How I take weekends off as an academic

Hi friends! Today I want to talk about a practice that I really, really value, but spent most of grad school being very, very bad at: taking time off from working. I feel like it’s pretty common advice that academics should “take at least one day off a week” but it’s hard to go against the culture of constant work! So let’s talk about HOW I actually became a person who takes weekends off and maybe we can all crowd source some tips for valuing and taking needed rest breaks.

Ok I’m interspersing weekend adventure pictures throughout this post because pretty mountains! Going outside is awesome! For most of graduate school I worked the way I thought academics “should,” which is to say all. the. time. I worked until 9 or 10 at night every night. I worked Saturdays and Sundays, too, for at least half the day.

By contrast: I now (usually) am done working at 5 (exceptions for teaching night grad seminars and occasional conference submission-related panic). I never work Saturdays/Sundays. I feel extremely vulnerable even writing this in a blog post (does it feel like bragging? does it make anyone wonder if I will “deserve” tenure?). Getting to this point was HARD. It took several years of PRACTICE. I think there were a couple of mental barriers I faced to taking time off and the first best thing I did was just naming those barriers:

-Guilt. When you’re in a system that values the “best” students, where people praise each other for “dedication,” and where you’re “lucky” if you get accepted to a competitive program, I think there is definitely a big fear of not being good enough or working hard enough.

-Competitive culture. You show up to the office on Monday and everyone engages in a solidarity gripe fest about how much work they had to do over the weekend. If you can’t participate, will people judge you? Will people wonder if you’re working hard enough?

So, how did I break out of this cycle of always working? The first big realization I had in grad school was that things were never going to get easier and there will always be more work. Oof. These are not happy thoughts. But I really had a serious moment where I thought to myself “if I don’t get control of my life, I will never have one.” That hurt, but it was my motivation.

So, with this thought in mind, I did a couple of things that made taking time off easier:

Change the conversations. I surrounded myself with people who took breaks and distanced myself from conversations about constantly working. You don’t have to ditch your academic friends, but when people talk about how they have to work all weekend step away from the water cooler. This is not a conversation for you anymore. Because you don’t have to work all weekend. You know what else helps? Forging non-academic friendships because non-academics mostly don’t understand!! Because everyone always has more work to do! But non-academics just…mostly don’t do that on Saturdays!

Take small steps. The first real thing I did was I stopped working after dinner on weekdays. This was much easier, then I moved on to a full weekend day off, then two. I made each rest period a habit. To stop working after dinner, I tied this to a specific time and set of behaviors (Ex: after dinner I will close my laptop and put it in the office). Another thing that I actually just did that helps a ton is turning off email notifications on my phone. I schedule my email checks now (again, specific times: 10 AM and 4 PM).

Lie. Look I don’t want to be too blunt about this, but if you have someone in your life who makes you feel bad for not constantly working, I think you’re allowed to just say “ugh yes so much to do” when they start griping. And then move on.

Do nothing. Another big problem I’ve had is that when I take time off I still fill it with trying to be busy in other ways (like, uh, blogging). I have created higher-quality rest by noticing weekend activities that actually make me feel rested and setting up spaces to do those activities. I put chairs on my patio so I would go sit in the sun on nice days. I charged my ancient Kindle and got a library card so I could always have ebooks ready to read. Hiking helps a lot, because there’s no cell phone service. I try to ACTUALLY REST at the end of the trail. Like seriously just sit there for a few minutes. It’s eye-opening how difficult this is.

So, there you have it. This has been a 4+ year project for me. The guilt is never completely gone, but I am finally at the point where I don’t think “wait, should I be working?” on Saturday. Having a daily writing practice on weekdays has definitely helped as well. If you have other tips for stopping yourself from overworking, please share below! I hope you all have a restful weekend 🙂

10 thoughts on “How I take weekends off as an academic”

  1. Love this post, everything you say is spot on! I thankfully realized pretty early on that if I wanted to survive my PhD, I definitely had to take breaks from the lab, i.e. taking evenings and weekends off. Having a non-academic partner definitely helped normalizing not working all the time too… I just wish I would have discovered your blog when I was still a PhD student, so I wouldn´t have felt so strange about being a scientist while also being interested in what I was wearing 😉

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  2. Thank you for this! I’m in my second year as an assistant professor and I, too, rarely work on weekends. Sometimes I feel lazy or like I should be working more, but at the same time, this has been working for me. I think work-life balance is really important, and as much as I love my job/research, I like to do other things as well. I don’t want my students to think they “need” to be working all the time, and I hate the culture of busyness that frequently seems to value time spent working more than actual productivity. Also, because my evenings and weekends are usually work-free, when I do have an intense impending deadline or unexpected workload, it means that those hours are now available for work (eg., I can work a little later in the evening or a few hours on the weekend, rather than now needing to fit that extra work into time I want to spend sleeping).

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    1. Yeah trying to correct my thought that I’m being “lazy” is an ongoing struggle. I like that you frame it in terms of mentoring for your students!! That’s a good way to do it. And I agree–sleep is never on the table for me as the thing to cut down on, which I really appreciate. Being tired is the worst!

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  3. I definitely needed to hear this…I got my PhD 3 years ago and this academic year is the first time I’ve ever consistently taken weekends off. The only thing that made it possible for me was actually developing a daily writing practice (as you said!) because I didn’t realize how inefficient so much of my “working” time was. A lot of it was bound up in stressing, work-crastinating, etc. I actually am better at meeting deadlines now than I ever have been! Because, surprise, when you’re mentally exhausted all the time your brain doesn’t work as well…what I wouldn’t give to have developed these habits in grad school!

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  4. It’s so true once you remind yourself that there will always be more work… it helps you accept work remaining “undone”. Loved this post!

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  5. Stumbled on your blog when I was trying to figure out what to wear to meet my new department chair in person for the first time (this was a really weird year to be on the market), and I love this! My partner and I are both academics, so it’s so easy to succumb to the working around the clock culture. Right now I have to keep that schedule in order to defend next month, but after that I really want to get back to weekend hikes:)

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    1. Hi Ashley! That’s so exciting, congrats on the job!!! I definitely had spiraling “what do I wear” moments about every new faculty thing but eventually those went away 🙂 I hope starting the new position works out well and you get some time to rest/enjoy how dang weird the first year as a prof is!!!

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