Leslie Leonard is a Ph.D. candidate in American literature and American studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. You can follow her on twitter @lesliemleo.
As graduate students, we often navigate the difficulties of simultaneously existing as students, employees, instructors, academics and writers, as well as a number of other working identities. As a result, stepping away from one type of work for the day (done with teaching!) often simply means turning to another aspect of work (now it’s time to write …). With so many different hats to wear, it can feel like we never get the chance to step away from our identities as academics, and, as a result, it can feel like we’re always at work, even when we’re not.
“Gradhacker” has hosted articles on everyday ways to incorporate self-care into your life and how to battle burnout with larger lifestyle changes like eating better and sleeping longer. Here, however, I want to focus on a particular type of self-care -- the necessity of stepping away from work altogether.
Be Done for the Day
This step is perhaps the most necessary (and maybe difficult) for academics without clearly defined work schedules. It can be all too tempting to mindlessly check your email while making dinner or jot down some important dissertation notes as you brush your teeth. Unfortunately, without hard divisions between work and downtime, you’ll quickly burn yourself out, feeling (rightly) that you’ve always got work on the brain.
While it’s true that our work seems to demand a sort of constant vigilance (lest good ideas slip away), it’s important to remember that our work is just work, and, like any other job, it’s important to know when to clock out. Whether you set a hard time limit for yourself (no work after 6 p.m.), take a few days off per week or limit your work to only times when you’re on campus, it’s important to not let your job(s) as an academic, researcher and instructor become your entire life. I suggest choosing a time of day to tell yourself, “I am done for today,” and then being consistent in not working after you have said that you’re done, no matter the circumstances. Nothing constitutes so much of an emergency that it cannot wait until the next morning.
Have Firm Boundaries
One way to help yourself feel finished for the day is to set clear boundaries about what you’re willing to engage with and when, including social media, books and TV. For instance, if your Twitter is mostly filled with academic chatter, then it’s still work adjacent and needs to be quarantined with other work-related activities. Having real time off from work means being present in what you’re currently doing and not allowing work to take up valuable space in your head (thinking about work still counts as working!).
Make sure that you have significant amounts of time every single day where you aren’t engaging with work at all. One strategy that I’ve found particularly useful is to physically say “no” when I find my thoughts drifting to teaching, grading, writing or any other on-the-clock topics during my self-designated off hours and then to turn my thoughts immediately to something (anything) else. Your emails, your good ideas, your drafts and your workload will still be there when you clock in again (I promise). As graduate students (and people) we need and deserve to have real time off.
Get a Hobby
“Gradhacker’s” excellent article “Life Outside the Lab” explains how developing hobbies beyond work can directly benefit you on the job market, but it’s important to have diverse interests even if they never come up in conversation. If work is an all-encompassing aspect of your life, then when you feel bad about your work, you can end up feeling bad about yourself as well, since so much of your time, energy and perceived worth are tied to it. Hobbies can help you remember that you’re a complete human being with a life and personality beyond your work.
Feeling bad about your writing? You can still keep a plant alive, or hike, color or make a mean cup of coffee, and remembering all of the things you enjoy or do well can become points of refuge to keep you sane while reminding you that you’re a person outside work. Even better, hobbies can become a space to meet new friends outside academia altogether. Whether it's local Meetup groups focused around events like hiking and kayaking, the local gardening club, or the weekly mah-jongg group at the public library, having a space full of friendly faces that are totally separate from school can be a lifesaving support system when work becomes too much.
Nurture Other Relationships
As we all know, it can sometimes be difficult to see the world outside campus, and we can forget about the potential or existing meaningful relationships available there. Meetups, hobbies and community events that take place off campus can be great opportunities for meeting people who share interests with you outside work. Having a diverse social circle helps ensure that your mind (and conversation) aren’t always work focused and that you have the necessary support structures outside academia.
While it can be frustrating to have friends, family and loved ones who don’t fully understand your work, it can also be an intense relief to have people who love and support you for you, completely separate from your accomplishments or failures in your field. Furthermore, having support structures outside academia can help take some of the pressure off, as it lets you keep one foot firmly planted outside of the ivory tower and provides some necessary perspective. Nervous about meeting a “famous” academic at an upcoming conference? Your Frisbee friends have no clue who that is.
Whether it’s taking necessary time just for you and your partner, building meaningful relationships with people outside academia, or even just letting family members remind you that life keeps happening off campus, opening yourself up to a life beyond work is a rewarding and healthy endeavor.
How have you distanced yourself from work in healthy ways?