Dear Mentor: Working on Holiday Breaks

Dear Mentor,

As a grad student, I am looking at the holidays coming up and considering how to make the best use of my time away from school. I’ve always brought projects and reading home with me, but inevitably I don't get done nearly as much as I'd hoped.  I'm left feeling guilty that I didn't do the work, but I also can't really enjoy the time with my family because this work is hanging over my head.  Do you have any suggestions for scheduling work during the holidays or how to prepare for my time away? 


From guest mentor Lily Liu

First, I’ve found quality is more important than quantity. This is true for family time as well as work time. If you can find a block of time during the day when you’re fairly certain you’ll be free of familial obligations, take the work seriously; don’t let anything else touch it and set yourself up for maximum focus and success during that time. Going to a café or library can be helpful (seriously — I’ve found I have some strange conditioned response to vegetate as soon as I sit on my parents’ couch) as can bringing along a friend who also needs to get work done.

For family time, likewise, seek to be fully present. Say a prayer as your work time draws to a close and let it be as it is. Remember that your identity and worth is in Christ, not your productivity. What you achieve is in no way necessary to God, and he is able to work through whatever offering you may be able to bring.

Second, since breaks involve “changing gears” and locations anyway, I’ve found they can be a helpful time to do different kinds of work that may pay forward to greater productivity later on but are somewhat different in nature from your primary focus at school. For example, is your inbox a disaster? Could your CV use an update? Is there software you’ve been meaning to learn or a paper you’ve been meaning to read? Home can be a good time to tackle these parallel streams of work.

Finally, I’ve found that breaks are predictably unpredictable in terms of daily schedule. This has two implications: first, any sort of rhythm you can develop can go a long way. Sleeping late and waking late, something which is easy to do at home, can be especially damaging to intentions to be productive. Second, anticipate the difficulty of being productive and keep your to-do lists for breaks short, erring on the side of realism.

Be reasonable in your expectations of yourself. Best wishes to you, and don’t forget to rest!

From guest mentor Sarah Wynia Smith

Once in graduate school, compared to undergrad, I found it much more difficult to take a true break from work during holidays and even vacations. Because grad school is a years-long labor, the work is really never done and thus becomes difficult to put away. Truly, this does not stop once graduate school is finished. Even after four years as a postdoc, I find myself setting work goals for my time away and like you, sometimes not fully enjoying times with family due to the guilt of unfinished work.

Over the years I have learned to lighten up a bit in terms of the pressure I put on myself to get things done. To get to that point, I had to convince myself that sabbath is necessary, rejuvenating, and ultimately a boon to overall productivity. Just like taking a weekly Sabbath feeds the soul and allows you to connect with God, so too does taking some longer times for vacation and fellowship. You don’t need to set aside the entire holiday break, but I would encourage you to dedicate a stretch of at least several days that will be work- and guilt-free.

To figure out when the best time for that would be, make a list of all the important times with your family and friends, which can even include times when you’re simply existing in each other’s company or “doing nothing." Set those aside as sacred and part of your sabbath. Give yourself the opportunity to become truly rested and you will be much more enthusiastic about tackling the work that will always await you.

Beyond that, here are a few suggestions for getting those things done that must be done and feeling as though you did not “waste” time on your break. First, is it possible for you to postpone your travel departure date or move up your return date? You could set aside those extra days to hunker down in your apartment or the library and tackle some of that pile of work then in one large binge. Next, while with your family, outside of the sacred rest time mentioned above, you could set specific smaller blocks of time aside to continue your work. I find that early mornings or late evenings work well for this. Finally, you could break up the work into simpler and more easily achievable goals. For example, rather than attempting to read all of the journal articles encompassed in one topic, set the goal to read the three from a specific author. Then you can go after the next three and so on and will not feel as though you have accomplished “nothing” when you do not get through the original list of two hundred. 


From guest mentor Stephanie Magdalena White

Holiday vacation time with family has certainly become a strange time for me in grad school, so much so that I now call it "family visiting time," and I try to take other small vacations apart from that time. Don't get me wrong — I love visiting my family. But I'm learning that I need actual vacations, too, not just time with family. And of course it's difficult for my family to understand that my work doesn't end when the semester does. I've tried two different approaches to the conundrum of work during the holidays, and I think both can be effective, depending on my schedule and deadlines at the time.

The first approach I take is to simply not take any work with me. This is great for my soul and my brain. It's difficult to plan for, and it often makes for a stressful scramble in the days leading up to my holiday trip. But I've found that, this way, I don't have anything hanging over my head, and I don't feel guilty for not devoting my energy to my family. The downside is that I often arrive at my family's feeling completely spent from trying to get so much done beforehand. For that reason, I've found that if I can schedule my departure date for about two days after my final semester deadlines, that one day to decompress and sleep before the trip does wonders.

The other approach, which I find is best when I simply have too much to do or a specific deadline, is to plan one morning or one day where I go to a coffee shop and get some work done. I don't tell my family that this is an option — I simply tell them in advance that, on the day I've decided, I'll need to leave for a few hours and do some work. It's been amazing, actually, how refreshed and content I feel when I return from that work. The weight is off my shoulders, and I don't have to think about that work again. And, as an adult visiting parents, doing my own work reminds me of who I am apart from my parents, too.

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