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3 Tips for Avoiding Academic Burnout

 

The experience of burnout is common among academics.  This is not surprising since, as psychologist Sherrie Bourg explains, burnout has a tendency to sneak up on overachievers who often aren’t aware of how hard they are pushing themselves.  Bourg notes that “Burnout is a state of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, [and] feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment” (“The Tell Tale Signs of Burnout”).  Those of us who have experienced burnout know how difficult it can be to deal with the physical, emotional, and mental symptoms that come along with this experience (for more on these symptoms, check out the link to Bourg’s article at the end of this post). 

 

Burnout is not something that just happens overnight; rather, it develops slowly over time.  There are many preventative steps we can take so that we don’t end up in a state of burnout.  The following tips and strategies are ones that I use personally in order to stay balanced and productive and they have also proven to be helpful to the graduate students I work with as an academic coach.  It is my hope that you will also benefit from incorporating some of these approaches into your daily routine!

 

1) Practice Mindfulness

 

Academic work requires us to spend a lot of time absorbed in thinking.  Academic tasks like performing critical analyses, creating theory, developing research studies, etc, can be a source of pleasure in our lives.  However, academics often forget that we are more than just our minds.  Living in a state of what I like to call “all mind all of the time” can be harmful in the long term.  If we are absorbed in critical thinking all of our waking hours, we may ignore important messages that our bodies or emotions are sending us.  We may push through physical pain, hunger, restlessness, anxiety, etc, in an attempt to get the work done.  Ironically, ignoring these important signs and symptoms can lead to burnout and thereby negatively affect our productivity.  Also, it is important to note that it is much harder to produce good academic work if we are dealing with things like physical pain, hunger, restlessness, anxiety, etc. 

 

Mindfulness practices encourage us to recognize these experiences and give them the attention they are asking for.  By paying attention to our full experience in the present moment, we can learn how to recognize and attend to our diverse needs as human beings.  In turn, we can live happier, healthier, and more productive lives.

In my work as an academic coach, I teach graduate students various mindfulness practices that help them to stay grounded and balanced while navigating the demands of academia.  Here is a brief outline of a few of the mindfulness practices I help my clients incorporate into their lives:

  • Pause and reflect.  Pausing to check in with yourself throughout the day can help you to figure out when you need to take breaks, how long these breaks need to be, and what types of breaks are the most beneficial to you.  This approach can help you to optimize your schedule.  Taking the time to recognize and attend to your needs can also help you to avoid pushing yourself beyond your limits.
  • Ground in physical sensations.  When you are doing daily chores like washing the dishes, cooking, brushing your teeth, etc, pay attention to how your body moves and feels.  Paying close attention to physical sensations can help you to feel centred and give your mind a much needed break.  In turn, you will likely feel refreshed and have greater mental clarity when you return to your work.
  • Meditate.  Please note that there are various types of meditation.  Insight meditation and concentration meditation tend to be very effective for developing mindful awareness and cultivating a sense of peace.  If you decide to start meditating, it is important to recognize that academics tend to have very active minds.  It takes time and a great deal of kindness toward the self to quiet the mind down so patience and self-compassion should be a central part of your meditation practice. 
  • Take a mindful walk.  When walking, pay attention to the sounds and sights around you, how your body feels when you move, etc.  If you find yourself thinking, no problem.  This doesn’t mean that you have failed to be mindful; rather, the moment of recognizing that you have been thinking is a moment of mindfulness!  Once you recognize that you have been lost in thought, you can then ground yourself again in the sights, sounds, smells, etc, around you.  And, of course, try to relax and enjoy yourself while on your walk.  You can choose to focus your attention on pleasant experiences such as the sensation of the sun on your skin, the sound of birds singing, colourful flowers, etc. 

 

2) Do What Brings You Joy

 

While it can be tempting to let hobbies and activities you enjoy get pushed to the side while in graduate school, doing so increases the likelihood of experiencing burnout.  Remember, it is invigorating to do things that bring you joy; if you take time to have fun and enjoy your life, you will likely find that you are better able to focus when you sit down to work.  Students who do not incorporate fun into their lives often come to resent their academic work, feel unmotivated, and experience issues like procrastination and writer’s block.

