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!

Rebooting… The annual new year’s post

It’s 2022. In many ways, I am massively relieved that 2021 is over. It was a hard, hard year. Some amazing things happened – dream job meaning big career boost and much-appreciated validation for years of hard work; moving abroad for said dream job. But, these amazing things have also meant hard changes, like leaving one of my children behind because he is now too old for a family visa, leaving my dream house near the beach in the best city in the world, having to adjust to a whole new country, people, job, house, everything, really. And I lost my mum, which I haven’t even really begun to process. And Covid, which I don’t think I need to really say too much more about this stage of the pandemic. But, because it was such a Year, I am Tired. Like on a Never-been-this-tired-before-ever-that-I-can-recall scale. I know I am not alone here. Many of us are burned out. Done. Tired to the bones. Over it all. And it feels like no amount of holiday or rest or time off can really take that level of tired away. It’s not just physical or even mental; it’s a deep emotional and psychic weariness, I think.

This pandemic is a big thing, a huge thing, really, because we have no idea when it will actually end (still assuming it will). But, climate change, political strife, war and unrest in many parts of the world, the ongoing awfulness of Internet trolls and mean, narrow-minded people who just don’t seem to care at all about anyone except themselves – all of these things may also feel like they are draining us. They’re there in the background all the time and sometimes in the foreground, and if we actually think about it all it just adds to the tiredness. You could say ‘well don’t think about it then’ and that can work for periods, but then you probably also have to take a very long break from newspapers, Twitter, and/or anything that feeds you information about the world around you, which would also disconnect you further from the world. Probably not the best idea at a time when disconnection is a significant concern, and when we actually do need to be informed and knowledgeable about what is happening around us.

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So, we’re Tired, we’re still disconnected, we’re not exactly rested and raring to go just yet, and the year is beginning. We need to get back to work, back to the doctorate, back to research and writing: we need to get back to Being Productive, whatever that means for us. My question for myself now is ‘How?’ I could really do with more time for country walks, knitting, and Netflix, to be honest. There’s a small part of me that’s starting to get a bit excited about my research, but feels pretty tired at the idea of all the reading and writing; I am starting to look forward to going back to my teaching, but feel pretty meh about all the admin. This is all normal, of course. I refuse to feel any kind of bad for not being super-excited about 2022, about my work, about all the writing I have committed to, about anything. I am grieving, I am tired, I am weighed down by sadness and stress, really. I am allowed to feel my feelings at my own pace. I am also saying this out loud in case any of you need to hear this and say something similar to yourselves.

But, I am also a Doer and part of a team. I am no longer just me, working all by myself at home online with no office or immediate colleagues or projects and workshops kicking off a week into the new year. This is a big change from previous years where, partly because of my contract role and partly because of the university calendar, work only got going in late January/early February. I had more time to ease myself into the year and into Being Productive. Here, the university year has started and my active teaching starts next week. I am part of a team. I’m still working at home thanks to Omicron, but not alone. So, I’m getting going but I’m giving myself permission to ease myself in this week. Start with email: clearing the inbox, replying where needed, turning off the auto-replies. Then the calendar: look at what’s coming up, make some small-and-achievable goals to get going with the writing and research, make some to-do lists for things that need to start happening. Then work: meetings that need to happen, workflows that need to kick off, tasks that need to be completed now, people that need to be connected with. That seems like a manageable plan to reboot my work-self and get things going in a non-overwhelming way.

