In Defence of Downtime

Katie Bastiman (2016, French and Italian, MSt Modern Languages)

When I arrived in Somerville as a fresher in 2016, I realised quickly that I was going to have to handle my work-life balance very carefully.

I knew from the start that Oxford would be stressful and would push me further as a student than I had been pushed before, and so I decided from day one that my priority was to remain happy and healthy during my time here. I worked hard, but my number one focus was always to keep my life as balanced as possible. Five years later, I am very pleased that I made that call so early on. 

Oxford is always going to throw challenges at you, be they academic, emotional, or otherwise. And it sounds obvious, but the more energy you can put in to keeping things balanced, the better equipped you will be to handle those challenges. Everyone works differently, but for me at least, I really need to be in a good headspace to do my best work.

Taking some time out to relax is just as productive as writing that essay or learning that vocab. If I let myself get too tired, or don’t take enough breaks, suddenly every little hurdle in my work feels insurmountable. Taking a more balanced approach isn’t just helpful for my overall productivity, but (more importantly) it helps me to enjoy my degree more and feel happy in what I’m doing. 

It can be very easy to get swept up in the ‘Oxford bubble’ and to forget that it isn’t actually normal to be studying all day every day. It is really valuable to take little breaks to get some fresh air or see your friends, and it’s also important to know and respect your own limits. Studying from home for most of this year, I found that without all of the socials and the fun of normal university life, I worked best when I took weekends off.

That is never something I would have considered implementing in my undergrad days – at that point, I found I worked best when I could spread my work over all seven days of the week rather than condensing into five and then taking two off. When I was working from home, though, I needed that time off to look forward to during the week and to let me unwind and think about other things for a day or two. It’s not a strict rule – sometimes I get an hour or two of work done on a Sunday, or more if I have a deadline looming – but it has helped me to maintain a feeling of control and balance.  

The period of time in which I relied most on downtime in my time at Oxford so far has been my finals. I finished my undergrad degree in the summer of 2020, so I was at home living with my family at the time. My dad and I got into a routine of playing video games together (Breath of the Wild, mostly) for a few hours every evening. I would do enough work during the day to feel like I’d accomplished something, and then switch off and just relax into the escapism.

Being taken out of Oxford for my finals is never something I would have wanted, but being back home made it easier to resist falling into the mindset so common among Oxford students – that there aren’t enough hours in the day, that work comes before everything else, that you have to make sacrifices to get the results you want.

There are enough hours in the day, for work and for relaxation, too. Work does not come before your health and happiness. And you are more likely to get the results you want by taking care of yourself and investing in your own wellbeing.

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Katie Bastiman

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