When I was in grade 11, I remember my high school biology teacher was this militaristic school marm-type woman who was intimidating as all hell. I’m sure you have experienced at least one teacher in your life who basically struck the fear of God in your soul if you were even 2 minutes late to class. Her death glare was legendary. For the sake of anonymity, I’m going to call this force of nature who shaped me permanently Mrs. Smith (also because I legit forgot her name!)
Mrs. Smith was actually away for the first half of the school year in 1997 for a medical leave. Instead, a substitute teacher taught my bio class who was super nice, and unfortunately, bullied hard by the students. I always loved Mrs. Burns (fake name). She was jovial, smiled a lot, joked with the students, and laughed at her own clumsiness. Mrs. Burns was joined by a teaching aide who was just in university finishing up her teaching degree. I felt bad for Mrs. Kay because she was very mild-mannered and bullied even more incessantly than Mrs. Burns. Mrs. Kay seemed to always be on the verge of tears as she could never get the class to quiet down or cooperate. She spoke so softly, we could hardly hear her over the din of raucous classmates who loved the sounds of their own voices. Due to her inability to rally the herd, the students shamelessly ignored Mrs. Kay’s instructions and Mrs. Burns would have to cast her own version of a disappointed stare, which was barely effective. This toxic situation lasted about 5 months until Mrs. Smith returned to school and worked to shut that shit down.
Due to the easy-going nature of the class during the first half of the year, the students were barely ready for Mrs. Smith’s arrival.
She showed up after the Christmas break and we had no idea that she was actually our real teacher. Mrs. Smith introduced herself and was very open about having been on medical leave. She was very direct about her expectations. She didn’t tolerate students who spoke out of turn and would kick them out of class for disruption. She wouldn’t let them back in until they apologized and behaved well. Otherwise, the disciplinary action was repeated. Mrs. Smith used shock value to shut us up by slamming a ruler against her desk to create an ear-piercing pop that would startle everyone into silence followed by an icy stare down. She wasn’t afraid of anything, least of all a bunch of sniveling teenagers.
Every week there would be a quiz on all the stuff we learned in class. If we passed each quiz, we automatically earned 10% of our overall mark. If we failed to study our texts or do our assignments, we’d lose the 10%. It was the easiest 10% I ever earned! Or so I thought…
That 10% though came at a cost. It meant I actually had to read and re-read all my notes in class. I also learned to re-write all my notes, as they looked like illegible scrawl coming out of class. She taught us study tactics like making up our own quiz questions as we read chapters to retain the information better. She taught us to highlight specific sentences and create flash cards out of glossary words. No one had taught me how to study before Mrs. Smith came along. I was grateful in later years for her advice.
However, there was a chink to her plan. Mrs. Smith realized quickly that students were getting burnt out because many were not passing those weekly tests. I was always very studious so I had no issue with it. One thing she mentioned to us later, that stuck with me all through University years and eventually now, she said take study breaks every hour for 15 minutes. Shut your brain off completely by watching tv, going for a walk, making a snack, or taking a power nap.
I thought to myself “what a waste of time! I can’t afford to take 15 minute breaks every hour!”
I have a total of 4 hours of studying time after school is done and if I take 15 minute breaks it means I shorten my studying time to 3 hours! That’s completely nuts! The nerdy kids like myself all bitched and moaned that the old bat was off her rocker.
Boy, was I proven wrong.
The 15 minute breaks helped me retain more information when it came to memory recall during quiz time. I performed better on tests. In fact, I became more efficient at studying because I had a shorter time to absorb the same amount of information. I used the break trick throughout University. When my friends were exhausted from their studies, I had 2 part-time jobs, a sorority officer position which was like having third part-time job, and full-time studies with my Bachelor’s degree! Yet I was never as exhausted and burnt out. Sure, I was stressed by deadlines and exams like everyone else and I maintained a respectable GPA of 3.34/4.0.
I wasn’t a straight-A student, and didn’t need to be. Perfectionism is not really my strong suit and even though I try I have always failed at it.
But striving for excellence means I’m hella above average so I’ll take that anyway!
Fast-forward ahead to 20 years later. I build in a 15 minute coffee break every 4 hours during my workday. Every hour or two I’ll get up and walk to the kitchen and do a round through my office which gives me a 5 minute repose. The breaks help me recharge and quiet my brain slightly so that I can focus on the task at hand. It make me more efficient as a worker but also friendlier to my colleagues as I am less wound up.
There are still times I find myself having to disengage from people. I tell friends I’m busy so I can sit on the couch and Netflix all night. I’m ok with that. But last year in an effort to save money, I didn’t go on a proper vacation for almost 12 months. That lead to me feeling drained and empty, even though I was still filling my life with activities that I enjoyed. I lost focus. Those activities felt like work and because less fun over time.
My greatest passion in life is to travel abroad. If I take a 3-4 day mini-break, it’s simply not enough time for my brain to shut off. I’m bombarded by thoughts of everything I need to do when I get back. In fact, there are times I can’t even sleep because my brain will not shut off. Rather than feeling recharged, I come back irritated and exhausted from my mini-break.
The truth is I feel ripped off when I don’t take a proper vacation.
The end of 2016, I went away to Vancouver for 6 days. I got to meet up with a good friend who moved out there, did some sightseeing, ate too much food, and slept in every day. In addition to this, I still had an extra 3 days off because of the New Year’s holiday. This extra long break helped me feel more refreshed than if I had just taken a couple days off for the statutory holiday.
The moral of this story is that if you are the type of over-achiever who isn’t taking proper breaks in your life, you will wear yourself thin. People will notice your irritability and anxiety and will not want to spend time with you for very long. You need to do yourself and the world a favour by disconnecting solidly every once in a while. Does that mean being cooped up inside your room for 24 hours, or going on a hike where you don’t have a cell signal, or does that mean a 2 week vacation?
After years of studying myself, I’ve learned the magic number of days off is 10 days for me.
Any longer than that and I start to get irritated that I’m not back to my life because I’m ready to take on the world! Any shorter than that and it’s like I wasn’t even on a break.
What’s constitutes a brain break for you? I’d love to know! Please comment below and tell me.