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’?
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.
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!