Mindfulness​, Mindlessness, Flow, and Wonder

In our special summer series on rest we have covered why grad students are bad at resting, and what activities definitely do not count as rest.

In the next part of this series, we are introducing four essential types of rest. Like a well-balanced diet blends your macro-nutrients so a well-balanced schedule will mix your types of rest. Each of these types of rest has their advantages for your brain and for your work.

In this post, we will go over each type of rest and in the next week we will take a more in-depth look at why need these types of rest and how to get them.

Mindfulness: You’ve probably heard a lot about mindfulness. It’s touted as a panacea for the ills of our modern age. Hell, incorporating mindfulness is part of our mission statement because there is some promising research and what it can do for the anxious and overworked. However, Mindfulness is sort of like the aspirin of mental health: in certain conditions it’s good to have some every day but it’s a preventative measure or temporary relief–not a cure.

Mindlessness: You may not have heard as much about mindlessness but it is what it sounds like. It is the state in which you zone out and you’re not thinking of anything. Mindlessness is, in my opinion, the type of rest graduate students in the humanities are most desperate for. If I had a dollar for every time a humanities graduate student told me they couldn’t have fun anymore (e.g. enjoy video games, romance novels, movies) because they couldn’t turn their brain off, well, then I wouldn’t be working on this site–I’d be relaxing mindlessly in Hawaii.

Flow: When I think of flow I think of math and the pleasure of losing myself in a problem. The flow state is that magical time when you are working on a difficult, but solvable, problem and you lose yourself in it. Writing feels best when you manage to get yourself into a flow state. If you don’t like math you may be familiar with flow from an absorbing workout, a crossword, a puzzle or some other endeavor that involves pleasurably losing yourself in the moment.

Wonder: Wonder is the rocket fuel of graduate study. Without wonder completing the degree relies on determination and willpower. Unfortunately, willpower doesn’t really exist so that’s a difficult and doomed endeavor. Wonder is the state of seeing yourself as a small part of a very big universe. It is perspective and it is vital to graduate study. Every graduate student I have ever met became a graduate student because they had wonder–they saw a big puzzle that captivated their attention and they wanted to be a part of solving it.

These forms of rest are not mutually exclusive. It’s possible that a mindfulness exercise could induce a state of wonder. You might indulge in a bit of wonder leading to mindlessness. A little bit of wonder might help get you into a flow state, and so it goes.

Come back next week when we’ll go into detail about what mindfulness is and what it can do as well as what it isn’t and what it can’t do.

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Rest

In preparing to launch this site I interviewed over 40 graduate students. In my near-decade in graduate school I have informally talked with hundreds of graduate students, post-docs, and faculty about how they structure their time.

I’ve always been interested in how people create balance for themselves and I’ve gotten some truly interesting answers.

One prominent professor, who will remain unnamed, confided in me that she got through graduate school by being drunk the entire time. So, you know, that’s one way to do it but not really one I (or that professor) advocated–too much damage to the liver.

I’ve already talked about how some people approach graduate school as a 9 to 5 job. I’ve also known people who structure their weeks very rigidly, allocating all teaching tasks to days they teach, writing to days they don’t teach, and one day a week for errands. I like the idea of such a predictable schedule but I’ve always found that real life gets in the way of all my best efforts.

What I have repeatedly found is that academics are very bad at resting. When I ask people how they rest they often tell me that they aside some time during the week for rest–sometimes it’s an hour or two a day, sometimes it’s one day out of the week, sometimes they allocate weekends, and so on.

However, that doesn’t really answer the question. That is when they rest and not how.

When I probe a little deeper and get academics, particularly grad students, to tell me how they rest the overwhelming finding is that they aren’t resting at all.

Here’s a short list of things people have told me they during their allocated resting time:

  • Dishes
  • Laundry
  • Yard Work
  • Grocery Shopping
  • Meal Prep

Those things are not rest. You may enjoy doing them. I, personally, enjoy grocery shopping but that doesn’t make it rest in the same way that I enjoy teaching but it is still my job and not my leisure time.

As a general rule, if the task has to be done then it is not rest. Dishes, laundry, yard work: these are not rest activities.

That doesn’t mean they aren’t useful. In fact, later this week we will cover exactly how and why activities like this can be helpful to your academic success, but they aren’t rest.

