When I was applying to graduate school, I spoke to many graduate students. They each tried (to little avail) to explain how important life-work balance would be in graduate school. Now, as a fourth year student, I think it’s safe to say I’m just beginning to understand how to find balance between social and academic life. For me, the trick has been giving my brain a break but not taking so much time off that I find myself drowning in work later.
In the midst of running research, writing publications, taking classes, and engaging in professional development, you have to take time for yourself. We’re not machines! The American Psychological Association recommends five healthy ways to maintain life-work balance. Perhaps most overlooked is taking a break when you’ve been working on a project for too long and stop making good progress. This may be easier said than done, especially if you have a Type A personality and want to be in control all the time (like me). But if there is anything that I have learned about myself in graduate school, it’s that you have to take breaks.
But how do you give your mind a rest? Start by giving yourself permission to step away from your work—whether that’s studying for an exam, writing a final paper, finishing your comps, etc. The break will in turn allow you to gain a new perspective about how to feel less overwhelmed by the situation; you’ll be more productive when you return to your desk.
As an undergraduate, I participated in a few extra-curricular activities to help me take breaks. I loved being busy, so it was nice to be “fun busy” at dance practice. Finding a comparable activity in graduate school was a little tougher; the work demand is not only greater, but it’s much different than in undergrad. This required me to change the dynamics of my free-time activities activity.
Here’s how I figured out my new hobby in graduate school and made time to recharge:
Make Time for Yourself
Check out my friend Josh's article on Life-Work Balance for tips on how to block off your work time and your “me” time.
Figure out how much time you want for a break.
During my first year in my program, I realized law school is hard. Shocker, I know. There were a few other factors that made the transition challenging: I was in a new school, in a new city, in a new state, meeting new people, specializing in a new academic area. School days were long, and I often spend 12+ hours at the law school reading and studying.
How did I survive, you ask? I designated specific periods of time that were off-limits to schoolwork. I became involved in a church and never skipped a Wednesday Bible study or Sunday service. My friends and I reserved Thursday evenings for the infamous TGIT (Thank Goodness It’s Thursday) on ABC because we were avid Scandal fans.
These three times each week were guaranteed work-free times, and they were just what I needed to give my brain a break and reset. I knew that taking entire days off would only cause me more anxiety. By taking a few hours off here and there, I could block off work time and plan what I wanted to accomplish. My Scandal evenings served as a finish-line; a goal I could work towards. Sunday morning church services were at the same time every week, so there was no surprise when I had to begin working Sunday afternoon.
As I become more advanced in my program, my priorities continue to focus even more on my academics. As a result, I adjust my designated free time to correspond with the demand of each semester.
Figure out what is the right amount of time for you. What will give you a break without stressing about the work you’re not doing in the moment?
Consistently make time
Saving time is like saving money: when you have a portion of your paycheck automatically deposit into your savings account, you don’t even notice it’s gone. It’s an (almost) painless way to save. On the other hand, having all the money deposited as a lump sum into your checking, then removing a percentage of the total seems to hurt a bit more. It feels as if you are taking money away from yourself.
That same approach applies to making time for yourself. When you begin your semester, block that time off on your schedule for the whole semester. Similarly, consistently designating a time for your activity will make it easier to allocate your work time and allow you to take the time away from work with more of a guilt-free conscience.
For example, if exercising is your stress relief, set specific times that you will go to the gym (and actually go to the gym at those times!). Soon, your workout won’t feel like time taken away from your school work, but will instead just feel like another part of your day.
Figure out what you need a break from.
Let’s be honest, we’re graduate students. This means we’re investing time to become professionals in our fields of study. This also means our advisors are pushing us to grow in new ways. I think back to my first year in graduate school and can definitely say I have grown tremendously thanks to my advisor, Dr. Rich Wiener, who pushes me to be a better researcher. That said, sometimes I need a break from the fast-paced structure of our program to give my brain rest.
Between staring at the tiny text in casebooks and the constant backlight of my computer screen, my eyes sometimes need a break. I’ve found activities that give my eyes (and brain) a rest. I find ways to use my eyes in different, less strenuous ways than when I’m reading journal articles on my computer screen or cases in my casebook, or I find activities that don’t need my eyes at all.
Figure out what you love!I danced my way through primary and secondary school and all of my undergraduate education. Because I didn’t find a studio in Lincoln that was a good fit for me, I started looking for a new graduate school hobby.
One thing I do care very deeply for is my hair. I know that sounds absolutely crazy, but this hair does not style itself. Wearing my natural hair was a decision that I made years ago, and it requires me to invest lots of my time into its care. Over the years I watched many video tutorials and read articles to educate myself. I wanted an opportunity to share what I had learned with the natural hair community, so hair care became a significant topic in my vlog series.
Through vlogging, I’ve developed skills, too. After I decide what story I want to tell, I outline my entry and record. Then, I edit my footage and create a voice-over. While I do my videos, I think about what my viewers need to know and figure out how to best communicate what I’ve learned along the way.
Learn to say no.Sometimes, you have to say no to taking on a new project. No to going out with friends. No to taking someone else’s shift, unless they’re going to take (or have taken) one of yours.
Now I’m not saying you should become lazy or neglect your relationships, but sometimes it’s a good idea to have “me” time. This can’t be a daily thing, but you have to be realistic about wearing yourself thin. If you are finding that you are working a ton, but your productivity is low relative to the amount of hours you’ve spent working, that may be an indication that you need to step away from working for a moment. I know that saying “no” is not always an option, but when it is—and the use of the word will have repercussions to follow—take advantage.
Obviously there are lots of ways to take breaks from your work. My favorites are vlogging, working out, attending church, and catching up with friends. These activities help me relax and recharge. When I return to work, I’m better prepared to tackle challenging problems and rigorous tasks.
So, take time figure out what calms you down and takes you to your happy place and find a way to work that into this busy life we call graduate school.