How do you take care of yourself in academia?

Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including YOU ~ Anne Lamott, American Author.

We’ve all been there: The semester is nearly over, and your exhaustion is palpable as the adrenaline that got you to this point drains away. As you finish grading and looking ahead to a much-needed break, you find yourself wondering how you are going to get everything done for the holidays and manage to do some research and writing before the next semester begins.

The demands of performance in academia are real: preparing lectures, standing in front of a classroom, grading and reporting the results to students and administration, serving on committees, finding time for your own research and writing, then the additional work of finding a publisher, and perhaps helping new colleagues adjust to this demanding lifestyle.

The answer starts with self-care.

First things first: Rest!

Your mind and body need this to recharge. Your brain is a muscle, too. You wouldn’t climb a mountain with resting on the way to the summit. You aren’t doing yourself, your family or your colleagues any good by pushing yourself to the point of collapse. After all, who is going to pick up the slack when you are unavailable?

Protect your physical and mental health

Use Ned Hallowell’s acronym EYES as a reminder

E-Exercise If you like going to the gym, do that. But find something else if you hate that. No one sticks with a program they hate.

Y-Yoga (or meditation, or prayer) to slow down. Practice forgiveness and compassion for yourself.

Eat right Only you know what is right for you, but there is certainly a lot of good data about what works and what doesn’t to help. If you have special issues, it is even more important to eat what’s right for you.

Sleep There is excellent evidence showing that failure to sleep can induce psychosis. It’s why the military uses sleep deprivation to break opponents. You are not in enemy territory (even if it feels like that from time to time).

Look at your life as a sine wave

You will have periods of great productivity, and periods of low productivity. That does not mean nothing is happening during the fallow period. It may just be that your ideas need some fertilizer and time to germinate. I was recently reminded by one client that Charles Darwin worked thirty years in his study before publishing On the Origin of Species, and he was forced to let his work out into the world by the possibility of being scooped. Sadly, no academic has the luxury of working that long in today’s world, but it is worth understanding complicated theories need time to evolve. So to speak.

Remember why you are doing this work

For some of you, it’s the excitement of discovering something new. For some of you, it may be related to furthering a particular cause. For some of you, it’s reaching and helping students gain skills for their future. No matter what your own reason is, keep your mind focused on your own goals.  It will help you succeed in every aspect of this career that does not remotely resemble a traditional 9-5 job.

Practice positivity

Thinking positive thoughts creates what Barbara Frederickson calls “the upward spiral.” That sounds a whole lot better than the typical downward spiral academics use to beat themselves up, like “I’ll never finish this project.” “This project will never be good enough.” And worst of all, “I am a failure.” Though you may disagree with her 3:1 ratio of necessary good thoughts to bad ones, you can use her lovely list of things to consider to increase your own positivity. She suggests making a portfolio using the following categories: amusement, awe, gratitude, hope, inspiration, interest, joy, love, pride, and serenity. You can do this physically or electronically, by using the items that inspire you, make you laugh, glow with pride, joy or love. I’ve kept a folder for years of academic cartoons that help me keep things in perspective.

Help others

It’s amazing how much helping others actually ends up feeling like we are helping ourselves. We humans want to connect, and for the most part, we want to cooperate with others. How many times have you read, “I started doing service work because I thought it would help my career, but found out I could really make a difference in other people’s lives.” Working with colleagues at the same stage in their careers to get their writing done, figure out how to negotiate on-line systems, or speak more easily in public. It will reduce anxiety for each of you by normalizing the situation.

Do the work

When all is said and done, you still have to do the work. Say “no” to whatever you can to help take back your own time. It’s better to take action than to worry about taking action. Procrastination, often arising from fear of failure, has done in many academics over the years. You will be surprised at how good you can feel by even putting in a few minutes a day working on your own projects. It lets you stop saying “I should…” and instead say “I am…” moving forward.

Classic solutions

Finally, you can always use some of the old stand-bys suggested in countless articles on self-care like taking a bubble bath, reading something for pleasure, meeting up with friends, going to the movies. Basically, it’s about finding a way to escape the pressures of your life, even if briefly. Which returns us to the first important step:  Start by resting!


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