In this episode I talk to regular contributor Dr. Edward Mills about taking a break. As the flipside to my episode with Ellie Hassan before Christmas we discuss what it's like when you're not very good at taking breaks, and how we using our hobbies and interests to get ourselves away from the computer, and the culture of overwork.

Music credit: Happy Boy Theme Kevin MacLeod ( Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License


Podcast transcript


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Hello and welcome to R, D and The Inbetweens. I'm your host, Kelly Preece.

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And every fortnight I talk to a different guest about researchers development and everything in between.

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Hello and welcome to the latest episode of R, D and the In Betweens.

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I'm coming to you from a an almost two week break from work.

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So I took a couple of weeks of annual leave and inspired by that, I wanted to do a second podcast episode about taking a break.

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So you might remember, I spoke to one of our PGR Ellie Hassan, before Christmas about taking a break.

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And she talked about the kind of really practical way she approaches her research

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degree as a job and kind of doesn't feel guilty for taking these breaks.

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So I thought it might be good to come at it from the other side of the coin.

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So I'm talking once again to a regular contributor.

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I think we call him now Edward Mills, who is now Dr. Edward Mills, officially about being the kind of people that aren't very good at taking breaks,

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who regularly experience burnout, how we manage that,

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and also kind of what strategies we have in place and particularly kind of hobbies and activities we engage in.

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to basically force us to take those much, much needed breaks.

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Okay, so let's start with kind of a million dollar question is, which is why do you find it so difficult to take a break?

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I suppose it's just kind of the way I am really the risk of sounding a little bit like I'm sitting on a psychiatrist's couch.

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It's it's sort of just the way I've always been at it. I don't quite know why, but I know what that means.

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In a practical sense. For me, it means that I'm always thinking about work in one way or another.

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And it's quite difficult to train my brain out of that. Yeah, and I, I can relate to that in a lot of ways, but I think different.

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I do know why I;m like that, and I think that's probably because of the job that I.m

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in the you know, it's it's my job to understand these kind of cultures of work.

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And I think there's an anxiety element to it.

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There's a perfectionism element to it, significant perfectionism, an element that kind of keeps you feeling like you you must keep working.

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And I think being the product of a very particular kind of school system that, you know,

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I went to old fashioned grammar school and it was very much kind of like you work

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constantly rather than thinking about kind of quality over quantity necessarily.

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And one thing to add on that front, actually, I think very often when you hear people say,

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oh, I can't stop working, I'm always working, I find it hard to relax. That tends to be seen as something of a humble brag

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It's not, though, it's not, though. No, this is the thing, really. Certainly, certainly in my case it's not.

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I actually think that in many ways what I do is worse because of this.

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This is it can be something of a problem. What I'm saying.

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Oh, I'm saying. Oh, I'm always thinking about work. That doesn't mean that I'm always working.

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No, what it actually means is that I'm always running on about 30 percent capacity.

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Even when I should be running on 100 percent, I'm just running on 30 percent when I should also be running on zero percent.

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What is it that that phrase that you said that your dad uses to describe you?

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You're either flat, flat out or. Yeah, my my dad my dad had a phrase that he used to describe me, which is I have two speeds.

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I'm either flat out as in going flat out or flat out as in flat out on the floor.

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Which pretty much sums me up. I think it sums up a lot of people who do who do a PhD

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By no means. By no means everybody. Nor is it an ideal to aim towards.

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No, but it is a common experience. And I've I've, as you know,

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written a bit about this in a chapter that's coming out about the culture of overwork and imposter syndrome and the way that

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that feeds into this kind of really complex and toxic culture of kind of we'll just sit in front of a computer and work,

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work, work.

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But also, you know, the the challenge when you're so invested in the work that you do because you have to be to motivate yourself to to do research,

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it's difficult to leave that behind.

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I think I'm apart from the fact that I've kind of it's my job and it's now my research to reflect on these things.

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I think, you know, having been an academic and I, I always say that I was a very successful academic,

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but I was also a very unsuccessful at being an academic in the sense that, you know, I've got good module evaluations.

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I presented my work at conferences, I got publications, I brought in research funding. Did all of the ticked all of the boxes.

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You've got to tick. But I burned myself out.

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I did it twice in the space of five years. And in very different ways.

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Very different reasons. But overwork is that is at the heart of it and not being able to really manage work life balance.

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And that's why I stopped being an academic. I learnt that actually I wasn't very good at putting those boundaries in place.

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And that's why, you know, and I've talked I talk about it a lot. That's why I went into professional services, because it's it's more nine to five.

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It's encourages work life balance more. And given the kind of person that I am, it's better for me to manage.

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And I suspect that this will come up in the discussion that we have today.

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But one of the things to bear in mind when we talk about what I do to to to relax and how I do that is the fact that I I don't have young children,

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you know, or really all that many caring responsibilities.

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If you want a good example of how diverse people's experiences of engagement with academia are.

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Some people, those of you who are on Twitter,

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will probably have seen the response recently to academic who who tweeted piece of advice on how they have had 75 published pieces since 2008.

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I think it was.

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And the responses to that are very interesting because they they highlight how many people are juggling academia with caring responsibilities,

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with families, with other jobs, with independent research, with other work.

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And that's not something that I myself have necessarily got much experience in doing.

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No and it is very much that really old fashioned now mantra publish or perish within the academy.

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And it you know, it links into these things about metrics and outputs and the way that we kind of that we value the

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outcomes of research in terms of the REF and the way that we value teaching in the in the TEF

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And now the KEP has launched. So we got all of the Fs

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And I think that the really important thing there is well, there's two really important things.

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One is that this is the culture of higher education.

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And so, too, it's a kind of go against that and take breaks and have a work life balance and practise self care.

