Activating holiday mode: how to take a break from your writing and research

It is summer, at last (at least it is here in England). I have been here almost a year and am slowly getting used to the different rhythms of the academic year and the upside-down seasons. At home – in Cape Town – it is cold and wet. Here – in Nottingham – it is warmer but still quite wet, although climate change is definitely being felt in the warmer and drier weather of late. At any rate, it is officially summer, the undergraduates are all on holiday and the academic year is slowly but surely winding down to the August break. I am most certainly going to be taking some time away from my research and I am encouraging the doctoral students I work with to do the same, but this is not as easy as it sounds for many researchers. A question many doctoral researchers may be pondering is a version of ‘can I take a break from my research?’ and if so, ‘how’?

Image by Sherran Clarence

I have written before about 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 ourselves into the ground, and even if we were, that would be a very bad plan. It is quite likely that you would end up burned out, exhausted, cross and resentful. Being resilient is not about being able to just keep going and going; we build and sustain resilience through balancing work and rest; focus and relaxation; pushing forward and falling back. We also build and sustain resilience through community, through asking for and receiving help and through offering help to others. There’s this saying that I am sure is familiar to many of you: you cannot pour from a jug that is empty. If you have worked yourself to a standstill, how will you pick things up again? How will you be there for others – your family, friends, peers, yourself? Breaks are essential for building and sustaining resilience, for restoring your soul, your energy levels, your sense of purpose.

As researchers, writers, supervisors, students/candidates, we are engaged in hard work – thinking, writing, getting feedback and working on revisions, giving feedback and supervising revisions, re-reading things we don’t want to read ever again, listening to others talk about their work and engaging thoughtfully. This work is at the core of doing research and being researchers, and it can be energising, interesting, challenging, exciting – but the flip side of that is that is can also be exhausting, draining sometimes, hard to maintain for long periods of time without rest and respite. So, we need breaks – we accept this. But then the question becomes how long is too long for a break? How short is too short? What’s the ‘Goldilocks’ break – just the right amount of time to recharge, regain some perspective, find a bit of balance?

I don’t have an answer for you because we are all quite different, and much would depend on other circumstances, such as whether you have been unwell, whether you are caring for other people, how long of a break you can afford to take if you are not funded or on a fixed income, whether you can or want to travel (staycations are not relaxing if home is not a relaxing or nurturing space, and travel is expensive and very stressful at the minute). For me, three weeks is the maximum I can take away from any reading, writing or focused thinking work. I can, I think, loaf around for much longer than this, but if I do then I find it really hard to get back to my research and writing work. But a week or two doesn’t feel long enough at the moment: I feel a bit cross having to go back to things because it takes me a least a week to start relaxing and stop worrying. You can think about this for yourself: factor in all the life stuff you have going on – family commitments, commitments to friends, things you have to do, things you can delegate, how much money you have to spend on a holiday, how much time off you have access to, etc., and then think about how long it does actually take you to start enjoying the break, how long it takes your mind and body to get into a slower gear. If it takes a week, then a week off will be pointless in a way because just as you start to slow down you’ll have to gear up again and you won’t actually feel rested. This, for me, is step one: how long do I need and how long can I actually take?

Step two, then, is all practical. Delete the email app off the phone. You can add it back again after your break, but a break is not going to be a proper break if you have access to work email and people who don’t respect your boundaries can send you endless messages that stress you out. Power down the laptop and put it away (unless you need it for Netflix or similar). Put the Out Of Office email on. Make sure people at work or in your research groups who are not going on leave when you are know you are off limits for the time you are taking, and ask them to please respect your need to rest and recharge. If there are urgent things that will need to be done before you get back, delegate them and brief colleagues on what needs to be done so you can draw a line under that and not fret over it. Give yourself boundaries to respect: no checking email; no obsessing over writing and research you are not doing. That will all be there when you get back, and you will be so much more ready for it all if you take the break you are offering yourself.

