All Work and No Play Makes for a Dull Grad Student

We’re constantly told to go out and have fun, but never told how or what to do!

In discussions about self-care in graduate school, we’re always told to build in some time for ourselves. It sounds simple, but that proposition is baffling to me. Unwinding and having fun can seem impossible when we wear multiple hats (student, teacher, administrator, family member, partner, etc.) and constantly running from one appointment  to another. Graduate students are trained to be efficient with our time, money, and energy, and to constantly be hitting two — or ten — birds with one stone. If I’m supposed to present my work at a conference, I’m also supposed to meet five famous scholars, and hear about the newest theory in our discipline, and get to the caucus meetings, and catch up with my friends, and take a great Instagram picture. Oh, and also pay for this conference without going into debt. This mentality has transcended to my everyday life too: if I’m going to kick back with a new book, it also has to be fun and teaching me something about new developments in the field. Or, if I’m going to cook a nice meal for myself, I also plan to be reading furiously for seminar while it simmers on the stove.

No doubt about it: doubling up on fun and work is effective, especially when we’re short on time, money, and energy. The downside of all this? We forget that completely stepping away from work is not only restorative, but absolutely necessary. We can get bogged down in trying to get it all done, to the point that completely disconnecting from work seems impossible.

However, disconnecting is constantly associated with luxury: expensive spa days, fancy dinners out, cocktails on some sunny, distant beach. These are great, but they’re not really within the reach of a graduate student budget or schedule. I personally think that disconnecting is less about how much time or money you spend, and more about a state of mind.

Schedule your fun

Scheduling your downtime doesn’t sound relaxing at all, but I find that actually writing it down and securing its place in my schedule makes it more restorative. I also find that if I plan out my downtime and decide exactly what I’m doing, where, and when, I’m much more likely to do something fun instead of lying in bed scrolling through Instagram for hours. (I do that even when I’m swamped with work anyway!). So: if you want to get a little more from your downtime, WRITE IT DOWN. Schedule it and hold on to that time fiercely: prioritize it like you would a meeting or a doctor’s appointment, and don’t put it off!

Decide how much social time matters to you

Spending time with your friends is crucial in graduate school, but I think we have a tendency to conflate social time with relaxation. Going out with your friends can be fun, but don’t forget that hanging out with friends can feel very different from time alone to do what you want. When it comes to budgeting your time, remember to keep those two categories of downtime separate, especially if you’re an introvert who absolutely needs alone time to recharge.

But what am I supposed to do for fun?

Lots! I used to be terrified of the “What do you do in your spare time?” question, simply because I didn’t feel like I had well-defined hobbies or interests. I’m still working toward this, but after trying different things out, I’ve found a few options that help me unplug from work. You can do these activities by yourself or with a group of people

1. Video/computer games

I don’t play video games very often, nor do I follow the culture, but I’ve found a few games out there that I like. Complex moves like aiming and shooting on a controller stress me out, but I enjoy solving puzzles and exploring worlds – it reminds me of being a kid and playing on the computer for hours after school. I have a few games saved on my computer that I play when I’m taking a writing break, and they’ve really helped take my mind off work. (My personal favorite: Tricky Towers, which is a tower-stacking version of Tetris with physics and gravity. You can play in single-player, online multiplayer, or local multiplayer mode!)

2. Indulgent cooking

I do two kinds of cooking: functional, quick, everyday cooking and indulgent, slow, slightly more complicated cooking. Functional cooking is something I can do in a rush: it mostly involves quick sautés or popping something in the oven. When I do this kind of cooking, I’m usually not following a recipe and I’m often catching up on my texts or scrolling through Twitter at the same time. Indulgent cooking, however, is more rare and is what I consider a break from my routine. It usually involvesfinding a recipe, getting ingredients, putting on music or a podcast, and enjoying the sights and smells of a warm, bustling kitchenIt doesn’t have to be an expensive recipe either – I’ve had a lot of fun experimenting with recipes from And when I don’t feel like following a complicated recipe, I’ve had great success buying a single steak (which can range anywhere from $7 for standard freezer aisle steak to $20 for a prime grass-fed cuts) and throwing it into a sizzling hot skillet.

3. Walks

Similar to cooking, there’s functional, quick walks (e.g. from your parking lot to your main building or to the store to get more milk) and then there are more deliberate, planned walks. When I do walks like the latter, I like to leave my headphones at home and really take in my surroundings. It’s a great way for me to sort through my thoughts, and to get moving after a long day (or week) of sitting and reading. A walk is also a great way to catch up with a friend, especially if you don’t want to center hanging out around food or drinks, or if you’re both trying to introduce more physical activity into your schedule. Check out hiking trails, bike paths, and bustling sidewalks near you, and see which fit your mood.

4. Board games

If you’re the social type, board games are a great way to kick back and unplug from work. When grad students get together, it’s easy for conversation to shift from catching up to teaching, classes we’re taking, departmental gossip, the next conference, and other professional topics. Board games are the perfect antidote for this tendency because they offer the group something to do together rather than leaving a huge chunk of time open for conversation. I really enjoy cooperative games where all players are working together to win – think of it as low-stakes practice for collaboration and communication in the professional world. My personal favorite is Betrayal at House on the Hill — the constantly changing configuration of the board makes it so that this game never gets old. The spooky theme is a bonus!

5. A quick at-home spa experience

There’s something profoundly soothing about very visible and ostentatious-looking grooming and maintenance methods. Rituals like beard grooming, mud masks, DIY manicures and pedicures, or even teeth-whitening(!) are great reminders to step back and take care of ourselves., When I’m having a bad day, I like to put on my thickest, goopiest mask and wander around my apartment in my pajamas. It doesn’t take a lot of time (about 30 minutes to put the mask on, leave it, and wash it off), and I can pair it with other small indulgences, like a longform non-fiction piece I’ve saved on my browser and a cup of tea.  Whether it actually does anything for my skin is debatable, but I do love catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror and giggling at how ridiculous I look.