Thursday, March 26, 2015

Stumbling towards grace with self-care in academia

Today, I have invited Kathy McKay to share her story and insights on self-care in academia. Kathy is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of New England, Australia. Her work focuses on stories of suicide and resilience.

Hand on heart.
I am not good at self-care. It’s very much still a work in progress and only became a vague priority when I burnt out last year and fell sick. Self-care is my stumbling towards grace, because it’s far too easy to lose sight of yourself in this work. True, you see yourself all too clearly in the lack - what more needs to be done? What am I not doing? But it's harder to see yourself as enough – that you deserve to, and that it’s OK to, not work all the time. In all the busyness, it’s far too easy to forget to stop.

Pieces about self-care seem sometimes to be written as prevention, with things to do to avoid burnout. They sometimes assume you can take time off, that deadlines are soft, and that your track record can handle the delay a break will bring.

This is not one of those pieces.

Burnout sometimes does not ring a warning bell. Burnout sometimes looms over you in the middle of the night, clutching at your chest while you gasp for breath, so you wake up the next day and struggle to find the energy to do the basic things, let alone be vaguely intellectual. Burnout makes absolutely everything you need to do during a day hard, even the simplest task that yesterday would not have given you a second thought. And, because burnout can be so closely tied to anxiety and depression, it is also, to paraphrase the brilliant writer Anna Spargo Ryan, dull. The sheen is wiped off everything.

This is a piece to hopefully give solace to those in the grips of, or in the aftermath of, burnout. How do you take care of yourself when absolutely everything is exhausting and there are still a million deadlines due? This is not meant to give you more things to do. God knows, when you're burnt out the very last thing you want is more things to do. These are things that have worked for me - or at least keep me more mindful to be more caring of myself and provide more useful warnings for when I need to rest. These are things I'm trying to not forget to do amidst the grant writing and the teaching and all the deadlines in between, and when time off is an unavailable luxury.

• Vent to friends.
A caveat here: not just anyone. These are the friends who get it, who have either been in the trenches or are there alongside you. Ones who don’t just say meaningless, placating things simply because those words seem nice to say. The ones who let you cry, or whatever it is you need to do to vent, until you’re ready to go back to the deadline. They are the ones who understand the peaks and troughs of academic life, where a grant can be rejected on the same day a paper is rejected. And when they say meaningless, placating things, it feels a bit better because things tend to get better eventually. Or more absurd.

• At some point you need to eat and move away from the screen.
Self-care is hard. Looking after yourself is much harder, requires much more attention, than not taking care of yourself. Making a nutritionally-dense meal takes far more time than toast. Exercising takes more time than not doing anything. However, the time you save in the short-term bites you later – and bites with teeth. It makes you very sick. Because these things are so easy to push to the side – I’ll eat later, I’ll exercise tomorrow – they’re the ones that I structure into my life with an organisation that is unlike me in every other way. I joined a fitness challenge that came with a meal plan so the part of me that always wants to do well at everything is placated and inspired. I make enormous meals on Sunday to freeze for the rest of the week because I live by myself and there’s no one else to fall back on. These activities as well, when I’m being mindful, also allow a quite space as well, just to be.

• Find a mentor totally outside academia.
I’ve only just started working with a non-academic mentor and, so far, it’s been confronting. The thing is, someone outside academia hasn’t normalised the same things we have and they see what’s not working for you more clearly. Working with this mentor is making me realise how little time I’ve spent since my PhD just doing something quietly, just for me, with no constructive feedback attached. Learning that I am not just an academic, that my identity can be more than that, is both frightening and liberating.

• Remembering the small beauties.

Unexpectedly adopting my demented wonder of a small cat has actually been one of the best things for my wellbeing. She pulls me back into the moment as I watch her stalk a butterfly in the garden (think the Simon’s cat video), or when she decides I am the most comfortable place to sleep. Plus she loathes my phone and will push it out of the way, just as she will steal pens from my hand and hide them under the couch if she thinks I am working too much at home and not paying enough attention to her. And the thing about small beauties is that you don’t have to do anything more than simply look out your window and exhale, just for a moment.

Reading these, you may not agree. Self-care is so tricky because it not only completely individualised (not everyone appreciates my cat) but it’s also not our natural way in academia. How do you turn your brain off when an idea is bubbling in the back of your mind but it’s Sunday afternoon or four o’clock in the morning? Self-care is something I’m training myself to do, and appreciate, and I stumble towards this grace all the time. It’s a learning process like any other.

