Start 2018 Off Strong: Self-Care in the New Year

Start 2018 Off Strong: Self-Care in the New Year

It’s the end of December, meaning it’s almost time to take down the holiday decorations and get back to the grind.  What is your reaction when New Year’s comes around?  Do you see it as a fresh start, or as just another passing year?  Whether you look forward to New Year’s or would rather not be reminded that you’re another year older, for me—and I’m sure for a lot of you, too—it feels like I never had a break from the grind.  With work, classes, and the holidays all demanding your attention, you’re probably feeling a little overwhelmed, as if trying to keep afloat in a sea of final papers and wrapping paper. 

 

Getting an advanced degree is time consuming and, taking care of yourself often falls off the list of priorities. The long hours in lab, teaching, and dissertation or thesis demands leads many students to burnout. So, how can you combat graduate school burnout with so many demands on your time? Be proactive about self-care. These changes don’t have to upset your entire routine, but take time to reexamine your habits and adjust your behavior to better care for yourself. A new year is here and it’s time to think about making 2018 the year of self-care, even when—or especially when—you feel like you don’t have time for it.

 

What Is Self-Care?

Self-care is an essential survival skill that is often overlooked.  Self-care is any activity that we do deliberately, and on a regular basis, in order to take care of our emotional, mental, and physical health.  Good self-care is key to improved mood as well as reducing stress and anxiety.  Self-care is necessary for your success in honoring your professional and personal commitments.  Self-care is not just about limiting or addressing stressors—it is about enhancing your overall well-being.  Although it may seem at this point that your focus is set on the future and your goal is to get through your program, developing a self-care plan now will help you during your time in graduate school and in your professional career.

How to Engage in Self-Care

Throughout my career as a graduate student, I had been given suggestions on how to have self-care, such as exercise, getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, doing things I enjoy, etc.  Like many other graduate students, I thought I knew how to engage in self-care.  Like John, I would start the morning by relaxing, followed by an early lunch with an old friend, after which we would go shopping.  After hours of retail therapy, with a handful of bags in tow, it would be off to dinner.

Obviously, we both knew how to plan an amazing, relaxing day full of self-care—or so we thought.  As John wrote in his blog post on the importance of self-care, when he looked at his weekend schedule, “I [had] three papers to write, a psychological report to finish, lectures to prepare, upcoming comprehensive exams, and a little thing known as a dissertation to finish.”  There may be just as much validity in tackling the tedious, humdrum parts of making time for ourselves and our needs—like finally undertaking Laundry Mountain at the end of exams or simply drinking enough water—as there is in participating in the fun, restorative activities as described above.

You might be drawn to some of the most popular types of New Year’s resolutions, such as losing weight, quitting smoking, getting out of debt, or exercising more.  These resolutions all have great benefits, especially if you conquer them, however, seeing as we are graduate students, let’s focus on the resolutions that will improve our work and study habits for school. 

Organize Better

Don’t be too general when thinking about the things you want to accomplish this coming year.  Avoid making a resolution that is too ambitious by creating specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely (SMART) goals.  This resolution is good for anyone to tackle, but is especially helpful to students (undergraduates and graduates alike) who can’t seem to get their time and materials situated to catch up on work.  It’s vague to decide to simply organize yourself better in the coming year, but if you break your broad resolution down into smaller pieces, then you’ll be able to accomplish the bigger goal to prioritize your professional or personal tasks acquired throughout the year.  Here is a list of short-term goals to consider throughout 2018 to become better organized:

·                     Designate a place for your current and new materials in your book bags, desk drawers, etc.

·                     Organize your school belongings, such as your backpack or laptop case.

·                     Organize computer files by deleting them, renaming them, or saving them on an external hard drive.

·                     Throw away unnecessary papers, files, and old supplies.

·                     Purchase any additional supplies you might need throughout the school year.

Becoming a better-organized graduate student would be a great resolution that contains substance, no matter what program you are in, what your other resolutions are, etc.; and, people can always learn to be better organized students.

Procrastinate Less

Procrastination is a trap that many of us fall into, so making a resolution to stop procrastinating is probably not a realistic goal, so break this resolution down into smaller pieces.  However, you can resolve to procrastinate less in school and succeed, especially if you also resolve to be more organized.  To procrastinate less in 2018, try:

·                     Eliminating Distractions.  Another way to reduce procrastination is by removing as many distractions as possible.  For instance, turn off your electronics and find a quiet place to work or study.

·                     Keeping and Prioritizing a To-Do List.  If you consistently postpone projects because you find them overwhelming, try to break them down into smaller tasks that are more manageable.  Focus on starting these tasks, rather than on finishing them.  This will prevent you from forgetting about tasks and assist you in identifying the tasks you should focus on. 

·                     Mastering Project Planning.  Some people are naturally organized and able to keep schedules easily, and others aren’t.  Keeping schedules up-to-date can take a lot of will power, so if you don’t normally use a planner, give yourself some time to get accustomed to it.  If you have a big project or multiple projects on the go and you don't know where to start, consider learning some tools to help you plan your time effectively, reducing your stress levels.

·                     Setting Yourself Time-Bound Goals.  Setting specific deadlines to complete tasks will keep you on track to achieve your goals.  Consider using a task- and time-management app, such as Trello, to stay on task.

