Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Taking a Real Summer "Break"

Happy SummerIf you've ready any previous posts on this blog, then you're likely familiar with my perpetual goal of taking a real break/vacation at some nonspecific point in the future. After the Spring semester I had (i.e., gave myself), I need a break more than ever. I spent last summer managing and analyzing data, writing a solo-authored manuscript, and drafting a related grant application. I also traveled for events that did not allow much relaxation time; two weddings, a project trip, and two weeks in Brooklyn for a training program. I'm guessing that I worked at 85-90% of academic year effort, which is not a break. As this summer approached - my second summer on the tenure track - my mantra was DO NOT REPEAT.

Unlike my work goals, though, my break goal is the definition of vague. What? When? Where? How will I know whether I did what I set out to do? What is it that I'm trying to achieve, exactly? Even when it comes to not-working, clarity is helpful.

My kiddie pool in the backyard.
Getting it right. My first priority for the summer is to rest. Easier said than done, as many of us know, and what does that really look like? For me, rest means taking evenings and weekends completely off, and spending that time either lying in the sun with reading material or binge watching Netflix/HBO. (Also sleeping at least eight hours per night.) I started on this path as soon as Spring grades were submitted. I slept; I watched all available episodes of Marvel's Daredevil and quickly moved on to True Blood. (Neither is typical for me, but I loved both. Which is cool in its own right.) I'm now on season four of Veep AND season two of True Detective. And I bought a kiddie pool to stay cool outside.

But the relaxation was broken up by nagging guilt about not-working. I should be writing X paper or drafting Y section of my upcoming grant submission! Think of everything I could get done if I worked just a little more! I was on the path to self-sabotage already, and beating myself up for it wasn't helping. So step #2 was clarifying what needs to get done this summer, what I'd like to get done this summer, and ongoing work that likely will not get done this summer. This also meant planning around some deadlines and travel and coordinating with summer RAs to maximize work time. 

Seeing this plan helped me realize how much I'll be able to do even as I work less than usual. Having a major deadline early in the summer also helped, and I used extra time off as a reward for meeting that deadline. (I submitted days in advance, actually, and I didn't experience the stress frenzy that usually comes toward the end. Planning works even better than I anticipated.)

Step #3 involved creating an intervention for those times when guilt still nags at me. We can't stop ourselves from having negative thoughts, but we can redirect them to more balanced, accurate thoughts. As a clinical health psychologist, I know very well that taking breaks improves efficiency and leads to higher quality work than does running yourself into the ground. This is something I help others realize and implement, but find difficult to do for myself. 

For example, recently I took a three-day weekend, just because. I worked hard during the week and I was ready to relax. As I sat on the couch or on the deck, relaxing, I found myself thinking you're being really lazy - you're really not going to accomplish ANYTHING this weekend? Sounds terrible when I say it like that. But then I called to mind my Spring-semester self: exhausted, irritable, and not incredibly productive. My current less-exhausted, cheerier, productive self then shifted to this is good for me (and the people I care about), and I was free from negativity for a good while. Breaks work wonders.

Also, non-work goals. If you ready previous posts on this blog, you also might remember that my "hobby" is running. I've run a bunch of half-marathons, six marathons, and an ultra-marathon (31+ miles). I'm slow, but speed isn't the point. I decided to run my first marathon in graduate school, simply because I needed a goal that was personal; not related to professional achievement and just for me. It was an incredible experience and I kept it up for years. 

But since I started my tenure-track job, I haven't been able to make the mental commitment to training. (That alone should tell me something.) I did a half-marathon in my third week on the job, which was fun but not great; it was a gorgeous day on a gorgeous trail and I finished in a respectable time, but I wasn't well trained due to recent illness. I wrestled with the idea of a fall marathon this year - as you have to plan months in advance - but I still couldn't pull the registration trigger. I kept up my usual running and strength training schedule, but it was more out of habit and fear of losing fitness than out of love or excitement. I renewed my subscription to a running magazine just to have some sort of running cue in my house. I needed a goal.

Having that running magazine around recently allowed me to pick up an issue when I felt particularly despondent. Reading about gear, trails, races, and other runners' enthusiasm brought me back up, and I committed to a fall event: a running "hat trick," or three races in two days. It's a back-to-back 5K and 10K on a Saturday, then a half-marathon (13.1 miles) on Sunday. It's a new challenge for me, and it really helped - I've enjoyed running more since I registered than I have in over a year. Together with rest, sun, and continuing to work on projects I care about, running is lifting the Spring-semester cloud.

This is your life moment of the week: Overall, I'm happy to report that this summer is going well on all fronts. I had to plan for this and commit to it, and I've been able to strike the right balance for me. So if you're struggling, try focusing on these for the second half of the summer, identify relaxation/hobby goals. Put those academic skills to work for non-work!

Share how your summer is going and how you're taking a break this year!