Caveat, though: if you are working on a doctorate or a Masters thesis, especially, this may be hard – not thinking at all about your research. It’s always bubbling away on the backburner, isn’t it? So, if you are out walking, or swimming, or lying in the shade with a novel and a good idea or thought comes to you, make a voicenote of it on your phone or write it down in your research journal. Park it there and go back to your resting and relaxing. You can then come back to it when work-time resumes. This reduces the stress of worrying that you won’t remember it, and helps to keep you from going back to work before you’ve actually balanced yourself out with some time off.

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I hope that many of you have taken or are about to take some time off – that this is not a luxury for you but something that those around you see and appreciate as a necessity and a vital part of maintaining physical, emotional and mental wellbeing. I am activating holiday mode next week and am making my plans so that my time off is really proper time off and not half time off and half worrying about work. I want to go back now to the saying I mentioned earlier, which helps me when I start to feel guilty about wanting and needing down time: you cannot pour from a jug that is empty. This reminds me that while my work matters to me and to others, I matter more: if I am empty and burned out, I cannot do my work well. I cannot be the teacher, mentor, supervisor, researcher, writer, mother and partner that I want and need to be. I hope that you be find this encouraging if you are struggling a bit to give yourself permission to activate your own holiday mode, that you can see time off not as an indulgence but as a necessary form of care for yourself and those who depend on you. Happy holidays in whatever form they take for you – see you in September!

“Take my advice but don’t follow my example”

I have not done very much writing recently unless you count many emails and feedback on other people’s writing, mainly students and peers whose work I have been examining, being a critical friend on, and reviewing. I have been pretty terrible at being any kind of example to my students of how to make time to write, basically. I am currently supervising a few part-time students with full-time lives and teaching a new round of my writing for publication course. As such, I have a great deal of advice for my students about how to carve out time, make reasonable, achievable writing goals, and generally put their writing closer to the top of their ‘to-do’ lists. I pretty much insist that they do this so that they have writing to send me for feedback. Am I taking my own advice, though, and being an example? Nope. Not even a little bit.

Now, I could argue that this is fine, actually. My time is quite justifiably taken up with supervision and teaching, and the ever-present admin and emails that come with that. This online life is nowhere near to being over, and being present in all these online ways takes up more energy than it seems like it should. So, I can have and dispense advice about all sorts of academic things I do not actually need to take or use myself (because I have taken it in the past, which is where it comes from). Right? Well, I am thinking lately the answer may not be so helpful if it is ‘yes’. I think I probably need to start taking some of my own advice and putting it into practice, rather than making excuses for not doing so, however reasonable these may seem or be at the time.

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See, I have learned over the last few years especially that too much time spent on other people’s writing means less and less energy for my own writing. And the less time I have for that, the less time I spend reading and thinking and generally feeling stimulated as a scholar. The more I start to feel like a workhorse for others and after a while I start to feel a bit resentful and cross that they are all writing and I am not. Let me be clear: this state of affairs is no one’s fault and this is not about blame. But, I think many academics – teachers and supervisors – feel like this: like they are there for everyone else but not so much for themselves. And it’s easy to say that this is on us, that we have agency and power and can change this and make more time for ourselves, our own writing, thinking, reading and scholarship. I have said that. But the reality is harder.

Without going into too much detail, the last four months have been intense on a personal and professional level to say the very least. I have been offered and have accepted a ‘dream’ job but that means I have to move countries; my mum has had unexpected medical issues that have meant a complete change of lifestyle for her. There has been so much noise in my head caused by all of this and the admin has been unreal – hours on phones and email and the Internet, asking questions and finding answers and filing complaints and claims. And on top of all that, the marking and teaching and examining and reviewing keeps coming in and needing to be done. And, of course, parenting and daughtering and partnering has to happen, too, and in very present ways. So, my brain goes: ‘Where am I supposed to make time, let alone find the emotional and mental energy, to write things that contribute to knowledge’? And it answers: ‘There is none right now, let it go, dude. That can come later, just survive now’.