Procrastination is an easy way to get stuck and may not even realize it.  Doing so, we create reasons that convince us to delay the task or goal, sometimes indefinitely.  Recognizing these behaviors is half the battle.

Community/Networking

Having connections in graduate school class is instrumental to your education and mental health. Unfortunately, many reclusive graduate students are terrified of the concept of networking. However, knowing other students is crucial to your success as an academic and will encourage you to show up to class; and if you do have to miss a day of class, you can ask the other students whom you have gotten to know for any material that you missed. In addition, these class friends might turn into study buddies or collaborators down the road. It is important to remember that networking is a process in which you will engage not only in your graduate school career, but also in your postgraduate career as a professional, whether or not that is in academia.

Isolation can be a struggle for students while writing their dissertation or thesis, so building a work community is essential. Consider organizing project-centered work groups; because meeting with colleagues is lower-stakes than meeting with professors, and social meetings are great rewards for solitary work. Your writing friends will empathize with problems, ask good questions, and keep you social.

Work communities are great and help you keep up your writing momentum; however, a group not connected to your graduate work can be just as refreshing. For example, activism, sports, charity work, or a book group can help keep you relaxed and take your mind, even if briefly, off of your academic work.

Mental Health

Graduate students take a psychological beating. About one-third of graduate students are at risk of having or developing at least one common psychiatric disorder. You are not alone. The most commonly reported symptoms include feeling under constant stress, being unhappy and depressed, losing sleep because of anxiety, and not being able to overcome difficulties or enjoy day-to-day activities.

How do you combat this? An important part of scheduling is blocking out time to be active and go outside. Spending just fifteen minutes outside can reduce the stress you are feeling. Taking a bit of time to clear your head will do wonders for your productivity, even on your busiest days.

One of the benefits of graduate research is that you can work when and where you want. Not many graduate students take advantage of this flexibility. Even though most of you don’t have an office or obligatory hours of work, you still work Monday through Friday. Try a change of scenery every now and then and work at the library or a café, or consider taking a break and meet friends for lunch or afternoon coffee. Once the evening rolls around, allow yourself to close your laptop, pack up, and go home. It’s, obviously, okay to open your computer again after dinner and answer emails, read articles, or write a paragraph. Some evenings, however, try going (computer) screen-free; sometimes reading a novel or watching TV offers a better break from work than reading articles online.

Have an Open and Honest Conversation with your Advisor

Some students are intimidated by the thought of approaching their advisors: What if he/she thinks your ideas are ridiculous? What if you get more work every time you meet? What if your supervisor keeps changing their mind about your research project? These fears can stop you from communicating openly with your advisor. Learning effective communication skills with your advisor will go a long way toward improving your productivity and self-confidence.

Communication

Establishing a positive and productive relationship with your advisor is a crucial step in graduate school success; and communicating effectively is just as important. The secret to effective communicating with your advisor is to focus on and how to fix your problems, rather than your emotions surrounding the problem. Your advisor, like you, is human. Let him or her know when you feel overwhelmed. As graduate students, there’s always something to do: articles to read, chapters to outline, papers to write, and that’s just the beginning. Sometimes, you have to let your advisor know when things are imbalanced.

Setting Boundaries

First and foremost, be assertive. If you need more of your advisor’s time, ask for it.  Some people confuse assertiveness with aggressiveness, but the two attitudes are very different. An assertive person is able to communicate their ideas confidently without stepping on other people. Students are often confused or concerned that an advisor spends more time with some students than with others and may even think that the advisor either is less excited about their project or doesn’t like them as much as others. Keep in mind that often the time that an advisor spends with a student is determined by the advisor’s perception of how much time is needed on a student’s research project.  So, do not be overly concerned about how much time they spend with you, and if you feel you need more time, simply ask for it. 

Making Your Resolutions Stick

Make your new resolutions stick by writing them down in different places such as your bedside table, bathroom mirror, office desk, or the steering wheel in your car. Doing so will help you remember it more, so you will be more likely to continue to strive to reach your goals. Just like keeping a schedule for all your projects, write a plan for how you want to implement your resolutions. If you write out a weekly or monthly goal, you will be able to complete your resolutions by 2019, one piece at a time.

Reward Yourself for Small Accomplishments

Unfortunately, just making resolutions at the beginning of the year is not enough. Another way to continue your progress is by rewarding yourself after completing certain steps of your goal.  If you decide to reward yourself by buying a new book or spending time with friends, you will be more likely to continue your resolutions. Encourage yourself to keep at it by pausing to acknowledge success as you tick off small and big steps. Ask family and friends to cheer you on. People close to you can help keep you accountable by encouraging and reminding you of why you wanted to accomplish these goals to begin with.

Don’t Be Discouraged If You Get Side-Tracked

Perfection is impossible and change can be hard. We’re all human, so if you slip up for a few days or weeks, this is completely normal. Unfortunately, many people decide that it’s too difficult to continue and say they will start again next year, next month, or next week.  Instead of giving up, or postponing again, re-read your goals, talk to your advisor, and remember why you decided to focus on you and your self-care this year. Everyone has difficulties; be determined to recover and get back on track.

Remember: be happy. Graduate school can be stressful. Take time to taking care of your mental, physical, and emotional health. Taking self-care seriously in spite of impending deadlines and other responsibilities creates balance, fosters success, and strengthens your overall health.

 

Do any of you have resolutions for 2018?  What are your goals for the New Year?  

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