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Maximizing Your Summer

Updated: May 4, 2023

Todd Zakrajsek, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Key Statement: Your time off deserves the same careful attention and nurturing strategies as the time you devote to the classroom. Maximize your relaxation!

Keywords: Maximize, Work-Life Harmony, SMART, Backward Planning


I love just about everything there is about teaching, but I still feel a bit of a lift with the approach of the last week of the spring semester, turning in grades and securing regalia for graduation. The feeling of endless academic obligations begins to melt away, and the thought of doing what we want blossoms. Don't get me wrong—I live to work with learners, enjoy interacting with my colleagues, and am proud of all that I complete throughout the academic year. All that said, the months of heavy cognitive load, balancing round-the-clock personal and professional commitments, being sleep-deprived, and meetings, so many meetings. . . . Given all we do during the year, it's understandable we might think happily of summer months. I’ve been happily teaching for 40 years, which means I have looked forward to summer 40 times.

Not all 40 summers have been used well. Leaving the summer to chance rarely worked out well for me. Feeling that there is ample time, it is easy to lose track of those fleeting months. We end up returning to another fall and quickly feeling the pressures of being just as overwhelmed as we were in the spring. Although I have mismanaged summers, I now do a much better job planning for my summer months to make the most of that precious time for restoration and growth.

. The author connecting with colleagues in Fairbanks, Alaska. Left to right - author, Elizabeth Fleagle, and Larry Roberts © Todd Zakrajsek.

Be SMART About Your Summer Planning: Primary Goals and Secondary Outcomes

One option is to set a series of SMART goals, which have been used for decades across all areas of higher education (Wingert & Persky, 2022). As you likely know, SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely. Pair the concept of SMART goals, or outcomes, with backward design (Wiggins & McTigh, 2005), and you have a solid start. Consider, in broad strokes, what you want to happen by the end of the summer, and then set a series of SMART outcomes.

You likely already have general plans in place. Once you have crystallized your big goals, try to identify secondary items you hope to achieve as part of your big goals. I suggest taking a moment and writing out what you hope to get from your intended summer activities, whether decompressing, traveling, writing up a study, or teaching a summer course. The following examples are provided to stimulate your thinking. The list is not exhaustive; you might choose to focus more on work or leisure. There are also no wrong choices as long as you achieve what you hope to achieve and feel that you maximized your summer.


Many individuals travel over the summer. I love to travel and have seen many places domestically and abroad. However, only recently have I become a SMARTer traveler. Think about why you desire to travel. Is it to learn about a specific culture? Visit friends/family? Work on a research project? In considering your primary desired outcome, brainstorm some secondary outcomes that might be achieved with minimal extra work. For example, if you plan to spend time with friends in another country, consider what options might also exist for visiting faculty members in your discipline at a university near where you will be going. With a small amount of planning, you may be able to connect with a faculty member and arrange a short visit and perhaps a tour of their university. They may very much enjoy the opportunity to speak with you, and you certainly will!

When visiting an area, I now look for museums, cultural events, activities, and other places of interest in addition to my primary goal. Whenever traveling, research on a broad scale the things you like to do and what might be available in the area at the time you are there.

Projects (Scholarly or Personal)

Summer is an ideal time to work on a substantial project you did not have time to tackle during classes. Map out carefully and specifically what you expect to accomplish—to write and submit two articles or to remodel the downstairs bathroom, rather than “work on some writing” or “redo the house.” Look also to activities that augment your scholarly work, in particular (more about pairing later). Set up some meetings with colleagues with expertise in the area you are working to brainstorm about the topic. This can set up future projects and help you with the one you are working on. Perhaps plan to meet weekly for an hour to talk about progress and help each other think through challenges in a project. You might also read a few books related to your subject area; plan to spend a bit of that reading time in a hammock or by a local beach. Be sure to make space for activities to relax and get away for a bit. Believe it or not, that will help increase the success of your big project goal.

Relaxation and Mental Health

The past few years have been extremely hard on me, as I am sure they also have on you. Even in a “good” year, though, working in higher education is, well, a lot of work. If your goal is to get away from academic work completely and to relax, it may be helpful to think a bit about maximizing your opportunities for decompressing, rather than simply to “relax.” For example, you may find great value in hiking. Maybe you have planned a trip to an area with fantastic hiking opportunities this summer (I am partial to Utah, the Pacific Northwest, and the Smokey Mountains). In planning to go hiking, it is easy to forget that some activities pair well with hiking. Camping, obviously, but you may also enjoy learning more about the area you will be hiking. Build a trip; check out small, local museums; and plan to try a restaurant or two that are local favorites. Maybe you love looking at architecture, stained glass, or new-to-you grocery stores. I went through a museum in Anchorage, Alaska, with an individual who had lived in the area her entire life. It was a fantastic experience.

Hiking (and associated activities) is only one example. Whatever you look forward to doing this summer to relax, look for secondary possibilities in the area where you will be, whether it’s a trip or your own backyard. Everywhere you go, there are likely a plethora of opportunities. Consider additional things you really enjoy that are not normally doable during the hectic school year. Pairing pleasant activities will help to maximize however you plan to relax (e.g., and do plan to relax!


Be careful with the assumption that over the summer, without any planning, you will relax, finish some articles that are overdue, or travel. I have done that too many times, and I wish I had made better use of those super valuable months. When work obligations slow, or even stop, for a few months, be sure to use that time to mindfully do what is best for you. You will have a limited number of summers, and it is a shame to waste any of them. Discuss plans with colleagues and ask them about potential secondary possibilities. Review what you hope to have happen over the summer and jot down some desired outcomes to make those things happen, so that when classes resume in the fall you will have maximized your summer.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is a primary goal you have for this summer? What is it you most want to do?

  2. Explain why this is your primary goal. What do you hope to achieve from accomplishing this goal?

  3. Describe three secondary goals and why you chose these.


Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Pearson.

Wingert, M., & Persky, A. M. (2017). A practical review of mastery learning. American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, 86(10), 8906.

Additional Resources (2023).

Murti, L., & Ringenbach K. (2018, February 27). Creating work-life balance: Using

personal reflection to guide personal and professional growth. The Scholarly

Zakrajsek, T. (2019, October 9). Cognitive load: A fundamental key to student

learning. The Scholarly Teacher.


Zakrajsek, T. (2022, November 3). Moving right along to improve mood and

memory. The Scholarly Teacher.

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