Basic Self-Maintenance for Academic Success – Part 2

This is the second installment of a two-part series by Ada Palmer (@Ada_Palmer), who has generously made a ‘Healthy Work Habits’ handout which you can download here. You can find Part 1 here.

Metabolism and Nutrition

“Listen to your Body!” It’s easy to convince ourselves that productivity is a question of mind, discipline, having the force of will to “power through” and get things done, but that simply isn’t true. Reading, writing, research, these require your brain to be operating at its best, and that depends on what your body and blood stream are supplying. You think better, learn more quickly, remember more, produce better work, feel happier and less stressed, and can genuinely get more done in less time,  if you take certain health-related steps which have short term immediate benefits, separate from any long-term health benefits (though they have those too).

  • Remember that some times of day will always be a little draggy, no matter what. The morning before you eat, the first hour after a large meal, and the last few hours before bed your brain will never be at 100%, so try to reserve those hours for tasks which require less concentration, like e-mail, grocery shopping, chores, or leisure activities.
  • Many people find their “best hours” are in the morning or late morning, at least for those who eat something when we get up. Overnight the body goes into a kind of “low power mode” to conserve resources until we eat again. This means that the brain is only running at 75% speed until we have a little food. Try waking up your brain by eating something with glucose in it; it doesn’t have to be a full breakfast, a glass of juice, a cup of fruity yogurt, even coffee with milk & sugar can turn your morning hours into 100% hours.

  • Keep your brain fed. While most cells in your body can metabolize many energy sources (fats, proteins, diverse sugars), nerve cells (i.e. your brain) metabolize glucose directly and can’t process most other sources. This means that fluctuations in blood sugar affect your brain more than the rest of you; your brain may be hungry even when your body still has plenty of food. To keep your brain fed you want consistent blood sugar levels, achieved by eating meals which mix different energy sources (some sugar, some starch, some protein, some fat), since they each take different amounts of time to break down, and add glucose to the blood in successive waves. Fructose-packed sodas or meals of just one thing (only carbs, only protein) can cause blood sugar crashes by dumping all their glucose at once, and none thereafter, leaving your brain underfed, which makes it slow down. If you feel like your brain is tired, instead of snacking on salty/fatty chips or sugary soda, try something with loose glucose like juice or fruit (dried apricots are particularly high in glucose) to get a quick brain boost w/ minimum excess calories.
  • We all know about the long-term health benefits of exercise, but adding regular exercise to your routine also has immediate short-term payoffs, very helpful in academic life.
    • Exercise releases endorphins which make you feel happy, energetic and powerful, peaking right after the exercise but lingering into the next day. This can counter exhaustion, stress and depression, and make you feel more capable of tackling work. The hours right after exercise will often be your most productive.
    • Exercising regularly (at least 30 minutes a day 4 days a week) can accelerate your metabolism, making your body keep more sugar in your bloodstream, which makes you feel more awake, and helps you process faster and concentrate better.
    • Exercise during the day makes you fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly at night. If giving 45-60 minutes each day to exercise (30 minutes + travel and shower) means you fall asleep after 15 minutes instead of lying awake for an hour, you have already made up the time lost to exercise by turning wasted sleepless time into good sleep.
  • Heavy alcohol consumption slows the body down by filling it with substances which require time and energy to process and filter out. The day after a night of heavy drinking will be less productive than other days (your system is running at 75% capacity) so balance your work and alcohol use carefully by choosing prudently when to drink heavily, and using the day after a night of drinking for less intellectually rigorous tasks, like running errands, or catching up on e-mail & paperwork.
  • Whether the cause is exhaustion, illness, or just a late night, yourself to work when you’re feeling physically weak can be demoralizing, since the work will be slow and difficult, and can sour you on a task and make you more reluctant to resume it, encouraging procrastination. Think carefully about whether a day of rest might be better than a day of forced work when you aren’t at your best.


