Avoiding Winter Break Burn-Out: R&R for the Holidays

Recently, I’ve started trying to keep tabs on other academic blogs. After fumbling around with my partner to figure out how to get all (okay, most) of the posts in one reader, we finally got it to work, and I can now browse through them on my phone. In particular in the last month, I’ve seen a spike in posts dedicated to self-care. Apparently, it’s particularly difficult for academics to practice it in late November/early December—something to do with papers, grading, grant deadlines, and—oh yeah—making sure to have quality time with your family and friends on Thanksgiving if you celebrate it. To name a few posts I’ve seen: Raul Pacheco-Vega redefines academic success (in both small and large scopes)Meghan Duffy reminds us that while we are busy, we don’t actually work 80 hours a week and should stop feeling guilty if we aren’tSteven Shaw discusses realistic expectations and developing a healthy perspective (as opposed to a “tough skin”); and our own Amy Gaeta highlights self-care as part of surviving the first semester of grad school.

All of these writers give great advice, and if you find yourself in a rut, they’re worth a read. Still, as helpful as their posts are, sometimes all we can manage during the end of a semester is to go, “Right. Green tea. I should drink that instead of coffee this afternoon,” and then table the rest for when our workloads die down. But when winter break starts (or summer, or spring if you’re on a quarter system), sometimes we want to collapse or throw all caution to the wind and celebrate that we’re finally done (for the time being, anyway).

My personal experience, at least, is that as tempting as these choices are, they can have some seriously negative effects on your health.

During my last year of undergraduate work, right after I finished masters’ program applications, I decided I was going to hide under my covers for a few days while my brain healed and the crick in my neck from bending over my laptop loosened. I thought this extended rest and solitude would allow me to recuperate from a semester of hard work. And then I got sick. Really sick. I spent almost three weeks on the couch, unable to move (strep. Not fun). I’ve heard similar stories from students at all stages of university education. What’s worse, being that sick meant I couldn’t do any prep work for the upcoming semester, and I began the new year guilt-ridden and frantic, leaving myself vulnerable to the first round of spring colds.

Developing strong habits of self-care can help reduce the emotional ups and downs of graduate school by keeping your body and mind in a more consistent and positive place; sometimes, though, we just a need a few easy steps to get us going. I’ve learned a few things from my past mistakes, and hopefully I can share some of these lessons here so that you all can learn from them, and actually enjoy your breaks while being able to move easily into the next term.

  1. Reward yourself for finishing the term—but in the way your body and brain need.
  • Right after you turn in that last assignment or those last grades, take a well-deserved nap. Or if it’s the middle of the night, for goodness’s sake, go to bed. Sleep 8-10 hours—but that’s it. If you do too much more, you might have a harder time getting back to a normal schedule.
  • Splurge on fresh fruits and vegetables and make yourself the best salad you’ve ever had, with lots of protein and bright colors. If you snack when you’re stressed, there’s a good chance your body hasn’t seen celery in a week (or more). Taking some vitamins helps, too. I try to do this regularly during the semester (I’m a fan of C, D, and B complex, though I know a lot of students that stick with a multivitamin). If nothing else, drink a few glasses of orange juice mixed with Emergen-C or something similar the first week of break to give your immune system a boost. There are even varieties that have melatonin in them to help you sleep, if you’d rather drink them at night.
  • If the weather permits, take a walk outside, even if it’s just around the neighborhood to look at the holiday decorations. Take a thermos of hot coco or cider and a friend. The point is just to get some fresh air and do something besides sitting at a desk!
  • Call someone you love and let them tell you how amazing you are for finishing the semester (because you are).
  • Get a massage to work the stiffness out of your neck and shoulders, or do a yoga class to stretch out your spine and hips (or do both!). You can look for Groupons or Amazon Local deals to save a bit of money.
  • Celebrate with your colleagues. Take some time to congratulate yourself and the other members of your cohort or department for the hard work you’ve done.
  1. Stick to a daily routine as much as possible.
  • Although it’s really tempting to sleep in until noon, you will actually feel more rested if you stick to a regular schedule. Also, the transition to earlier mornings in the spring won’t feel quite as jarring. So, pick a bed time and a time to get up and try to stick to it—also aim for 8 hours of sleep whenever possible.
  • Stick to a regular meal schedule, too. If you like cooking, try out some new recipes that you might be able to make easily throughout the week during the school year. One of my guilty pleasures is subscribing to cooking magazines, so I try to turn to those a few times a week when I’m not as busy. But, if you don’t have cookbooks lying around the house, check out your public library—or just search online through recipe websites. There are even apps available where you can put in what you have in your fridge/pantry, and they’ll give you a recipe.
  • Get outside and move around at least three times a week. If being outside in the winter sounds like a Herculean test where you live, check out some YouTube yoga channels or go to the gym.
  1. Do a few things to prepare for the next semester that you enjoy.

So, you probably shouldn’t be wholly unproductive for four weeks. That’s likely to trigger that awful guilt I mentioned earlier. But, you don’t want to start out the next term feeling ragged either. Of course, if you have an upcoming deadline, that should be your first priority. If you have some flexibility, cross a task off your to-do list that you might actually enjoy. For example,

  • If you like teaching, plan ahead a few weeks of lessons. If you’re teaching the same course, review your old materials while your experience from the last class is still fresh.
  • If you like conferences, see what abstracts are due in the spring (don’t forget, NASSR’s is due Feb. 1!) and write a few abstracts.
  • If you’ve been itching to read a new novel, pick one related to your classes. For instance, if you’ve assigned Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest, maybe read The Italian. 
  • If you’re in coursework, some universities have book lists or even tentative syllabi available online that you can use to read ahead. (Remember your professors are on break and deserve some respite from teaching, too, so don’t bombard them with emails.)
  1. Pick one (or two) thing(s) and start building them into habits.

I’m suggesting one or two, because it’s more likely that you’ll stick with them and not get overwhelmed. If you can, start on a New Year’s resolution a little early. My personal goals are to write 15 minutes a day—whether it’s in a journal or as part of a project—and to be active (getting my heart rate up) three times a week. Bonus points if you can pretend that you have parts of your day blocked out like you will next semester so that you can’t use it as an excuse to keep you from your new habits when classes start back up.

Good luck wrapping up these next weeks, and to those of you who have finished, congratulations!