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Take breaks before you’re broken

The obsession with work seems embedded not only into our current civilization but also into academic pursuits. We are all focused, dedicated, committed, even driven in our scholarly work. We live, breathe, almost eat our work, or always eat while we work.

You may have noticed that many scholars self-righteously announce (I too am guilty), “Oh, I work all the time. Of course, I work every weekend.” Our working compulsion may be motivated by any number of worries. A few—the lurking impostor syndrome, feeling that time is running out, others’ propagating vitae, some upstart new PhD on our heels, tenure just beyond our grasp.

But working all the time has a price. Often an unsettling sense creeps in, something like discontent, dissatisfaction, weariness, frustration, restlessness, and even futility. This is a warning sign that, most often, you’ve lost perspective. You need a break.

Breaks Are Not Evil/Sinful/Bad/Immoral

Breaks are downright healthy (and I’m sure at least one research study backs this assertion). They can siphon off our fatigue, ennui, and feelings of stuckness.

When we force ourselves to turn away from our work for a while, despite all our fears, we venture outside our mental cubicles and refresh our senses. We also receive a paradoxical benefit: our wondrous writing and thinking processes flourish. With time between drafts, apparently insurmountable problems magically yield, and we resume our work with sureness and speed, knowing just how to correct redundancies, fudge words, vaguenesses, obscurities, faulty logic, and gaps in thinking.

A Bouquet of Breaks

To give you courage to take breaks, here are suggestions for several types, from short to (scary) long.

1) For brief to-dos, use Allen’s (2002) “two-minute rule” (p. 132). Between work stints, choose an unrelated task or two that takes no more than two minutes and preferably uses minimal brainpower. Examples: straightening magazines, filing a receipt, taking out the garbage, calling a new restaurant for the Sunday brunch hours.

For slightly longer breaks of five to fifteen minutes, choose more ambitious tasks—filing a sheaf of papers, organizing a drawer, calling a friend (but set a timer), cooking. “Cooking, like writing is very creative,” said a former client in my dissertation editing practice who now produces one article after another. And she gets the bonus of a ready meal.

2) Exercise. No groans, please. You’ve read enough about its head-clearing, endorphin-producing benefits. Several days or nights a week, exercise for an hour. Join a gym, find an exercise partner, do yoga in the living room, run your cat on a leash in the park.

3) Take some TV time (what?). It’s not wicked and can be a great escape. But limit your viewing and choose carefully. Some of my brightest clients love soap operas, reality shows, 1960s reruns, and sagas of trout fishing. You don’t have to tell a soul.

4) Go to bed an hour earlier. The world will carry on if you don’t watch the nightly news; you’ll probably sleep better without it. When people boast of their four-hours-a-night sleep, I’ll bet they zombie through the other twenty. Getting enough sleep means you’re more alert, renewed, clear-minded, resilient, and healthy, all of which benefit your scholarly work.

5) Meditate. It’s not religious, sacrilegious, or New Age anymore. Meditating for ten to fifteen minutes can be as good as an hour’s nap. Choose a type you’re comfortable with—mindfulness, zen, vipassana, metta, vedic, mantra, guided, transcendental, sound, dancing, singing, walking (see Dienstmann, 2016). You may find, as I do, that ideas, thoughts, phrases, and insights about the current work float in or pop up with no effort at all.

6) Take an evening off with one or more family members or friends. Make it special—change into your good t-shirt. Forcing yourself to get out of the usual routine and the house gives your mind a good cleansing. When my client Walker, a self-confessed workaholic, took the evening off just before he started Chapter 2 of his dissertation, he reported, “I came back ready to tackle the beast.”

7) Take an afternoon off. Combine it with some to-dos if you must. Browse in stores, buy something impulsively, or pig out at the Cheesecake Factory. Admittedly connected to my work, I like visiting the bookstore that stocks a smattering of scholarly journals and an entire section of beautiful writing accessories.

8) Take a whole day off (eek!), preferably in a completely different environment. One recent Saturday, some friends and I went to the zoo. Returning, I felt I’d been on safari, even though it wasn’t the Kalahari but the blacktop path. Sunday, with renewed vigor, I worked for many hours.

9) Take a weekend off (double eek!). Tyler and his wife spent a full weekend in Branson, Missouri, attending successive concerts of the country music they both loved. When he came back, he told me, “I’ve got a whole new approach to my data analysis.”

The Secret

The secret for successful breaks is to plan them, schedule them as you would work sessions, and stick to your schedule. Even if you feel horribly guilty, even if you give yourself excuses to get out of them (“But my trial membership to this journal expires at midnight.”), go! You’ll soon forget that overpiled desk, start enjoying something you like, and feel the rewards of a real break. And you’ll return to your important work with vigor, freshness, and a welcome new enthusiasm.

© 2016 Noelle Sterne

Adapted from Noelle Sterne, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015).


Allen, D. (2002). Getting things done: The art of stress-free productivity. New York, NY: Penguin.

Dienstmann, G. (2016). Types of meditation—An overview of 23 meditation techniques. Retrieved from

Noelle SterneDissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and emotional counselor, Noelle has published over 300 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at

The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Textbook & Academic Authors Association. Read more about TAA guest posts here.