How to make a fulfilling break: Using your time away from work to achieve a better work-life balance
People like to comment to me about how much I travel, asking where I’m jet-setting off to this weekend and if I ever stay at home. I’m not sure how to respond sometimes. Most of the time I’m proud of all the places I get to see and things I get to do, but occasionally the comments make me think that I travel a bit too much. This feeling is greatly enhanced by the irony that this week’s post is currently being written from a hotel room in Dublin on a RyanAir-enabled weekend away from home (with flights so cheap, why not?). While marking off cities and countries from my massive travel to do list is something of an obsession of mine, it’s also one of the major ways I unwind. Spending an afternoon wandering the side streets of a new city on the look-out for hidden cafes and photo-worthy architecture or scarfing down a ham and cheese sandwich on the summit of a hike are things I greatly enjoy. More importantly, these adventures, both big and small, help me unwind when I’ve been twisted and my tightened by stress, responsibilities, and the daily grind. Traveling allows me to rebuild my respective, refreshes me, and leaves me feeling ready to tackle my work's problem when I get back home.
So often as PhD students, post-docs, and senior academics, we feel like we just can’t take a break, as if something just has to be done right away. While there certainly are moments when deadlines and teaching commitments and emails pile on us endlessly, a lot of the ‘academic guilt’ comes during times when our workload is at more of a steady state. We very easily let ourselves fall into this mental trap, in which we think we should be doing something at every given moment: reading/writing a paper or getting lab results analyzed or trying to find a date for that continually-rescheduled meeting with your collaborators. Academic guilt is necessary, to some extent, for academic life to function, since a full-fledged academic is essentially their own boss and has no one to tell them during the day when they need to get back to the grind. At the same time, too much urgency can be a hindrance both to our productivity and to our work-life balance. For those of us working in academia, it's crucially important to balance our work with our personal lives, using well-timed breaks coupled with periods of sustained work. Scientists seem to be pretty good at the periods of sustained work part, but can be terrible at the well-timed breaks part.
The key with taking breaks (and not feeling guilty about it) is to make each break a fulfilling one, one that leaves you energized for the rest of the day or week ahead. There are many effortless alternatives to working, as any Tumblr and Netflix binger knows all too well, but simply not working is not always a fulfilling break. In order to have a fulfilling break, one where you come back to your problem with a clear mind and a go-get-it attitude, you should use your free time to purposefuly unwind, unthink, un-everything. We all need moments to scroll through the vast wasteland of the Internet or to watch our favorite TV series with a glass (or three) of wine, but in order to come back to work the next day or after the weekend ready to tackle what you left unfinished, your free time can’t be spent with only these types of breaks.
A break can be a large one or a small one, maybe a lunch outside on a sunny day or a Saturday out with friends instead of working on that experiment that just ‘has’ to get done. Whatever your schedule and needs are, a fulfilling break should enable you to do the following things:
- Step back and see the bigger picture of what you’re doing and why you’re stressed about it. If there’s a hard deadline for a paper resubmission or grant application, it’s easy to see why getting things done for that time is stressful. But what about those moments when you feel rushed but don’t really have an explanation? A lot of the times that we feel stressed, we may not even know why and there may not be a concrete reason for it, or we might be making a mountain out of a molehill. Many people respond to stress by working, even when the stress originates from some other part of our life and issues outside the lab. Maybe your 10-year high school reunion is coming up, where you know all your classmates will ask what you’ve been up to for the past 10 years, which somehow triggers your memory into remembering that you didn’t work on that manuscript for a few weeks, and then, What have I DONE with my life, why didn't I just get a 'normal job' like all my other classmates, and also why do I have nothing to wear to the reunion? At times like this, its important to take a breath and consider whether getting more data points is really the solution for addressing what may be some bigger issue that has nothing to do with your research. At times like this, that weekend trip to the lake or an evening drink with friends instead of working nonstop can give you a better perspective on your life, your stresses, and the necessity of stepping back and taking a deep breath now and then.
- Let your mind refocus when you run into problems. Problems in science tend to require a lot of focus to figure out. Why did all my cells die? Why am I getting this error message while running the data processing script that was working perfectly 2 days ago? Staying focused is good, but if you stare at something for too long you’ll lose your sight along the periphery. You can easily end up banging your head against a problem trying to throw everything you have at it, only later to recognize the solution while walking out of the building three hours later. Taking a step back from a problem, difficult or simple, is a good strategy because it gives you a chance to think about all the components of what you’re working on instead of the one thing that’s giving you trouble. Often times the solution was a simple one, maybe you forgot to add serum to your media or you saved your data file as a different format. Taking a break at the moments when you get the most frustrated can help allow your brain to get to those ‘a-ha!’ moments of remembrance and insight that can’t come when you’re staring a problem in the face and letting it get you flustered.
