when I can keep the meetings at bay, but I think the amount of gain in terms of focus increases non-linearly with the amount of contiguous time that you’re able to spend. In other words, for me a contiguous week of full-time is far better than for example 5 times 8 hours. :)

  2. A whole lot of wisdom this week Charl! The notion of nano-sabbaticals is a really terrific idea…
    I dig the ideas of continuously running LaTeX builds; the formal requirements of scientific writing certainly can be mirrored by the formal approach of software development.

    1. haha it would have been nice had there been continuous testing as well. I imagine a big flashing “rejection” sign on your screen turning, at the typing of that one perfect and well-placed sentence, into “acceptance”! :)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *