What to do on Spring Break.

Spring break should be a break! I know what you’re thinking, “but I have so much to do, I need to catch up”. I hear you, so do I! In all my years of schooling (undergrad through PhD) I never once took an actual break for spring break. Never! I always had papers or projects or exams due the following week and I had to work on those. I envied people who went away and took a break. Now, at 35 and a college professor myself, not taking a break is one of my biggest regrets (the other is not joining enough clubs/organizations, but more on that later).

Like most people, the pandemic really put me through the wringer. I felt overwhelmed, burnt out, and exhausted (I still do!). I wracked my brain, read tons of books, and even asked my therapist what I could do to make sure I didn’t burn completely out. Only one thing kept coming back: take a break. And take breaks regularly. But how do I take a break? I need to be productive to be valuable, right? No.

I took a week off work for the first time in 4 years at the end of last semester. The last time I took that much time off in a row, I was on maternity leave with my youngest, and then I only took about 3 weeks total to recover. And it didn’t hurt me or my productivity. In fact, it made me better and more productive.

Our brains are not wired to work at this capacity, for this long. There is a theory in both psychology and education called the Cognitive Load theory. Though it’s come under fire recently, as most research has, the basic tenant remains: our brain's cognitive capacity is limited. We can only use a finite amount of our cognitive capacity at any given time.

Tons of research studies, including ones I’ve been a part of, show that people will make poorer decisions when their cognitive load is at its max capacity. For example, people choose worse food options, candy instead of fruit. Think about it, what kind of food do you choose during midterms and finals? My go to was goldfish crackers, candy, and lots and lots of pasta.

We also make worse financial decisions, are more prone to bias errors like using anchoring effects (relying too heavily on the first piece of information we receive when making a decision), and we are even worse at math. All this shows that we are bad at making decisions and solving problems when our cognitive load is at capacity. Essentially we are bad at studying, working, and being productive.

When we work at maximum capacity we burn a ton of calories and deplete a lot of our resources physiologically. Being in college is working at higher than our capacity for sustained periods of time. It’s unsustainable. The only answer, unfortunately for most of us, is to take a break. Taking a break, a real genuine break, can calm the nervous system, get rid of stress hormones, help with digestion, and help improve our overall brain health.

When I took that one week off it changed everything. I’m still getting overwhelmed and burnt out, but as soon as I do, I take a few days off and I feel more restored. We have vacation days, we need to use them. Same goes for college students. We have built in break sessions: spring break, winter break, summer, and fall break. We need to start using them.

It may be difficult to take a lot of breaks during college since you have a super busy schedule with school, work, and social life. But if you can build in small breaks or even half day breaks throughout each semester, summer, and winter, it will help you recharge, stay fresher, and not burn out as quickly.

So what can you do to take a rest during your break. These are often associated with self care activities. I truly believe that self care is only self care if it’s done regularly, so do any number of these things, or add your own, regularly. I recommend doing some combination of these activities at least once a month, but preferably more often.

  • Read a good book, not for class

  • Binge watch TV/Movies

  • Go out with friends

  • Sleep

  • Exercise (doesn’t have to be super strenuous)

  • Take a walk or a hike

  • Meditate

  • Choose an activity you’ve never done and do it

  • Choose an activity you’re nervous about doing and do it

  • Take a vacation (big or small)

What do you do for rest? Leave a comment to add to this list!

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