Posted by: thediygeochemist | February 15, 2012

the importance of staying sane and taking breaks

I was talking to my sister over the weekend and I mentioned that I felt very burdened by all I had to do:

(1) Prepare for my next research cruise–coming up in a couple of weeks. Until Dr. Hand-Waver hires the post-doc she’s supposed to hire for this project, *I* am the lab manager and therefore in charge of essentially shipping the whole lab to the port city.

(2) Studying for my qualifying exams.

(3) Dealing with legal issues regarding my kids–a part time job in and of itself

(4) Responsibilities associated with my volunteer positions

(5) Therapy–I’m doing EMDR to treat my PTSD, so this is not easy

(6) Other random stuff

“Wow,” she said. “Is there anything you can give up temporarily?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I can drop all of the stuff that keeps me sane.”

In the past, I’ve actually tried cutting out my volunteer work and other random stuff. But this has actually made me less, not more, productive.

* * *

When I was choosing a grad school I actually had a prospective advisor tell me that I should count on having no life outside of grad school. I should rent instead of buying a house, because buying a house requires upkeep. I should not get involved in any outside activities, because those would keep me from graduating on time.

I thought him very divorced from reality. I think it’s absolutely necessary to have outside activities–not only because they keep you sane, but also because they actually *help* your graduate work. Luckily I have an advisor that agrees. (Believe me, that is NOT coincidental.)

For example, when something is not going well in lab and I can’t figure out what’s wrong, I could theoretically stay and beat my head against the wall. But I’ve actually found I’m more likely to find a solution if I leave the lab and take a walk by the creek.

I have even better luck if I’m working with my hands; some of my best thinking in California was done while pruning the roses, for example. I didn’t buy a house as a grad student because I think it’s a good investment: I did it because it gives me opportunities to work with my hands, to think with a different part of my brain.

I know people who think best while running. I know people who think best while knitting. I know people who think best while doing yoga or meditating quietly. Now, you could do all of these on the weekend, but let’s face it–that’s not when you need to really think, to do your serious problem solving. So I’m a big fan of taking a break in the middle of the work day to do something that’s not work–even if it means staying a bit later or coming in a bit earlier to make up the time.

I walk. DannyBoy lifts weights. What do you do in the middle of the day to keep your brain from shutting down?


  1. As a first year grad student who just started working in the lab this semester, I’m still trying to work this all out. I do agree you need things other than work to keep you sane.

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