Stop feeling like you can never relax in grad. school

woman leaning on table, looking overworked, exhausted, and like she can never relax

The Perpetual Graduate School Grind

When I was a graduate student, I felt like I could never relax. I felt guilty when I wasn’t working on my coursework or research. When I was working, I wished I was relaxing and when I was “relaxing,” I felt like I should be working. I was on the express train to burnout.

Since that time, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned that the characteristics that get us into graduate school can work against us once we are there and I’ve learned that that train ride to burnout, which feels so productive when we are on it, slows us down in the long run.

So, if you feel like you can’t relax and take on graduate school with a healthy mindset, sit down with a cup of tea and read on. Here are five tips for breaking out of the grad. school grind.

woman relaxes while holding cup with tea

1: Never relaxing destroys problem solving and creativity

Feeling like you can never relax, stems (in part) from thinking of it as wasting time or less important than your work. It’s not true. Do you want to stop feeling guilty about taking time off? Then realize that taking time to do other things is an important part of problem-solving and therefore, your productivity.

Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that taking time away from work increases learning, creativity, and performance (1 – 4) and failing to maintain a healthy work-life balance is associated with a number of poor mental health outcomes (5 – 7).

Solution: Schedule time away and take it seriously. If feelings of guilt creep up, remind yourself that you’re still being productive by re-energizing yourself for your work. Give yourself permission to relax and recharge, even for just a little while.

2: Fighting through fatigue to increase productivity is counterproductive

The more you work, the more fatigued you get. The more fatigued you get, the slower you work and the more mistakes you make (8). Plus, the effects of fatigue are insidious and widespread. The more tired you get, the more stressed and burned out you feel and the less emotional regulation you have (9). Less emotional regulation means everything feels more overwhelming. This leads to procrastination, so you’re losing more time. Then you feel like you can’t relax because you’ve been procrastinating and the whole cycle starts again.

Solution: Set a sleep schedule and make it a priority. Practice good sleep hygiene. Don’t use chemical assistance to force yourself to stay awake (e.g., energy drinks or coffee). If trouble sleeping is a regular problem, go see a doctor.

3: Time off to rest and relax is not procrastinating

Procrastination is an avoidance strategy for dealing with tasks you find unpleasant or distressing (10). Taking intentional time away from your work can actually help overcome procrastination because it aids in your problem-solving and emotional regulation. Making the tasks less intimidating and making you better able to overcome your avoidance of the task.

Solution: Schedule planned time off and understand that relaxing is not procrastination unless you’re specifically avoiding work. Not relaxing leads to more procrastination and is an anathema to productivity.

4: There’s no need to feel guilty for taking time off

Grad. students tend to feel guilty relaxing because they:

  • Think they’re not getting enough done
  • Think they’re not producing enough
  • Feel they not getting through their program fast enough
  • Are getting bad advice about the hours they should be keeping (I’m looking at you toxic advisors)
  • Feel like they are “wasting time” by relaxing
  • Believe they are not managing their time “perfectly” and so need to make it up

Solution: Do something that will distract you from ruminating on the fact that you aren’t working. Go out to eat with friends, play a sport, work on a hobby, read a good book, whatever can distract you from your own thoughts. You are important as a human being and deserve to periodically relax and recover.

5. Never relaxing will destroy your health.

Graduate students spend a lot of time in their own heads, so it’s easy to forget about the body. Physical health is vital to maintaining your brain function at its peak. This includes taking time away from working for sleep, physical activity, and eating healthy.

Take sleep for example. While you sleep, your body recharges your immune system. When you can’t relax and sleep, you’re more prone to getting sick (11 – 12). Nothing kills productivity faster than an illness. Plus, evidence suggests partial but chronic sleep loss, like the kind many graduate students experience, may be even worse for immune function than short-lived but total sleep loss (11).

Never relaxing with physical activity, to eek out more productivity is also a fool’s errand. Physical activity is vital for physical and mental health, and excessive sitting has been linked to premature mortality!

Solution: You can’t finish your degree if you’re sick, miserable, or dead. Recognize that the feeling that you should sacrifice your health to complete your degree is a sign of toxic productivity and isn’t reflective of reality. You can finish your degree without driving your body and spirit into the ground. In fact, you’ll likely finish faster if you stop punishing yourself and learn to relax without guilt.

So, the next time you are feeling guilty and struggling to relax, remember how vital it is to your productivity and that it’s Okay to step away for a bit.

Wishing You the Best in Your Academic Success,

Dr. Cristie Glasheen, Your Graduate Student Success Coach.
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