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Blog post

Learning to rest

July 22, 2021
By Fanny Gravel-Patry

Summer sky I captured during my last vacation in Bromont, Québec.

I remember the summer before the PhD.

I was so excited to go back to school after a two-year hiatus that I couldn't contain myself. I piled books, saved articles, and organized my office, ready to immerse myself in research before the start of the school year. I hadn’t even begun my doctoral studies that I was already programming my brain to think that free time equals work time. Little did I know, I was building a habit that would destroy me in the long run.

But I’m certainly not the only one. If you're about to start a graduate program, most people will tell you to use the summer to get ahead on reading, funding applications, and whatnot. While those are things you should certainly be doing, so is learning to rest.

Productivity’s Vicious Circle

Me pretending to work, as I like to do.

From the moment I started my master's to the first three years of the PhD, I would work every day, during evenings, and even on weekends. I considered every free opening in my schedule as an opportunity to write an extra paragraph, get ahead on readings, or start new projects. On the outside, it seemed like I was on top of my game but, most of the time, I wasn't even able to focus. I would stare at my screen, waiting for words to appear and inspiration to sweep me off my feet. Eventually, I would just give up and blame myself for being unproductive. Since I wasn’t progressing, I always felt like I needed to do extra work and the pattern kept on repeating itself. Not only was this habit slowly burning me out it was also eating at my self-esteem. I felt lazy, incompetent, and like I wasn’t made for academia.  

It's not really surprising that I ended up feeling this way and many of you can probably relate. Academia is built on the labour of graduate students who often have no choice but to undertake many RA, TA and teaching contracts in order to provide for themselves, on top of the many conferences, publications, and extra-curricular activities we are expected to participate in. There is an insidious injunction to be productive, the contrary being perceived as a lack of willingness or intellectual rigour.

Redefining Rest

One of my latest Instagram posts reflecting on time and the PhD @phdwithcare

When I realized this rhythm wasn’t working for me, I started looking for ways to improve my work-life balance and regain my self-worth. I found tools such as the Pomodoro method that helped me organize my work in ways that made me feel like I was making progress. However, while tips on how to build an effective work routine proliferate in academic networks, I found little to no information about rest except the usual recommendation to take care of yourself. The thing is, in this culture of overwork and productivity, rest is treated as something we should deserve rather than a necessity. To rest is seen as a weakness, or a sign that we’re not devoted enough when it should actually be part of our academic routine.

Indeed, rest is not only necessary if we want to avoid a burnout it is also an essential part of intellectual reflection. Academic work demands deep thinking that requires time. Instead of being the price for “good” academic work, rest should be built into our academic practice as a time and space where we allow ourselves to breathe, reflect, and assimilate information -- the simmering process of academic thinking. When you make a stew, you don’t throw in all of the ingredients expecting the flavours to impregnate each other immediately. Instead, you bring it to a boil and let it cook until everything is well combined. Same goes for intellectual reflection. How can we expect our thoughts to make sense if we don’t let them sit and rest?

Building a Rest Practice

Once I made this realization, I started to book rest time in my calendar the same way I would book meetings and work sessions. I have the privilege to be able to take my weekends off and so I do. I also have a strict rule that I am not allowed to work during the evening. Since I started doing this, I am more focused on my tasks, I am less distracted by all of the other things I wish I was doing, and my ideas are much clearer. On Sundays, I am actually excited to start a new week and get back to my work.

Time-blocking rest is a good strategy to keep yourself accountable.

I also use this rest time to do things that aren’t related to the PhD such as hobbies that I had abandoned, and it gives me a sense of worth that isn’t tied to my productivity as a scholar. Similar to how focusing on running a marathon helped my fellow Public Scholar Felicity with the bigger goal of finishing her PhD dissertation, building a rest practice has made me realize that my ability to produce relevant work strongly depends on my habitual capacity to not work.

This practice should not, however, be defined by the amount of time you are able to rest. Rest looks very different to everyone and not everyone can rest in the same way especially in a context of unequitable funding allocation and sporadic work contracts. But I can attest that incorporating rest into your routine, to turn it into a habit, can allow you to work better in the long run all the while maintaining your wellbeing.

I myself am still unlearning the habit of overwork. I am still compelled to work when I told myself I wouldn’t. And the competition intrinsic to academia and its precarious work conditions makes it even harder to maintain boundaries. But the simple act of reframing rest as an ongoing necessity rather than an extraordinary reward has drastically changed the way I approach my work as a scholar, and I recommend it to everyone.

About the author

Photo of Fanny Gravel-Patry

Fanny Gravel-Patry (she/her) is a PhD candidate and lecturer in the communication studies department at Concordia University. She holds a BA (2012) and MA (2015) in Art History from Université de Montréal. She studies mental illness, media practices of care, and digital visual culture.

Her dissertation looks at the Instagram practices of women living with mental illness and their use of the app as a tool for care. Her work was recently published by Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal in a special issue on digital images. In addition to her research, Fanny has been the communications officer of the Communication Doctoral Student Association since 2019 and she is an active member of the Feminist Media Studio. Her doctoral research is supported by Fonds de Recherche du Québec - Société et Culture (FRQSC) and Concordia University.

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