You can love your job and still take time off. The two are not mutually exclusive.
I sometimes hear academics proudly admit that they don’t take vacation days. I used to be one of them. When I was in my first years of graduate school, there were times that I would try to work every day for 8 hours each day, and it became miserable. The workload was intense. I was taking several classes and learning how to collect experimental sleep and memory data. I had to develop new research ideas, pass all of my courses, and manage personal relationships. My task management skills were limited to lists in multiple notebooks, random pieces of paper, and note-taking apps that I rarely referenced (I still have old notebooks with incomplete task lists from graduate school). Not surprisingly, I felt scattered, perpetually busy, and drained. I had little time to take care of basic errands and maintenance tasks, like getting medical checkups, doing laundry, or washing dishes. Over time, I realized that my “work over everything else” mentality was neither sustainable nor productive. Unfortunately, this realization didn’t come until the height of the covid-19 pandemic in my last couple of years in graduate school, and it was a gradual mental shift (admittedly, an ongoing one). Currently, I take at least one day off from my academic work each week, and that day of rest is obligatory for me. My hope is that others don’t wait so long to realize that time off is critical for maintaining focused thought, productivity, and effectiveness. More importantly, time off facilitates physical and mental wellness.
Research on time off for cognitive performance and restoration
Working with little to no breaks is stressful. The stress of overworking can lead to burnout, which is characterized by mental fatigue, exhaustion, and cynicism.
One way to avoid burnout is to take regular breaks away from work. A research study has shown that taking a short, 3 to 4 day vacation, may be helpful for cognitive performance, attentional restoration, and reflection. Specifically, adults who took 3 to 4 vacation days demonstrated higher attentional control measured using the Stroop task (try an example here) than those who took no vacation. Similarly, the vacation group reported higher levels of attention and reflection.
People who took a longer, 1-week to 5-week break, experienced similar cognitive and self-reported mental advantages over the no break vacation. However, the researchers caution that longer vacations may be difficult to manage, as work tends to pile up when people are away for a while. The stress of dealing with work overflow when returning to work after a long vacation may cancel out some of the benefits of the vacation.
In both vacation conditions, being “mentally away,” or being able to detach or disengage from work was a key factor in experiencing restorative benefits from taking time off. Feeling “physically away” and spending time relaxing (e.g., sleeping, resting, lying down) also contributed. In contrast, engagement with work-related activities while on vacation (e.g., email responses) was associated with lower restoration of focus.
Some studies have also shown that time off is linked with better sleep quality. Specifically, sleep quality during vacation tends to improve as compared to before vacation. This result has been found in teachers and hardware workers. One factor that may influence better sleep during vacation periods is lower stress and pre-sleep arousal. Reducing stress, especially before trying to fall asleep, may facilitate better sleep. Scheduling regular vacation time could help with stress management.
Taken together, vacation time helps us to refresh our attentional control and thus think better. It also facilitates mental restoration and helps us to avoid (or recover from) burnout.1
What do we do with time off?
This may seem like a silly question. But if you tend to fill up the majority of your time with work-related task, this is a real issue. Once in graduate school, I remember taking a weekend off and having no idea what to do with my time. The thought of having free time had been so unfamiliar to me for such a long time period that I couldn’t think of anything interesting to do. This may seem extreme, but it happens. High-demanding jobs with ambiguous work-life boundaries, such as academia and other professions involving knowledge-based work, often have artificial delineations between work time and time off. Work could happen virtually anywhere. Because of this, it’s easy to fill most time with work. This is why we need to normalize taking time off to practice hobbies and to relax.
Leisure activities that require little attention and allow for reflection are typically better for mental restoration than more attention-dependent ones. These are defined as “soft fascination” and “hard fascination” activities, respectively. Hard fascination activities, like watching TV or scrolling through Twitter, is not as restorative as soft fascination activities. Engaging in soft fascination could involve spending time walking on a nature trail, bird watching, or sight-seeing, all of which can promote reflection. One suggestion from Cal Newport in Digital Minimalism that especially resonated with me was about spending time alone with no digital devices, and particularly, taking long walks in nature. Walking during the day has been one of the most restorative ways for me to take active breaks.
In addition to mental restoration through soft fascination, personal development activities, such as learning new skills, have also been linked with recovery during time off. This research is in alignment with Cal Newport’s idea of “high quality leisure” in Digital Minimalism. Newport argues that we need change, but not low effort activities like scrolling through social media. For high quality leisure, Newport suggests finding hobbies that facilitate financial freedom, creating things by hand, and joining a social group, among others.
How do we take time off?
“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.” – George McKeown in Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
How we spend our time is essentially how we live our lives. We should ultimately spend it how we choose to.
Steps for taking vacation time should not be something worth writing about, but unfortunately, it is. We live in a time where taking time off is not always clearly explained or commonplace. While taking vacation should be encouraged by employers, we often have to figure it out on our own.2
So how do we take time to ourselves in practice? We have to make it a priority. If you must, schedule it. Just like an important meeting with a professor, supervisor, or advisor, schedule time with yourself, for yourself, as an event with high priority. Mark it as “BUSY.” This is your time to do whatever you want (that does NOT involve your work).
My obligatory day off from work
To be perfectly clear, I love my job as an academic sleep researcher. I’ve been lucky to have incredibly supportive mentors and the opportunity to study something that absolutely fascinates me — the cognitive and neural consequences of poor sleep across diverse participant samples. I’ve studied sleep since I was an undergraduate student. Still, each week, I plan at least one day off from my academic responsibilities3.
Sunday is normally my day to do whatever I want. Sometimes that means that I spend time on my personal writing (like this blog). Maybe I catch up on reading other blogs, books, or current events. I might spend some time cleaning, chatting with friends, running, or watching an episode or two of an interesting show. Importantly, whatever I do on my day off is something that I want to do and NOT directly related to my academic work. I hope that you have some time to recover, too.
Prioritize leisure time
The importance of having regular breaks was not clear to me until I felt completely fatigued and burned out. Although we can work while tired, that does not mean that we should. Allowing ourselves rest is not a sign of weakness. It is a measured response to having worked enough and understanding when to give ourselves time off.4
Taking time off has been linked with better attentional focus, wellbeing, and sleep quality. I encourage you to prioritize physical and mental time away from your professional responsibilities and allow yourself to rest, refresh, and reset. Feel free to reach out and let me know how it goes.
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1 Please note that this study is observational and does not imply causation. We cannot conclude that vacation causes better cognition or self-reported reflection or attention with this study. However, the results from this research suggest that time off may contribute to attentional focus and reflection.
2 It should be noted that, in the past, I put incredibly unreasonable standards on myself that contributed to me taking little time off.
3 Research shows that working on weekends and working for 55 or more hours during the week are both linked with experiencing depression symptoms. Given this, even regular, small breaks are associated with better mental health.
4 I sometimes have to convince myself that I need to take a break or a vacation. My ramblings in my interstitial work journal help me to understand that it’s okay to take time to myself. I add an example of this in my daily note-taking in Craft Docs here.