Reflections on Thanksgiving Break: How Environment Influences Productivity

I hope I’m not the only one that feels like their Thanksgiving break went by far too quickly. For this post, I wanted to reflect on my Thanksgiving break — on what went well and what didn’t go so well — so that I can make the most of the upcoming winter break. Hopefully, this reflection will be useful for any of you who also felt extremely stressed that Sunday right after break.

Let’s start with the good. Like many of you, I went home to visit family and had a great time spending time with them and doing things like simply hanging out on the couch and reading. I also was *finally* able to catch up on sleep, so I felt physically rejuvenated. In short, break started off great.

On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving Break, after reading Shanon’s enlightening post about how to spend a balanced break, I had compiled a list of all the things I wanted to get done over break. However, I unknowingly did one thing that Shanon explicitly said not to do — I wasn’t realistic.

While I had made a list of all the things I had to do before break, during the five days of break, I didn’t think to actually pull it out and look at it — there was a part of me that really did not want to think about the daunting list of school work that I had written down. However, that didn’t mean the stress wasn’t there. I knew that I had an assignment due on Tuesday the week after break that I hadn’t started yet — but the task seemed so difficult that I didn’t want to start on it. So for most of my break, I grappled with my steadily growing stress and an overwhelming desire to not do work.

It’s hard to get work done over break, even when you know you need to.

The mistake I made this break was not realizing that the way I finish work on campus is completely different from the way I finish work at home. While it’s easy to spend all day in the library on campus, at home, it’s hard because there are so many things going on around you that seem fun. It was unrealistic for me to make a list of things that I needed to finish over break and expect myself to be able to finish it in a day. Such a workload might have been achievable on campus, but at home, I needed the work to be broken up into smaller chunks and over a great number of days. Over break, I found myself trying to assure myself that “I would do all the work tomorrow.” I now realize that I should have tried to set daily minimums so that I get a constant amount of work done everyday, enough so that I get a considerable amount of work done at the end of break, but also don’t feel like I have to be strapped to a desk and chair the whole day.

There is a known relationship between work productivity and environment. The physical workspace that you inhabit is strongly correlated to your emotional well-being, and your emotional well-being is correlated to your productivity and performance. That’s why large companies like Google and Facebook put in a lot of effort into having really creative and comfortable workspaces. For an idea of different work locations at Princeton, look at a previous post I did on study spaces on campus!

Another important strategy, but one that I only adopted a day before break ended, was to prioritize the top five things I needed to finish. It seems obvious, but for someone like me that’s always optimistic about their ability to finish things over breaks, this was very important. (Apparently I’m not alone though —  this problem of underestimating the amount of time it will take to finish things is actually a psychological phenomenon known as ‘the planning fallacy’!) Once I put my priorities in order, it was easier to get into a mindset of just thinking about how to finish the assignment at hand — in other words, I stopped stressing about all the other things I needed to do and really just focused on what I needed to get done.

Overall, I feel like my Thanksgiving was restful in that I got plenty of sleep, but in terms of stress, it felt like there really wasn’t a reprieve from the usual school week. For any of you who also related to this post, it might be useful to think about how you could increase productivity by changing your study spaces, or to just take time to reflect about why your break didn’t go as well as you planned. Hopefully by reflecting on Thanksgiving break, I can be better at balancing academics and other aspects of life over Winter Break, which is only two weeks away!

–Nanako Shirai, Natural Sciences Correspondent