I can’t end on one of those gung-ho, ‘we can do this!’ notes for this New Year’s post. I don’t really feel that so it would not ring true. What I do feel is an increasingly urgent need to take care of myself, to put acts of self-care higher on my list, to not push-push-push until I cannot actually move forward another step. I want to reach the end of the year, for starters, and when I do I want to look back on a year that has been full of enriching interactions with students and colleagues, a year that is more settled at work and at home, a year that has been full of really exciting and interesting reading, writing, conversations, and research. But I also want to look back on a year of time spent walking outdoors with my husband, drinking wine, dancing, and laughing with friends, hanging out with my boys, gardening and knitting, going on holidays with my family, exploring our new country (and hopefully one or two others as well). I want to feel I have grown both personally and professionally, that I have done meaningful work, that I have given back to and really been part of my different social and professional communities. I have to make that the balance between work and life and work and me happen and I hope I am finally learning how: to take it a task, a day, an interaction at a time; to slow myself down when I get ahead of myself; to surround myself with people who support and encourage me; to be that person for my students and colleagues – my students especially, who definitely need to see more examples of this in academia.

I hope you all are able to create your own intentional and meaningful paths through the year ahead, in whatever ways and spaces you can. I hope you will take care of yourselves and others this year, and that you will feel purposeful, useful, supported, challenged, and also stimulated and joyful in your writing, your research, your teaching and supervision, and in the things you choose to give yourself to outside of work and studies. Happy new year to you all, truly.

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Drowning, or In Need of a Flotation Device

I have a serious case of the Mehs, or what I am thinking of as Lockdown Ennui. I mean, we’re not technically in full-on lockdown anymore because we can get haircuts and buy all the shoes, if we so desire and feel a bit reckless with our health in being out and about. But, we still are living small lives, with no visits to friends and family, none of the usual work-related travel, and way, way too much time in front of computer screens trying to create engaging learning experiences for our students, and ourselves. It’s freaking exhausting. And strange, oddly lonely, unsettling. Perhaps the worst thing, for all of us, is the uncertainty. There is this new ‘normal’ now, and we don’t know when, or if, that will end. What will our lives look like when the coronavirus has finally been brought under control? We’re not built to not know – humans need answers, and plans, and dates and deadlines. We need to know. And we do not. Not right now, anyway.

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This uncertainty – for me, anyway – seems to be creating a listlessness. I have SO much to do – I feel I am drowning in supervision, and marking, and feedback-needed-please, and consulting work, and my own research (which is pretty much permanently on hold right now), and admin, and online teaching. But, instead of being industrious and focused and knocking off the to-dos every day, I do a few things and then tell myself I am too tired to do more, even though it’s barely past lunchtime. I work from about 9.30 until about 2, and then I knit, and scroll through my Twitter feed, and indulge a mild panic about all the work I should be doing but can’t seem to actually make myself do. And then when I do the Big Things, the things that require Thinking, I feel like I have done nothing of any consequence. I don’t quite recognise, or understand, my work self right now.

I feel at a loss as to how to help myself out of this. I find myself longing for some kind of legitimate reason for being so flaky about work, like a mild illness (but not corona, or anything serious). The bronchitis I wrote about the last time I had the energy to blog turned out to be asthma that was out of control and on the wrong meds. I’m on the right meds now, and apart from the odd bad day where my chest is tight and the stairs seem like a mountain, I’m better. So, I can’t actually lie around in my PJs and cough pathetically and have everyone fuss over me. I have to Adult, and work, and be Responsible for All The Things.

I see all over Twitter that I am so not alone. So many people are tired, Zoomed-out, frustrated. My lovely colleagues respond to my apologies for late email replies and requests for extensions with kind emails and Whatsapp notes telling me to be kind to myself, that we are all in the same boat, that this is hard on everyone and it’s okay. But it doesn’t feel okay. It feels like a slippery slope, to me. The more I stop work at 2pm and cite tiredness to myself as a reason, and then follow that with: ‘It’s okay, we can try again tomorrow’ (in a kind voice), the longer my list of work gets, and the greater the likelihood of more emails to students and peers, apologising and asking for more time, and feeling (and looking) like a flake. This is not a feeling I like, and letting people down – even if they are kind about it – is not something I like to do.

