Switching off?

I know, it has been embarrassingly quiet on my blog, and I am ashamed to see that my last blog post was almost two months ago – on the 16th of May. Why have I been so quiet? Has nothing been happening in my academic life? Or am I also someone who, after an enthusiastic start, throws the proverbial towel into the ring, as we would say in Dutch? Well, at least, in the last two months, readers of my blog would have found a blog post that said it all: I have been incredibly, ridiculously busy.

So what have I been doing during these two months? Well, in no particular order, I have built roofs for my drought experiment and done the first samplings, I have organised a publishing workshop at the Faculty of Life Sciences of The University of Manchester, I have been on field work for the Ecofinders project, I have been to a knowledge exchange workshop with Cumbrian farmers, I have participated in a workshop about food, health and environmental change, and I have revised and resubmitted two papers. I have also written and submitted a grant, and I am currently writing another one. On top of that, I am writing two other papers, I am setting up a lab, I am an associate editor for two journals, and I regularly review articles for a range of journals. And I am also secretary of the Plants, Soils, Ecosystems special interest group of the British Ecological Society. Oh yes, and I have also been to the Netherlands for a week to visit family and friends.

Writing all this down does make it look a bit ridiculous, and it at least sort of underpins my feeling that I have been pretty much working flat out. Which is slightly worrying, since I have not even started teaching yet!

Of course, this is all self-inflicted, and I should probably try to say no more often. However, I am not the only one – almost everyone I know who is serious about a career in academia has a chronic lack of time as a result of taking on too many things. But how many things are too many? I know that before I have arrived at the point of potentially starting to say no to things, I literally have to see no way of doing anything else other than working and sleeping for the next two weeks.

Anyway, as a result of all this franticness, I have chosen to switch off late in the evenings, rather than try and write a blog post, which is not really work, but effectively it is. Instead, in the spare evening hours that I felt that I didn’t have to work, I have been reading books, and during the weekend, I have been doing lots of cycling and running.

Because switching off is important. Taking time off is important, and going on holiday is important. OK, I am not saying that you should go on holiday four times a year, but you really are more productive when you take regular breaks. But I think that it is not just about the quantity of breaks, but also about the quality.

For me, half-heartedly watching a film doesn’t work; neither does flicking through a magazine. An OK book also won’t stop me thinking about my to-do list. No, I need something all-consuming and overwhelming. The cinema generally works, or a very good page-turner, or a quality series such as The Killing, The Fall, or The Returned. Also, the completely audio-visually overwhelming performance of Massive Attack vs. Adam Curtis at the Manchester International Festival did a pretty good job.

However, for me, going outside is the most enjoyable and effective way. I tend to switch off best during sports that need complete focus such as mountain biking, climbing, or kite surfing – one moment of not being focused can cause the most horrific accidents (as I have experienced all too often), so there is literally no space in your mind for distracting thoughts about that paper you need to submit. But low-risk exercises such as poi or yoga require your full focus and work equally well!

Mountain biking - great for switching off!

Mountain biking – great for switching off!

In contrast, running and road cycling allow you to think, so I find I never really switch off while I am doing them. However, I they are great for deeper, undisturbed, almost subconscious thinking about work. Things get a place in my mind while doing long runs and bike rides, and I often resolve problems I am encountering with writing papers or doing statistic analyses, and I often get the best ideas for new experiments.

Road cycling - not so good for switching off, but great for thinking!

Road cycling – not so good for switching off, but great for thinking!

So, I tend to choose my activity according to my mental needs. If I want to stop thinking about that rejected paper, or when I am angry or frustrated, I’ll go for a very hard run or bike ride in the wind and rain, or an hour full-on bouldering, and when I am happy or want to think, I’ll go for a gentle ride or run in the sunshine.

One thing is for sure: everyone needs to switch off, and different people prefer different ways. I’d be curious to hear other people’s preferences!

Oh, and in the coming months, I’ll try to switch off a bit less, so I will at least have time to keep blogging!

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