I have a confession to make: I feel really guilty any time I take time away from school or work to do something for myself. This could be something as simple as taking 40 minutes to watch an episode of a TV show I like, or meeting some friends for dinner and drinks. I know it probably seems absurd to anyone who has mastered the art of work-life balance, but as it stands, I’m still fumbling around to find that magic 50/50 split between the two.
As someone who is a bit of a perfectionist in everything they do, I struggle a lot of the time to complete tasks the way that I want to. Most of the time, I feel like being a science student just exacerbates this problem. It’s one field where everything does have to be perfect all the time, and yet it has to be done as quickly as possible in order to make room for the next task in the never-ending rotation of to-do list items. Don’t get me wrong — I love being in science. I usually just find it hard to make notes and study and complete projects in a timely manner because it takes me a while to absorb the material before moving on to the next thing I have to do. This is where the problem begins — most of my work ends up spilling into downtime hours — during lunch breaks, right before bed, on weekends. This means that most of the time I’ll chip directly into what are supposed to be my breaks in order to stay on top of work.
I’m sure the struggle to stay caught up is a familiar one for most people, but I end up taking it a bit too personally. I tend to think that if I postpone my free time just a bit to catch up on the leftover work I have from the week, I’ll feel better. The catch here, though, is that my work rarely ever gets done even with all of that extra time — there’s just too much of it for it to be completed in the timeline that I set. This isn’t to say that my work isn’t done for when it needs to be done, it’s just not done on the rigid timeline that I set for myself. At the end of the day, this means I usually go weeks without ever taking a proper break to unwind and destress. All because I feel like I don’t deserve to take a break if I don’t finish my work the way that I set out to do.
Of course, this is a pretty toxic approach to getting work done, and even though I know it only burns me out in the long run, I’ve only recently begun to really tackle this problem (shoutout to my therapist)! I’ve realized that taking time to rest and relax is productive and not a waste of time like I used to think it was. In past school years, I would perpetuate the cycle of overworking until it would reach a boiling point and I would just snap. For a few days I would be incapable of doing work at all, or worse, I would become physically ill from the toll it was taking on my body. Obviously this meant that I was falling behind, which is exactly what I had wanted to prevent all along.
In more recent months, I’ve realized that putting aside even a few hours every week for myself has helped me keep going and stay emotionally stable throughout periods of particularly heavy work. It also helps keep me focused during the week because I know that I have something to look forward to when my work is done. I made it a habit to take these hours even on the weeks when I didn’t get as much done as I would’ve liked to, and instead of feeling guilt, I eventually began to feel a bit more compassionate towards myself. Instead of punishing myself for having a hard week, I would give myself the space to recover from it and recharge to ensure that it wouldn’t happen again the next week.
Intricately tied to these ideas is also my fear of complacency. I’ve never been a person who has taken what they have for granted, and as such, I never want to risk losing all of the things that I’ve worked for, including, for example, my grades in school. I know it’s a bit silly not to trust myself when I’ve never proved to be a lazy student, but I constantly worry that one bad day will cost me everything. That maybe taking a rest day will make me so lax about everything that I won’t take anything seriously ever again and that I’ll have ruined the semester before I even know it. Of course, these are completely irrational thoughts, and I have no evidence based on my past experiences to support them, but I run through them in my head nonetheless.
Another challenge in the last few months has been tackling these thoughts and overcoming them every time I reach for a book to read for pleasure or for my TV remote. Thankfully, I’ve been pretty good at holding myself accountable, and after last semester, I know for a fact that these ideas are just fears and not based in reality. Having constantly built in break time for myself, I actually did better last semester than I ever have, and the only major change I’ve really made is to take time away. Who knew the key to a 4.0 was just taking a little more time off to have fun?
Overall, while this is still a major work in progress for me, I’m happy to have taken this step at all and that it has paid off so well. I’m sure there’s someone else out there who’s guilty of falling victim to the same traps, and so I really just want to say that I feel for you and that there’s always ways to get help when you need it — just start somewhere. After all, even girlbosses need vacation time!