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Academia and free time: The tyranny of freedom

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the challenges facing professors in the summer. They have what I call the “tyranny of freedom.” Unlike most people who work 9 to 5 and have 2 weeks off in August, professors can pick and choose (to some extent) what they want to accomplish in the summer. Of course, for some, that means, as one of my professor clients pointed out, trying to fit what they should have done during the whole academic year into the summer months. And others commit themselves to chapters, papers, and conference presentations that loom large as the summer progresses.

So there’s this luxury of being able to spend your time doing what you want to do. But, as another client so beautifully stated, “this open space is crushing me.”

Because of this luxury of time, the academic has to take responsibility for how to shape his or her life. That can mean imposing a schedule or timeline on oneself, or the opposite – spending your vacation piddling your time away with guilt hanging over your head. You also run the risk, if your family life doesn’t help you with this, of isolating yourself. It’s easy to think that you had better turn down all those social commitments because you really should be working on that paper. So there’s this kind of bimodal distribution of behaviors that can result when there is so much choice as to how to spend one’s time: on the one hand avoiding working but not enjoying the free time enough because of guilt, or working too much and not allowing yourself enough fun and play time to have a real feeling of vacation.

I think the answer is to work a little every morning and give yourself the gift of the rest of the day being a guilt-free vacation day. How do you work best when you have a lot of discretionary time?

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