Four Steps to Winding Down Work

Yesterday I wrote a little about my pre-Christmas and post-Christmas experiences at the start of my PhD – they were the best of times, they were the worst of times – and also shared the kernels of a few ideas for ways to make your pre-break shutdown and New Year restart the best they can be. In today’s post I’ll go into those four points in more detail. Ready?


Audit where you are up to

How many projects do you have on the go? How many papers are you planning on reading at the moment? How many emails are waiting, or people are you meaning to contact? As I’ve said on a couple of occasions before, having lots of things in your head as “I must do this” or “I need to get around to that” is no good. And it is even worse if you walk out of your workspace for the holidays and carry that with you.

Instead, run a full audit on yourself. I don’t mean start doing a full and up to date plan of what you are doing and when you intend it to be done: just make a list of each project or task, say what needs to be done for it to be complete, where you are up to and what the next step is. And that’s it. When you return to work you will have something that you can work from.


Having audited things, you’re off to a good start, and if you did nothing else in this list you would be in a really great position when you come back to work. But when you come back to work you’re probably going to not be quite at your best. You’ll be thinking of parties and presents, of family and friends and UGH! You will not want to be thinking of looking through a projects file that you made in mid-December.

So take the time now to help the Future You. Put Post It notes on everything. Reminders on an article of what you’re hoping to get from it. Post Its next to your computer or on your desk which say who you need to email first. Post Its which say what the next step to take is. Make it as easy and useful for that Future You as possible.

Plan your first day back (and set goals for your first week)

It can be tough to hit the ground running on a Monday morning after just a two day weekend, nevermind after the Christmas break. Having a plan can really help: for that first work day after your break, make things as simple as possible. All of these steps so far are basically creating less and less resistance for Future You to get things done. Even if you are the spontaneous sort, the kind of person who hates having fixed plans, this will be of some benefit. List the tasks and the actions that you need to get done on that first day back. Allocate time slots. Give yourself a break, it is your first day back after all, and no doubt you will want to catch up with some people – that’s fine – the important thing is to be realistic.

Set your goals for the first week back, so that when you turn up at your workspace you can switch back in to a productive frame of mind. Just knowing what you’re setting out to accomplish will be a big boost. You’ll be targeted. And you may find yourself getting more done or more efficiently.

Take NOTHING home over the break

Everyone needs a break from work. Everyone. This means you.

But Nathan, what about that one paper?

Even that one paper. Leave it.

OK, but I was thinking, you know, I don’t like Doctor Who that much, so I could read it then, on Christmas Day.


But –

Here is what will happen: you’ll say “Well, I can’t do it immediately, it’s the holidays, I’ll leave it for later.” Reasonable enough. Days will pass and you’ll say “Oh yes, I meant to read that one paper, I must do that soon…” You’ll feel guilty that you’ve not done it yet. Frustration, when it comes, will eat into your relaxation. You won’t want to read the paper by this point, because you’ll have negative associations with it. You won’t even want to read it when you restart work.

That one paper will bounce from bag to desk to bag to drawer to bag, always something you mean to do, but something that you’ve started to hate. Work will suffer. Your supervisor will ask what’s wrong, but you’ll lie and say everything’s fine. You hate the paper, it ruined your Christmas.

You decide to start stealing to make yourself feel better. You’re caught, but you don’t care. You’re let off with a warning but the university hears about it and brings you in for a meeting. Your supervisors ask what has happened and you tell them to back off, it’s none of their business. They offer you a leave of absence, suspension of studies, but you tell them to shove it, and you storm out. You never return to your PhD.

When the cleaning staff box up your stuff, they find the paper, still with a tattered and slightly faded Post It in the top third of the top sheet.

Read over Christmas break!

They shrug and put it in the recycling bag.

And all of this happened because you thought about doing work over the holidays.

Taking work home: DON’T DO IT!

Take time to get things ready before you break, and you’ll be glad you did when the break is over. Enjoy the break for what it is: take that time to recharge and when you come back to work you will be in a good position.

Thanks for reading!

Nathan (@DrRyder and @VivaSurvivors)