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How to take quality rest and downtime

Do you struggle to allow yourself to take time out as a graduate student, academic or in life after the academy?  I’m sure you’re not alone. But as discussed in my recent blog post more hours does not always mean more productivity in academia or at work. Time out can reduce stress and burn out, increase productivity.

How many times have you taken a break only to realise that you are still thinking/worrying about your work? Or you’ve taken time off to do all those little tasks on your to-do list, rather than really rest and recharge?

Whilst the concept of taking time out might seem simple, it can actually be very hard to take quality time out.

Rest is like a skill set we need to develop. We also to shift our mindset (i.e. create a rest mindset). The more thinking about work in our down-time, the harder it becomes for us to separate work from personal time. This makes it harder for us to take quality time off. As a PhD student, academic, or post-ac, there is always more you could be doing. More work, more teaching prep, more reading, more writing, more networking. The list goes on.

We need to learn to detach.

Psychological detachment

An important component of creating a resting mindset is psychological detachment from work, a term coined by Sabine Sonnentag. She defines psychological detachment as a “state in which people mentally disconnect from work and do not think about job-related issues when they are away from their job”. Psychological detachment from work appears to be an important factor in helping to protect employee well-being and work engagement.

Letting go of an achievement mindset

As a current or former graduate student, you probably like to focus on outcomes and achievements. Letting go of this way of thinking is hard but it can help you have quality time off/rest. Take time out without a bigger goal in mind. (But also know that you are doing yourself and your work a favour). Second, don’t focus on the outcome of resting itself. When you focus on the fact that you need to rest you’ll stress yourself out and the opposite will happen! If you want to enter the resting mindset try to let go of a goal-oriented mentality. That includes approaching ‘feeling rested’ as an achievement.

Here are 6 tips/tools to help you detach and improve the quality of your rest/time out.

1. Create a list of activities

It can be useful to create a list of go-to ideas for how to spend your time away from work. Whenever you want to take a break you know you have a selection of activities to choose from. This can help you avoid reaching for your phone, procrastinating or doing chores.

2. Make a plan and make your time out intentional

Good rest has to be intentional.

As a graduate student, it can be hard to detach from work. The same is true when you are building your career/business and are passionate about your work. Time out will not just happen. You have to schedule it in and make it an intention to take time away from work.

You don’t need to create a strict plan, and it’s good to be able to go with the flow and take breaks when as and when you need. But it can be helpful to know at what point of your day or week you’re more likely to get a chance to take time out. Then you can schedule things for then.

3. Make your downtime mindful and set an intention

Try asking yourself what you want to get out of your downtime (without being too fixated on achievement!). Set an intention for your time off.

Your intention might also revolve around an activity. If you have been feeling stressed about the clutter in your room/workspace you could use your time out to tidy up.

Although you might have a list of activities to choose from (see above), be mindful about which activities are going to be best for you on that given day/in that moment.

Knowing what you want from your time off means you are more likely to get it. It can help you avoid procrastinating or scrolling through social media. Being more intentional/mindful will help you do things that meet your needs

4. Set boundaries – personal and digital.

Don’t use the time away from work to do your to-do list, unless that will serve your needs, as discussed above. Even then, find a balance between using time off to do tasks that serve you, and taking time to read, sit, rest, exercise.

To get this quality time to yourself you might have to be assertive and set boundaries. This might mean asking people for help with chores and saying no to things. When you meet your own needs you are going to be a better colleague, researcher, teacher, friend, family member.

Setting boundaries also includes taking a digital time out. Sometimes watching TV or reading an article online might serve us. But try to also take time out without digital stimulation. Smartphones, laptops and tablets can make it harder to disconnect. It’s easy to reach for our smartphone in a quiet moment. This can all be a distraction rather than giving our brains quality time out. They can also keep our minds busy so our brains suffer from a lack of downtime. Allowing the brain to disconnect is important for creative and critical thinking. Vital for academic life and beyond.

5. Move your body, still your mind

Taking quality time off doesn’t always mean doing nothing or resting. Studies such as this support the idea that that physical exercise is good for the brain, as well as for the body. Exercise can help reduce stress and anxiety, common as a PhD, academic and beyond. If you don’t have much time just take yourself for a 10-minute walk.

Mindful/meditative exercise such as yoga is also great for taking quality time out. Yoga is good for you physically, but also mentally/emotionally. In yoga, you often move with the breath, which helps you focus and calm your mind. Yoga includes physical poses (asana), breathing exercises (pranayama) and meditation. All three helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, reducing stress and anxiety. There are many different styles of yoga. If you’re new to yoga try some different classes and see what you need to help you recharge.

6. Meditate

Meditation allows your mind to slow down and focus, helping to reduce anxiety and stress mindfulness meditation. There are different types of mediation so do some research to find what works best for you. You can also use apps such as Stop, Breathe, Think, Headspace, or Calm.

You can practice meditation more or less anywhere. This makes it great when you are a desk-bound researcher/writer or when you’re at work. Even just a few minutes can help to restore inner calm by activating the parasympathetic nervous system.

Make sure you schedule in daily and weekly time to rest and recharge, and try these tips and tools to build your rest skill set.  Hopefully, you’ll get more quality downtime to help you feel more creative and energized for your writing, research and career.

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