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PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: Self-care in academia

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better – and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!

I’m in the middle of the process of publishing guest posts on self-care in academia, in which I’ve invited fellow academics to share their thoughts on self-care, and have them explain what they do to stay sane in the sometimes bitter environment of academia. In this series, academics have discussed how exercise keeps them mentally and physically healthy or how they try to find some time for themselves while studying, working and taking care of their family.

The first time I mentioned self-care on this blog, was after realizing that working 100 hours in a week was not going to do me any good. Torn between knowing that working too hard eventually makes me sick but really loving what I do and getting sucked in so easily, I set out on a quest to set healthy limits for myself. I played around with my schedule to see how I can plan in time for self-care (note that during my days as a PhD student, I followed a schedule that worked for me, but as a fresh professor with more duties and more tasks on my plate, I had to start again to look for what works for me.) My schedule is still a work in progress, and changes every semester as the hours that I teach change, but I feel like I’ve got more grip on my time.

In this post, I won’t go into detail on how I plan my activities, and how much time it all takes me, but I will focus on why different elements of self-care are important for me (as they might be important for you, or as other things closer to your heart might be more important to you).

Here’s a list of activities for which I make and take time to prevent me from turning into a bookworm:

1. Exercise

At the moment, exercise is back to the front seat in my life (after slacking for a good while). If I don’t exercise, I get more tired, less focused and I don’t sleep as sound at night – I need my movement (not necessarily as the large amounts that I’m putting in at the moment, but for stress-release it’s working very well). My current workout routine is a work-in-progress, just as my work schedule, but it’s a combination of lifting weights, spinning, bodypump classes and yoga classes (plus the occasional pilates, TRX, HIIT or other group class).

2. Music

Last august, I flew my cello to Ecuador (as a ticketed passenger). I’ve been erratically playing ever since, but just tinkering with things and playing through songs I studied before – no in-depth study. Since January, I’m back in full swing with technical work, and playing every single day (I missed a few days while I was in the US for a conference, but other than that it’s been a daily habit).

Playing music is something I’ve been doing since I was 7, and I had forgotten how it helps me to develop focus for deep work. Trying to figure out a difficult piece of music (the fingering, the bowing) requires 100% of my attention. That deep focus is similar to what I need (but can’t always achieve) when trying to untangle a research problem.

3. Creativity

Creativity has always been important to me, and since January I’m back into doodling around with pencils and into writing poems. I’m forcing myself to show up and do something – even though it might be bad – and build my creativity muscle.

Finding time to engage in creative exercises is important for researchers: you need the ability to think out-of-the-box when coming up with novel solutions in research.

4. Learning

I’m not watching online lectures and TED talks that much anymore, but I’m always enrolled in some MOOC or following another type of online course to learn something new.

Learning new skills and broadening your understanding of this world is not only important for your personal development, but helps you to make links between disciplines and teaches you to study research problems at a different angle.

5. Writing

Five years of blogging, and a life long of writing stories, self-made magazines, poems, journal entries and whatnot – writing has always been something I enjoy, but especially in the recent years, I learnt that blogging has improved my academic writing skills. Again, maintaining this blog, with its steady output of posts, has forced me to show up and write, even when I sometimes don’t really feel like. And similarly, I show up and write my journal papers, and magic happens (or grumpy reviewers put dark spells on my work).

6. Gaming

My mom, my sister and myself used to spend days on end playing Nintendo games (Eat that, gender stereotypes!). When moving to Ecuador, my husband and I got us a WiiU, and I enjoy gaming every now and then. It might not benefit my research, but when I need to switch off my brain, it’s good to get engrossed in the quest for a triforce.

7. Food preparation

I am currently having help in the household three times a week. I’ve outsourced cleaning, laundry, ironing and part of cooking and food preparation (following my recipes). It’s OK to give work out of your hands. It’s OK to spend money on outsourcing these tasks (now I have time to play the cello at night instead of spending all my evenings in the kitchen). Too often, I still find myself in the mindset of the poverty-ridden graduate student – I still like to twist and turn every penny before spending it. But now that I’ve left the most difficult financial years behind me, I’ve come to terms with the idea of spending money and getting time for myself in return.

Still, every evening I prepare my breakfast for the next morning (all the ingredients minus the liquid go into my Vitamix), box up my lunch for the next day and add snacks to my bag with food for the day. I’ve always preferred home-cooked food (my parents never went out to eat nor ordered, just my mom’s home-cooked meals rich in vegetables fresh from the farmer’s market), I easily catch stomach bugs and I’m very often hungry – having food around me saves me time at lunch, and makes sure I have the right fuel for the day.

8. Meditation

Since January, I’m back in full swing with meditation. I’ve taken a subscription to Headspace, I’m revisiting the Silva course, I’m using Stop, Breathe and Think, and sometimes I just sit in silence.

Meditation is as important for your mind as exercise is for your physical body. I know this – I’ve been on and off with meditation since I was 15 – and still, I find it hard to keep a constant practice.

9. Sleep

I’ve always been the first person to shout all over the internet that you should sleep at least 8 hours every night. Currently, I’m averaging between 7 and 8 hours of sleep every night during the week (my 5:45 am wake-up time requires an early bed-time, and that’s hard for me). Nonetheless, I try my very best to get 7,5 hours of sleep every night, to make sure my brain functions optimally the next day at work.

10. Reading

I read 105 books in 2014 – and that year, reading was an important aspect of self-care for me. At the moment, reading is a little less important, and meditation and music have taken a more prominent role. Our priorities and perspectives might shift, and the amount of time we get to spend on different elements of self-care as well.

Regardless of the fact that I’m reading a little less voraciously than before, I still consider reading important for my mind, for fueling my creativity, for my learning, and for improving my writing.

What are your non-negotiable acts of self-care? Why are they important for you? How do you make sure you find time and space for these activities?

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