Studying: When and How to Switch Off

At university, the work never stops.  You can always read more, write more, get to the library earlier and stay there later.

The question for lots of us is, when is it OK to switch off, and how do we do it?

We live in a culture where exhaustion is a status symbol; the more tired you are, the more you are seen to have contributed.  The less holidays you take,  the stronger you are.  This article looks at the reasons why these assumptions are dangerous and suggests some ways to remedy them.


Why is it important to switch off?


For many people this is the first time the work never truly stops.  The days of completing a piece of homework and having done with it are long gone.

You’ve finished the core reading?  Then you move to the ‘extended reading list’, which is basically a library in and of itself.  You’ve revised that module? You’d better revise it again, because there’s no way you can have absorbed all that information in one shot.

Learning to set aside time to switch off during your degree is good practice for life after university, which is likely to be much the same.

Psychologists have shown that it is crucial to ‘detach’ from work when you are not actively engaged in it, and this is particularly important during your university years where there is no sense of clocking in and out.

You can work yourself to the bone until graduation, but the pressure to move onwards and upwards won’t end there.  So take this time to cultivate an understanding of resting as healthy and productive, rather than something to be evaded for as long as possible.

It’s not just that switching off is good for your mental health – learning to balance work and play will also make the work you do produce much better.

You’ll write a far better essay if you take a ten minute break every two hours than if you write until hunger or exhaustion sees your limp hands fall from the keyboard and your head hit the desk.


When should I switch off?


A good rule of thumb is to remember to:


  1.  Take breaks during the day (11am coffee break, 1pm lunch break, 4pm coffee break, stop for dinner at 7pm)
  2. Relax at the end of the day
  3. Schedule regular activities during the week that take you away from your desk for an hour or more
  4. Take WHOLE DAYS off sometimes (and ignore that demon in the back of your mind who wants to chastise you for being lazy or encourage you to believe that you’re falling behind)

How do I switch off?


However you want.  For some people, exercise is a good way to zone out (and exercise of some kind is definitely a good idea.) Many universities offer cheap gym memberships, yoga classes and sports societies, which are also a great way to get socialising and meet new people.  Check out this A-Z of societies at the University of York for example.


For others switching off means reading, listening to a podcast, or watching First Dates.  Another cultural myth is that ALL time should be spent productively; if you’re not working you should be expanding your knowledge of 19th century literature, toning your biceps or cultivating mindfulness.  Sometimes it is ok to just order a curry and watch a film.


Psychologists have suggested a good way to switch off after a day’s work is to create a ritual which alerts your brain to the fact that, in the words of Cyndi Lauper, the working day is done (see this article in the Telegraph for more information.)  Changing and showering when you get home each night can be one way to do this.


Meditation is a pain free way to switch off, with benefits that can last longer than the course of your degree.  It’s never been easier to learn how.  Have a look at this helpful collation of mindfulness apps, including ratings and reviews.


The big one – TURN. OFF. YOUR. PHONE. Texts, calls, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter… it never ends.  It’s a good idea to turn your phone to flight mode when you’re studying, and certainly when you’re sleeping.  Sleeping with your phone beside you has been shown to disrupt sleep in a number of ways.

Studies indicate that the ‘blue light’ from phone screens disrupts sleeping patterns, as does the expectation of notifications that comes from leaving your phone connected to Wi-Fi overnight.


To conclude…


Forcing yourself to study as much as humanly possible is unhealthy and counter-productive, and buys into the cultural narrative that rest is for the weak and exhaustion is a measure of success.  Switching off will help you live a fuller life, and produce better work.

You can recuperate through exercise, meditation, selective use of Netflix, whatever it is that takes your mind away from your study.  That way, when you return to it, you will be fully present and will perform as best you can.


Martha Bailey writes for  Inspiring Interns, which specialises in finding candidates their perfect internship. To browse our graduate jobs, visit our website.