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Lessons From a Road Trip

Sometimes you need to take a detour, slow down, and appreciate where you are in order to refocus on where you’re going.

November 4, 2018

Elizabeth Dunn is a Ph.D. student in Information Science at the University of North Texas. She also works as an administrator and adjunct faculty instructor at Tarleton State University in Stephenville,Texas.

A couple of months ago I received a group Facebook message from two of my girlfriends. We had all lived in central Indiana at one time, but we were now scattered across the country and hadn’t seen each other in several years. They wanted to plan a girls weekend back home in Indiana at the end of October so we could all attend the Covered Bridge Festival. While being a grad student isn’t always conducive to spontaneity, I quickly (and without much thought) accepted their offer and proceeded to plan the getaway.

About two weeks before my departure, I began to panic. I was teaching a course that began mid-semester, right as I returned. Of course, there were other work and school obligations and deadlines as well. I was about to back out of the trip.

One afternoon while all of this was going on, I texted my boyfriend, Nick, and expressed my concerns. His response: “I support your decision either way, but just remember that you only live once.” (Cool concept, but if you’re a grad student, YOLO probably doesn’t fit into your schedule.)

In the big picture, I knew he was probably right, but I was still majorly conflicted. I decided to plan my workload over the next couple of weeks strategically and carefully to see how things went. When it came time to leave - miraculously - I was in a good position to go. So go I did, and, quite honestly, the trip was exactly what I needed.

Here’s why taking a mini-vacation was good for me, and could be good for you as well:

Give yourself time for a reset. I laughingly coined this trip my “Mid-Semester Mental Break (before a mental breakdown).” Being all work all the time is not sustainable, and, frankly, it is no fun at all. While grad school does require a serious commitment, breaks actually help you be more productive in the long run. In fact, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh’s Mind-Body Center found that leisure activities really do improve health, reduce stress, and help you to find more satisfaction in life.

Make time for the people you care about. I hadn’t seen my girlfriends in five years, and our conversations during that time had been sparse at best. They’d each had two babies since our last meeting, along with other major life events. I realized that I needed to do a better job staying in touch and making friendships a priority, even if I only had time for coffee, a quick note to say hello, or a text message. This is especially important in graduate school, which can be socially isolating. Friendships are vital to your overall health; in fact, science suggests that friendships may become even more important to your well-being as you age.

Change up your routine. For a couple of days during my 2,225 mile journey across the United States, I didn’t think about work or grad school. I stayed in a quaint bed and breakfast and had conversations with dear friends that I now only get to talk to on occasion. I slept in later and stayed up later. I allowed myself to eat what I wanted. That is not my usual routine. Surprisingly, when the trip was over, I felt energized about returning to my schedule and completing the second half of the semester. It turns out that changing up my routine had given me new inspiration. Interestingly, changing up your routine even has benefits to creativity and critical thinking.

See something different. Research actually shows that traveling can reduce stress, and this benefit may linger for weeks after the trip ends. While traveling east across Interstate 44 in Missouri, for example, I was detoured due to road construction. I ended up following detour signs for about an hour on a two lane road winding through the hills. Aggravated at first by the detour that delayed my ETA, as I drove, I began to notice a positive shift in my mindset. Restricted to 55 mph, I was able to appreciate the sight of lush green grass and peacefully grazing cows against a backdrop of orange, yellow, and red. The scenery was a beautiful and quiet contrast to the hectic nature of my daily life. Perhaps the detour foreshadowed the lesson of the trip—sometimes you need to take a detour to slow down and appreciate where you are as well as where you’re going.

Maybe Nick was right. You do only live once, but often it is hard to squeeze in time for relaxation and fun. One of the biggest lessons I learned from this trip was that I need to give myself permission to make time for a break. With lots of proper planning, a little bit of luck, and a pinch of spontaneity, you can give yourself the space to recharge. The work will be waiting upon your return, but you’ll be in a mindset to handle the challenges.

A road trip and some time with friends helped me to re-energize and refocus. What kind of experiences or practices help you to find renewed motivation? Let us know about them in the comments section!

[Image courtesy of the author.]


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