And I wish you nothing but wellness in your journey.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

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.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Does anyone in academia even know what is self-care and its value?

Today, Kate is sharing her views on self-care in academia. As an American abroad, Kate graduated with her PhD in Archaeology from the University of Sheffield in 2010. At present Kate splits her time working for the US government as a Navy Intelligence Officer during the day and writing on Greek Bronze Age archaeology at night. She blogs at: https://duckingoutfromacademia.wordpress.com

Until Eva brought the topic of self care in academia to my attention, I realized I have never once heard this phrase mentioned—the very idea of caring for oneself, with all its attendant soothing and calming overtones, runs counter to academic culture. We simply do not talk about caring for oneself; we talk about surviving—and we reward those who can thrive in competition. We don’t tell graduate students to nurture themselves—we tell them to get used to it.

I cannot consider the issue of self care without acknowledging how the desertification of the job market—at least in the arts and sciences—exerts relentless pressure on all the young academics I know, myself included. I was in grad school from 2002 until 2010, and reflecting on the (few and far between) job discussions I had while I was a student I’ve come to the conclusion that PhD supervisors frequently err on the side of caution and tell all of their students they’ll get jobs. This isn’t necessarily a bald-faced lie; now that I’ve been on the job market myself, and seen many others cycle in and out of positions, the truth is: The job market is unpredictable. Unpromising and lackluster academics have as good a chance at succeeding as anyone else. Certainly back in 2002 no one could have foreseen how bad the academic job market would become. Indeed, I am not sure we fully understand how bad the job market is even now. Where will the jobs be in 10 years? Who will be holding them? Perhaps at no other time in the past two centuries can an early career researcher feel certain that her future as an academic will be very different from the generations of professors that preceded her. And there is perhaps little else to be certain of.

Anxiety about the state of my future career has a tendency to creep into my job applications, interviews, and even how I do my job when I hold the position. The problem lies in my head; I keep trying to make my life in the actual world follow my projection of life as a tenured academic, and of course, the reality is that I am not even sure there will be tenured Aegean prehistoric archaeology positions anymore. It is a tale as old as time; I get down and out about my job—and myself—because I keep trying to live in a fantasy. I regularly have to remind myself that we are living in a new era. Academic jobs in the future may not have tenure. University level teaching may become a product for sale. I am not sure where I will fit into this new world. No one does. The bottom line is that the greatest care I can extend to myself in this context is to stop living by these outdated expectations.

I had to come to this uncomfortable realization when I was at my most recent postdoc, a position I hated so much I wanted to leave after only a few weeks. I didn’t know how I could make it an entire year. In the end, I realized that my fear of being a failure was the only thing tying me to desperate unhappiness. And so I left the position. It turns out to have been a great decision for me, one that I look back on and give a mental thumbs up to my earlier miserable self. At first I dreaded telling people what I had done, but I have been surprised by the response—my PhD supervisor and my cadre of advisors who I turn to for guidance have been utterly supportive from the outset. I think they have been watching students’ careers wilt in the past couple of years, which must be emotionally and intellectually damaging for them as mentors. There has also been a minority of academics who were appalled at my choice. I politely listen to their advice about what they would have done if they had been me while mentally assessing them as being straitjacketed by their own projections.

Reading about freedom is not the same thing as feeling free. I do not feel free from my expectations of success 100% of the time. At times when I grapple with feelings of failure, I am worth the effort it takes to pause and remember that I am living my own life. I like to ask myself on a regular basis what I would do if I wasn’t afraid; the answers to this question frequently make my playing field twice as large. My path is wide open; it will encompass as much intellectual pursuit as I desire, and probably as much adventure, good times, and creativity as I’d like too. This attitude is sometimes called “having it all”, but I do not see it that way. I am not having it all. Neither am I turning my back on a “career” so that I can enjoy “life.” I am having what is mine.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Self-Care in the Face of Affect Tourism

Today, Jake Jackson is sharing his views on self-care in academia with us. Jake Jackson holds a Master's in Philosophy and is currently a Philosophy PhD Student at Temple University. His work is concerned with integrating phenomenology and affect theory into a comprehensive interpersonal ethics aimed at promoting better mental health practices with others. He still hasn't cultivated any sustainable hobbies.