 

I recommend taking some time to figure out what brings you joy and to make a commitment to doing these things with the understanding that having work-life balance will likely increase your productivity and allow you to enjoy your academic work.  Here are some of the activities graduate students I have worked with have found bring them joy and keep them motivated:

  • Spending time in nature (e.g. hiking, camping, canoeing, sitting outside in the sun, walking their dog, etc)
  • Doing yoga
  • Socializing with friends or family
  • Dancing and/or singing
  • Making art
  • Making music or listening to music
  • Going out for a nice meal 

 

3) Connect with Others

 

Graduate school can be isolating.  In many disciplines, academic work entails spending long periods of time alone researching, reading, and writing.  Developing strategies to counter feelings of isolation can be extremely beneficial to graduate students.  Here are a few of the strategies I recommend to my coaching clients in order to foster a sense of connection to others:

  • Socialize.  Even if you are an introvert (and many academics are!), we all need at least some social contact in order to feel balanced and happy.  That said, it is important to take time to figure out what type of socializing will be the most beneficial to you and how much social contact you need.  Aim for socializing that helps you to relax and feel rejuvenated afterwards.  You may find it beneficial to spend time with other graduate students, especially those who aren’t afraid to let their guard down and speak honestly about their experiences.  Or you may find that you need a break entirely from academia and prefer to hang out with non-academics.  If you are looking to make friends outside of academia, Meetup groups can provide an easy avenue for doing this.
  • Develop a kindness practice.  Doing kind things for other people can help you to feel connected to others and, in turn, counter the sense of loneliness or isolation that often comes along with graduate studies.  Kindness practices can take a diverse array of forms including, for instance, volunteer or activist work, sending a supportive message to a friend, being kind to a stranger you encounter in your daily life, etc. 
  • Develop a gratitude practice.  Taking time to think about what you are grateful for in your life, including your academic life, can help you to feel connected to others and can keep you motivated to do your work.  The more specific you can be about what you feel grateful for, the more effective this practice can be.  For instance, instead of thinking something general like “I’m grateful for getting into graduate school,” consider what, specifically, you like about graduate school (e.g. having a flexible schedule, a particular class you enjoy, having the freedom to research what you are passionate about, etc).  You may also want to think about all of the people who have supported you on your journey to get you to where you are now (e.g. family, friends, professors who wrote you reference letters, etc).  Many people find it helpful to have a gratitude journal where they write down three things daily that they feel grateful for.  Another approach is to actually reach out to people in your life who have supported you and express your gratitude to them.

In my experience, graduate students who employ strategies like the ones listed above are less likely to experience barriers to their success, such as writer’s block and procrastination.  Using strategies like these can help you to avoid academic burnout, stay motivated and optimistic about your work, more fully enjoy your life, and sow the seeds for success in your academic career and beyond!

 

***I am currently developing an online course on work-life balance for graduate students.  I would love to hear any recommendations for topics to cover in this course.  You can email me at balancedacademic@gmail.com with any suggestions you may have.  Thanks in advance!***

 

References:

Bourg Carter, Sherrie.  “The Tell Tale Signs of Burnout…Do You Have Them?”  Psychology

Today.  26 Nov. 2013.  https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/high-octane-women/201311/the-tell-tale-signs-burnout-do-you-have-them

 

 


Academic Know Thyself: Establishing a Practice of Introspection and Self-compassion

One of my primary focuses as an academic coach is on helping graduate students and faculty establish work-life balance.  In order to develop such balance, it is vital that we reflect on how we are socialized by our experiences in academia.  Such reflection entails recognizing both the positive and less positive ways that academia shapes our identities, thoughts, and actions.  Self-knowledge is power and closely attending to how we are socialized by our experiences as students or faculty can increase our sense of balance and, in turn, lead to us becoming happier and more productive.

 

I would like to share a story with you that highlights the value of reflecting on how academia shapes our thinking processes.  In the spring of 2009, I went on vacation to Croatia.  At this point in my life, I had finished my PhD and I was teaching at a university in the UK.  Although I have many fond memories from this trip, I also remember experiencing the intrusiveness of what I have since come to call "comparison mind."

 

While sitting on a beach a short walk from my hotel, I found myself having a thought that took me out of the present moment.  The beach I was on was small (approximately 500 feet long); it consisted of pebbles and it had many people on it.  While sitting there looking out at the turquoise water I found myself thinking, "Well, this is nice but it's no Prince Edward Island."  I had gone on vacation many times to PEI and I loved the soft sand beaches on which you could walk for miles and only see a handful of people.  Comparing Croatia to PEI and deeming PEI the "winner" made it difficult for me to enjoy my experience of sitting on this lovely beach full of happy people who were soaking up the sun and frolicking in the water.  Unfortunately, this wasn’t a fleeting thought.  Rather, at different moments during this vacation I would think about the inadequacies of my experience in Croatia in comparison to previous experiences I had in PEI.

