In an odd and unpredictable way, the Olympics saved my first sabbatical. I mean, I had great plans for my first sabbatical. No lectures to churn out, no essays to mark, no exams to set, no emails to return – just time to think, read, and write. But it wasn’t going to be all work. No sir. I figured it would be long lunches, real coffee breaks (you know, where you actually take a break!), walks in the afternoon, and even the occasional nap. Sabbatical would be like an adult version of daycare and, if anything went wrong, I could just go to the quiet area for a time out.

In an odd and unpredictable way, the Olympics saved my first sabbatical. I mean, I had great plans for my first sabbatical. No lectures to churn out, no essays to mark, no exams to set, no emails to return – just time to think, read, and write. But it wasn’t going to be all work. No sir. I figured it would be long lunches, real coffee breaks (you know, where you actually take a break!), walks in the afternoon, and even the occasional nap. Sabbatical would be like an adult version of daycare and, if anything went wrong, I could just go to the quiet area for a time out.

And, wow, the Winter Olympics were conveniently scheduled right in the middle of term and perfectly located in the Pacific time zone. I could drop off the kids and do a few hours of stress-free writing before taking a nap, grabbing some lunch, and spending the rest of the day revelling in midday curling, late afternoon bobsleigh, and early evening biathlon. The day would end with 10 pages written and a night full of short-track speed skating. The definition of sabbatical? I think it’s a Latin word for “living at the intersection of slacking off and productivity.”

Alas, it never quite worked out that way. In a normal term, you run back from lecture, talk to 12 students, send 47 emails, and then bash out an article or two in the 17 minutes you have left. This hardly approaches real-world definitions of competence, but at least you accomplish something. On sabbatical, however, you have so much time it’s amazing you get anything done at all. I spent days and days just contemplating, fiddling, re-working, re-contemplating, and re-fiddling.

My pace defied all normal measures of time. Seven-hundred-word book review? Five days minimum. Comments on a single thesis chapter? That’s a one week task for sure. Heck, even this column – to which I usually devote about 12 minutes (shhhh…the editor is listening…) –  took almost two days, which still doesn’t explain why I sent it in about three weeks late. Sabbatical time moves at some alternative pace, like dog years, where you multiply everything by seven.  Pretty soon, I was working through my coffee break and skipping those naps. Ten pages a day? No chance. I was happy with two.

If only this term-long time out had some effect on the quality of my work, which clearly (as you can read) it does not. Maybe sabbatical is a Greek word for, “simple tasks take WAY longer than normal.” Regardless, by halfway through the term, the whole thing was promising to be more frustrating than relaxing.

At first, the Olympics only made things worse. After I spent the whole morning dawdling over two footnotes, it was a bit demoralizing to watch biathletes win a three-hour race by a second and a half. After two days spent struggling to churn out 100 words, watching performances measured in hundredths of a second was downright depressing. And don’t even get me started on the whole idea of a photo finish, where margins are too narrow for a clock to even measure. Suffice it to say, if there is a continuum of concepts of time, the Olympics are at one end and sabbatical at the other.

It didn’t help that those gold medal winners reminded me of the cool kids in high school, all good-looking, high-fivey and chest-thumpingly successful. You’d think, considering the Olympics are essentially a giant athletic welfare state, that those TV commentators could tone down the rhetoric about hard work and personal initiative. I mean, I don’t want to sound unpatriotic, but avoiding the cool kids was exactly the reason I became an academic.

But there’s the rub, and the way I eventually made peace with the snail’s pace of sabbatical. You can’t fault the cool kids for being popular and successful anymore than you can fault a geek for spending five days on a footnote. That’s just the natural order of things. So let them have their gold medals, photo finishes, and hundredths of a second. Sabbatical, after all, is a Latin word for “see you next September.”

Steve Penfold is Academic Matters’ humour columnist. He moonlights as an associate professor of history at the University of Toronto.