Taking time for yourself isn’t a sign of weakness

(short)

During my undergraduate and masters degrees, my working hours were sporadic. I’d work into the evenings and have no definitive cut-off point. If I had any spare time to myself, I’d feel guilty if I didn’t spend it studying. Because your working hours are self-imposed as a student, and particularly if you’re doing a PhD, it’s hard to justify not working if you have a free evening, for example.

I realised there was actually no distinction between when I was studying and when I wasn’t. I’d feel guilty if I wasn’t working, and therefore not enjoy my free time, but I’d feel apathetic if I was, because there was no cut-off point. This meant that, although I dedicated more time to my work, the work I produced was, to put it bluntly, pretty crap.

It’s easy to think that every hour you don’t spend working is another hour you’re falling behind. But it will always feel like there’s more you should be doing; it’s an unrealistic and unnecessary pressure to put on yourself. Realising this was really important for me.

During my masters I re-evaluated my approach. I made an effort to ensure I kept my evenings and weekends (guilt) free and found that the hours I did spend working were significantly more productive. I was also way less uptight.

A large part of this is also letting go of the external perception of your productivity. I thought that if I was visibly tired, busy and over-worked, that would somehow justify the importance of my work to the external observer. This is a weird act that humans put on, a sort of peacocking; a display of their exhaustion for their fellow humans to prove they’re more important. Yet, contrary to popular belief, announcing how busy you are, or how tired you are, or how you just wish you had time to watch TV in the evenings isn’t an indication of how good you are at what you do. Being overworked and overtired isn’t synonymous with success or importance. Nor are pictures of you still in the office at 11pm.

Honestly, it’s a great day when you realise you don’t have to power walk everywhere to prove how busy you are. Try it.

Some of you may be thinking, just wait until you’re in the second or third year of your PhD, you won’t have time for anything. But if I start my PhD working 12 hours a day 7 days a week, I will burn out in six months.

I’ve said this before, but if you’re doing a PhD or your job is relatively remote, you’re incredibly lucky to be on our own time; at least take some of that for yourself when you can.

Not being visibly over-worked, tired and stressed doesn’t mean you’re failing, and taking time for yourself isn’t a sign of weakness.

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