Some activities look like rest from the outside but may not be rest. Again, the guide is whether or not it is something that has to be done. If it has to be done it is a task or a chore and not rest. For example women, people of color, and working-class graduate students often need to do a great deal of emotional labor that may look like rest or leisure from the outside but, internally, feels like something that has to be done and it crosses the line from leisure to another chore.

Take a good, hard look at your week. Are you finding time to truly rest or are you buying into the fallacy, so aggressively perpetuated in academic circles, that any non-academic activity is rest?

 

How Many Hours Are In a Day?

Long ago, I took a class in HR Management.

We all try things.

To this day, the class in HR Management remains one of my favorite classes of all time. I have dozens of good memories from that class and one not-great memory from that class. Guess which one I’m gonna tell you about today?

The professor of that class told us that everyone had the same amount of time in the day. At the time, this didn’t quite sit well with me but it took me YEARS to figure out why.

In fact, it wasn’t until I heard about spoon theory that I fully understood what made me so uncomfortable with the statement that everyone has the same 24 hours in a day to get stuff done. If you haven’t encountered spoon theory before this image explains it:

Spoon Theory

Essentially, people who live with chronic illness do not have an equal 24 hours in a day to get things done. They have as much time and energy as their illness will let them, which is not always predictable but is non-negotiable.

And while talking about chronic illness in grad school is important it is not the only thing that can inhibit your ability to get work done. As we mentioned in a previous post, thinking about budgeting or where your next meal is going to come from takes up brain space you can’t give to academic tasks (you can also see here and here). In addition, stereotype bias can inhibit academic performance (see here, here, and here).

What I’m getting at here is the incredibly obvious point that how many usable hours you have in a day is a function of your privilege. In fact, I often introduce the concept of privilege to my students by asking them to think of reasons why the same activities might take different people different amounts of time where less time to task completion = more structural privilege.

This is obviously correlated to the fact that the more energy you are required to spend on one task the less time you have for other tasks.

And guess what? We all have finite amounts of energy.

When it comes to rest, and how much you need, or what type works for you there is only one expert: you.

The key to surviving graduate school with a modicum of sanity is to allow yourself to take the rest you need without guilt, shame, or comparison.

The simple fact is we don’t all have the same 24 hours in a day. We never did.

I would go insane if I compared my productivity to my colleague who doesn’t need more than 4 hours of sleep a night. I typically need at least 10 to function. I could waste time thinking about those 6 hours I wasn’t writing or I could acknowledge that I do better work in less time when I’m well rested.

So, from this post to the next, I’m giving you a bit of homework: Think, really think, about how much rest you would like to have in your day, your week, and your month.

On Friday, we’ll be talking about what rest is and what it isn’t.

We Bend So We Don’t Break

Yesterday someone I follow asked the Twitterverse how to keep working when one’s natural impulse is to drive to the Trump administration’s concentration camps and tear them down with their bare hands.

Yesterday, I had an answer–something about trusting that our work is dedicated to tearing down systemic injustices and will create a more equitable society in the long term.

Today . . .

Today I had Kesha and ice cream and time alone.

I am a U.S. based scholar and this site is primarily geared towards people moving through the U.S. PhD system. You might have noticed that the U.S. is, well, this image says it best:

IMG_0767

So, by my reading we’re at Stage 7? We could debate it but, why? At the end of the day, the U.S. is way too damn far along this path.

You may be wondering why I’m bringing this up during our month on rest?

I have yet to met a PhD student in the humanities who isn’t also an activist. In times like these, when there is such an urgent and immediate need for activism, it can be incredibly difficult not just to focus on our work but to maintain our mental and physical health.

Remember that your activism will have more effect if you can sustain it over the long term. Remember that this administration is counting on you becoming too sick and tired to fight their agenda. Remember that resting is an important part of your activism.

I’m not here to give you a hard and fast guide for how to balance activism with grad school, now or ever. As with so much in grad school, there is no hard and fast rule.

I’m here to remind you to bend so you don’t break. Do what you can when you can and don’t feel guilty when you need to take a nap, watch Moana, or wander around Target.

When you do have the time and energy to #Resist here are four things you might consider:

Adding this excellent ContraPoints video to your class to teach your students how to spot fascist propaganda. Seriously, I don’t care what class you’re teaching–I’m sure you can find a way to work this in even if it’s just as extra credit.

ResistBot might be the best invention ever for those of us that want to be involved but have phone anxiety or, for whatever reason, can’t call. I frequently use ResistBot when I’m on the bus but it can also be a great writing break. Also, if you’re teaching any kind of composition class having students compose a resistance letter might be an idea 😉

5Calls is amazing. You tell it what you care about and it tells you who to call and gives you a script. It also tallies how many calls you’ve made (it feels so productive!).

Kindness Is Everything–The photo that heads this post is a real (shitty) photo of the front of my house. I found this print by Kristin Joiner, bought the digital proof off of her Etsy store, and had Office Depot make me a big a** poster. I have another one in my office window on campus. I’ve also used my student print quota to print 100s of these things and fliered them all over campus. Seeing them in the student health center is actually the accomplishment I’m most proud of.

Over the weekend, I’m going to be working on some posts about the science of rest and why need to make time for it as you work towards your Phd. In the meantime

#Resist #Persist, but don’t forget to rest and drink water.

Balance

If you search for “academic work-life balance” you will get a lot of contradictory results.

You may see some advice that says the main responsibilities of a graduate student are producing research (here and here). Then you will find more realistic advice which acknowledges that academics, including graduate students, are not only asked to do a lot but also to do a lot without getting paid for it (here, here, and here).

Why is their so much contradictory, often bad, advice about how to achieve work-life balance in academia?

Part of the answer is that their is often a misrecognition of what balance is. I can speak to this because for years I had a bad idea of what balance was. I thought balance was reaching a state where everything was easy and my time was equally dedicated to my academic self and my non-academic self. I thought this was a state I could, with enough work and planning, achieve and then never leave.

What I’m really describing there is perfection and stasis–two things that don’t exist in real life because of entropy and other people.

Because perfection and stasis don’t exist any conception of balance that relies on them is doomed to failure.

But that doesn’t mean balance doesn’t exist.

When I think of balance now I think of a tree. Specifically, I think of my first yoga class at a community college when a bunch of yoga newbies were struggling with tree pose. The teacher said, “Think of trees. Trees are almost always moving with the wind but they are balanced. Balance isn’t the ability to be still. It isn’t inactive. Balance is the constant movement you engage in to maintain your equilibrium.”

I have yet to encounter a better definition of balance.

This is the second key to why a lot of advice about how to achieve balance is not as helpful as one might wish: balance is inherently individual. Therefore, recommendations for balance from other people tend to be specific to them (and not helpful for you) or so general as to not be helpful at all.

Balance is all about understanding how to maintain your equilibrium and equilibrium, in turn, is about honoring your priorities.

For instance, my priorities looked very different the first year of my PhD then they do now. In the first year of my PhD program I was 27, single, healthy and intensely focused on creating an academic career for myself. Although it might not have looked balanced from the outside, I would routinely work in my office on campus until 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. In this last year of my PhD I am 32, married, and have an autoimmune disorder. I now rarely work past 6:00 p.m.

Neither is better than the other. I simply had different priorities and abilities at the beginning of my PhD than I do now, honoring those priorities looked different so my equilibrium and, therefore, my balance, looked different.

 

The first step to any meaningful type of balance is to think about and honor your own priorities and allocate your time accordingly. Put very, very simply: put your energy mostly into the things that give you energy and don’t worry if it looks like “balance” from the outside.

This takes some trial and error, but you can do it. However, even when you’ve decided your priorities and allocated your time in a way that feels sustainable to you hiccups do happen.

Even if you’re really good at planning your day sh*t happens.

The very best way to deal with the everyday stuff that could derail you is to deal with it before it happens.

This is a tip I picked up from the book “High Performance Habits.” Brendan Burchard, the author of that book, recommends identifying your three biggest priorities for the day ahead and when you will address each of them. THEN make a contingency plan.

For me this often looks something like, “I will work on chapter edits during my office hour today. However, if my office hours are interrupted by students or talkative office mates then I will work on my chapter edits for an hour after I teach.”

This way, if something comes up that derails your carefully laid plans the balance of your day isn’t thrown off. You’ve already thought about what adjustments you can make to ensure that your three biggest priorities are met for the day.

Again, balance isn’t stasis or perfection–it is the constant motion we engage in to maintain our equilibrium.

Go forth and be great, my friends!

Soon we will have a Weekly Roundup of some of our favorite advice about balance in academia.