I am terrible at self-care.

Or rather, I constantly find myself believing this when I talk to others about self-care.

There has been a recent surge in thinkpieces on self-care, how to self-care, what it requires to take care of oneself, and on. The rise of self-care discourse is liberating and helpful for academics (and certainly others) who need to be reminded to take care of themselves. This rise in discussion ought to be praised in its insistence that taking care of oneself is a necessary activity and we should never feel ashamed of taking care of one s emotional well-being. However, I want to take a pause; in our discussions of self-care, we need to move beyond simplistic descriptions that revel in the wrong aspect.

Discussing self-care with others can be helpful, yet there is also oftentimes a negating undercurrent. Self-care has become not just a thing you do for yourself, but a thing that you do before others in comparison. Many discussions of self-care focus not on the intended effect of relieving stressors, but instead the cultivation of affectations. We lose sight of the efficacy of self-care or even what small everyday activities can count as self-care in striving for a certain purity or connoisseurship of activities.

My concern regards a subgroup of self-care enthusiasts who I call affect tourists . Affect tourism is when one does not authentically enjoy affective experiences like self-care activities, but instead cultivates such experiences in order to weave them into a narrative that one can tell to others. The affect tourist is not simply interested in taking care of oneself, but instead in creating the experience of self-care. That is, the affect tourist manufactures affective experiences in Sartrean bad faith in order to present oneself as someone who has experienced deep emotionally-transcendent moments. These are the people who constantly insist that others should try this one activity or film, swear by a particular restaurant or beverage, or argue that others haven t done x properly if they haven t done it in y way.

At the most basic, the affect tourist displays oneself as a worldly figure, one who has experienced many things in search of higher or more transcendent experiences through a form of connoisseurship. Connoisseurs in this sense do not enjoy the objects they enjoy and fetishize, but rather enjoy the process of learning a vocabulary and a palate in order to appear more cultured. At the most extreme, affect tourists are those who travel as literal tourists to different locales just based upon the ability to weave the experience into a longer narrative of their life journey . These are the tourists who travel to a particular location because the guidebook or another affect tourist told them to do so. They create the experiences that they feel that they ought to have, leaving nothing to the moment of self-care to take them directly.

Affect tourists cultivate hobbies not directly for their own self-care, but treat this activity of insistently narrating these hobbies to others as a self-care activity instead. This person curates experiences in order to smugly recommend what others should do. This vain presentation of one s emotions is an affect tourist s form of self-care. This is good for affect tourists and their own self-care, I suppose, but it is damaging to others who feel that they cannot keep up or afford such suggested practices.

While recommending activities could be helpful for those seeking new self-care practices, the affect tourist will give their opinion whether solicited or not. The affect tourist makes others believe that their activities or feelings are in some way inadequate. The very act of insisting that there are purer avenues of self-care than those one practices recodifies such them as shameful again. In comparison, what I do for self-care does not seem as extravagant as what others insist as a greater method of self-care. This is why I feel that I am terrible at self-care. I don t see my evening winding down watching television or talking with my wife as enough when others insist on cultivating more elaborate or expensive hobbies.

But self-care in itself should never be dependent upon the insistences of others. Self-care must be seen as a pragmatic activity in itself. Whatever works as self-care must be identified as such. The moments we take for caring for ourselves should never be made to feel inadequate, just as they should never be seen as shameful or selfish.

In the end, finding your own self-care practices can only come from assessing yourself. Self-care requires your own evaluation in what supports yourself. Take time for yourself and for your relaxing activities. Find what drives you, and pay no attention to the pressuring insistences of affect-tourists.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Lines in the Sand and Boundaries: Surviving Graduate School

Today, Rachel Anna Neff is contributing with her thoughts on self-care in academia. Rachel Anna is working an alternate academic career as a copy editor and writer for a public university. She finished her doctorate in Spanish literature in June 2013 with her dissertation “Weird Women, Strange Times: The Representation of Power through Female Gender Portrayals in 19th and 20th century Hispanic Literature.” She is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing. You can find her on Twitter as @celloandbow or read her weekly blog at boredgnat.blogspot.com.


