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Avoiding mental burn-out by organizing your day around self-care activities

Today I have the pleasure of inviting Catherine to share her views on self-care in academia. Catherine is currently writing up her PhD in linguistics at the University of York, studying the role that onomatopoeia play in child language development. You can find her on Twitter at @cathesmith24.

Being an effective researcher is a balancing act, and for me, achieving that balance requires real attention to my emotional, mental and physical well-being. I wasn’t far into my PhD before I started suffering mental burn-out – I’d be unable to focus for days at a time, leading to a cycle of guilt, misery and unproductivity. I realised that I needed to make some serious changes to my approach if I wanted to do a good job of this PhD – after all, three or four years is a long time, and I wanted those years to be as enjoyable and rewarding as they could possibly be.

I started with some strict rules: no working at the weekends, not even to answer emails – I aim to go for two whole days without even switching on my computer. This works for me, as the two days off gives me time to reset mentally, and by Monday morning I’m ready to get going again, with the five days ahead presenting a manageable chunk of working time. I also limit the hours I work in the week, and anything that can’t be done before 6pm in an evening has to wait until tomorrow. For me, this helps to limit procrastination, knowing that there’s a deadline waiting at the end of each day.

Monday to Friday, 9 til 5. It sounds pretty much like a normal working week for any normal job. But writing a PhD isn’t like a normal job, and I don’t believe that it’s necessary to stick to such a routine if that doesn’t work for you. It doesn’t work for me: when I worked in a normal job I struggled to get through the afternoons, as I seem to hit a wall at about 3 o’clock. Since I’ve got the freedom to let my day run as I please, I use these afternoon slumps to my advantage, and every day I take an hour’s break at around 3pm, or whenever I start to lose focus. I go for a walk or a run, take a nap, do some yoga or even some laundry, and when I return to my desk an hour later I’m refreshed and ready for another couple of hours’ work. I try to get outside at least twice every day – one morning walk before I start the day, and then again in the afternoon or a short stroll in the evening; getting outside frees up any blockages in my mind, and I almost always feel less anxious and more clear-headed when I return home.

I think there’s lots of scope for creating mindful routines to accompany work, and as I’ve approached the end of my thesis-writing period I’ve come up with numerous ways of ‘setting the scene’, to make the difficult process of sitting and writing or reading for long periods of time more manageable, and even indulgent. I tried working in coffee shops but I found myself too easily distracted, so instead I treated myself to some nice loose-leaf hibiscus tea to drink while I write. I also burn peppermint oil, as peppermint is good for concentration. It might sound simple, and perhaps a little ridiculous, but sitting in one place for hours is tiring on the mind and the body, so the added stimulation really helps to keep me going mentally.

It’s taken me over two and a half years to find a routine and an approach to doing my PhD that suits me personally, putting self-care at the heart of my day and fitting everything else around that. If I think too much about the fact that I don’t work weekends or into the evenings I end up feeling guilty, as if I’m somehow doing it all wrong, but for me my approach to my research only increases my productivity, and reduces the number of hours and days lost to mental exhaustion. Of course, when deadlines are approaching or when I take on some unexpected extra commitments, I have to be flexible if I want to fit everything in, but having a steady and reliable routine for the majority of the time makes it easier to cope with those busier periods when they turn up.

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