Five Tips to Tackle Winter Break  

My wonderful mom keeps sending me pictures like this - this one captioned, "incredible morning sunrise!" I'm pretty excited to be home.
My wonderful mom keeps sending me pictures like this – this one captioned, “incredible morning sunrise!” I’m pretty excited to go home.

In a few days, I’ll be home in sunny Kona, Hawaii. I haven’t been back since June, and by now I’m hankering to feel the warm Pacific on my skin. I’m going to eat homemade chocolate truffles, free-dive with my dad, catch up with old friends…and also write an entire junior paper, and review a semester’s worth of organic chemistry. Gulp.

Last Friday, hoping to figure out how to juggle it all, I attended a workshop at the McGraw Center: Balancing Work and Play During Winter Break. Here are five essential take-aways:

  1. Make a list. Identify high-priority activities across all categories of your life: family, social, academic, research, other. Then ask, what actions will make my future self feel better about me? This means both the future self of tomorrow, and the longer-term self who will walk back onto campus in January. Research shows that future-self thinking helps us plan actions in line with our values. Come January 4th, I want to feel sun-soaked, well-slept, and rejuvenated, and I also want to have written my JP. (Did I mention that?) Making a list of realistic priorities – so I’m told – is the first step to balancing them.

2. Use the salami method. Break your priorities into specific actions, and then break these into smaller tasks: salami slices, if you will. If you don’t know how long a task will take you, you’ve probably sliced it too thick. On my to-do list, I broke the pre-JP task “Analyze isotope data” into four sub-steps, each of which I expect to take about 15 minutes. Amazing! This suddenly sounds doable.

3. Consciously identify challenges. Write them down, and even share them with friends or family. Brainstorm strategies to combat your personal challenges – overwhelm? procrastination? distraction? – before they arise. I’m worried about balancing work with family time. To deal with this, I committed to making a schedule for my work that I share with my family. I’m also setting up a meeting with a mentor early in the break, to keep myself on track and accountable.

4. Schedule time blocks. There’s no need to schedule every hour, but block out regular chunks of time that you can commit to. Flexibility is important, but so is routine. I’m aiming to take down an hour’s worth of research salami first thing in the morning every day.

5. Do the most important thing early. We often are intimidated by our most important tasks, and instead substitute easier, less important ones. I sometimes substitute reading extra papers or tweaking figures when actually sitting down to write seems overwhelming. I’ve found that the longer I put off my big tasks, the bigger they grow in my mind. One way to combat this is by scheduling a specific time and place to eat your high-priority salami. The earlier in the day, and the earlier in the break, the better.

You can also schedule a personal McGraw consultation to sit down and think through your plan. It’s helpful, easy, and free!

And, if you’d like more suggestions, there’s still one more session of this workshop being offered on Thursday evening, December 17.

The drive to keep writing, studying, or tinkering with that graph, right up unto the deadline, speaks to our dedication as students and researchers. However, this also means we need to deliberately make time for balance – for family, friends, sleep, and swimming in the Pacific.

Here’s to a restful, satisfying break!

– Zoe Sims, Natural Sciences Correspondent