Every year while I was working on my PhD I would struggle to get back into the reading and writing after the December holiday break. I took around 3 weeks off each year before Christmas and then into the new year, and it was so hard to come out of idle speed and back up to work and PhD speed. I wrote about the need for a break, acknowledging the challenge of making this break neither too short nor too long. Too short and you are not rested enough to get going again with fresh energy and drive. Too long and you may get stuck in holiday mode for too long, leading to writing and research paralysis and anxiety.
I find myself, right now, in desperate need of a mental and physical break. But, and this is a big but, I cannot take one because my book manuscript in its entire, finished form is due in mid-January to the publisher. I cannot ask for a new deadline, because I have already done that. Also, I don’t want another extension. I want to move forward with a new project next year and I need to complete this one first. So, it needs to stay on schedule. Hence, there is no break this year for me – not really. I will be writing over Christmas and new year, not lolling about all day by the pool or on the beach, reading holiday-for-my-brain chick lit on my Kindle.
That said, it has been a long and exhausting year on the work front, and if I work too hard over this supposed break time, and then launch myself right out of the book and into 2020 work, I may well be burned out by Easter. This would be a poor plan for a productive start to my new research, not to mention all my 2020 teaching, supervision and writing development work planned. So, I do need some sort of plan for rest in amongst the writing, even if that rest is more physical than mental.
Ideally, your end-of-year PhD or Masters or work break needs to be both: physical and mental. You need to actually not turn on your computer, or check email, or write or read anything, or be near your office. You need to physically and mentally change the scenery, reading fiction, going for walks outdoors, binge-watching a new series, spending time with family and friends, drinking a G&T in the swimming pool under a wide-brimmed hat (that last one might just be mine). This change of scenery, I have learned, is important for putting work in its place, and for rebalancing your energy after a long year. There is no rule for how long is too long for a break from email, research, writing and thinking here, but I think there is a rule that breaks are important and need to be properly taken when they are needed.
Work is just one of the things that we do and that shapes us, it cannot be THE thing otherwise that work-life balance will be quite skewed to the detriment of physical and mental wellbeing. This has been a hard one for me over the years, and something I have only gotten better at since my late 30s, when I stopped trying to push myself to ridiculous lengths to be the Best Ever at Everything. I think all (over) achievers can perhaps identify with a struggle to slow down, delegate, turn the out-of-office email on without the fear that something will go down while you’re not looking and leave you out.
I certainly have struggled, and while I am by no means over all of this, I do now find it easier to realise that my own physical and mental health, and emotional wellbeing, is so much more important that being online and available to anyone who may need my help 365 days a year. That is neither possible, nor desirable as a work-life goal. I can say ‘no’, the world will keep turning, and I don’t have to feel terrible about putting myself first. I think there is something in this about learning to put ourselves first, and seeing that as selfish in a positive, rather than negative, way.
There is a certain kind of humility, perhaps, in being selfish like this: realising that you are tired, and need a rest, and may even need help to take a rest properly. As the saying goes: you cannot pour from an empty jug. If you are depleted, then what will you have to offer your peers, colleagues, students, not to mention your family and friends? Not very much. And the result of spreading yourself too thin for too long, apart from burnout, may also be feelings of resentment towards those peers, colleagues, students who keep asking for your time. In my experience, pushing myself too hard for too long has also lead to writing paralysis, and then guilt and shame after neglecting my writing because I was just too tired to face it.
So, this year, stuck as I am writing like a fiend now because I procrastinated too much a few months ago, I need to take little mini-breaks and make them count. Obviously, I will have Christmas day off, and probably will have to rest off the champagne on new year’s day. But, in between I have to write and write hard. My plan is simple: a few good hours or more of writing every day, and then a proper rest. My novel, or a game of Wii tennis with my boys, or a swim in the sea, or a surf with my son, or a walk with the dog. And then back to writing. I am hoping, with a conscious balance between important writing time and important resting time, I will reach this particular finish line with enough energy intact to keep the work going until I can take a longer rest later next year. And perhaps, I will learn enough from this year’s “break” to achieve a better work-life balance in 2020.
Thank you all for your support, likes and comments this year. I am looking forward to sharing more writing ups, downs, advice and journey in 2020. Happy holidays to you all!
I am still stuck
On Fri, Dec 27, 2019 at 9:02 AM How to write a PhD in a hundred steps (or more) wrote:
> sherranclarence posted: ” Every year while I was working on my PhD I would > struggle to get back into the reading and writing after the December > holiday break. I took around 3 weeks off each year before Christmas and > then into the new year, and it was so hard to come out of idle s” >
I am sorry to hear that. It’s early days, though, so be kind to yourself and maybe just try to do one thing every day and build up to more. You got this!
I hope you have found sometime to slow down, find a balance and appreciate a simpler way of life with your family. Thank you for your blog, it seems to explain my main supervisor’s perspective, in which life should be 24/7 research… Coming from a manual labour background, when work is only done in work time, I would never expect a supervisor to read let alone respond to an email out of office hours. I have taken a break to go back to normal working during lockdown, and pausing has meant I have saved funded phd time for when the university labs are open. My supervisor was alarmed at me having a long break, and was expecting a lot of phd work to be done in that time – so I wouldn’t forget how to study (or maybe remember worklife balance). Having had complete switching-off-mentally studybreaks before, I think that the rest you gain from switching off in a manual job (or however you take a holiday) for a few months, really helps the mind gain strength to come back to studying with a vengance, plus I tend to be more creative then, which seems to be so much restorative than powering through. I think of this time as sort of like sleeping, it helps with processing concepts rather than forgetting them. Now, I’ll go back to reading your blog to jog my memory on what this thing called studying is …!
Thank you for your comment. That worklife balance is so important, as you say. I too find that I am sharper and more creative if I can take breaks and not feel like a slave to my research or any other aspect of my work. It seems like you are on the right track for you – all the best with getting back into it! 😊👊
[…] taking breaks and the ups and downs or pros and cons of taking time away from your doctorate (here, here and here). Taking breaks is essential – I cannot say that enough. We are not built to work […]