The academic life is known for its long hours. Graduate school, academic life and downtime can seem mutually exclusive. But there is also increasing concern over mental health and stress in the academy. Research (and probably your intuition) are also telling us that rest, exercise and time away from work are good. More hours do not necessarily mean more productivity in the academy or at work.
It might be tempting to work as many hours as possible on your PhD, academic work or in life after the academy. As a graduate student, you are motivated and determined. You might feel guilty about taking time out, resting or having downtime. But a short break can be invaluable for increasing your productivity and the quality of your work and life.
Your brain is a muscle. You need rest days when you are training and you need to allow muscle groups to recover. Think of your brain in the same way. Without time to rest, your brain becomes fatigued and doesn’t work as well. When you’re tired you don’t think as clearly or creatively, and you can make more mistakes.
How often you need to take a break, when you need them and what you do in those breaks is personal. It is also important to recognise the difference between when you’re taking downtime and when you are procrastinating. Make sure you are taking quality time out to rest and reset. Spend time understanding what you need – don’t worry about what other people are doing. Once you have an idea what works for you can make empowered choices that will serve you and your work.
Give your brain a rest to help you stay motivated, creative, more productive, and healthier. Read on for the ways in why taking a break can help your studies, academic life or life beyond the academy.
1. Time out reduces stress.
A growing body of evidence shows that taking regular breaks from mental tasks helps to decrease stress and exhaustion. It also improves productivity and creativity. Whilst some level of stress can be motivating, high levels of stress reduces productivity.
Breaks don’t need to be long, a short break will help to decrease stress. It can be 5 minutes at different points in the day and/or exercise at the end of the day.
Getting away from work can also help boost your immune system. Our immune systems are very complex. There is still research needed about how changes in the immune system impact us, but there is evidence that chronic stress depresses our immune system. Adequate sleep and exercise (see below) can help boost it.
2. Increase your mental energy and boost your creative thinking
As well as decreased stress and tiredness, taking a break boosts your mental energy. Whatever stage you are at with your studies or academic life, you’ll know it takes huge cognitive resources to absorb all the complex material you are coming across. Graduate studies and life beyond requires a lot of creative and critical thinking. All this needs brainpower. Taking a break gives you the energy you need to think creatively and critically.
Research shows that even when we are relaxing or daydreaming, the brain does not slow down or stop working. Important mental processes require downtime and other forms of rest during the day. This is when the brain can recharge and rest its stores needed for attention and motivation.
Have you ever taken a step back from something you’re working on to do something different and then suddenly got a great idea? Allowing your brain to shift focus can often help with creative problem-solving.
Dr Kriegel suggests that when you take a break, the ideas or problems you’ve been thinking about shift to a ‘back burner’. Here they can incubate, moving from the logical left brain to the creative right brain. Teaching on Stanford’s Executive Management Program he found that people got their best ideas when they were doing something else, for example driving, napping, exercising or taking a shower.
3. Increase your productivity
Taking breaks reduces stress, increases mental and creative energy, and gives your brain time to rest. This all helps to boost productivity.
Although academia (and society in general) might push us to work harder and longer, evidence suggests that beyond a certain point – around 40 hours a week, long work hours are damaging to productivity.
Don’t feel the pressure to work all hours. Make your own choices and know that quality time out and rest will help make you be more effective at whatever you are doing.
4. Use a break to get moving and stay healthy
We can all spend a lot of time sitting down. Taking time out also allows you to move. Whether this is exercising or getting up and out of your seat.
Research suggests that excessive periods of sitting are detrimental to our health in several ways. But, even the smallest movements, such as bending over to touch your toes, can help to counter the negative effects of sitting. Use a break to get up and move around.
Exercise is also a great way to decrease your stress levels, refocus your mind and increase productivity.
Yin yoga, meditation and breathing exercises can help to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps to reduce stress.
5. Get more sleep
You probably didn’t go to graduate school expecting it to be easy. Graduate school is often the most energetically demanding time of your lives. Life as an academic can also be demanding and stressful. If you work beyond the academy you’ll know that this also has its own demands.
During busy and stressful times sleep is more crucial than ever. But sleep is often not prioritised. We all know that sleep is important. But how important is it?
According to a 2010 study by Dr Barber et al., sleep is the single most important health behaviour we engage in. As well as the right amount of sleep (around 7 hours), they found that sleep routines are as important. Healthy sleep patterns play a vital role in self-regulation, an executive function in the brain that controls our behaviours.
Self-regulation tells you to get out of bed on time, to start working on your research/writing. It tells you to keep going when things are tough. Without adequate sleep, our brains are less equipped to control our behaviours, keep us on track or keep us motivated.
Self-regulation is also critical for managing emotions and stress. As humans, we need to think laterally and creatively. Our constructive thinking and emotional skills are affected by long hours and a lack of sleep. As is our ability to handle stressful situations.
As a graduate student, academic or post-academic, you might not feel like you can take time to rest, exercise or enjoy a different hobby. But time away from your work is time well spent. Take quality time away and see how productive you can then be. You’ll also feel much better mentally, physically and emotionally.