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I’ve written posts in the past about how to get yourself out of a funk and get writing, and reading, and thinking again. I know cognitively what I need to do. Take all the tasks and create a realistic daily list. Break it down into small chunks, smaller tasks. Not all the assignments, just 2 at a time. Not all the reading, just a paper at a time. I know all of this. But knowing a thing and being able to do the thing are not always the same thing. External deadlines from people I cannot let down really help, but they skew my list because I end up pushing down other things that have been languishing for too long and need to be finished. I end up feeling a bit flat before I have even started. But start I must, and finish I must.

There’s no moral or magical learning here. Just, solidarity, I suppose. If you, like me, have ennui, and the Mehs, and feel like everyone around you is Adulting like a pro and there you are longing for your PJs at 1pm on a Tuesday afternoon, or harbouring fantasies of spraining a wrist so you legitimately cannot type anything. I don’t think we are all in the same boat. Our boats are very differently filled with kids and families and pets and care work and loneliness and everyone in your space and no one in your space and good wifi and bad wifi and no wifi, and so on. But, we are all in our boats in the same sea, paddling against this strange new tide that is moving us into a really uncertain and unknown future, an uncertain university and learning space, an uncertain job and career space.

Socially distanced boats heading into the unknown; Photo by Humphrey Muleba from Pexels

Take care, be safe, wear a mask, social distance, wash your hands, be kind to others, and hang in there. Perhaps, for now, that’s all we can do; that and get some freaking work done!

Life, me and the PhD: learning to ask for, and accept, help

I have bronchitis, and for the last 2 weeks climbing out of bed to have a shower and change my pyjamas has left me breathless, heart pounding, and just exhausted. I’m getting better, but as this morning’s trial showed, hanging out one load of laundry is very tiring and I’m not at all back at normal speed yet. I have to let people help me do all the things I usually do, like laundry and tidying and managing the kids’ homework. I even have to ask for help with work stuff, or at least for extensions and extra consideration. This is really hard for me. I do not like asking for help, and I quite like doing things a certain way. Letting go of this ‘stuff’ is not easy. So, I have been prompted to reflect a bit on why I find this so hard, and how I could make this easier on myself going forward. Even when I am all better and stronger again, it would probably be good for me to ask for, and accept, help at home and at work.

This is not unlike what my life was like when I was working on my doctorate, or, more recently, my book. It was just not possible to work all day, and then be home and do all the ‘stuff’ – tidying, cooking, kids’ homework and baths and bedtime routines, and then have enough space in my head and energy left over to work on my research and writing, and be effective at all of it and happy. Trying to do it all made me feel so cross and resentful and over it all. Why couldn’t these people just see that I was struggling and HELP ME (preferably without being told to, please and thank you)? Why did I have to tell them I needed help? Wasn’t it obvious?

At the time, I didn’t stop to think much about all of this. I just revelled a bit in my long-suffering crossness and soldiered on. But I got very sick for a long time when I finally submitted my PhD thesis – it was months before I really felt like myself again. And, given my current health situation, I can’t help but wonder at the link between not actually asking for, and accepting, help during the PhD – at work and at home – and the severity and duration of my illness in early 2014. Was there a causal link, and not just a correlation, between trying to be and do everything myself and my resultant health crisis? I think there was, in hindsight. And, I think now that I could have helped myself enormously by not being so bloody-minded about being Wonder Woman.

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There’s a lot I could say here, with help from feminist scholars, about the gendered nature of academic and domestic labour. About how many women academics carry a significant portion of the care burden with students, and spend more time actively worrying about their students’ wellbeing and trying to do something about this; about how many women academics carry a double burden, with a heavy workload at work and at home, filled with expectations about what they ‘should’ be doing and caring about; about how many women academics burn out trying to prove that they are just as worthy of titles and accolades as their male counterparts, in some fields having to work twice as hard to win the same grants and publish in the same journals as men in their labs and departments. I could say so much more, really. The point is that as a woman academic I experienced this odd mix of wanting (needing) help but not wanting to accept it because accepting it meant I couldn’t do it all – especially at work – and doing it all was what I felt I was expected to do to be taken seriously, by myself as much as by my peers. So, I just pushed on, and I burned out.