There’s a lot of wisdom in knowing your limits, creating boundaries, saying ‘no’, caring for your mental, emotional, physical, spiritual wellbeing. Overworking yourself to the point of burnout helps no one, least of all you. I can’t help my mum or my family with zero energy on any front. But, see, this pandemic life has created quite a few of these moments of ‘Leave it for now, try again later’. And the thing that I most enjoy about being an academic is the thing that is constantly at the top of the ‘Leave for Later’ list. My writing, my scholarship. What is taking up the Now is admin (so much admin), emails (don’t get me started) and other people’s writing. I am not on the list. My work, my ideas, my writing, is not on the list. And, actually, that’s not cool with me. It’s not good for me and it is not good for my students, because being a good teacher and supervisor is bound up in and shaped by being an active thinker, reader, writer and researcher. I don’t think I can really be either; I need to be both.

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But, how to be both right now in this time and space where there is too little time and not enough space? How do I work on being more of an example and less of a cautionary tale? How do I feed my scholarly soul so that I have more energy for other people’s writing and ideas, which is actually a big part of my current and also new job?

I think this has to be my focus now. I tell my students not to start the week saying ‘I’m going to write all the things!’ I tell them, ‘Start with 25 minutes today on something productive: some freewriting, some planning, a bit of reading, some editing – whatever gets you a step closer to your writing goal. Cross it off for today, pat yourself on the back and tomorrow, try that again. Make small achievable goals you can reach to build your confidence and momentum. Be as encouraging of yourself as you would your friends and peers. Don’t be mean to yourself but don’t take it so easy that you get nothing done day after day and then sink into a pit of despair, feeling stuck and too scared to write’. I think this is actually pretty good advice and it is widely shared by writers who know their stuff.

I can take this advice. I can try this tomorrow, before all the marking and examining and emails. I can put myself in the Now and leave some of that stuff for Later.

The exhaustion is real: a different kind of ‘ new years’ post

It’s January. A new year. New things to do and people to teach and papers to write and lessons to learn. Not, it seems, new places to go, unless I somehow find a space in my house I’ve never spent time in before (maybe the storage space/Harry Potter cupboard under the stairs might count?). And not, it seems so far, new energy and verve. I am tired. I have wished people happy new year in emails and in WhatsApps, because that’s the thing you do each January, and because I want it to be a happy new year. What am I going to write instead: Here’s hoping it’s less shite than last year? Holding thumbs that we all make it? This, as you may have guessed it, is not a typical ‘here’s to the new year’ post. But, I need to write it. And I hope it helps you if you are in a similar boat.

Usually, a couple of weeks of hard relaxing in December and early January – gin & tonic sundowners in the pool, feet up and head buried in a novel, walks and long lunches with friends, alone time, your pick here – are enough to recharge the tired batteries and give me a boost for the new work and life year. I come back ready to pick it all up again and get going. But, this year has been different. My two weeks was not long enough by any means, and the relaxing was curbed by a super-stressful news cycle here and abroad that was hard to turn off, kids missing their friends and unable to really socialise, adults missing their friends and unable to really socialise. It wasn’t very relaxing, really. So, I started January much the same way I ended November and December: tired, a bit sad, flat, cynical, angry. And I’m struggling to let go of those negative emotions and get excited about this work and life year. It all just feels like too much. And in the face of so much global panic and stress and dying animal and plant species and awful people and divisive racism, sexism, homophobia and violence – it’s like: What am I doing? No one needs another paper on higher education or another project or another blog post or another anything I do. Who cares? The world is on fire. I’m going back to bed. Wake me when it’s over. Except it feels like maybe it’ll never be over. The pandemic will – please gods – end at some point, but climate change? Racism? Misogyny? Divisive rhetoric, misinformation, disinformation, people just being horrible to each other – when will all of that end? Will it? And what I am doing about any of it that matters?

