As a musician, I was taught that rests—the silent spaces between musical sound—are just as important as the sound itself. Rests shape the quality of individual music notes, determine rhythmic patterns, and can create anticipation and drama. Longer periods of rest might be more restorative: an extended pause in the music gives a musician, and the listener, a chance to recollect themselves, recharge, and prepare for the next entrance.
Rest is sometimes hard to come by in the writing process. If you are like me, you are juggling multiple projects and deadlines. Resting might feel like a guilty pleasure when there are several things due. And yet, rest might be the very thing that can help us reach our writing goals and come up with compelling new arguments. Have you ever been struck by a brilliant idea while in the shower or just as you are about to fall asleep? It happens to me all the time. In those moments, I am relaxed, and all the experiences and activities of the day are pushed to the background, where they do a different kind of work: integrate.
Thinking of rests and breaks as periods of integration has helped me to embrace balance in my writing practice and in my academic work more generally. Rather than thinking of breaks as something I must earn, I think of them as important and necessary components of my productivity. Taking brief pauses helps me to reset and assess whether I’m staying on track with my writing goals. I can veer in a new direction if it seems like I am stuck on a particular section or task. Longer breaks are even more valuable as they allow me to take space from my work and return to it with fresh eyes and renewed energy. And in the interim, that rest allows my ideas to gel, which almost always results in a better and more productive writing session to follow.
But what if you are on a roll? The ideas are flowing and you are losing track of time. Can rest still be useful? I say yes. In his book Advice for New Faculty Members: Nihil Nimus, psychologist Robert Boice has an entire chapter called “Stop” in his section on mindful writing. Boice suggests that writers should plan their stops—organizing when they will and will not write, stopping when a scheduled session is over even if they have more to say. This might seem counterintuitive at first, but it is actually a great practice in maintaining balance. If you don’t know how to stop and take a break when things are going well, then how will you know to stop and take a break when the writing isn’t going so well? Boice’s philosophy for writing (as well as teaching and professional service) is to do everything in moderation. Cultivating a regular practice of writing with clear boundaries and regular periods of rest prevents burnout and makes for more consistent academic success.
In graduate school, it might seem impossible to stop, let alone schedule time for rest in advance. Between coursework, teaching, and dissertation writing (not to mention the many hours of service that graduate students undertake), the multiple competing demands on your time can feel overwhelming. This makes rest even more beneficial. There are a few ways you can implement periods of integration into your writing practice. First, have a regular writing practice and planned rest period after each daily writing session. The National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity* recommends writing at least 30 minutes a day. Framing your writing goals in terms of small and achievable goals like short time chunks or word-count minimums can help establish a practice that you can then adjust depending on your particular needs and objectives. Another option is to build in regular breaks in your day, such as taking a longer midday break: eat lunch and do something else for yourself. You might also find it helpful to reflect on your writing practice and consider when you write best. In the morning? The afternoon? The evening? Figure out what time of day is your most productive and embrace it, but put boundaries around it. You might consider joining a writing group to help block your time and stay accountable. Find the pattern that works for you and write your heart out. Then stop, rest, and let the integration happen.
*Graduate students are eligible to register for Harvard’s pilot institutional membership with the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD).