I Worked Overtime But I Had Nothing To Publish
I had a pounding headache. I had been experiencing this pain for months, but several hundred pain reliever pills later, my headache was only getting worse.
It was past midnight during early January of my 6th year of graduate school, and I was sitting alone in my lab, “trying” to write my first research paper.
I had been working on this paper together for months (sometimes putting in and extra 4-6 hours a day) but there was so much data to analyze that I felt dizzy every time I started running statistical analyses.
As I sat there feeling sorry for myself, and being almost certain that I would never graduate, I suddenly heard one of the other senior graduate students come through the door.
“What are you doing here?” I asked him, pointing at the clock. It was 12:30 am already.
“Oh, I forgot to send out the draft of my publication to our boss, and I am going on vacation in just a few hours,” he said. “All my files are on my lab computer, so I had to come to work. What are you doing here?”
“Actually, I am just trying to write my first paper, but it is just not coming together,” I sighed. “I feel like I have wasted so much time on it already. Did you ever waste time at work? I mean, this must be like your fifth publication, right?”
“Oh, I never wasted a single workday in my life. Everything always goes according to plan.” he replied looking very serious. Then his face turned into a big grin and he broke into laughter.
“Dora, if you knew how many days I wasted doing useless experiments that never turned into anything…seriously…you would not believe it! The first paper is always the toughest. If I were you, I would take a break before trying to write again. Just let it rest for a day and have some fun! Anyways, see ya!” , he said heading home to grab his luggage before catching a plane to the Caribbean.
I sat in the lab for a few minutes, digesting what he told me.
First, I realized that I was not alone – even though he was one of the most prolific students in the group he still “wasted” a lot of days at work, and he also found his first paper challenging.
Second, he had a sense of humor about dead-end experiments – it seemed like it was part of the process of research for him.
Third, he was vacationing in the Caribbean having five papers under his belt while I was stuck in my lab in snowy New England, struggling with getting my first paper out!
I knew something had to change.
I realized that working long hours without taking a break was actually curtailing my productivity because I was exhausted at the end of every day.
Like many other students, I either did not take a break during the day (except for a quick lunch), or I checked my email during my breaks.
I have no doubt that you take your work seriously. But, do you give your body the rest it needs during your breaks? Do you get up from your desk, go on a short walk or do a few minutes of exercise every hour or two?
Or, do you check email, text messages, and social media during off-hours? While internet surfing may “seem” or “feel”relaxing, it is actually not restoring your mind and body.
If you keep pushing your body to work to the point of a burnout, your body will find a way to take a break, usually at the most inconvenient time.
You may get sick right before a deadline, or maybe you mind will “check out” and you will start to browse the Internet or social media during work hours.
If you are feeling burned out, you are probably not giving your body restorative breaks that are essential for optimal productivity
Did you ever notice that the most productive people are also very passionate about their hobbies? Perhaps they are avid athletes, musicians, or active in their communities?
These people are productive because they take their breaks “seriously” and deliberately plan to engage in activities that restore their minds and bodies.
My coworker who published 5 papers also took his breaks seriously: he either played basketball mid-day, went out to lunch with friends, and he frequently went out of town on the weekends.
Taking a break is easy. The tough part is letting go of the ingrained beliefs that have held you back from giving your body a well-deserved break such as:
“More hours at work leads to more results,”
“Being busy is a good thing,” or
“I am so behind that I do not have time for a break.”
These limiting beliefs will keep you frustrated, unmotivated, and stressed.
If you are able to let go of these beliefs, take your breaks seriously, and deliberately engage in activities that are restorative and fun for you, you can literally skyrocket your productivity – your professors will not know what hit you, but they will certainly be pleased!
Five Steps to Skyrocket Your Productivity By Taking Your Breaks Seriously
1) Be proactive about your break schedule
Decide in advance when you will take short breaks during the day, and when you will take longer breaks on the weekends.
During a workday, alternating 45 minutes of writing with 15 minutes of rest is a schedule that works for many students who need to write for long hours.
Others, especially if they are struggling with writer’s block, find it easier to write for 25 minutes and take a 5 minute break.
Experiment with the length of time you can concentrate and set your break schedule accordingly.
Whichever break schedule you choose, make sure that you use a timer (otherwise you will be tempted to keep writing), and that you are actually away from your desk (and any electronics) during your breaks.
Over the course of the week it is also important to plan longer breaks – maybe half a day or an entire day on the weekend- so you can plan your work hours accordinly.
2) Decide how you will spend time during your breaks
Not all breaks are created equal, and what is fun for one person can be draining for another.
Your break needs to be restorative, and it will be most effective if you are away from your desk, disconnect from all electronics and can get your body in motion.
A 15 minute break is usually enough for a short walk or to do some work around the house if you work from home.
Listening to music while working or doing chores will make the time even more fun and re-energize you.
If you take a “serious” break on the weekends be very selective about how you spend your precious time.
You may disappoint people, but friends and family who really care about you will understand if you would rather do something that you are passionate about.
Instead, use your long breaks to have real fun (visiting an amusement park or the beach or going out to a new restaurant or ice cream), so you can be ready to work at your highest potential when the week begins.
3) Have compassion for yourself
You are a human being with a personal life, emotions and limited energy.
You can make a plan, but it is unrealistic to expect yourself to go through all your to-do’s like a robot every day.
You may fall behind on your milestones due to interruptions, unexpected events, of if your work takes longer (or WAY longer) than you expected.
If you do feel like you are behind, resist the tempation to skip your breaks to “catch up”.
It is during the busiest times that you need your breaks the most, because it is during your breaks that you will gain insights that will help you to prioritize and perhaps even find shortcuts to complete your work.
4) Start every day fresh
When I worked on my research article I was constantly beating myself up for falling behind schedule, and I felt embarrassed to tell my supervisor about my lack of progress.
Eventually, these feelings of guilt snowballed, and turned into a downward spiral of procrastination – the less I got done, the more I guilty I felt, and the less motivated I was to do work.
It is easy to turn this spiral right-side up.
Instead, use your breaks to brainstorm about how you will make the most progress today – this strategy will help you let go of the feelings of overwhelm that can lead to procrastination.
5) Spend time with positive and supportive people
Whom you spend your time with during your breaks is just as important as what you do during your breaks.
Students in your department or people in your social circles may be supportive or competitive.
Competitive students usually talk about their own accomplishments and have little interest in supporting you – they are no fun to be around.
How do you know if a person is supportive? Listen to your gut instinct: if you look forward to spending time with this person, they are probably supportive. If you dread hanging out with them, then find a new friend.
Life is too precious to be spent with people who are negative, competitive, or unreliable.
Four Weeks to a Finished Manuscript
After the conversation with my prolific friend I decided to take a day off and visited the special Impressionist exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston .
I am passionate about Impressionism, but I had been denying myself this excursion for weeks because I was pressuring myself to finish the paper.
The exhibit was breathtaking. I was in awe of all the beauty that the museum had brought together, and I could not believe that I had the privilege to view these coveted masterpieces.
More importantly, when I returned to work I felt refreshed, as if the exhibit had infused me with the creativity of the greatest impressionist painters.
My manuscript was 40 pages of incoherent messy writing, and in just one day I had edited it down to 10 pages that had a central message and a logical flow of arguments.
There were still many gaps in the literature review and the statistical analysis, but over the next 4 weeks I committed to a reasonable schedule, which I could sustain until I finished the paper.
It took about a week to adjust to my new schedule, which had several short breaks during the day, and at least one 15 minute walk outside.
I was so used to working (or trying to work) that I felt guilty about taking a break when I was behind schedule. However, I knew from experience that not taking a break would lead to another burnout.
My breaks, especially the outdoor walks, always gave me new insights on how my research fit in with the literature.
Just 4 weeks after my conversation, I handed a finished manuscript to my supervisor – not only was he pleased that I completed the paper, but he also gave me a day off.
My supervisor clearly understood the importance of taking breaks, and it probably contributed to his success.
The habit of walking stuck with me. To this day, I take a walk whenever I get stuck. Just like Charles Darwin, I know that I will find the answer during my walks – and I almost always do.