Sleep Quality and Sleep Quantity

Quantity of sleep does matter a lot, and Quality of sleep can be even just as important. The National Institute of Health recommends 8 hours of sleep per night, and recognizes that 40% of adults have work and life schedules which make this difficult. The majority of people believe they can get by on less than average sleep, but the NIH believes only 10% of people are actually fully functional on less than 8 hours of sleep. The NIH has identified many symptoms (beyond normal health risks) caused by chronic lack of sleep which can strongly affect academic performance, including: (a) Reduced creativity and problem-solving skills, (b) Concentration and memory problems, (c) Inability to cope with stress, (d) Reduced immunity causing frequent colds and infections, (e) Fatigue, lethargy and lack of motivation, (f) Moodiness and irritability, (g) Difficulty making decisions. To avoid these symptoms (and especially if you suffer from them), consider working on your sleep quantity, and quality. Tips:

  • If you aren’t sleeping enough your brain is never at 100%. Increasing work hours by cutting sleep hours may seem to increase productivity but rarely does, since a sleep-deprived person produces reads more slowly, absorbs less from reading, and produces fewer words in an hour of writing.
  • Sleep involves alternations between “Deep sleep” and lighter stages of sleep including REM sleep. Being woken during “Deep sleep” is very disruptive and can make you draggy all day, cancelling the effects of rest.
    • The NIH recommends setting your alarm for “a multiple of 90 minutes” since an average sleep cycle takes 90 minutes. Counterintuitively, if you go to bed at midnight, waking at 7:30 AM can make you feel more rested than waking at 8.
    • Naps of 90 to 105 minutes tend to be more restful than 60 or 120 minute naps.
  • A consistent waking time is a big factor in sleep quality, often more important than a consistent bed time. Your body starts preparing to wake up 90 minutes in advance, and waking at an unexpected time can make you hit a “deep sleep” period. Waking at a consistent time avoids this, making you sleep better and feel more rested.
    • Example: Sleeping in until 10:30 most days but getting up at 8 Tues/Thurs for an early class will make you more exhausted than getting up at 8 every day, even if getting up at 8 daily means sleeping fewer hours total during the week.
  • Many people take a long time to actually fall asleep after going to bed, wasting time and reducing the quality of sleep. Steps you can take to make it easier to fall asleep include:
    • Exercise during the day is the #1 factor people report improving sleep quality.
    • Listening to gentle music for 45 minutes before bedtime can make sleep come more quickly, even if you are still working while the music plays.
    • They recommend avoiding blue/white/daylight illumination after dark, by switching from bright white bulbs to yellowish bulbs, and using a program like f.lux (free) which makes your computer monitor tint itself golden after dusk. Another suggestion is a “no electronics” rule for the last hour before bedtime.
    • Large meals and alcohol consumed close to bedtime can decrease sleep quality.


Stress and Mental Health

Mental health is just as important as physical, and stress, fatigue and depression are just as real as colds and flu. In a profession where you depend upon having your mind functioning at its best, it is always prudent to “Self-Monitor” i.e. observe patterns for your own behavior, to look out for warning signs. Keep an eye out (or even write it down somewhere in a self-monitoring list) to notice how often you feel fatigue, frustration, exhaustion, sadness or despair. We all feel them sometimes, but if they are chronic or constant, you may want to make some changes to your sleep patterns, nutrition, work strategies, or talk to a counselor. If you experience chronic stress or depression, talking to a counselor to get professional advice is every bit as natural and necessary as going to see a doctor if you had chronic pain in your knee. Sometimes a doctor has a very simple solution (different shoes, or a knee brace) and similarly sometimes councilors have very simple solutions (vitamins, a change in lifestyle) which can make a world of difference.

Mental health facts:

  • A recent study conducted by University of Chicago confirms that loneliness leads to reduced immune function and increased vulnerability to viruses and infections. Spending fun times with friends a few times a week protects you against losing a week to a cold.
  • “Seasonal Affective Disorder” is a common medical phenomenon in which shortening winter nights cause fatigue, sleepiness and feelings of depression. A substantial percentage of people who move to Chicago from further south are affected by it, so it is prudent to watch yourself carefully in October through December to see if you are being affected. Symptoms identified by the NIH include: drowsiness, irritability, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, difficulty thinking clearly, and increased appetite, especially for sweets.  If you feel these symptoms happening, ask about solutions.
  • While recent studies suggest that multivitamins may not have as many health benefits as previously thought, studies show that academics and Chicago residents often benefit from taking Vitamin D, a vitamin produced during exposure to sunlight (which we don’t do enough) which combats stress and depression, especially seasonal affective disorder.
  • Examine your leisure activities and “coping strategies.” Not all leisure activities are equally mentally rejuvenating; some activities are fun and restful while you are doing them, but don’t leave you refreshed and more prepared for work. The NCFDD identifies different activities which are more or less recuperative:
    • Less recuperative leisure activities—less restful than they seem—include surfing the web, watching short media segments on Youtube, “vegging out” with screen media (TV, videogames), Marathoning TV, “gripe sessions,” and heavy drinking.
    • More recuperative leisure activities include enjoying and discussing screen media (TV, videogames) with friends, calling a friend to chat, sharing a meal with friends, pleasure reading, getting a massage, playing with a pet, taking a bath, journaling or writing a blog post, doing a craft project, going out to a play or concert, volunteer work, enjoying music without multitasking, and exercise.
  • Studies presented at the Aspen Institute indicate that fast-paced screen media (TV, games including tablet & smartphone games) with frequent rapid cuts between visuals cause the brain to produce chemicals and neurotransmitters associated with fear, stress and anxiety. Think of the frenetic pace of a music video compared to the longer cuts of Mr, Rodgers’ Neighborhood. Studies also showed that following an hour of frenetic screen media with a half hour of talking to another person (in person or on the phone) canceled this effect and restored the brain to normal non-stressed function. So, if you watch fast-paced TV or play fast-paced games, you may want to ration it, do it with friends, or get together with friends afterward, and avoid doing it right before bedtime.


Putting Advice into Practice – You CAN do MORE in LESS TIME

Here is an example of putting some of these suggestions into practice. Here are theoretical daily schedules for two imaginary students, Kat and Robin. Both have the same work, and the same class at 2 PM, but Robin follows the following six principles, and look at the results:

  1. Get up at a reliable time and have breakfast to get your brain going at 100%
  2. Give your best hours (in the morning) to your most important tasks (research & writing)
  3. Save, grading and minor tasks for when you are hungry or tired
  4. Get most groceries delivered, so grocery runs are quick
  5. Save time for socializing with friends, and for exercise, and make use of the energy boost
  6. Avoid using screen media and snacking during the last half hour before bedtime


  Kat Robin
8 AM Wakes up to an alarm groggily, has trouble getting out of bed. Gets up, has a quick breakfast of protein powder mixed in juice.
8:30 AM Morning e-mail & Facebook Morning e-mail, urgent e-mail only
9 AM Still doing e-mail & Facebook Reading & Research, writes 2 pages
10 AM Grading & minor tasks Reading & Research, writes 2 pages
11 AM Grading & minor tasks Hungry; grading & minor tasks
12:00 Grading & minor tasks Lunch with a friend 🙂
1:00 Hasty lunch alone A little e-mail & Facebook
1:30 Travel to class Travel to class
3:30 Grocery store on the way home Gym on the way home
4:15 Still at the grocery store Short grocery stop for milk & fruit
4:30 Reading Energized! Races through class reading
6:00 Same reading dragging on, hungry… Getting hungry, so e-mail & Facebook
7:00 Dinner Dinner
8:00 TV TV
9:00 Reading & research, writes 1 page Grading & minor tasks
10:00 Reading & research, writes 1 page Grading & minor tasks
11:00 Reading & research, writes 1 page 30 min email, 30 min leisure reading
Midnight Losing steam, snacking, tired Bedtime, falls asleep very quickly 🙂
1 AM e-mail & Facebook right before bed SLEEP 🙂
2 AM Lying awake in bed 😦 SLEEP 🙂
TOTAL WORK 3 ½ pages of writing, 3 hours of minor tasks, reading for one class. 4 pages of writing, 3 hours of minor tasks, class, reading for one class.
TOTAL REST 1 hour TV, no exercise, no time with friends, 5 hours restless sleep. 1 hour TV, lunch with a friend, gym, 30 min leisure reading, 8 hours sleep.
Ada Palmer is a recently-tenured Associate Professor in the University of Chicago History Department. She works on early modern Europe and the history of radical thought, especially in the Renaissance. She is currently focusing on a collaborative project on the history of censorship during information revolutions (see She is also a science fiction novelist, author of the award-winning Terra Ignota series (Tor books), and a composer and musician. She is a chronic pain sufferer and happy to share with students and fellow academics the self-care strategies she has developed balancing her own work with disability. Ada tweets at @Ada_Palmer.

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