Vacation is a state of mind
How to maximize the benefits by taking a purposeful break
Now that my research study has run and my primary data is collected, I am transitioning into writing mode. As the summer months arrived, friends and family started asking me when my “summer break” would take place. At this point in a PhD there is always something to do, and no one is scheduling a break for you…therefore I’ve come to realize that “summer vacation” or “taking a break” is simply a state of mind, and this state will only exist if you can figure out how to choose and maintain it.
It is challenging to know when and how to make the choice to take a break. There is always something I could be working on. It is easy to feel that any moment I am not reading, writing, analyzing or interpreting, I am failing to get something done. While some specifics of this experience are unique to completing a PhD, in many ways I think it is a mirror of modern life. There is always something to do: answering an email, reading the news, engaging with social media etc. So “taking a break” is actually a very complicated challenge, one that requires some level of conscious awareness - otherwise even if you manage to get to a beach for few days, you may spend the entire time thinking about your projects, therefore not actually taking a mental break from anything.
Reflecting further on this, I would propose that there are two main hurdles when it comes to actually taking a break or vacation:
The first hurdle is a practical physical one: how do you find the actual time? Our urban environments are not set up to make taking time away from our daily engagements easy or obvious, so we must purposefully carve out and defend “time off”.
The second hurdle is mental: how can we build the skillset to actually mentally break from our daily engagements? Even if we manage step one and physically take time away from our usual work/busy environments, it is easy to fill this time with tasks or events. Even very nourishing experiences, like seeing friends and family, can be joyful but continue to take our energy. Some real down time, where we can stop our habits of rushing, planning, and doing is - at least for me - fundamental to slowing down my mental discourses and fully taking a break.
So my insight and proposal is that to truly take a break - differentiated from a social event, but an actual lazy do nothing and disconnect break - we must diligently apply our mindful awareness to both the physical and mental components. This involves giving ourselves permission to take time, asking for this time clearly from those we work with, and protecting this time (setting away messages, leaving our laptop out of reach etc.). It also involves being aware of our mental habits of business, rushing, planning and tasking and - as much as possible - finding healthy ways to slow or stop them.
Sometimes when people meet me, especially if it is in a work or event setting, they will comment that I am very self-motivated and efficient. Along with this observation, often comes a comment about how I must be “one of those people who can never slow down". My response is that I apply the same level of diligence to resting and stopping as I do to my work. A break can be as purposeful, precise and targeted as designing a research study. You should see me crush a “lazy day”. I am not saying it is easy. Depending on what is happening in life, it can take a lot of effort and time to truly slow down. I should also frame this by saying that out of 365 days of the year, the number of “break” or “vacation” days I actually take are very small. But the point is that when I do take a break, I approach it just as seriously as I would study design or dissertation writing. And it is well worth it. Even if it is just one or two days, stopping in this way allows me to touch happiness, appreciate life and recharge. This, for me, is what makes everything else I do in the world possible. It gives me a foundation of ease, joy, love, patience and kindness (both towards myself and others) from which I take action In the world.
Purposefully Breaking: “Lazy Day” Practice
At Thich Nhat Hanh’s mindfulness practice centres they have a “lazy day” scheduled once a week. This is a day to intentionally take a break from ones daily routine and practice the art of resting. On this day the monastics are encouraged to ask one another a simple but profound question: “Are you being lazy enough today?”
The next time you “take a break” or “vacation” or simply have a few hours to rest and slow down, consider asking yourself or whoever you are with at the time this question. Allow it to be a playful invitation to reflect on your actions and your mind.