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Free time in college and university can feel fleeting. In fact, in a recent Student Health 101 survey, over 92 percent of students said they at least occasionally feel like they don’t have enough time for themselves, and more than 30 percent said they feel like this every day.

So how can you prevent your schedule from steamrolling you into exhaustion? It’s all about taking breaks.

Take breaks to sharpen your mind

When you have a full to-do list—writing papers, studying for exams, going to work, participating in campus activities—squeezing in leisure time can feel like a luxury, but it’s actually necessary.

If you’ve ever tried to power through a long study period or creative task with no breaks, you probably know what it’s like to hit a wall—that point where you’re no longer productive. This happens because your brain is structured to need both periods of work and rest.

cat nappingHave you ever heard someone say, “I think best in the shower,” or “I’m going to take a walk and clear my head?” These aren’t just quaint sayings. Taking a break gives your brain time to process all the information you’ve thrown at it, according to research.

When you allow your brain to rest, it begins using the default mode network (DMN), which can boost creativity and help you link ideas, retrieve memories, and become more self-connected, according to research outlined in the Harvard Health Blog.

Here are some science-backed ways to give your brain a break:

  • Walking or getting some heart-pumping exercise (bonus points if you do it in nature)
  • Napping
  • Daydreaming (especially about something fun or playful)
  • Meditation

“Self-care is important for productivity, [especially] when you’ve got a lot on your plate,” says Rachel F., a graduate student at Queen’s University in Ontario, who also works part time. “Taking a break and rejuvenating often helps me come up with my best ideas.”

In the world-renowned book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People®, author Stephen R. Covey’s seventh suggestion was “Sharpen the Saw.” Here, he told the story of a man who gets exhausted trying to cut down a tree with a dull saw but continues anyway. If he’d stop and take time to sharpen his saw, the break would help his progress. The same is true for you: Taking a break to recharge is a way to sharpen your thinking, reflexes, and emotional resilience.

It’s also necessary for your physical health. Hannah W., a fourth-year student at the University of Guelph in Ontario, says, “Getting [enough rest] is necessary for me to be able to study efficiently. I can’t think straight when I’m tired.”

You time

What should your break be like? The answer depends on what sorts of activities you find soothing or energy boosting.

girl listening to music

For Tanya P., a first-year student at Nipissing University in Ontario, jogging offers much-needed thinking time and a chance to clear her mind, while Alyssa C., a second-year student at George Brown College in Ontario, loves to get lost in books that aren’t required reading. “Over the winter break I loaded up my [electronic reader] and caught up on everything I wanted to read during the fall,” she says.

Take a moment to think about when you feel most relaxed or even excited. “You time” is just that: for you. It doesn’t have to seem appealing to anyone else. For Rachel, playing the guitar brings her joy, but tidying up helps too. “[Removing] clutter from my room helps [clear] my brain,” she explains. “I can’t feel entirely organized unless the space around me is organized, too.”

Unplug, literally

A little mindless TV can be fine, but vegging out in front of electronic devices won’t give your brain relief from the eye strain and multitasking associated with technology.

Daniel R., a fifth-year student at the University of Calgary in Alberta, says, “Staring at the computer screen for long periods of time can be exhausting. It puts [me] in sort of a daze.”

unplugged plug

At least once a day, even if just for half an hour, set aside your computer, tablet, phone, and headphones. Find a quiet place, or connect with some friends in person. It’s essential to shift your energy toward real human connection on a regular basis and also have time to reach a peaceful state.

In our tech-obsessed world, overstimulation can feel like the norm. Here are some ideas for finding calm:

  • Keep a gratitude log
  • Do some yoga or meditation
  • Practise tai chi
  • Turn off your WiFi for a certain amount of time each week
  • Spend time in nature
  • Leave your phone at home for a few hours
  • Take a relaxing bath or shower
  • Find a quiet spot and practise deep breathing
  • Draw or write for pleasure
  • Play or create music
  • Eat lunch alone with a favourite book or a journal
  • Go on a tech-free walk and take time to observe your surroundings
  • Have a meaningful phone or face-to-face conversation

Schedule breaks into your day

clockNow the key is to figure out when to take a break. Some students set a regular schedule, putting time for themselves in their calendars—just as they would a lecture, doctor’s appointment, or other responsibility. Otherwise, the time may be frittered away or seem like something expendable.

Alyssa makes sure to schedule some time each day for herself. “I like to wake up a few hours earlier [than necessary] during the week to have alone time and pump myself up for the day,” she says.

Daniel arranges for down time by staying in touch with friends. “I make a point to connect with [them] throughout the day,” he says. “Getting out of my head and bouncing ideas off others helps me go back to work refreshed.”

Your big break

running girlTaking little breaks during the school year is important, but longer periods of time off (like summer and winter breaks) are great times to try something new. Kelsey B., a fourth-year student at the University of Guelph, does this by teaching abroad during the summer.

If you find some things challenging during the school year, such as eating regular, nutritious meals or keeping up with your class reading, you can also use a break from school to refocus and reset your habits.

Kelsey says, “Breaks are a great opportunity to establish healthier habits. Learning how to take care of our bodies and minds isn’t always learned in class.”

Take some time to evaluate if you’re meeting your own goals. If not, you can set priorities and create an action plan. Just make sure the plan includes time to recharge. However you choose to spend “you time” or your summer break, take the break part seriously and enjoy the benefits of having balance in your life.

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Article sources

Covey, S. R. (1989, 2004). The 7 habits of highly effective people. New York, New York: Free Press.

Immordino-Yang, M. H., Christodoulou, J. A., & Singh, V. (2012). Rest is not idleness: Implications of the brain’s default mode for human development and education. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7(4), 352–364.

Jabr, F. (2013, October 15). Why your brain needs more downtime. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/mental-downtime/

Pillay, S. (2017, May 9). Secret to brain success: Intelligent cognitive rest. Harvard Health Blog. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/secret-to-brain-success-intelligent-cognitive-rest-2017050411705

Student Health 101 survey, June 2013.

Student Health 101 survey, March 2019.