Wellness, Productivity, Balance for Graduate Students and Beyond

Energy In / Energy Out

I have had several conversations about self care this month, and one idea kept coming up over and over again: how much self-care does a person need? I get this question from people who are on the self-care train and want to know if they're doing enough/the right amount/the right kind of self-care. I hear it from people who are suspicious of self-care and quick to judge what they deem to be indulgent or frivolous activities they see others taking part in. And I hear it in my own head, when I'm making my schedule for the day or week and trying to decide what to prioritize. 

Personally, I get frustrated (as a habit-bound, routine-loving person with minor control issues) when my self-care routines and practices do not work the way I expect them to, or when factors outside my control prevent me from using my tools. For example, for the last six weeks I have had a harmless cyst in my left wrist, which was symptom-free unless I was putting weight onto that hand, something that I don't normally do unless I'm in a yoga class. So for six weeks I was not practicing regularly, or using the indoor rowing machine that I also love, and I started to see the ripple effects. I was edgier than normal, and having trouble sticking to other habits (sleeping well, eating well, getting out of bed easily, etc.) In a nutshell, I was out of balance, and I had to find ways to rebalance because....

Energy In = Energy Out 

At first glance, this can seem kind of woo-woo, but hang in there with me. If the goal of self-care, or wellness, is to be a balanced person, performing well in all aspects of your life, then this equation can be a useful way to visualize that balance. Energy means something different to everyone, but on its base level, it simply means paying attention to what fills you up, and what drains you. This is obviously individual - some people need big social gatherings in order to feel connected, and other people can spend their entire socializing energy allowance in 20 minutes of small talk. So you have to pay attention to what makes you buzz, or groan, and work from that starting point - try using these steps to get a sense of where you are, and where you could adjust. 

Where is your energy level right now?

First things first, you have to have your baseline. There are lots of ways to do this - journalling, charting your energy levels on a graph, or using a phone app to track your mood. But the more fine-grained you can get your data, the better. What makes you feel better? What makes you feel worse? Where are you at overall? Are there patterns over the course of the week, the month? Do things shift for you seasonally? 

You're looking to see where you're starting from - do you have so much energy that you're feeling kind of manic, moving from task to task without completing any? Is your excess energy showing up in difficulty falling asleep, or paying attention/being present during relaxing times? Or are you low on energy: having trouble getting up in the morning? No motivation for any tasks? Avoiding contact with other people? Using caffeine to focus? 

Things to try if your energy level is high

  • Add in some cardio, or try switching your type of cardio up if you've already got a regular exercise routine. Sometimes physically exhausting the body can help to calm the mind. 
  • Experiment with meditation - I love the Headspace (free for 10 minute sessions, pay for everything else) or Stop, Breathe, Think (more free options with some pay to unlock packs) apps but just sitting quietly and listening to the sounds in the coffeeshop for a minute can help too. Think of meditation as a way to get to know your "base brain" - the brain that is underneath all the thoughts. Being able to tune into that with more ease will help for those times when the thoughts seem to be moving quickly. 
  • Schedule some time to talk about your research/work/ideas. Sometimes having someone else work with your ideas, regardless of how formed or formal they are, can give them a place to "land." When they're out of your brain, you can see them more clearly and feel less worried about "losing" them. 
  • Work on a new, completely unrelated project. I love reading fiction, and always having a (non-work related) book in progress helps me to channel some of my excess curiosity and need to learn new things. I also love my paint-by-numbers for getting out some of my restlessness. 

Things to try if your energy level is low

  • Schedule in some purposeful alone time. There is a big difference between "alone time" and time when you happen to be alone. Scheduling time to spend with yourself, doing something that you like (a walk around your neighborhood, a bubblebath with a book, taking yourself to your favorite coffeeshop without your laptop) can help recharge from social or intellectual exhaustion. 
  • Take a look at your daily schedule to see if you can even out the work sessions. I know many writers that spend the first part of a week/month working slowly or unevenly on their projects, only to "compensate" for that with marathon work sessions when deadlines approach. Try moving some low-impact tasks earlier - formatting your citations, reading new lit in the field, writing conference abstracts - to get your head in your intellectual workspace and smooth out the cycle of no work/all the work. 
  • Optimize your work space. Doodle out your new favorite motivational quote, clean off your desk, reorganize your digital files, or try out a new coffeeshop. Investing in the physical space where you work can be a subtle reminder of the value of your work - and be a low-impact way of spending time with your work when you're too burned out to do much of anything else. 
  • Make a gratitude list. I fought against this suggestion for years, thinking that I was already a person with a sense of my privilege, advantages, and blessings. But, starting my work session making a list of things I was grateful for professionally (academic Twitter, writing group members, software that makes my life easier, etc) reminded me that even if I was drained, some systems were working, and I did have resources and tools at my disposal. 

My self-care doesn't look like yours

I know many people who spend hours on the weekend grinding on their side-gigs, getting up early and going to bed late and producing massive amounts of work, only to show up Monday morning for their "regular" job rested and energized. By the time my weekend comes, I often need time alone in my bathtub to recharge from writing and coaching and connecting all week. If it gives you energy, and fills you up in ways that you need, then that is self-care. If it helps you settle down, feel more balanced, and less restless, then that is also self-care. Taking the time to know where you are - high energy, low energy, or somewhere in between - can help you figure out what you need and when to take best care of yourself. But everyone deserves to feel good, and feel balanced, no matter where you're starting from. 

It all comes down to energy in and energy out - making a conscious effort to balance the equation, no matter how that looks for you - will help keep you balanced, and the more you can stay balanced the more you can avoid the cycle of burnout and rebuild that has become normalized in academic (and wider) culture.