I have this lovely warrior friend who joins these awful groups on social media spouting nonsense about microchips in vaccines and satanic cabals stealing children and controlling Washington and more awfulness, and she takes on the liars and spreaders of disinformation and challenges them and tries to give them different information (truth and evidence, mainly). It is so inspiring. I am in awe of her ability to do that. I cannot. I just don’t have the mental strength to take on wilfully ignorant and stupid people whose lies and divisive rhetoric are quite literally doing harm to real people in the world. But, I feel like I should be doing something like that: not staying silent to protect my mental health, but being brave and taking on some of the awfulness and trying to challenge it, change it, at the very least add my voice. It is hard to be human when that means, as Glennon Doyle argues, advocating for others to have everything you want for yourself, not seeing yourself in competition with everyone else for rights, resources, citations, students, awards, recognition, but seeing yourself as an ally, a co-traveller, at the very least, a co-human. It feels, most days, like it takes more and more emotional and mental energy to be present, to be engaged … to be awake and dressed.

I cannot go back to bed. I have kids and students and courses to teach and papers to write and thesis projects to supervise and a journal to manage and people to talk to and be present for and with, albeit online. I cannot stop doing what I do – I cannot stop being me. So, what do I do? How do I turn this from ‘Here’s hoping but I’m not holding my breath’ to ‘Happy new year, let’s make it a good one’? How do I find meaning and purpose in the midst of so much chaos and mess and sadness and loss all around me, around us? How do I – we – hold on?

Well, I started by writing this, and in doing so by tacitly asking you to indulge me as you read it, because I needed to get this out of my head and heart and I don’t currently have a therapist. So, blog therapy. I drew a picture of what I want my inner PhDgirl to look and feel like going forward. I am acknowledging that, right now, I am not okay. But I want to be. I am tired, but I want to be energised and excited about my work and my life. I have said ‘yes’ to teaching and writing projects that I currently feel overwhelmed by, because I know they will add shape and meaning to my life and will give me something positive and energising to focus on and goals to work towards. I took a day on Thursday to have a swim, play silly games on my phone, and watch Netflix. I did not check email. I did not make myself feel bad about that. I am no longer telling myself I am behind. I am where I am, and that has to be okay so that I will be okay. I cannot live on a hamster wheel anymore, even one of my own making. I want to choose to make myself a priority in my own life and I want to stop apologising for that. So, I’m starting today. I am going to write this post and publish it, even though the shame voice in my head is saying ‘TMI! No one wants to read this self-indulgent crap! Just suck it up and get on with it!’ I don’t want to do that anymore. If last year taught us anything, it has to that it is okay to not be okay and it is okay to say ‘I was wrong but I am open to learning’ and it is okay to ask for help and take it and be grateful that there are people who care enough to help.

So, here we go, into a new year. I read somewhere on social media that January is the 13th month of 2020, so that means new year’s day in actually Monday, February 1st. I like that – it gives me a bit more time to work through some of this exhaustion and meh-ness so that I can really start this year with more energy and purpose than I feel right now. I do wish us all a happier new year, a safer and healthier new year, a less isolated and lonely new year. Thank you for reading this, and for being part of my global tribe. Your support means more than I can say.

The year 2020 in writing and research: a review (of sorts)

At the end of the year for the last few years I have written a “what I learned about writing this year’ kind of post (see here for 2019, for example). But, this year has been quite unusual in many respects, not least because after March, all bets were off for meeting early writing goals and Being Productive on the research front. Some people has a super-productive year, if my Twitter feed is to be believed, but this was not the case for many and I include myself in this group. This post, then, is a musing on the year that has been, and a stock-taking review of sorts.

I started this year sending off a full draft of my book to colleagues for peer review, and thought: Fabulous! That’s Done. Now I’ll write All The Other Things in my queue (mostly co-authored papers with students and colleagues and starting a new research project – long reading list – and applying for ethical clearance so I can start gathering data – yay). First thing, the book was by no means done (what was I thinking?). It came back in May with lots of constructive critique, which was great but also meant a whole-book revision and some rewriting and new writing and reading. This was now 2 months into Lockdown, and the world was a whole new place. I was moving all my teaching online, which was so much more work than I thought it would be, preparing to teach a Master’s module online, and trying to make my children do their schoolwork at home and not watch YouTube and play online games all day. So, the paper writing and new research reading I had started was paused (really stopped, but let’s say paused ’cause it sounds better).

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Second thing, do you know how long reading brand new theory and substantive research takes? I didn’t. I should have, having done an MA and a PhD in the last 15 years. But, somehow, I forgot that reading with concentration, and reading Theory, is flipping hard. It takes time and energy, and by the time I had revised the whole book and sent it to the series editor in July, both were in short supply. So, there was more pausing and putting the new project off, and I couldn’t do fieldwork anyway, so it was all moot, it felt like. The book came back, more revisions and corrections, more emotional and mental energy. But, by now my kids were back at school at least part of the week, so the homeschooling was a bit easier, and my lovely co-author was teaching a full semester online and I was teaching two professional development courses alongside the MA module. So she didn’t mind pausing the paper a bit (or a lot) longer. Writing and research, what’s that? Just making myself wash my hair and get out of my PJs for Zooms-with-no-cameras was a lot, most days, in August and September.

The book went back in August and passed muster, and then went off to production. Big milestone. Big relief. But short-lived. It came back rather quickly, copyedited, and the whole thing – all 177 pages – had to be re-read very carefully and corrected, edited, checked. There were many long-sentences I missed as well as puzzling typos and referencing mistakes. That was hard. I read that manuscript just hating it and feeling very strongly that no one would want to buy it, let alone read it, and what on earth possessed me to believe I could write a book? I really dragged myself through the revisions and sent it back. But, the process of doing that oddly gave me a second wind for working on the one paper I had paused earlier in the year. It helped that my teaching and marking had started winding down, too, in early November. We signed up to present a work-in-progress at an online colloquium, which gave us both a bit of a boost. Although it now all on hold again, because we are pretty finished in terms of energy and brain-power.

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So, now it is December and I am three days away from activating my out-of-office on 3 email acccounts, after which I will be deleting my social media apps and my gmail app from my phone for the 2.5 weeks I am on leave. Last night at 10pm I sent back the proofs and index for the book – I had to read the whole thing again and make more corrections and comments – and it’s back in the production queue. The co-authored paper is still in a paused state, but the argument is becoming less opaque and we hope, with fresher brains, we can finish it early next year. The new research project is not anywhere, really – no further along than it was this time last year. Maybe 2021 will be more productive on that front now that the book is done and that research chapter is effectively closed. As to the other papers in the queue? I don’t know. I have no idea what next year will look like. Am I still going to be teaching online all year, part of the year? Will I be allowed or brave enough to travel? I know I will have to make time to promote my book – I have no idea what that will look like yet as South African university campuses have not announced clear plans for being “back at work” in any kind of old-normal way yet. Just thinking about that makes me want to take a long nap.

I am anticipating unforeseen emotional labour and drains on my energy, maybe more consciously now that I have in the past. I am trying not to make too many plans that will be a basis for being mean to myself for not Being Productive, and I am trying to have looser, less formal plans for 2021’s writing and research. I mean, I probably say this every year, but the craziness and upheaval and fatigue of this year has really driven home the need to pay attention to my energy, to accept rather than rail against it, and to work with myself kindly and gently, rather than holding myself up to some external standard that may be fine for someone else, but not for me. This is not easy: I had to actually stop myself from berating myself for only uploading two publications into the university database as proof of my research “output” this year (both written in 2019). Two publications in any year is just fine, and in 2020, it’s great. I suppose, what I am learning more and more is to work at my pace, not someone else’s pace, and to celebrate all the small milestones, like papers read and proofs edited and productive, fun co-author meetings that push the process a few steps further, even if the finished draft itself is a way off. Focusing on the steps rather than only on the big product at the end seems to be a healthier way to Be Productive, in this or any year. So, that’s what I am taking forward with me. That and a resolution of sorts to embrace slower forms of scholarship and self-care that give me time for rest and recharging and eating properly and sleeping better and exercising (not my best thing).