 

Clearly, this was not a recipe for having an enjoyable holiday.  I felt dissatisfied and disgruntled and, even though I did enjoy many parts of this vacation, I kept thinking that my money would have been better spent elsewhere (namely in PEI).  The vacation was nice but not as nice as it could have been according to my hypercritical, comparison mind.

 

In actuality, the vacation would have been a lot better if I could have suspended my comparison mind but this is not how I saw things at the time.  I don't remember thinking that there was anything wrong with my critical view of this vacation.  Yet memories of these moments of comparing Croatia to PEI returned to me many years later when I had finally started to pay attention to the workings of my mind through the practice of mindfulness.

 

Buddhist psychologist Jack Kornfield talks about the value that can be gained from paying attention to our minds and identifying trends in our ways of thinking.  He also explains that it can be helpful to name our thought processes (see, for instance, his books A Path with Heart and The Wise Heart).  When I started to increase my awareness of my thoughts and name them, I was shocked to realize the prevalence and persistence of my “comparison mind.”  I came to recognize that much of my day was spent comparing one thing to another and, in turn, feeling dissatisfied with either the present or the past.  

 

While it is important to recognize our thought processes, it is also vital that we try to understand why we are thinking in this manner.  Perhaps we were taught a particular thought pattern by our parents, our friends, or a religious institution.  In the case of my comparison mind, it was pretty clear to me upon reflection that this way of thinking resulted primarily from how my mind had been shaped by the years I had spent as an undergraduate and graduate student. 

 

Students learn early on in academia the compare and contrast approach to analysis.  This is clearly a valuable analytical tool within academia and it also has important applications beyond academia.  For instance, being able to compare and contrast different options is often central to good decision making.  I am grateful for the critical thinking skills that I developed in university and I am committed to teaching my students this important mode of thinking.

 

However, another important skill students and faculty need to develop is the ability to let go of critique and just be in the present moment.  Unfortunately, this skill isn’t taught in university.  As my above story reveals, problems arise when we are unable to shut off our comparison mind and other modes of critical thinking.  We all need to have mental down time and to learn the invaluable skill of being present. 

 

As an academic coach, I encourage my clients to have a balanced perspective of their thought patterns.  For instance, I understand that my comparison mind has value and serves an important purpose in my life.  Yet I also understand that it is not healthy to be constantly stuck in this mode of critical thinking. 

 

For me, the key to gaining control over this comparative mode of thinking is to have a balanced perspective of it and to practice self-compassion.  Rather than being annoyed when my comparison mind removes me from enjoyment of the present moment, I remind myself that this mode of thinking is useful in many circumstances.  Then, as per Jack Kornfield's guidance, I gently say to myself, “Thank you for visiting me comparison mind but you are not needed at this time.”  In my experience, learning to let go of critique and enjoy the present moment actually leads to better critical thinking when I am doing my academic work.  Introspection, coupled with self-compassion, can help us to not only become more productive as academics but also understand why we react the way we do to different situations in our personal lives and gain more control over our thoughts and actions. 

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Resources

The below article discusses an academic study on the effectiveness of academic coaching. The article explains that “undergraduates who receive executive-style ‘coaching’ — including guidance on setting goals and time management — are more likely to remain in college and graduate.” I look forward to seeing similar studies done on the effectiveness of academic coaching for graduate students.

 

http://thechoice.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/10/coaching-2/?_r=0

 

 

I highly recommend reading Mark Carrigan’s article “Life in the Accelerated Academy: Anxiety Thrives, Demands Intensify and Metrics Hold the Tangled Web Together.” Carrigan’s article provides a compelling description of the pressures that are placed on academics. He maintains that social media may provide a way of challenging the frantic pace of academia. As Carrigan aptly explains, under the conditions of the accelerated academy, “imagination becomes more difficult and so too does extended deliberation about our circumstances and what matters to us.” In order to be balanced, happy, and productive, it is vital that we slow down and pay attention to how we are shaped by our surroundings and the demands of academia. Check out this link to read more:

 

http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2015/04/07/life-in-the-accelerated-academy-carrigan/