Student Life

On Mini Burn Out and Taking Breaks

(Image largely unrelated but snapped on one of my dawn walks this week)

Recently I had a bit of a shift in my academic mindset so thought it was the perfect time to take stock and share a few recent reflections I’ve had in regards to burn out and rest.

I keep a daily study journal, nothing fancy, just a few notes at the end of each day to log my progress, and I noticed in the first few days of April my entries had become shorter, less inspired, more grey. For a few days I’d felt stuck and a little bit listless. I love my research topic and my first few weeks of studying have been incredible rewarding, so I felt even more frustrated as this sudden change. Why was I no longer racing to my desk first thing in the morning? Why did I feel like nothing I read was taking root in my brain? Why were no ideas percolating?

It worried me, if I’m honest, and I had a brief panic that perhaps my passion for my topic had fizzled out. What if my ideas were gone for good? What if my topic was too simple and there just wasn’t enough to it to form a thesis? For a couple of days these intrusive thoughts rattled around and I found myself pulling back from my studies. I felt guilty, though, so I didn’t do much of anything else either. I didn’t feel like I’d done enough work to reward myself with time off for fun things, so I mostly sighed and floated around the house like the ghost of a Victorian child, burdened with ennui.

On perhaps day three of this listless existence I appealed to academic Twitter for help – and they delivered within moments! I tagged @AcademicChatter and double bagged my plea with #AcademicChatter for good measure, and by the time I’d refreshed my feed I already had a response. Throughout the next couple of hours, I received advice and solidarity from academics all around the world and, honestly, it left me a bit teary – another surefire sign I needed to take a break. The overwhelming advice was to down tools and rest. Properly. Not just a day off, a week or more to properly unwind and recharge my batteries.

At first I felt a little hesitant. Was it lazy to take a break when I’d already found my productivity grinding to a halt? Would more time off just make it worse, put me further behind, disengage my brain even more? I took their advice, despite my reservations. After all, what’s the use in asking for advice if you have no intentions of following it? And what had my wallowing while denying myself actual rest achieved? Nothing. So I took the plunge and decided to take a fortnight off (which happily coincided with my partner’s break over the Easter holidays), during which there would be no studying and, most importantly, no guilt.

I’m now ten days into my fourteen day break and, praise be, I’m absolutely chomping at the bit to get back to studying. I’ve played more hours of Stardew Valley than should be humanly possible, I watched my way through at least half of my list of last year’s horror films, I’ve gone for dawn walks and foraged wild garlic for cheesy garlic scones, I’ve planted potatoes, I’ve had garden picnics, I’ve read for nothing but pleasure, and I’ve had a lot of slow, slow mornings with nothing but a coffee and a vinyl for company. It’s been absolutely lovely, hugely restorative, and a massive learning experience. As my partner pointed out, if I was on a taught MA I’d very likely have taken these two weeks off so why should the fact I’m on a research degree mean I work through holidays? If I’d tried to force myself to keep working I imagine the last two weeks would have been made up of aimless wafting and guilting myself for ‘being lazy’ when what I really needed was time off.

I’m actually glad this happened so early on in my research studies. Now I know the telltale signs that I need a break, I can hopefully nip things in the bud much earlier on and make sure I schedule in regular breaks and days off to recharge. It’s taught me the importance of thinking time and that good ideas can’t be rushed, even more so that good ideas can’t take root if you don’t give them time to develop. I’m incredibly grateful for all the advice people sent me on Twitter (and for @AcademicChatter for sharing my plea for help) – proving once again that academics are a lovely bunch.

I’d love to know what your attitude towards breaks is – do you schedule in regular short breaks or prefer a longer holiday every so often? Do you plan your breaks in advance or wait until your mind tells you it needs some time off? Any advice or tips about taking breaks for mental clarity are welcome and appreciated!

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