We all need a break every now and again—a hiatus from work or our daily routine, or just a chance to refresh after a particularly busy period in our lives. This might mean taking a short leave away from the office, a couple weeks away from hobbies, workouts, or extracurricular activities, or temporarily putting aside a project that’s taking up too much time.
Navigating the delicate balance between life and work is a crucial part of avoiding burn-out, the exhaustion you fell when you’ve worked too hard and have been too stressed for too long. But while stepping away and taking a break when things get too hectic seems obvious, it’s not as easy to pull yourself back into the swing of things again after taking a break, especially for any work or activities that go beyond your “normal” 9–5 workload.
If you get used to skipping the gym due to a busy week filled with deadlines, it becomes easier to think of an excuse after you’ve been away for so long. If I go to spin class tonight, I’ll be the only one who’s slow and out of shape. I’ll ease into it and go next week instead….
When you step away from a side project that was a lower priority, it can be hard to find the motivation to pick it back up again. Wasn’t I still looking for a few references for the introduction? And waiting for comments from Prof. So-And-So? Well, it’s not worth my time to pick that up again until I hear back from him, then I’ll make a start at finding those references when I’m not so worn out from this grant application…
I’ve also been guilty of making these excuses. In April, I tested for a first-degree black belt in tae kwon do after three months of intense training sessions and travelling to regional pre-testing lessons across northern England. I then spent a rather sweaty Saturday afternoon doing the actual testing in Bristol. At the same time, there were a large number of projects going on at work—I was promoted in April and was quickly given numerous new responsibilities that made my days much more intense than before. My winter and early spring was dominated by commuting, working, training, training, and training some more.
During this busy time, I had ideas for posts I wanted to write, but the thought of trying to draft a post and having to do all the other things that my life required made me anxious. I told myself it was a good time to take a step back and that I deserved to take a break from my extracurricular writing.
As the lack of posts since January shows, I did take a break. But now, making our way into August, I soon found that the problem was figuring out how to end the break.
I managed to get through my busy winter and spring, but now that summer is here I’ve found that I am still working on getting back into my writing rhythm. Even after all was said and done, I was still stuck in this mindset of needing a break and telling myself that I was ‘too busy’ to do anything else.
We’ve discussed before on this blog about the importance of taking breaks, but for 2018’s Year of Empowerment, I want to shift the focus towards how you can come away from a break and hit the ground running. I certainly can’t profess to be an expert given my lack of posts in recent months, but hopefully you can learn from my own experience and can become better equipped for when you find yourself short on personal motivation:
Use your Internal Dialogue
Getting in shape is difficult. After finding myself getting tired very quickly during tournament sparring, I started training every other Sunday with my club and focused on increasing my short-burst stamina with treadmill sprints and jump rope. But even with being in better shape, I still find times when I get worn out and I feel like I can’t push myself any further.
What’s important to remember, whether you’re doing research or taking a spin class, is that tiredness is a mindset that feeds off itself. If you tell yourself “I’m tired, I can’t do it anymore,” you’ll believe it. If, however, you shift that inner dialogue to say “Keep pushing through” or “You’re almost there,” you’ll be more likely to find that extra bit of energy you need. It’s the technique that I now use for my own training—instead of letting the tiredness take over, I tell myself “It’s only a 2-minute round.” or “Only 30 seconds more at this speed. Keep going.”
When you feel like you’ve hit a wall and need a break or are struggling to get out of a dip in your motivation, try shifting your inner dialogue by talking to yourself in a positive way. Don’t tell yourself that you’re too busy to try something, but rather tell yourself that pushing yourself through this stage will lead you to a paper, to being in better shape, or to winning a grant (or a tournament). Picture yourself as having opportunities to achieve even more instead of being too tired from what you’ve already done.
Keep an Eye on Your Personal Goals
You can’t be motivated if you’re just forging ahead blindly. Go back to the goals you set for yourself for the year, the semester, or the month, and let your personal ambitions motivate you to go that extra step. You can then shift the focus from feeling like you have to do something to recognizing that the extra work you do now will pay off in the long-term.
If you made goals for 2018, revisit your annual to-do list. Are you on track with your goals? If not, what can you do to forge ahead? What’s the most important thing (or two) for you to achieve this year, semester, or month? How will you feel once you achieve the goal?
Not all work that we do will feel satisfying immediately, and there is a lot of work that simply has to be done without us receiving immediate benefit. Instead, focus on your long-term goals and let them drive you forward.
Start Small and Structured
Start small and have clear and immediate goals. Work on a review paper for 20 minutes a day or 250 words a week. Go to the gym two times a week instead of zero times a week. Try to finish one additional experiment beyond your monthly plan instead of diving in to finish them all.
By starting small, you can work on finding your rhythm slowly instead of diving straight your the routine without any practice. You’ll also find how quickly the word counts increase and your motivation improves with just a small amount of progress on a daily or weekly basis.
No matter how good or how self-motivated you are, none of us can do it all on our own. One study found that when our peers or people we look up to share videos and photos with their personal achievements in fitness, their personal struggles with working out, and how they’ve managed to progress, we are more likely to work more on our own fitness. We find inspiration from our friends, family, and celebrities, and having positive people in our lives can help us find the motivation to go after our own goals and ambitions.
So whether it’s a weekly coffee with a mentor in your office or following The Rock on Instagram, find an external source of coaching and inspiration. Talk to your friends about what you want to achieve and focus on telling them what the end result will look and feel like. Once you convinced them of your worthy goal, let their enthusiasm carry you through all the tough work it will take. You’ll most likely find that there are plenty of people who are rooting for you!
Life has a way of never really getting less busy, and finding the balance between life, work, and everything in between is a skill that requires flexibility and perspective. Researchers who understand the importance of taking a step away from their work will be rewarded by it, both personally and professionally. But even more importantly, if you can find the rhythm that lets you step into and out of your routine as necessary, you’ll be able to navigate the ebb and flow of your work-life balance with even greater efficacy.
That being said, it’s high time to jump straight back into this Year of Empowerment—stay tuned during the remainder of the year for more posts on finding inspiration and motivation and, equally important, becoming a source of that inspiration to others. Until then, time for a quick break from the blog to enjoy this summer’s heat-wave. But only a short one, we promise!