I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions – but last year seemed different.
Most of my expectations for graduate school were upended in the first few weeks (I suppose I’ll write about that at some point) and I wasn’t sure what to do, except to look forward to the winter break during which I would return to France and visit family in Germany. It was just a few days before my flight booked for the day after Christmas, and one day after going home to see my family, that, while out with old and current roommates, I got a call from my mother telling me my sister had covid.
The desperate hope that I wouldn’t get sick was quickly replaced with an even more desperate hope that two days would be enough for a miraculous recovery, and that hope, disappointed (and the flight cancelled), was replaced with a sense of ultimate desperation that I would somehow still be able to fly out in January. Christmas Day spent isolated on a couch surrounded by tissues (some for my runny nose and some for my tears) made me realize that not only did I still have to overcome a strong tendency towards self-pity, but that only one semester into grad school, I was burned out.
Grad School Expectations
It was hard to admit that the transition into graduate school was a difficult one for me – especially hard to admit this to myself. After all, I have some experience with changing schools, even moving between countries. Granted, I knew graduate school was going to present a new challenge. But having navigated a successful high-school-to-college transition four years prior, and a year spent studying engineering in France (during a pandemic, at that!), it seemed to me like returning back to a campus where I had researched a summer already, with an advisor I knew previously, would not be that hard.
But grad school required me to work in a way that none of those experiences had taught me. When compared to undergrad and my time in France, I had even less of a fixed schedule, and the expectation that I would be student, teacher, and researcher simultaneously meant that I needed to figure out exactly how, and most importantly, when, I could accomplish the tasks associated with each of these roles.
The natural response for me, and I assume, based on my observation of my peers, for many others, is to simply increase the time spent on these tasks. I had not held out much hope for my weeknights going into grad school, but soon the lunch breaks and weekends were sacrificed also. Then came the workouts, the reading (it was not much to being with), the social calls, and time spent at mass and in prayer. But these were just the things that made life make sense and worth living. That first semester, I also found out my grandma had lung cancer, and although I gained a weekend spent with her every other week, I needed to make up that time somewhere else – except there was no anywhere else.
Now all that I just described might sound pretty scary, maybe pretty accurate, and probably pretty relatable to some. But in retrospect, there was time left over, it was just wasted – time spent scrolling on Instagram, or time spent hitting the snooze button for a seventh (or eight) time. Time spent between meetings re-organizing my desk, and time procrastinating before trying a new problem approach. But, I felt, as I know others have also, that I needed this downtime to keep myself from going crazy. I could not work during all hours of the day (or night).
A New Approach
I do not want to pretend I had these grand insights into my own life and work habits. My dad is usually pretty good at that, but I was too busy convincing myself that scrolling through Instagram reels was clearly not anything like those who spend their time on TikTok. And that Christmas Day I was definitely content to wallow in a sort of masochistic acceptance that I was just very unlucky, a wallowing that feels best when shared. But my dad would not have any of that and told me one of those days, and probably more than once: “I am really worried. Something has to change.” And I knew he was right: something had to change.
I do not know how I narrowed in on my subsequent resolution to not work on Sundays. I can hardly take credit – I remembered an old college friend decided at one point during our undergrad to no longer work on Sunday, the Lord’s Day. And of course, before Sunday was the Christians’ rest day, the Jews had Shabbat. At the time I was in my third year of college, my friend’s decision seemed crazy, and while admirable, even worthy of envy, it seemed impossible. Now, with more work than ever to accomplish, the idea should have never even been on the metaphorical table. And yet I decided it was the only way forward.
So how do you not work on Sundays? Although without any background in law, I knew my interpretation of the phrase “not work” would be key in defining the self-prescription. For me, it meant chores were possible, yet not encouraged. That included occasional grocery shopping, if it really was not feasible any other day that week. My laptop remained accessible, but only for entertainment or hobby purposes. Most importantly, I would not do any work work. No answering emails unless a reply to the sender was required, no grading, no research, no studying, no homework. I would sleep in, but not too late, would go to church, would cook and enjoy a nice meal, and would spend the rest of the day pursuing things that brought me enjoyment: reading, knitting, watching a movie, hanging out with friends.
The beauty of incorporating a rest day, however, is that it is sure to be personalized to each individual. Each person’s interpretation of a rest day allows them to construct such a day to their own benefit and to that of their family. However, I truly believe that the efficacy of such a practice is directly correlated with the extent to which one distances themselves from whatever work is most stressful.
Looking Back, A Year Later
A new New Year has already come and gone; this one I did get to spend back home in Germany with loved ones. Looking back at those “dark” days last year is a bit humiliating but doing so shows me just how happy I truly am at the moment. And I think that my decision to not work on Sundays plays no small part in this.
I noticed almost immediately how this commitment helped me be more efficacious and productive in my research, especially. Setting time aside to do things other than work made that time pass guilt-free, instead of continually feeling regretful about not working. I also had the permission to do things that were not work, but that actually felt good. Book reading instead of phone scrolling, watching a movie instead of watching several 12-minute videos. Moreover, by the time Sunday night rolled around, my brain, having rested, willingly and enthusiastically started thinking about the problem(s) on which I was working, giving me some ideas to try out the following day.
This habit also allowed me to try and be a well-rounded woman. I picked up knitting as a hobby these past few months and a few of those Sunday afternoons were almost entirely dedicated to scarves and hats I have since gifted away. I also got to cook more; some dishes were successes, others, not so much. I read a few books, slowly making progress in my longstanding goal to read more.
Perhaps most importantly, I got to be the people person I know myself to be. Whether I spent that time with friends, on a video call with my boyfriend, laying next to my Grandma on the Sundays of the weeks before she passed, or those mornings with the Lord, each one of those days I gained, I truly lived and enjoyed.
My writing here is not scientific in nature, but as I have shared my experience with others this past year, encouraging them to join me in taking a break, I sought out some additional sources in the hope that I would find my own experience following a millennia-long tradition corroborated.
A mere superficial survey of existing literature brought me to Tiffany Shlain’s book 24/6, which discusses the author’s experience following her Jewish roots and giving up screens one day a week. This, while slightly different from my own parameters for rest, prompts me to consider a potential sharpening of these to come, and at the very least, provides me with affirmation that I seems to espouse ideas comparable to those of a “modern day prophet” (the words of Angela Duckworth, quoted on Amazon).
And although I was not able to gain access to several articles and studies that would provide a more analytical perspective on my thesis here, I believe that the essence of a philosophy that says that at some point, too many hours spent working actually hurt productivity, can be found in papers like John Pencavel’s “The Productivity of Working Hours” (The Economic Journal, Volume 125, Issue 589, 1 December 2015, Pages 2052–2076).
I would also enjoy hearing from others, including anybody reading this essay now. Have you made a similar change in your life? If not, I highly recommend it. In any case, do not content yourself with being overwhelmed by your responsibilities – you do not have to neglect them in order to have time for other experiences also.
Last year, I decided to no longer work on Sundays. Already a holy day for me, I wanted to both honor its religious significance and also define a clear time in which I would rest, and take a break from work.
Without exaggeration, I can say that this decision has been one of the single-most beneficial actions I have taken in my entire life. Consistently committing to not working actually increased both my productivity in and enjoyment of work, in addition to helping me find time to pursue additional activities.
Therefore, to anyone working, I recommend trying not working for a change. If you can make it happen, do it.