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I wish you all a merry, safe and restive end-of-year break, and a happy festive season if you are celebrating. I am grateful to all of my readers out there for your support – thank you, and see you in 2021!

Hitting the wall: Finding some space to have space

I read something the other day about surviving crises and how about 6 months after the initial crisis starts we hit the wall. We have adjusted, more or less, to a new normal but there is still no end in sight, and we’re not completely sure we can let go of the old normal yet. So we’re kind of stuck between accepting that this is our life now and not wanting this to be our life now and we’re tired. I think I have hit this wall. I have more or less made my peace with teaching online (but I long for face to face classes again), I have kind of liked not having to get on planes and go places and be away from my kids and my cats and Lovely Husband (but I kind of miss lazy evenings by myself in a B&B watching Netflix and all the hustle and bustle of traveling). I am in this in-between space, trying to find a way to have some space for just being.

Mainly, I just need a break. I need some actual proper space and I have been grumping around the house feeling cross that I have to get up every day and stare at my screen all day and be there for other people all day and, like, who is being there for me? Where is my time and headspace for being creative with my own writing? Where is my sleeping in and reading my chick-lit novel all morning in my PJs while my boys make me pancakes? I’m whinging, I know. But, I’ve hit this wall hard and I can’t have a break because I am teaching three courses right now and have heaps of student work to read and comment on and weekly teaching prep and a journal to manage and people to be responsible to and for and I just want it all to stop.

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So, I am grumpy and tired and I feel guilty all the time because I never get enough done in a day. And I feel bad for wanting everyone to go away and leave me alone, especially my students. But, one thing I have learned is to own my feelings, the ones that I am happy to share and the ones I am not, because pretending I don’t feel those feelings only leads to feeling invisible and therefore more resentful and grumpy. So, I’m owning them. I’ve hit the wall, I’m tired, I’m cross, I’m grumpy, I need some space in a part of the year where taking space for me makes me fall behind in my never-ending to-do list and then feel guilty and bad. It’s not good, basically.

But then, I have a day like today. I read bits of drafts that students on my writing course are working on and see them using feedback and patience and perseverance to create clearer, sharper, such interesting paper drafts. And I know I am so lucky to do this work, to be part of helping early career and postgraduate scholars to publish and share their research. I get to make creative and fun learning materials for students that will help them with their writing—something all students struggle with, some far more than others. And that’s pretty cool too. And I get to go the wool shop and buy lovely yarn to start a new knitting project with. And it feels like, even though I did not get right to the end of my list for today or yesterday, I had a bit of balance. I knocked work off my list, I went to Pilates, I bought wool and got to chat for 20 minutes about knitting and yarn colours to someone I don’t live with, albeit behind masks. I created some space and I feel a little less frantic, even though that may be temporary.

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I am also falling back on some old reflections and some new advice:

These little soundbites of wisdom really help me to hang on and work through the grumpy days. As does the knowledge that days like this come around and lift my spirits. I think I am mostly learning that in order to offer others my energy, creativity and help, I need to make and protect my own little spaces to recharge myself and feel like I’m not a slave to my screen. I’m still going to feel bad when I let people down by missing deadlines, and hopefully get better at setting more realistic ones. I am still going to struggle to say no, especially to exciting and interesting projects I want to be part of but have no time for if I want to actually move forward on my own new research—but I’m going to keep trying. We all need space, but more and more these days that space had to be made and protected, sometimes fiercely and sometimes from ourselves. And it’s important to give yourself permission to have that space. Take care out there.