Your alarm goes off.
You scramble to get to your high-pressure school or work environment. More tasks need to be done, problems need to be solved, and responsibilities need to be taken care of. Sleep debt is hitting you hard. You desperately try to cling on to whatever normalcy and structure you have left, but you’re starting to get overwhelmed. Days start to blur as you increase your coffee intake, decrease your sleep, and add on to your ever-growing workload, all while trying to balance your life and your personal struggles.
When you’re in these situations, it’s easy to lose yourself in your work and your studies. If you’re freaking out about the amount of work you need to get done by tomorrow, by the end of the week, by the next project deadline, you’re not alone. When you’re at wit’s end and you feel like you’re being stretched so thin that you’ll snap, do yourself a favor:
Take a break.
Now, you may not think that I, being a second-generation Asian American, would even know what taking a break feels like. Well, you’d pretty much be right. But I’m recognizing the importance of it more and more. I’m currently in a Software Engineering bootcamp and every day is filled to the brim with assignments. Dinner feels like a distraction. Napping on the bus ride to and from campus feels like sanctuary. And yet, it’s important for me to walk away, to recharge, to give my brain a break. It’s almost necessary for me to stop once in a while. Almost.
Yes, it’s possible for me to chug along and continue at breakneck speed, forgoing all chances for potential respite, and there are also times when this is necessary for a stretch of time. But eventually, I’m going to break down and crash into a wall in a fiery mess if I don’t make a pit stop. The same goes for you.
Here’s the caveat: your breaks need to be meaningful. They need to allow you to destress. For the next part, I’m going to be talking primarily in terms of my stressor, coding, which requires constant activation of the problem-solving part of my brain. Here’s a few things that don’t count as meaningful breaks:
- Video games. Sorry. The point of taking a break from coding is to get your brain off being engaged. Yes, the dopamine hit you get feels good but ultimately you’re not getting a good break. Also, your Dota MMR is bad as it is.
- Social media. Although not quite as engaging for your brain as video games, it’s still a trap checking out the newest memes on Reddit and watching silly TikTok videos.
- YouTube. Again, your brain is being switched on, no matter how degenerate and base the actual content of the videos you’re watching is.
But, that’s all the fun stuff! What DOES count as a meaningful break? You may not like them at first, but if you’re serious about balancing your brain-hungry job or school and your sanity, try one of these:
- Taking a walk
- Eating a healthy snack
- Using a relaxation app (Headspace, Calm, etc.)
Allow me to elaborate a bit on some of these. Taking a walk has undeniable benefits to your health and mindfulness. It’s possibly one of the best breaks you can give your brain and your body. Relaxation apps are self-explanatory, though you may need to try a couple before finding one that works for you, but many of them involve breathing routines and meditation. Exercise is also beneficial to your health and state of mind, whether it’s weight-lifting or yoga.
But isn’t weight-lifting hard? Isn’t that more stress? How is that a break?
All of these activities share a common goal of switching your brain off. They are meant to let your brain rest during a busy day. Yes, weight-lifting is stress, but it’s stress on your muscles, not your brain. In the same vein, if you decide to clean as your break, don’t go about making difficult decisions on what clothes you’re donating or where you’re going to store that new single-purpose kitchen gadget you haven’t used past two weeks of getting. Instead, do something repetitive and routine like sweeping or doing the dishes.
Think of your brain as only being able to handle so much load a day. You need to pace yourself and budget out time spent under low load. Manage your mental energy. Extremely related to this is managing your sleep. One common trap people (like me) fall into is putting off sleep to cram as much work as possible in before going to bed. After all, it’s hard to sleep knowing there are things that need to be done. However, you shouldn’t view sleep as an obstacle that gets in the way of productivity; on the contrary, a good sleep is necessary for being productive. The book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, PhD goes into detail about the importance of sleep and the magnitude of the health and mental benefits. If you’re pulling an all-nighter to finish an assignment that’s due tomorrow, the obvious answer is to have front-loaded your work and done it earlier when it was assigned so as to give you enough time. But this isn’t always possible. Life happens, and school/work goes on. Sometimes you get unlucky, and that’s okay. As long as you’re able to make sacrificing sleep the exception rather than the rule, you’re on the right track. At the end of the day, getting a good night’s rest is crucial to your productivity and your well-being.
Lastly, be kind to yourself. You’re going through a lot of stress right now. Some of it may be because you signed up for it, some if it may be from life being unfair. You may not be able to handle all your responsibilities, you may not get all your work done. But that’s okay. We’re human, and we have limits. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed and stressed out. You’re better off acknowledging it and doing something about it rather than denying it and letting it consume you. Recognize when you’re working too hard, and do take a break.
Take it easy.