Scheduled Sanity Days

One of the challenges of academia is learning to work for yourself. Before my science life, I worked for a large bureaucracy, a small family business, and a medium-sized non-profit. And in all cases, someone else was telling me what to do. At the small business, my work was dictated to me on an hour-to-hour basis. At the non-profit, I had daily and weekly milestones to meet. At the bureaucracy, I had to give monthly updates on my progress on long-term projects. Being told what to do is, oddly, freeing. It give structure to your work life and makes it easier to see when you’ve made achievements.

But in academia – starting from the time you enter graduate school – your time is mostly your own. Your goals are self-set. And if you have milestones to meet, you typically have no one to police their achievement but yourself. This sounds wonderful in theory, but working for yourself is a very hard thing to do. And the skills needed are not taught anywhere. They are one of the many things you’re just supposed to “pick up” on your way through grad school (and beyond).

The lack of formal training in things like project management and working efficiently is part of what causes many (probably most) academics to lead workaholic-style lives. There’s always that sense that “I could be doing more.” And the academic culture encourages this mentality. As a result, academics sometimes aren’t aware of activities that can increase long-term efficiency and well-being at a short-term cost.

One of these things that I discovered about a year ago are Scheduled Sanity Days. Most months I pick a day – and importantly, schedule it on my calendar – during which I attend to neglected parts of my life. Now, I have two young kids, so this day is necessarily a weekday one, a day when I have paid childcare available and can concentrate on my activities without outside demands and interruptions. Being a weekday, it also means I am not getting academic work done. And this sometimes causes stress – especially if I’m on a deadline. But I stick to my Sanity Days. I need them for my long-term well-being.

If you’ve ever read up on working efficiently, you’ve no doubt encountered a diagram which is divided into four quadrants that contain tasks to do. The quadrants divide tasks into those that are urgent vs. not urgent and those that are quick to finish vs. those that require more time. [1] Or more frequently, you’ll see urgent vs. non-urgent and important vs. not very important. I don’t find this distinction terribly useful, as it’s clear that one oughtn’t spend any time on not-important matters. And the general wisdom is that we naturally attend to urgent tasks at the expense of non-urgent ones, but that to really accomplish things, we need to make room for those things that may not be urgent, but are long-term important.

Each week, I create a task list for my household. My husband and I use it as a communication tool to make sure that urgent and important matters are attended to each week, and that non-urgent matters are not forgotten about. Sad to say, this list is typically 40 to 50 tasks long. We usually finish about 75% of tasks in a given week, and the ones that remain unfinished are mostly the ones that are not urgent and that take more than fifteen minutes to accomplish. This is my Quandrant of Neglect. These tasks languish on the task list for weeks, months, years. And they accumulate. Which for me, leads to a lot of stress.


The thing is, many of these neglected tasks would actually make our lives easier or more efficient. But the up-front cost is high, and finding two or three hours at a stretch to work on a task that isn’t fun or relaxing is pretty much impossible to fit into a life where my husband and I both work full-time jobs and then do second-shifts of child-wrangling in the evenings and on weekends, as well as try to take care of our own physical and mental health and nurture our relationship with each other. These neglected tasks are just never important enough in the moment to rise to the top of the priority list.

So I invented Sanity Days: a straight 7-8 hour stretch per month of tackling the neglected tasks.

What do I do on Sanity Days? Here are some examples:

  • Create a monthly menu of kids’ weekday snack and lunch meals. We have to send a morning snack in with my older kid to school, so it has to be something that travels easily. My younger’s snacks and lunches are prepared by my childcare provider while she is watching the kid, so they need to be straightforward and quick. I want all the meals to be varied and healthy and not be repeats of the food we have for breakfast and dinner. And the meals need to consist of ingredients we have on hand. My husband and I used to scramble on a day-to-day basis to figure out these meals. It was stressful during mornings and time-consuming. And my kids ended up eating the same things a lot. Now we have a varied and healthy menu that simply repeats every four weeks. I also made up a grocery list for each week, so that it’s fast and easy to make sure we procure the ingredients we need for all the meals when we do grocery shopping. The creation of the menu and shopping lists was totally worth the four or five hours of effort, eliminating much stress and frustration from my day-to-day life.
  • Organize the basement. We have moved three times in the past six years and we have two kids. Which means we have a crapload of Stuff. In boxes. In the basement. Some of this Stuff is temporary stuff we really need to keep for a while – such as clothes my older kid has outgrown that my younger kid isn’t big enough for yet. Some of this Stuff is long-term stuff we want to keep – such as our high-quality hiking and camping equipment that we used a lot more before becoming parents and hope to use again once the younger kid is older. Some of this Stuff is stuff that we use regularly, but not on a day-to-day basis, like hardware tools, a sewing machine, ice skates. Some of this Stuff we really can get rid of – baby bouncers, clothes to donate, broken electronics. But all of the Stuff needs some hands-on attention, so we know what is where and can access the things we need when we need them. I took a Sanity Day and got my husband to take one as well, and we spent a full day moving, organizing, labeling, and culling our Stuff. Now when one of us says, “oh, I think that’s in the basement,” we can quickly grab the needed item, instead of spending an hour looking for it – or buying a new one (which, sad to say, we’ve done for lack of searching time).
  • Fill out forms. For some reason, none of the books for expecting parents mentions the huge increase in household paperwork once you have kids. We have to do forms for school. Forms for daycare. Forms for summer camps. Forms for extra-curricular activities. Forms arrive from the doctors that need to be tracked. Forms to fill out to ensure we are reimbursed for healthcare expenses. Insurance forms. Census forms. Tax forms. Bills. I do most of our household’s paperwork, but the steady trickle of it makes it a burden to keep track of and do in small bits. Instead, I save up the paperwork and do it in batches. [2] Batching is an excellent work-efficiency tactic, by the way. And I use it in my work life, too. Anything that can wait a month gets done on my Sanity Day. This frees up my time – and more importantly, my attention — so I can focus day-to-day on more important things, like my family and my work.

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  1. Friday links: interpreting priors, catch-up days, cicada personals, and more | Dynamic Ecology

    […] like Margaret Kosmala’s idea to have scheduled days to catch up on all the little non-work things that never seem to get done […]

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