Saturday, September 04, 2010

The Art of Taking Breaks

The serious runners I know take one day off from running each week and alternate training and rest days. Most runners who race also understand to taper: easing up before a race so that your body can heal and reap the benefits of the training. Good coaches teach runners to honor the limitations of their bodies and to take precautions to prevent injury. Given the high injury (burnout, loss of inspiration, apathy, etc.) rate in academic programs, professors should preach analogous rest-based approaches to academic challenges.

I could have used such advice, as I certainly did not appreciate the value of mental breaks for most of my life. My first two years of college were governed by a rigorous schedule of studying, eating, sleeping, and light socializing. I did not realize how extreme my lifestyle was until my friends Jeremy and Marianne suggested that I do some activity with them as a break the night before a big exam. I looked at them blankly. I did not take breaks longer than 15 minutes.

Fortunately, I have moved away from such a regimented lifestyle with such short breaks. After my work came to require more creativity and after reading articles about daydreaming gives our brain critical downtime for our creative processes, I came to appreciate downtime. A repetitive stress injury and my measures to recover (yoga, taking more time off) have taught me that stepping away from my work can help productivity. I have also started taking breaks from from digital devices altogether. (There is a nice NY Times article about how digital devices are not conducive to rest.) My experience has shown that small breaks can be immensely helpful for productivity.

As a move from mental sprints (short deadlines and well-defined tasks) to mental marathons (the long deadlines and ambiguous tasks of my Ph.D.), my next conquest goal is the art of the extended break. After speaking with some friends who went on meditation retreats, I looked into doing one and discovered that the required length for a first retreat was a few weeks. This had seemed like blasphemy: I had not been away from e-mail for longer than a a couple of days since graduating high school. I have since come around to the view that the brain's rest process cannot be rushed: if you need a mental break, you should accept the time that your mind needs to recover. The solution to feeling overwhelmed by tasks at hand may not be to slog through and face them unproductively, but to step completely away and return when ready.

In the last few years, I have come to the view that practicing Frederick Taylorism (maximizing productivity according to a greedy algorithm) on my life only works with small, well-defined tasks. If I am pushing your mind to its limits, strategically resting (for possibly long periods of time) can take me much further.

By the way, Cal Newport has a related post on Study Hacks where he advises students to do less so they can enjoy what they do more (and thus be better at it).


Unknown said...

interesting. i know a lot about weight lifting -- like you about running -- including when and how long to take rests. but, for some reason, i never made the connection and thought abt the importance of doing similar mental breaks.

i was in the same boat as you in ugrad; i felt guilty about my occasion 10-minute games of billiards and often got 4 hrs of sleep. life is much more healthy now!

Anonymous said...

I think one of the hardest things about doing a Ph.D. is having to cut things out, especially if you're not used to having to cut things out. It's especially tough if you're passionate about multiple things. One of the best students in my program recently decided to leave and become an organic farmer in Australia because he realized he couldn't do both, and I'm gradually coming to terms with the fact that now is not a good time for me to continue studying music.

But the cut-stuff-out principle is true even if we're only talking about academic work and not other things. I've been talking to some folks lately about the problem of finding a Research Identity™. You need a theme around which to wrap a thesis proposal. Whatever it is doesn't have to be Your Identity Forevermore, but it probably will have to be your identity for a while, like at least a year or two. And you probably will have to dismiss some other awesome things during that time, because they don't fit, and those things are hard to let go of, even temporarily.