Wellness, Productivity, Balance for Graduate Students and Beyond

Hit the Reset Button - Coming Back After a Break from Work

We’ve all had funks. Sometimes you get sick, sometimes you’re blindsided by life, sometimes you don’t know why but you haven’t worked in days but you did watch all of the House Hunters episodes available on Netflix. But whatever caused it, eventually you have to reset and get back to work. But, that can sometimes be easier said that done, especially if you want to work in a sustainable, healthy way. 

Lots of people have bad working habits, and mine always resurface after time away from my work. Eventually, through years of trial and error, I've come to this system for resetting myself after a break, easy enough that it is repeatable and special enough that it feels like something different, and out of my routine. Here are the three most important parts of that routine for me, and my hunch as to why they work. 

  • Show up to work. For me, this involves taking a shower, having breakfast (real food, not coffee) and putting on clothes I could leave the house in. I sit at my desk, or at a coffeeshop.  After years of "trying to ease in" by working from my couch ("couch office") or my bed ("bed office") I have come to the horrifying conclusion that I do not do good work, or at least, my best work, when my body cannot tell the difference between napping, watching tv or working. These little things indicate to my body that I'm going to do some work today, even if my mind is very, very resistant. 
  • Resist the Temptation of The Perfect Day™ . My brain thinks in black and white, so I tend to naturally label things as Good Days and Bad Days. And why have a Good Day if you can have The Perfect Day™ ? For me, that looks like eight hours of perfectly focused, insanely productive work, three stupidly healthy meals, an hour or more of yoga, perfectly present quality time with family and friends, cleaning my house, taking care of all errands and also starting to train for that marathon I always said I wanted to run. In short, it might be just barely achievable in optimal conditions, but it is otherwise a cruel pipe dream. I use The Perfect Day (and my inability to achieve it) as a reason to feel bad about myself. "Sure,"  I say to myself, "you wrote two new pages and finished the grading that is due but you also ate four mini KitKat bars and did not run three miles so you might as well give up and watch an entire season of Gilmore Girls while you scroll through Instagram favoriting motivational quotes." But, if I set reasonable goals for that day (writing two new pages of freewriting, going through one article, responding to the high priority emails rather than every single one) I feel good about meeting them. You can always build in more steps in your routine to get closer to The Perfect Day™ , but starting small means you can build in sustainable ways, instead of swinging between doing All the Things and None of the Things. 
  • Draft your Acknowledgments. This is the most ritualistic part of my my reset routine, but I swear by it. No matter why I took a break, I often felt that sense of dislocation and existential dread that all graduate students can be overcome by: Why am I doing this? Why me? What does it even matter?? And one day, while reading the acknowledgments of a new book (you can learn a lot there, don't skip it!) I realized that acknowledgment sections often answer those existential questions, with a side of gratitude and appreciation thrown in. So I started to write mine. I've got at least seven versions of my acknowledgments saved on my hard drive, starting from shortly after I finished my prospectus all the way through my final draft. When I was at my lowest, and feeling the most stuck, it helped me to remember that it wasn't just me, alone at my desk, hurling words into the void. Even when it didn't feel like it, writing out everyone who had helped and supported me reminded me that there really was help and support, and that I wasn't alone.  

You can't always control the break - when it happens, why it happens, how long it lasts - but it helped me to feel in control of how I came back from it. Writing a dissertation, or any hard, challenging work, is as much about what you do as how you do it. I am (still!) trying to figure it all out, but hopefully sharing some of what worked for me when things weren't working helps you. And if that doesn't, here is a video of a cat who never gives up trying to get into the box, which has motivated me in many a dark moment.