Naan wearing a vest and button up shirt

A grad student's guide to work-life balance & taking breaks

December 11, 2020

Give yourself permission to take a break.

By Samia Abbasi, Editor

I remember seeing a tweet a couple of months ago: a person’s therapist told them something along the lines of, “If you’re stressed about not being productive while you’re taking a break, you’re not actually taking a break.” While I can’t find the tweet anymore, I think about it a lot. Whenever it’s the weekend and I’m ‘relaxing,’ I’m still anxious about not doing work or working toward something. 

Do we take breaks just to recharge to be productive again or do we take breaks solely to take a break?

In my search to develop a holistic idea of work-life balance, I spoke to 4 graduate students to hear their perspective on productivity & mental health during the pandemic and learn about the activities & practices that make them feel grounded during a busy week. 

Our upbringings, identities, & environments influence work-life balance. 

Sociology PhD student Apollo Rydzik (@ARydzik)’s perception of work-life balance comes from his dad. He says: “My dad has always instilled me with positive messaging around work-life balance. Even though he does a lot as a full-time working, single dad, he is very intentional about taking care of himself and being mindful. For me, it's been difficult. As a first gen. college student of color (and now a PhD student), 

I've had this natural tendency to overwork myself as a coping mechanism for anxiety. Work can be a form of escapism. 

I finally reached a point where I can feel it in my body when I’ve reached a wall. I cannot be constantly working anymore. I can actually feel the quality of my work dipping, the more I continue to force myself to work. I’ve started to internally see more of that work-life balance and started to take it more seriously. 

I’m grateful that I’ve found people in my department who I feel comfortable telling that I’m feeling burnt out or tired. In turn, they’ve acknowledged and affirmed the work I’ve been doing. Some folks tell me, 'You should take more breaks than what you’re currently taking.' So, that has been really encouraging.”

Taking a step back to really think about our mental health. 

Ishita Dubey (@recipesandreads), a Master’s student in a Narrative Medicine program, conveys that the pandemic has allowed her to figure out what truly matters to her and makes her happy. She explains, “Before the pandemic, I thought I knew what those things were—but I didn't. 

Self-care, for me, means being honest with myself about what is going on in my head. 

Sometimes, I will follow trains of thought that give me anxiety just so I can figure out where it's stemming from and why I'm feeling that way. Sometimes, it’s acknowledging that it's beyond my scope to fix it, and that’s just how I’m feeling at that moment. There was a time during this semester where I was struggling with my mental health and it was very hard for me to connect with anything. It came to a point where I emailed my professors out of the blue to set up a Zoom call, and I told them that my work was reflecting my mental state. It was the best thing I could’ve done. They were glad that I was candid with them and worked with me to adjust their expectations. So, the professors in my program have been super understanding—and that’s something I’ve never seen before in my academic career.” 

Naan's desk space with an open journal
photo credit: Naan

Creating a conducive space & combating ‘Zoom fatigue.’  

Naan (@naan.b_), an International Journalism Master’s student, describes how difficult it was to focus in the beginning of the pandemic and how she shifted her space accordingly. She says: “I went through a lot of Pinterest boards and studygrams for inspiration. I was finally able to turn my desk into a place that was conducive for studying and working. Exercise was also a big part of my routine before the pandemic, so I bought a yoga mat, so I could do yoga. 

I’ve been kind to myself on days where I’m not feeling up to it, and I’ll do some stretches instead. 

I didn't know that Zoom fatigue was a thing at first, but I now know that it's really exhausting. Like, having to see myself constantly. I try to minimize my 'self view' sometimes, so that I’m only looking at the person lecturing or speaking. It can be hard to focus; like, having to gauge people's tones and expressions a little more than real life classes. Or when someone walks in the room while you’re working or hearing construction noises outside. In my lectures, I try to request a 10 minute break to stretch or make a cup of tea or take a quick walk around the block. That can help me recharge and take on another hour of class.” 

Self-care: What actually helps us stay grounded during a busy week. 

Slow morning routines. Naan says: “Slowly get into a routine in the morning has been so helpful for me, especially with my anxiety. I’ll have a small to-do list of minor things, like having breakfast, making my bed, reading, etc. I’d even write down ‘watch TikToks’ or ‘take a nap’ into my to-do list because having those things scheduled helps me feel more grounded and in control when I feel overwhelmed by work or even having too much free time during lockdown.” 

Connecting with the world. Ishita says: “Something that’s been really grounding for me is taking a moment in the morning to go outside and reconnect with the planet in a way that my ancestors used to. I’ll often do a 10 minute meditation or a mindfulness listening activity. I'll just be outside, feeling the ground on my feet and the air on my skin. That calms me down better than anything I’ve tried. If it’s too cold to go outside, even just opening my bedroom window and taking a moment for myself has been helpful.”

Rediscovering the joy of reading. Ayesha Harisinghani (@ayeharis), a Master’s student in Public Health & Public Affairs, has been rediscovering hobbies that she didn’t know she loved. She says: “Aside from doodling, I’ve been reading for pleasure during this time. It's taught me to love education again and how to be a better advocate and person. Through this process of getting back into reading, I’ve had a huge moment of self-growth.”

Working outside to switch things up. Apollo says: “Before the pandemic, I used to go to a lot of cafes or to the library to get work done. Now that I can't do that, I found that even just sitting outside for an hour or two to do work on a picnic blanket has been a nice change of environment. It's a good break for my brain and body.”

a cup of English Breakfast tea with cinnamon powder on top
photo credit: Samia Abbasi

Building a culture of wellness in our workplaces & institutions. 

How we think about and navigate work-life balance isn’t linear and will continue to change throughout our lives. Ayesha notes, “It's been so much easier to overburden myself during this time period. There’s this idea in academia that ‘the more you do, the better it is.’ Right now, there's no formal way to determine how much time things are going to take and how much we should actually be working. 

Some of my professors have been adopting a policy of ‘no questions asked’ extensions on assignments. I think that's powerful; it combats this notion that you need to justify why you’re ‘not productive’ in the middle of a pandemic. No one is okay all of the time—that’s life. 

I hope that there’s a cultural reset of understanding that continues after the pandemic.

I’ve also been noticing that some professors have been more upfront when they don’t know if there’s new information and are more transparent. It’s powerful to admit when you don’t know something; it can make us feel comfortable to know that we’re all on the same page.”

End Note: It's been an impactful experience learning about wellness in different perspectives and celebrating meaningful moments of understanding between people in academia. It's interesting that the processes and procedures in school, work, or society that once seemed so rigid, are actually malleable to create more room for empathy. As individuals and communities, we adapt and keep going in ways that may surprise us. And in Naan, Apollo, Ishita, and Ayesha’s narratives, there are important reminders woven in to be kind to ourselves and recognize that we’re doing the best we can in the midst of unusual times.


Cover photo credit: Naan (@naan.b_)

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