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Academic life

Why are you working right now?

This is a question I ask myself when I notice my brain rehearsing a lecture while I’m lying in bed at night. Or when I’m composing an email in the shower. Or scheduling tasks on the treadmill. In other words, when my brain is in work mode but my body is—or should be—doing something else.

Intrusive thoughts about work are surely common. So is the habit of letting our minds return to work tasks outside of working hours. Some might suggest this is beneficial. After all, the trope of the creative insight that wakes you up at night or strikes mid-shampoo is a familiar one. Indeed, our brains seem to make insightful connections and do some of their best work at off times.

However, allowing your subconscious to tinker away at a problem is different than being consciously dialled into work after hours. What I’m describing here is not actually working, e.g. checking email or typing lecture notes. Rather, I’m referring to “work” that’s stuck in a loop inside your brain. Its productive value is minimal, while its annoyance potential is high.

My academic clients describe it as the feeling of never being off work. To me, it feels like a constant distraction that steals focus from sleep, play, and self care. Often, I’m simply replaying things that have already happened! It’s not even that I’m stuck recalling a talk that went poorly. It’s more like my mind is still in the groove of work and can’t jump to the next track.

The more I began to be aware of my own off-hours “work” habits, the more I was annoyed that work was invading my precious mental space. The first step was, indeed, noticing. Simply becoming conscious of the moments when my mind was turning to work tasks was important for recognizing it as an issue I wanted to do something about. Once I recognized the overall pattern, I could more quickly notice when my brain was trying to “work.” Great! But how to stop it? What worked was coming up with a phrase that forcefully interrupted the work thoughts. For me, it was the following:

No one is paying you to work right now!

This sentence hits home for me because I don’t believe that my employer deserves all my time. I strongly resist the culture of overwork in academia. Even though my salary is decent, it doesn’t get to claim every hour of the day. The phrase not only jolts me out of my work thoughts, it connects to a powerful personal belief and value system.

What would your phrase be? You can use mine if it works, but maybe there’s something even more meaningful for you. How about: “You deserve time off.” “Rest is sacred.” “You can’t work if you don’t rest.”

Now, what if your thoughts are spiralling into anxiety and worry? A simple phrase might not be enough. In these moments, you can draw on the long-standing advice to get the anxious thing out of your head by writing it down. For example, if you’re worried about forgetting something, pause what you’re doing and make a note or set a reminder on your phone. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by a busy day ahead, make a quick priority list or send a text to yourself with a short plan.

The important thing is to acknowledge that your brain does not need to be in work mode all day and night. You’re entitled to think about other things. You’re even allowed to think about nothing at all.