So, sitting here in bed, trying just to take normal breaths without pain, I am asking myself: how do I not go there again? How do I figure this out a bit better, and actually give myself a freaking break? I think some of this is personal – how I was raised and who I am – but some of this is definitely systemic. A lot of what I expect of myself and what others seem to expect of me is gendered (at least). As a woman and a mother I ‘should’ be doing the cleaning and cooking and caring. At work, I should be focused on teaching and publishing and committee work and engagement. And I should not be complaining about it because that is my job, all of it. And I chose to be a working mother-scholar-teacher-wife, right? I should be able to have it all and do it all, and if I can’t, what’s wrong with me?

I have bought into this in various ways over the years, especially around the mothering stuff. I don’t really cook – Lovely Husband has that covered thank g*d – but I have taken on a lot of the parenting and household stuff I could just as easily have shared, or given over. Silly things, like being the one who had to pack the school lunches and sort out the homework and wash all the laundry, etc. as well as bigger things to do with actually raising our boys. I didn’t share because I worried far too much that things wouldn’t be done exactly the way I wanted them to be done, or the way I would have done them. Now, unable to clean or do laundry without feeling faint, I am having to teach my boys how to sweep a floor or run the washing machine without getting up to correct them or do it ‘properly’. Very little, if any of it, is being done ‘properly’ (i.e. my way), but you know what? We have clothes that are clean, even if they are folded weirdly. And the floors are not super dusty, even if they were swept differently. And the boys are keeping up with their schooling, even though Lovely Husband’s idea of homeschooling is not mine. Things are getting done, even though I am not doing them.

As Lovely Husband said recently, when we were talking about this, the things will get done differently, and sometimes differently is probably worse rather than just different, but you have to think of the trade-off. Have ‘stuff’ done, however it is done, or run yourself ragged trying to do everything ‘properly’ including your research, only to be left feeling invisible, resentful, tired, unhappy? I have to think, now, that I would rather work on letting go of (some of) the ‘stuff’ rather than end up feeling like this both at work and at home. I would rather keep trying to just let people help me, and say thank you instead of correcting their help, than end up feeling alone and put-upon. This is hard work, I think, for many of us. It might mean that your kids leave the house in non-colour coordinated clothes, or with a skew ponytail or weirdly brushed hair; it might mean that the clothes are folded differently or the pillows on the bed are skew, or the chicken dinner tastes different. But, your kids will be fine. Your pillows and clothes will be fine, and your tummy will be full.

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Learning to let go is not just about making more time in your head and your life for your PhD or whatever research you are working on. It’s about learning to make space and time for yourself, and to put your own mental and physical health higher on your list of priorities. Not asking for help and flogging yourself to the point of exhaustion is not actually a sign of strength. It just hurts you, and for many women, perpetuates a very gendered division of labour, both at home and at work, that I think we all need to be conscious and critical of so that we can challenge and change this. This is perhaps especially vital now as this pandemic has thrown so many imbalances and injustices into sharp relief, and so many women are battling to get space, and support, and time for themselves and their work.

So, this is my current learning: how to just let Lovely Husband and our boys help in whatever way they are able to, appreciate that help, and let go of the ‘stuff’ that, at the end of the day, is not as important as I am, and as my health is. This frees me up to expend what energy I do have on things that I think are important right now, like student feedback, revising my book, writing a report that is due soon, and cuddling the boys when they’ll let me. I hope that when I am stronger I will not revert to being this Wonder Woman-person, trying to do and be and have it all. The search for that balance is ongoing though, so who knows? But, I’m optimistic :-).

Taking a break: how long is long enough (or too long)?

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.

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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.

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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!

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