The first and most important step before you start your graduate studies is to make a list of three things you will absolutely not give up for graduate school. Already in graduate school? Make that list now. Making a list may seem silly, but the purpose and act of writing down what is most important to you is very serious. By writing down and thinking about what you hold most dear, you are setting up a boundary.

Boundaries are extremely important to getting through your graduate studies and navigating the daily stresses and expectations from your students, professors, peers, and yourself. When you write down the three things you will not give up for graduate school, you are drawing a line in the sand. You are telling yourself these things are most important to you and graduate school is not worth losing them. Make this list. Make boundaries. Mean them.

My personal list was (if I recall correctly): my relationship with my fiancé and my family, playing cello, and sleep. The worst year I had in graduate school was when I realized I had given up too many of my initial limits from when I started graduate school. I had lost touch with what was most important to me, and I had let preparing for my qualifying exams and writing my first dissertation chapter take over my entire life. I was miserable and depressed.

My epiphany came when my fiancĂ© and I almost ended our then-six-year relationship because I felt I couldn’t spare any weekend to fly up and visit. I skipped my favorite aunt’s wedding because I was scheduled to take my qualifying exams two weeks later, and I felt in that moment I couldn’t spare any time to fly out and attend.

What was most upsetting about the decisions I made was I missed out on a lot of family events, and I still ended up taking an extra year to finish my dissertation. I canceled my scheduled qualifying exams in early April 2011; the chapter was not anywhere in good enough to shape to go to a defense and I still had a significant number of works to read for the written exam.

Sitting in my adviser’s office, my ears rung and the world started becoming small when I said to him in this mewling voice, “I don’t think I’ll be ready to take my exams this year.”

I had spent so much time building up this idea that my adviser would be incredibly disappointed at me for not taking these exams. I felt embarrassed and humiliated knowing other students who entered the program after me were further along with their research projects and writing. Taking in small, shallow breaths, I tried not to start sobbing, even though I felt my eyes watering. I stared at the edge of my adviser’s desk, not wanting to see if my fears were true.

He calmly and kindly said, “That’s okay. We’ll cancel your exams. You can let us know when you’re ready to take them. I’d rather you have a better long paper and pass your qualifying exams than rush in and be asked to take them again.”

I looked up, slightly stunned. I had expected to be dressed down, to have to face a look of disgust or disappointment from my adviser, from my academic idol. Instead, I was fortunate enough to have a compassionate and caring individual who was sincerely concerned for my wellbeing.

Two years after that afternoon in my adviser’s office, I was packing up and moving across the country for a second time in less than eight months. I only had one more dissertation chapter to write, and the end was in sight. (N.B. Don’t move across the country twice while you’re writing your dissertation. It falls into the category of bad ideas.)

The greatest set of questions I learned to ask myself during the dissertation process was: Will this really matter in five years? Ten? Fifteen? Twenty?

Surviving graduate school means you have to put on your own oxygen mask first. Giving up all your boundaries will result in you losing yourself and being frantic and miserable. If taking care of yourself means you take a quarter off (I did) or do your dissertation in absentia (I did that as well), then do it.

Like my father once told me, “You know what special name they have for the (medical) doctor who graduates last in the class? Dead last, barely passing all the classes? Doctor.” The dissertation doesn’t have to be perfect; it has to be done. Let go of the small things and look at the big picture. Did you cave in and lose your boundaries? Did what you give up those boundaries for matter? Will it matter in five, ten, fifteen, or twenty years? No? That’s what I thought.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Self-care in Academia: a Work in Progress

Today I am inviting Jenna Townend to share her experiences and ideas on self-care in academia. Jenna is a first year, full-time Ph.D student in the Department of English, Drama and Publishing at Loughborough University. She is researching the presence of communities in seventeenth-century religious poetry.

I should begin this article by saying that it is really a co-authored piece. Virtually everything that I have learned about self-care in academia, and am sharing here, has been learnt from two academics: my supervisor, and my ex-Head of Department. While I have not always been the best at self-care, a brush with chronic health problems last year shocked me into making some changes.

After finishing my MA degree at the beginning of September 2014, I then had to get through a month of writing and giving a conference paper, moving house, and submitting a journal article for review. This obviously meant that I didn't really take any proper time off to rest after writing my Dissertation, prior to starting my Ph.D in October. As a result, a virus that had been rumbling on since August finally took hold, and, after it turned into really horrid post-viral fatigue, I was made to take a total of about 5 weeks off. I was devastated, and was far too impatient to get better.

