Do You Have Difficulty Switching Off?

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People talk about ‘switching off’ from work as though it were simply a question of flicking a button and going into relaxation mode. When it comes to longer-term projects, it can feel challenging – if not impossible – to draw a line between work and non-working time. This is because even if we don’t physically bring our work home, we often carry the mental weight of it with us.

I certainly found this to be the case when I was completing my PhD thesis. No matter where I was or what I was doing, some aspect of the work was always on my mind. I didn’t know what it meant to switch off or how to go about doing it. Not only did my inability to detach mean that I never had a proper break, it also made my work a lot less enjoyable.

As we approach the holiday season, I’ll share a few steps that have helped me learn how to switch off from work.

Step 1

Set an end to your work day in advance: The first step is to set an end to your work day before you even start working. Not only will this give you something to look forward to, having an end time set in advance will help you to make the most of your working hours. Most of us are taught the virtues of being a hard worker from a very young age, so the notion of consciously and deliberately taking time off work – rather than taking time off when we reach burnout or exhaustion – can feel quite alien. Yet the value of carving out some non-working time in your day and making this non-negotiable, will far outweigh any initial reluctance and discomfort with this step.

Step 2

Find an activity unrelated to your work: Now that you’ve set an end to your work day, it’s important to fill that space with something other than work. If we don’t fill that time, it is more likely that work will creep back into the space we’ve carved out. Try and select an activity that is completely unrelated to your work. It might be a long-lost hobby, a sport, a craft, a language or anything else that you’ve been interested in trying but haven’t managed to find the time for.  At this point, I hear a lot of people saying ‘I can’t afford to do a hobby or take time off each day… I have so much work to do’ which is something I’ll address in the next step.

Step 3

Give yourself permission: Much of the resistance to switching off stems from the fact that many of us don’t feel like we can afford the time off or that we even deserve it. With so much to do, the prospect of deliberately switching off can quickly develop into feelings of guilt. The next step I recommend is to actively give yourself permission by tackling the guilt head on. For this step I recommend something along the lines of a PhD process journal. This will enable you to work through any feelings of guilt and give yourself the permission you need to switch off.

Step 4

Adopt a transition activity: Sometimes the challenge with switching off relates directly to the type of work we are engaged in. This is a result of the fact that nearly all research projects involve expending a great deal of mental energy on tackling complex problems. The nature of PhD research makes it difficult to go directly from the lab, the library, or the office into relaxing. In order to give our brains some space to recalibrate, it can be helpful to try and adopt a transition activity between our work and our downtime. Exercising or even a brisk walk can be a great way to transition between work and downtime. Another good transition activity is grocery shopping, as it gives our brain another task to focus on as we start to wind down.

Step 5

Carry a notebook with you: Even if we were to strictly observe the above steps, our thoughts may still gravitate towards work. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – some of the best ideas I had during my PhD came to me when I wasn’t actively trying to work on it. This is why I often recommend that students carry an ideas notebook with them. That way, if an idea comes to you, you can quickly make a note of it and return to it the following day instead of getting caught up in that thought when you are trying to relax. This allows you to remain receptive to thoughts and ideas without having them derail your downtime.

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Why Work-Life Boundaries Don’t Work

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While there are no shortage of books, blog posts and courses offering advice on how to achieve a healthy work-life balance, I’ve come to the conclusion that most of this advice is not particularly well-suited to PhD students. There are a few reasons for this.

When it comes to completing a PhD, there is no denying that the boundaries between work and home life are particularly prone to becoming blurred. Apart from the fact that these projects can feel incredibly personal to us, the time commitment and dedication it requires to complete a PhD is quite unlike most other pursuits.

For those who can approach the PhD like a conventional job and turn their minds off when the clock strikes 5pm, they are lucky. But from my experience and the experience of many of my colleagues, the PhD doesn’t quite work like that. It’s a rigorous process, but also a creative one, and as it is with any creative endeavour, we can’t always schedule our creativity into ‘normal’ working hours. Consequently, techniques for achieving an optimal work-life balance are not always suitable to the unique circumstances of PhD life.

A second reason why some work-life balance techniques may not be particularly appropriate for doctoral students relates to the difference between physically bringing work home and mentally holding on to it. During my time as a doctoral student, what I noticed is that as much as I physically left my work behind on weekends or holidays, I couldn’t quite escape the mental weight of it. As much as I would decide to take time off, my mind was still very much focused on it, and not in a positive way. I would either worry about the particulars of the project or feel general stress about whether I would ever finish it.

Allowing work to creep into our downtime, in either a physical or mental capacity, is often a symptom of deeper anxieties and insecurities. Moving beyond this requires us to investigate the thoughts and internal chatter that arise in relation to our work. Since most work-life balance strategies deal primarily with the symptoms of the imbalance –  instead of the deeper roots of it – they can only go so far.

Moreover, the notion of drawing boundaries between work and life is limited by its starkness. Choosing between work and free-time can often lead to feelings of guilt, or the nagging sense that we ‘should’ be working. In this regard, constantly placing our downtime in opposition to our work, tends to facilitate an either/or choice in regards to how we spend our time. So instead of ‘drawing boundaries’ it may be more appropriate to adopt the terminology of cultivating space – space for something other than work in our lives. Not only does this subtle shift in terminology create room for other projects, interests, passions which are distinct from our PhD projects to emerge, it ensures that we do not take our work too seriously, too personally or allow the process to become all-consuming. This is perhaps the most important step we can take in achieving a healthy work-life balance.