Academia has this really weird way of sneaking into our psyche. Trust me, I understand. I’ve been there. I still struggle with it sometimes. Taking your mind off of work to have a truly restful, rejuvenating break, or even just a weekend, can be really difficult, especially when things aren’t going well in your research. Your experiments, submissions, deadlines, and projects take up a huge chunk of your mental space and it sometimes feels like those things define you as a person.
Just know that you deserve health, happiness, and peace. You are a whole human being without your research. You are a deserving, complex, interesting, and unique individual. Your family members, your neighbors, the cashier you spoke with today, they won’t define you by the fact that your protocol didn’t go well last week, or something tripped up your research progress. They see you as an accomplished, smart, awesome person.
Why is it so hard for us to see ourselves as that?
I wish I could gather all sorts of postdocs and graduate students from all walks of life, all fields, and just have a nice get-together to open up about all things mental and physical health-related. Just letting it out and empathizing. It’s kind of hard to do that IRL for a lot of reasons (logistics as well as this pandemic), so a blog post will have to do.
I honestly felt like as a grad student, I had a pretty good work-life balance. My research wasn’t the most important thing in my life. I had a few tricks up my sleeve that helped me center myself and keep me grounded, inspired, and happy when things weren’t going well at work. Here’s a list of them, and I hope it helps even one of you that may be struggling this holiday season.
1. Set a schedule for each day!
When you’re on holiday or have a short break from work, you might be tempted to kick back and completely lose all sense of following a regular lifestyle, and let the day take you along for the ride.
To be honest, this doesn’t work for me.
Even on days off, figuring out what I want to accomplish in the morning, afternoon, and evening, along with having things to look forward to for a meal or snack in the day, can really help lift my mood. By having things I can do that are all planned out, I directly give myself the power to provide that much-needed perspective that my days can go pretty well, even if work isn’t going well.
This can be as simple as “actually do my skincare routine, empty the dishwasher, and prep some food for the next few days.” Having structure in my life also helps me maintain a proper diet, hydration, and other necessary lifestyle choices to keep myself as healthy as possible and keep any migraines and other physical issues at bay.
2. Exercise, but not in a boring way, and quantify it.
I just want to put this out there: I generally dislike exercise. Something happened when I got older and I stopped enjoying it. So, giving advice and saying others should exercise definitely makes me chuckle, but it honestly works, even if it’s just walking. I find that getting some steps in at the very least really helps me take my mind off of things that are stressing me out, and allows me to get something done that I usually don’t find time for when I’m working.
It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but being motivated by a fitness instructor in a paid, lesson-based workout environment really helped me work out consistently and see results. I attended Orangetheory classes 1x a week for almost 2 years during grad school, and it was really fun. I had the financial investment factor going for me, too, because that made me feel obligated to attend classes. I genuinely enjoyed the high-quality training that I received, and I highly recommend this sort of exercise for folks who are willing to put in a financial investment and want structure and instruction. You can quantify your progress through the heart rate monitor that they have you wear in class, or you can just use your own device. It’ll be much easier for you to find time to get into this sort of thing during holidays and on the weekends, so definitely consider it if you need some sort of motivation.
Another way I really enjoy exercise is to walk in places that distract me from the fact that I’m walking for exercise, such as a botanical garden, park, mall, home improvement stores, antique stores, a shopping street, and neighborhoods with interesting houses. Quantifying your exercise can be as simple as using any sort of device that tracks your steps. Trust me, seeing those step numbers grow is really rewarding, and going to places you usually don’t have time to go to is always a nice change of pace.
3. An inexpensive hobby that provides visible progress.
I enjoy gardening, and it has always been an extremely inexpensive and rewarding hobby. Peppers, tomatoes, peas, herbs, flowers, and indoor houseplants are always a part of my life. What really sets this apart from other activities is the fact that I can visibly appreciate progress I’m making on a regular basis. There is also a learning component to the hobby, which allows me to feel fulfilled and have something to look forward to with every challenge and obstacle. It makes me want to get back to it as soon as I get home, and that helps me keep my mind off of things at work that are out of my control. This is also true for blogging!
Other hobbies like this include cooking, beverage-making, art and craft-related hobbies, building-related hobbies such as Lego and puzzles, learning a new and practical language like ASL, and meditation.
This will vary depending on the individual, but there are certain chores that really help with that feeling of achievement. For some, it’s laundry. For others, it’s cleaning a certain room or surface. For me, it’s decluttering. It’s not like I hoard things, but there are definitely certain times of the year when I find myself decluttering, and for some reason I feel amazing afterwards, even if all I was doing was just throwing things into trash bags. I definitely enjoy living in a very minimal, clutter-free environment. So, even if it’s not a huge declutter, it’s really rewarding for me every single time, and I think it’s worth a try!
5. Give yourself a different problem to solve…
This honestly works wonders for me.
When I was writing my Ph.D. dissertation, I definitely had times when I felt like I was at a road block or had to deal with logistical issues regarding my committee members which really frustrated me and slowed down my progress.
So, I used this tip to help me keep perspective and get something else done in the meantime: getting my driver’s license! I took driving lessons when I needed to step away from my dissertation and defense prep. It made me use a totally different part of my brain, making it a really productive “break”. It helped me get back to working on my dissertation in a refreshed and motivated way. I took my behind-the-wheel exam and passed it on my first try, which was less than 2 weeks before my defense date.
This might be an extreme example, but having something else that’s important, pressing, or just interesting going on will really help you take your mind off of frustrations around work and research. This can then help you be more productive and face the main challenge at work with an improved perspective and perhaps see things in a new light.
This doesn’t have to be a major life goal, either. It can be as simple as:
- Finally figuring out what to do about the unreliable shelving unit in your living room
- Hiding the cables behind the TV or your workspace setup
- Selling your old bike on Craigslist, or at least taking pictures of it to get that process started
- Getting a birthday present for that relative
- Reaching out to that friend you haven’t spoken to in a while but do want to keep in touch with
- Organizing your tool cupboard
- Updating your resume or spiffing up your LinkedIn
- Looking up information about a personal or financial goal
- Making an appointment or calling someone back
There are always going to be things we can be doing that we have been putting off during the work weeks. The holidays, breaks, and weekends are a great time to be picking those up and seeing what we can accomplish.
6. Making a promise to yourself to keep learning.
This last tip doesn’t require any financial investment or physical action. You don’t need to even leave your house. This is more of a mental shift activity. It might not feel like much if you just do it once: you have to do it regularly. Bear with me, and try it out.
Is your project, experiment, or research done? No. So then, recognize that you’re not done learning all that it takes to do this project, and make a promise to yourself to keep learning. That’s something you can do for yourself, and you know it: you’ve learned things before.
By accepting that there are still things about your work that you can learn, and that your work is a work in progress, those work stresses are put into perspective just a bit more. You’ll realize it’s just all a part of research. Hopefully, it helps make your work mistakes, struggles, and roadblocks feel more normal, and allows you to more easily take a step away for the holidays or weekend.
It’s okay to not be sailing through everything all the time – you know in your heart that research takes time. All your past academic and research successes have come with surges of success and many valleys of struggle. Your work now is no different! It’s all part of the process, and we all go through it. By continuously, and repeatedly affirming to yourself on a regular basis that you’re really doing your best, you’re still moving forward, and it’s going to be imperfect, you are practicing self-care and loving kindness in a way that tangible activities can’t achieve.
It can be very hard to take your mind off of work, regardless of what field you’re in. I hope these tips helped you start to get an idea of how you can do so.
What’s something I didn’t mention that you often do to take your mind off of work? I’ve love to know!