- Let your brain disconnect from work, as much as it can. It’s difficult to unwire ourselves completely from our work, especially with those 11pm emails from your advisor asking what you’ve been up to in the lab for the past week. As hard as it may be, work on setting aside a part of your day and your week when you don’t check emails or work on the pile of data/papers you brought home. This gives your week more structure that you can fill with a fulfilling break, knowing that you won’t have to be bothered by some science emergency (which usually ends up not being a real emergency at all). Professors do tend to send emails at odd hours, perhaps due to their own odd life-balance, but likely it's because they just enjoy science that much and want to know what you're doing. It's both full-time work and hobby for some, but remember that you don’t have to reply to every one of their emails instantly. Most likely they’re releasing a barrage of emails to all their collaborators and students at once when they have a free moment, so don’t always feel like you’re being singled out.
- Have Internet-free moments. In the wired workplace especially, this goes hand-in-hand with disconnecting from work. Whether it’s during the work week or on the weekends, take some time to unplug from your laptop/tablet/phone/whatever. Go to a museum with a friend, take a long walk somewhere new in your town, or go out to dinner and leave your phone on airplane mode. It’s hard to unplug when you have the world in your pocket 24/7, so when you have moments where you can enjoy the moment, be sure to do so.
- Take time to focus on a different problem/idea/concept/activity. While binging on the internet and Netflix can help us disconnect, it’s not always the best way to focus away from work. We can get good at multi-tasking, watching TV at the same time as checking our phones or reading a paper. So make your brain take a break by thinking about something else. Read a Sherlock Holmes story and see if you can figure out the case before he does, dig our your oil pastels from your high school art class, learn how to say ‘the turtle drinks milk’ in a different language, or call your grandma and ask her if she has any extra knitting needles. Whatever suits your style, find something that you’ll enjoy doing that provides an external focal point for your brain, something that’s not as easy to let professor emails and thoughts of your next experiment slip in without you being ready to tackle them at your desk the next day.
To find your ideal fulfilling break, all you have to do is look for something that fits your style, something that helps building you up when you’re feeling down and that unwinds your knots when you’re twisted around. My fulfilling breaks come both from travel and from tae kwon do. Both give me a reason to not check my phone for emails for blocks of time. Both give me things to focus on, like figuring out which trail or street to follow or remembering all the moves in my pattern. Both make me feel happy when I’m done (even though I may be physically exhausted from endless walking or kicking, depending on the activity), and that good feeling reflects back on the rest of my life and my work. Both take time away from when I could be reading papers or analyzing data, but when I do come back to work I feel like I have energy and take on those tasks with more fervor than if I just trudged through them constantly. I can also enjoy both at different time scales: tae kwon do is there twice a week to finish off a day in the lab, and travel is there on the weekends to clear my mind after a busy week (or two).
There are also strategies you can use to relax during the work day to keep yourself from feeling like you’re banging your head against a problem or when you fall into a pit of unproductivity:
- Take a walk. This is especially good for those of us that spend most of our day at a computer. You’ve likely already heard the lecture on taking a break from staring at your computer monitor so you don’t go cross-eyed, but stepping away from your monitor is also good for a quick 5-10 minute mental unwinding at work. If you feel yourself being unproductive or opening a few extra tabs of buzzfeed articles, take a walk somewhere in your lab building or make an excuse for a short walk around campus. A trip to the corner store or a lap around your building gives your eyes a chance to re-focus on the world and can let your brain think about the idea or problem you’re working on when you don’t have it staring you back in the face.
- Have a fika. No, its not a new Science with Style candy bar (although that could be a good way to pay for the URL registration). ‘Fika’ is a Swedish word/concept which means ‘to have coffee’, but it’s more than just a way to get some extra caffeine. Fika is having a break with colleagues, friends, or family, and if you work in Sweden then you’ll even have a dedicated break time during your work day. It’s a time when you socialize but also to take a step away from your work for a few set moments of your day. You may not get a set time off from work (or have any fikabröds to go with your coffee) but you can start your own fika trend with office mates or lab mates and bring some of that Scandinavian culture to your own daily schedule (IKEA mugs and blåbär juice are a great fika starter kit, and tea is an appropriate substitute for those who prefer their caffeine from other sources).
The hardest part about taking a break is that there are times when we feel like we just can’t. When we feel anxious about getting something done or that something MUST be figured out right away. The thing about a career in science is that it’s not an easy job to have. A lot of the answers are unknown and won’t always come to you easily, especially if you’re in an endless staring contest with them. Recognizing where your stresses come from as well as recognizing when you’re stuck can help you not only figure out what you can do to feel better but also to move forward with a problem and be more productive with your work. Any job, and science especially, comes with a lot of external pressures and stressors, but staying focused on the bigger picture of your world can help you face the stresses that you have to face and keep at bay the ones that you make for yourself.
And now as this post is ready for some editorial wrap-ups, I can feel free to wander the streets of Dublin again before my flight back home and another week of work. Before taking my 313th flight (yes, I’ve counted the total number of flights I’ve been on in my life. Everyone needs a hobby!), I’ll pop over to the Porterhouse brewery to enjoy some Irish music and a final pint, knowing that I’ve crafted a decent post to self-validate my incessant need for travelling. But while there’s still free wi-fi, I might look into the weekend flight prices to Prague in the autumn, as I’ve heard that Czech beer (and sightseeing) is divine!