The 'game changer' for me, and my acceptance of the fact that I needed time to get better, came as a result of an incident at the pharmacy where I have a part-time job. A regular customer came into the pharmacy on the day that I usually work, and asked why I wasn't there. My manager explained that, since finishing my MA and trying to start my Ph.D, I hadn't been well and was taking some time off. Without any further prompting, she recounted her story that, fifteen years ago, after finishing her Masters degree and securing a Ph.D place, she had also become ill and had developed ME as a result. Because of this, she had never been able to go back to complete her Ph.D, and had only been able to do office-based work since. Hearing about this story hit me square between the eyes. There was a very real possibility that, if I didn't start taking better care of myself, I could end up in a similar position. It was time to change course.

As the title of my post suggests, my journey towards self-care is most definitely still a work in progress, but, thanks to the support of my supervisor and the other wonderful people in my Department, I have tried to incorporate these four elements of self-care into my daily life.

1. Create and implement a sustainable working pattern and STICK TO IT:
Excuse the capital letters, but this is one area in which I know I am notorious for slipping back into old habits. We are told that a Ph.D should be treated like a job. That means working 9am-5pm, Monday to Friday. Realistically, though, and alongside the multiplicity of other commitments that Ph.D students take on, this is not always possible. That said, I now know that I can sustain a working day of around 8am-6pm, as long as what I am doing outside of these hours is, more or less, helping me to sustain it. In order to keep track of this working pattern, I plan out everything that I want to achieve in a day, and write up a record of what I've achieved at the end of each week.

2. Compensate for periods of long hours:
One thing that I learned while I was poorly, was that, if I had a day where I did quite a lot (at my worst, this only involved a half mile walk to campus to sit in on an hour of first-year teaching, and then return home), I would need to compensate for this the same day, or later in the week. Now that I am virtually back to full health, this has developed into knowing that if I work, for example, from 8am-8pm for a while in preparation for a deadline or (let's be honest) because I just got a bit carried away, I need to recoup these hours by taking a full afternoon or evening off, having a couple of good lie-ins at the weekend, or having the whole weekend away from my thesis. I have learnt from painful experience that, for me, 12-hour days (or days that are even longer) are only sustainable for about 3 weeks before I start to notice an impact on my health. I am a firm believer (if not yet a practitioner) in the fact that we should only get sucked into these working patterns when absolutely necessary, but compensating for any long, exhausting days that you have is integral to maintaining a sustainable pattern of work.

3. Set boundaries:
I now try to set a limit on how many 'extra' things I do each week, particularly in terms of the hours they take up. I am a 'Yes' person, and have a crippling inability to say 'No' to things, particularly if those things are asked of me personally. For me, part of working towards a pattern of self-care is controlling this. I try to set boundaries of what I will and won't do each week in order to preserve my energy and time. I admit that this is one of the things that I am still a novice at (anyone that knows me and is reading this will probably be snorting into their tea), but I am learning that it's okay to say 'No'. You are an asset to yourself, and have to take care of yourself before agreeing to help out someone else.

4. 'Have joy every day':
Last year, one of my lecturers said to me that "Every day might not be the happiest, but I will have joy every day". This was uttered in a context not related to self-care, but I think it is nonetheless invaluable advice. My only rule for implementing this is that the joy must not be directly related to your thesis. For many of us, this may sound like a contradiction in terms, seeing as so many Ph.D students subscribe to the ideology of "Do what you love; love what you do". For me, this joy invariably comes from the laughs and conversations in my Department's postgraduate office. I am very lucky to have such a community of friends and support, and realize that not all Ph.D students have this. The other ways that I ensure that this happens every day are talking with loved ones or friends, cooking a favourite meal, going to the pub, going for a walk, taking a long bath, watching a favourite film or TV programme, or losing myself in a favourite book.

This is only an overview of the things that I try to do to take care of myself (I haven't had space here to talk about diet), but I certainly think that more conversations need to happen between Universities, their academic staff and their Ph.D students if we are ever to create a sustainable working environment in the broader sense. If, as Ph.D students, we are planning on careers in academia, then I think that a shift towards better self-care needs to happen sooner, rather than later.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

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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