With Summer upon us I wanted to reflect on the importance of taking breaks and using your annual leave. Many of us feel a constant pressure to be doing work and don’t feel there is time, let alone a good time, to take a break or annual leave. This leads to burnout and those days where you can’t get up in the morning, or you sit in-front of your computer, but nothing comes out, which cascades into guilt for not doing work and increases your stress- not a healthy scenario for anyone. Doing a Ph.D. or MRes is a unique experience and, unfortunately, one that you can’t leave at the office. Try as you might to not think about work, it always seems to be at the back of your mind, either you’re trying to find the best way to present your story, or you’re feeling guilty for watching TV.
But what can be done? Surely there’s no time for breaks or leave with all this work I have to do!?
I would like to argue you don’t have time NOT to take breaks and annual leave. Hear me out!
1. The importance of Sleep
Ah sleep, that elusive state you miss as much as you miss your mom doing your washing. Sleep is essential for human function. During sleep our brains solidify and consolidate memories, making sense of what information was gathered during the day and moving memories from short-term to long-term storage, as well as ‘clearing’ memories that the brain deems unimportant (for the tech-savvy among you, think about it like a computer clearing it’s RAM so it can function faster). The body restores and rejuvenates itself, while growing muscle, repairing tissue and synthesizing hormones. Research shows people who sleep before tests retain more information and perform better on memory tasks. Sleep deprivation leads to problems with maintaining attention, problem solving and decision making. Can you really afford not to sleep? Is there anything that you can do without from that list? mmmmhhhmmm……my point exactly
2. Creative thinking
Who here has been singing in the shower when DING DING DING! A light bulb goes on, you have a flash of pure brilliance and say to yourself “Einstein got nothin’ on me!”? Ok…but you know what I mean…😳 Being in the shower brings together the 3 components necessary for creative thinking, 1) dopamine, 2) being relaxed, and 3) being distracted. Dopamine is one of the neurotransmitters that is widely used in the brain, playing a role in movement, as well as reward and what psychologists call ‘incentive salience’ or, in lay-terms, choosing what to pay attention to. Its release can be triggered by exercising, listening to music, being in the shower, or engaging in activities that make you happy. Being in a relaxed state means your attention isn’t focused on a complicated task and allows your mind to wander and process information. Being distracted gives your brain a break, allowing the subconscious to work through information while also allowing it to come to the surface and our conscious thoughts. This is why ‘shower thoughts’ of brilliance happen! In the shower we are happy because we like the feeling of hot water raining on us, we are relaxed because hot water and bathing are relaxing things, and we are distracted from our work because we are focusing on washing ourselves! Similar activities could be walking, knitting, reading, or completing a jigsaw puzzle (you want to pick something you enjoy but doesn’t need too much attention). Don’t think you need creative thinking to do your thesis? uh huh….
So far, I’ve talked about sleep and how to encourage creative thoughts. Please note neither of these activities happen while sitting at your desk! Obviously, theses don’t write themselves, so sitting at your desk and doing old fashioned work is needed, but like raw onions when you’re on a date, everything in moderation. You need to do work to have things to think about, make connections, problem solve and retain during sleep. The key is to strike a balance that works for you. There are many steps to complete during your thesis, and some parts will be heavier on creative thinking versus work. While maintaining healthy sleep habits should always be a priority, during data analysis you may find you need more processing time than time sitting at your desk, this is good and shouldn’t make you feel guilty.
3. Planning your work and breaks
Planning your work and breaks will help you to feel in control and positive about what you accomplish. Think about the work you have to do and place it in hard, medium, or easy categories. Easy could mean finding papers for your literature review (google searches, reading abstracts), medium could be critically appraising those papers (full text read and extracting information), while hard could be finding the links between the papers and understanding the overall message from the literature. Try to mix and match categories to stop yourself getting too tired. If you’re analysing data in the morning, maybe update your references in the afternoon- you’re still working, and easier tasks like references are essential to your thesis, but they don’t take up as much brain power as writing or analysing. Organising in a way that suits your circadian rhythm (daily cycle) for alertness so that the ‘easy’ things are in periods when you’re normally less alert, whilst the ‘hard’ one is when you’re usually most alert is a great way to be even more efficient with this organisation.
Breaks are essential for our mental and physical health. Try to take a lunch break not at your desk. Along with the habit of not doing anything but sleeping in your bed, try to make your desk a work-only area. Moving will also relax and distract your mind while getting your blood pumping. Short breaks are great as they revive you while not allowing enough time for motivation to decrease. Different methods have been suggested, such as the ‘Pomodoro Method’ of 25mins on, 5mins off or the ‘Muse-Method’ of 52mins on 17mins off.
Picking the best break for you will take time and reflection. If you take the morning off, will you actually do work in the afternoon? Are you a more efficient worker if you work with lots of small breaks or have one big break midday? Take the time to learn how you work best and find the schedule that suits you. Not taking breaks leads to fatigue, burnout, loss of motivation and interest and before you know it you haven’t showered in a week and you’re sharing your pot noodle with Clarence, the spider in your room that’s your new best friend…ain’t nobody got time for that!
4. Taking annual leave
Larger breaks, long weekends and week breaks are needed and should be taken. Longer breaks give us time to find a deeper level of relaxation and enjoy life (spoiler, life’s not all about work!). Taking time to travel, see family, friends or tell everyone you’re away while you’re really at home playing video games represents me-time and allows your body to re-energize, gain perspective and come back to work with energy, motivation and focus. Annual leave can be planned into your schedule easily, gives you something to look forward to, and is essential for surviving your degree.
- Sleep is essential for memory, retaining information, problem solving and attention
- Creative thinking needs Dopamine, relaxation and distraction, try singing in the shower!
- Find your balance with work, sleep and thinking time.
- Plan your work and breaks so you feel in control!
- Make the time to look after yourself, you’re the only you we’re got and you’re worth it!
Becky Seymour is a 3rd year PhD student studying the FGM in the postpartum period. During her breaks she enjoys waking, reading and developing her theory of how ants will one day rule the world.