I wrote this just before taking a 2 week holiday and mentioned how important it is to prioritize rest at this time of year.
Fatigue impairs cognitive function. This is a fact. There is lots of research to back it up. It also contributes to a whole host of other kinds of ill-health.
The fact that you can’t control everything contributing to your fatigue doesn’t mean you should just give up on even trying. You will be a better teacher, a better researcher, a better advisor, a better colleague, a better parent, a better friend, a better partner … if you are better rested.
The cycles of the academic year mean that summer is your window for getting a sustained period of rest.
The case for (at least) 2 weeks holiday
This is one of the things I’ve learned from my dad, who ran his own business for many years. The first few days of your holiday are going to be hard. It takes time to stop your brain going over all the work stuff. It feels uncomfortable to rest when you have been busy. Often physically uncomfortable. You need your holiday to be long enough to get through this uncomfortable transition and out the other side.
Similarly, as you approach the end of your holiday, you will start getting a bit restless. You’ll start thinking about work again. You’ll tense up a bit. If you only take a short holiday you are going to go straight from the uncomfortable beginning into this gearing back up again phase, without any actual rest in between. Your gremlins will then use this as evidence that holidays are pointless because you don’t return to work any more rested and you’ve now got a week’s worth of stuff piled up to deal with.
Taking 2 weeks means you will get at least a week of actual rest in between those two transitional states. Working up to this amount is unlikely to work well because of the transitions. You might have to just do it (even if it’s scary) and evaluate later.
What rest looks like
Rest looks different for different people. I tend to spend a lot of time sitting around knitting and reading. Or listening to audiobooks, so I can do both things at once. I stay in bed late. I might even read when I wake up before actually getting up for breakfast.
My partner likes to do things. He doesn’t like sitting around (though he does more of that on holiday that he might otherwise) but he potters. I’m not sure if the verb “to potter” is a particularly UK term so in case it doesn’t mean anything to you, he clips the hedges, mows the lawn, weeds the garden, does little DIY projects, cleans and declutters things we never get to, bakes, cooks fancy things, and that sort of thing.
He doesn’t do it in a pressured way. There are no goals for how much he can get done. There is no obligation to himself or to others. He just does things he enjoys doing at a relaxed pace.
My partner also enjoys walking/hiking (that’s definitely a geographically different term; what North Americans call hiking, British folks mostly call walking). Holidays may be an opportunity to take the dogs and go for a 4 or 5 hour walk. Last year he took a separate holiday by himself and walked part of the Dales Way for 3 days.
What works for you might be completely different from those examples. You may need to experiment to figure out what works best. Don’t forget that the first few days of your holiday are transition time and feel uncomfortable. You may need something different for those days (including permission to be grumpy).
Dealing with the gremlins
Your gremlins will probably throw some kind of party to berate you for being lazy, or prophesy some kind of doom if you ignore your work for that long.
If you’ve never taken a 2 week (at least) holiday before, never taken one without at least checking in with work, or feel like this year there is too much going on to take one, you may need to deal with some very loud gremlin talk.
“Your work will just pile up and you’ll have to do it all anyway when you get back.”
“OMG the email on the first day back”
“It’s so hard getting back into things, that I don’t want to abandon them completely”
You are entitled to annual leave. Yes, your employer will keep demanding more and more. No, you can’t wait for them to stop making demands. You have to start treating their demands as unreasonable. At the very least, acknowledge that their demands are unreasonable, rather than acquiescing to an overload culture.
Reduce your expectations for what you can do in a year. Treat July and August as one month in terms of “productivity”. The fact that what you achieve never matches up with your ambitions is not evidence that you need to work harder. It is just how things work. You have grand visions/ambitions that inspire you to do good work. You don’t have to achieve the vision for your achievement to qualify as good work.
Set an out of office email message that clearly states that you will not be dealing with any email that arrives while you are on leave. You’d be surprised how quickly the total drops when people know they won’t get a reply. Schedule your Out of Office message to run at least one day longer than you are actually away (and put those extra dates in the message) so you have a day to triage your inbox before new things come in. Take your work email off your phone. Make sure there is a way for people to contact you for non-work things that isn’t your work email account (now might be a good time to set up a personal email account if you don’t have one).
Communicate with co-authors, PhD and Masters students, and other people you collaborate directly with on projects. Let them know when you are on holiday. Encourage them to also take holiday. Set an example.
If your holidays don’t coincide, you can even manage the workflow so that you hand things off to them before you go and vice versa. Prioritize making sure they know what to get on with in your absence. Book a meeting for a week or so after your return to check in.
Use the last few days of work to tie up loose ends and make notes for where to start on each project on your return. Do not start new things in the week before your holiday. Plan the week or two after your return so you don’t feel like you have to catch up everything on day one.
Leave notes for yourself that include some suggestions for where to start.
This article was sent to newsletter subscribers on 10 July 2020. It has been lightly edited. Audio version added 5 August 2020. Subscribe to my newsletter, here.