As a clinical psychologist, you would think I was an expert on self-care. And I’m great at reminding my clients about the importance of their self-care. I am quick to tell my students and research assistants that it’s okay to take a day off if you’re feeling sick or overwhelmed, no worries, we can always catch up when you’re feeling better. All the while, I’m thinking about which “healthy” freezer meal I picked out for a meager lunch today and worrying about where I can possibly fit in 1/2 an hour of exercise in my busy schedule this week. I’m pretty sure the last true vacation I had was eight years ago, when I was on my honeymoon. When I take a weekend “off,” I still find myself getting that irritating itch — should I spend it doing schoolwork or housework?
Over the past year or so, I have become more intentional about taking care of myself. Partly, this is because I have simply run out of juice and could not delay my self-care any longer. Part of it, though, is because I’ve come to recognize that a critical piece of my vision for post-grad school life is a good work-life harmony. I’m never going to be one of those academics who works 80 hours a week chasing grants and top-tier journals. I want my life to be more balanced, such that I enjoy my work and find it productive and fulfilling, but with a healthy dose of time with my family and time to myself, doing things I enjoy. So, as I approach the conclusion of my time as a graduate student, I have begun to shape my life to better match my vision of the future. For me, this means that I spend less time typing while I watch TV and instead enjoy a show or movie without distraction. It means that every 2 weeks or so, I turn off my phone and enjoy a hot bubble bath or trip to the nail salon. Do I still try to save money? Heck yes. But I also feel less guilty for “turning off” when I get home.
Graduate school is what you make it, to one extent or another. If you want to work all the time and never take a break, I doubt there is anyone telling you not to do that. (If you have someone, that is wonderful and rare, and be sure to thank that person and keep them close!) But I see people burn out, just like I have, all the time. There comes a point where you cannot do good work anymore, because you are hungry and exhausted and isolated and can barely think straight about your project. I challenge you to learn how to act before you reach that point, so that you may prevent the worst of it. It’s like dehydration — learn to realize you are thirsty and drink some water before you collapse. I think this is doubly true in the current climate, when many of us are working overtime to support social justice on top of our many 8-to-5 obligations. Sit for a minute before you fall over.
I am hopeful that VT GrATE will be able to bring some cool self-care events, opportunities, and ideas to you this month. Regardless, you have to figure out what works for you. Learn to recognize small moments and use them to support yourself in meaningful ways. Don’t force yourself to wait until graduate school is over before you start to live your life. There will always be “something else.”
And about those people who are reminding you to publish or perish:
Sometimes you are all you have, and that’s good enough. Don’t forget it.