Friday, November 18, 2011

Feeling Overwhelmed? Take a break!

Are you feeling overwhelmed this semester with deadlines looming, your email inbox bursting, and obligations piling up? If so, I suggest you take a counterintuitive action: take a break!

You need to pull yourself out of a cycle of overwork and regain a sense of control over your life and work. The best way to do this is to take a break.

My three month Vacation

It is simply not true that you have to work all day, every day to be a successful academic at a research intensive university. In fact, trying to work beyond your personal limits, not taking days off, and not getting enough sleep are counterproductive. You cannot do excellent research when you are sleep-deprived, cranky and overworked.

Unfortunately, this is a cycle many academics fall into. They get behind, struggle to catch up, and fall deeper and deeper into a hole of exhaustion. This strategy does not work. If you are over-extended, drowning in deadlines and haven’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks, my first suggestion to you is to stop working. Take the weekend off. Do something entirely unrelated to work on Saturday. On Sunday, relax, have breakfast with friends or family. Take a long walk. Go to the museum. Revitalize your creative connections. On Sunday afternoon, sit down and make a plan for the rest of the week.

Make a reasonable plan, one that has you going to sleep at 11pm and waking up at 7am. A plan that leaves time for meals, for exercise, for friends, for family. A plan that leaves time for life.

Trying to work all day, every day will not work. Not sleeping enough so that you can grade more papers, finish that book chapter, or file one more receipt is counter-productive. Instead, get a good night’s rest, and approach the tasks with new vigor in the morning.

Coming to terms with one’s own limitations can be hard. But, it can also be enlightening and liberating. Once you realize that you really cannot work all day, every day, there will be no more guilt about not doing so. If you know that opening up that laptop at 11pm does not mean that you will sneak in one more task, but instead will lead to a bad night’s sleep and a harried tomorrow, it makes much more sense to turn the laptop off, turn on some soothing music and go to sleep. Tomorrow morning, you will finish in five minutes that task that would have taken your exhausted mind 30 minutes to complete at the end of a long day.

If taking a break sounds like the most counterintuitive thing possible, that is probably all the more reason you should take one.


  1. Love this!! I'm all about taking breaks from work and I think everyone should. We Americans are workaholics and it doesn't make us more productive, ironically!

  2. I am very impressed by both your consistent productivity and knowledge of the importance of taking a break! I think this is often, ironically, the hardest for post-docs, as the time one could work seems endless. Good for you!

  3. Yes. It's hard advice to follow in a workaholic context. I remember getting huge flak for doing it in graduate school and protesting: "But if I don't live this way, I will not be strong enough to make satisfactory progress to degree!" Yet I also remember feeling envious, even resentful of people who were *yet better* than I at following the same advice.

    How to follow it in non R1 contexts is my problem, because one has to sort of be 2 people at once: the R1 person and the regional comprehensive and/or SLAC person. It adds up to 1.5 jobs and at my university that is reflected in that we officially have a 60 hour work week. I have not figured out how to jockey all of this, but the principle still applies.

  4. Good points, profacero. I am sure that there are diminishing returns on our time investment in any project. The trick is to figure out when to stop and to avoid over-working to the point that we are no longer being productive.