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All of these things are a kind of quite a complex, difficult and brave act.

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And because you're going against the system essentially. So I often do this and I do a career talk.

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It's called I call it an alternative career talk that kind of maps, my career path and work on, if possible, career story.

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And it's very good. Yeah, lots of people have seen it lots of times.

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I guess it's it's the classic kind of will will carry out talk about this.

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But it's it is a reflection on why I stopped being an academic and a lot of ways and I talk about my

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life when I was an academic and fact that I was working seven days a week on a four day week contract.

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And I was working, you know, from 8

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In the morning to 9 o'clock at night, and I was completely burnt out and I had literally no life, I had no you know, I lived away from my family.

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I moved to a new place. I wasn't able to make friends because I was working all the time and.

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They kind of really negative space that got me into.

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And what I've got now and one of the things I talk about now is kind of, you know, the fact that I enjoy my job and I'm good at what I do,

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but also that I have these miraculous things called hobbies and interests that I just was not able to have when I was when I was an academic.

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And I'm not like I always sort of say I'm not suggesting that you can't do these things as an academic.

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I'm saying that I couldn't do these things as an academic. It's very personal.

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And I think in many ways you should do these things as you absolutely should. I just wasn't right.

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And I know lots of people who managed to do it. I'm not very good at it.

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And it's one of those difficult kind of reflections where you go, actually,

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I'm really good at this thing, you know, being an academic and there's things about it I love.

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But actually it and I aren't really suited for each other in lots of different ways.

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And I just wasn't very good at managing that.

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But now, as I said, I work an environment that's more nine to five.

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So I have that, you know, I have that privilege, I guess.

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And it's much more encouraged. But I am much more having burn out so significantly a couple of times.

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I am more diligent with myself in recognising the signs, but also be kind of engaging in hobbies and practising self care.

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And if you follow me on Twitter, you'll know that I talk about this non-stop.

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And I've got a book chapter coming out about it. So it's it's it's become the thing to talk about, but to talk honestly about it.

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And sometimes that's saying, you know, I'm not very good at it. So.

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Thinking about that and we can talk about some of mine in a minute, but like what are your what are your hobbies?

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What are you. What are the things that you do to take you away from the research that force you into a break?

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You know, if we change languages here is would basically be a GCSE French speaking exam.

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Always the linguist. Sorry, everybody. No.

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So to answer the question, there's a few, I think.

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And they fall into a couple of different categories. The general thing that connects them is organised fun.

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And in the I love organised fun. I know in the in my research for this

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I went up and looked looked up the phrase organised fun favourite definition

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for it comes in the ever reliable and ever well sourced urban dictionary,

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which describes it as a compulsory activity organised to work, intended to be fun.

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But in fact, so lame that it's impossible to actually enjoy ourselves or words to that effect.

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They they don't know me. I disagree with that as well.

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I've tended to find that because I am generally just not very good at sitting with my feet up and doing nothing.

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I tend to gravitate towards activities that have a measurable goal or outcome to them.

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So longtime listeners to this podcast. Know, that a few months ago I talked about the benefits of going very fast down a hill on a bike.

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I can now confirm I'm actually going slightly slower down the hills on bikes than I was and certainly a lot slower going up the hills on bikes.

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Better. I was who I was before.

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But with the resumption of organised sport activities, I've got back into cycling with other people again, which is really fun.

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It combines the social benefits of seeing other people with not having to just sit and argue, where will we go next?

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Because you're constantly moving, which is always a benefit. Also, cafe stops because cafes are good.

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If exercise is one of the things I do, though, I think the trend towards organised fun is something that I'd kind of carry elsewhere as well.

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So one subject that I have not spoken about before on this podcast is scale modelling.

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This is something I have gotten into lately. It is quite possibly the geekiest hobby I've ever had.

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And that's saying something. Yes, but it effectively involves making scale models using little kits

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Nice. So there is a shelf next to next to the desk that I use,

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which is basically full of little models of aircraft in terms of time investment vs. money spent.

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They're actually pretty good because for 10 pounds you can get about four or five hours of building out of it.

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Effectively, you can do it well or you can do it like I do, which is badly.

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But however you do it, what a hobby.

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Like scale modelling or I think in your case, is it Lego?

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Yes, it's like I would do. Is it will it's a bit difficult to do Lego badly.

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I think I would manage it. But whatever the hobby is, and however you do it

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The benefit of a hobby like that is that it forces you to spend time away from the screen.

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And this is something I think I spoke about on the podcast about writing up a few months back.

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about getting away from the screen while still doing something is the main way really in which I relax.

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And I think that, like, you know, you said the Lego and I think it's a key example for me.

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You know, it's it's very much the same. It has to be organised, kind of goal oriented.

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I like following instructions. I'm just that kind of person. And so doing things like building diaogon alley out of Lego

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And, you know, the other thing I do with my time, which is sewing or various forms of crafting and crochet, I do embroidery and cross stitch.

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Any any of the crafting. I like the productiveness of it.

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I feel like it. I think there's an inbuilt thing of feeling, not feeling like I'm wasting time, like I'm getting this.

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There's physical output to it. So it's going back to that kind of output mentality.

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You know, if there's a dress or a jacket or a shawl or a jumper that says I just need some space surrounded by planets,

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that's something I'm currently working on. But I love the idea of the Airfix Excellence Framework

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The Lego Excellence Framework. The LEF. Yeah, the LEF. But all of yeah.

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All of these things kind of are very instructions oriented. You kind of create something out of it.

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Even with the Lego, you know,

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I've got I'm looking at various bits of Hogwarts are to the left of me and then diagon alley in the hallway to the right

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Hogwarts to the left of me diagon alley to the right. Here I am stuck in the middle. Yes, very much so.

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But it's you know, there's there's that sense of output.

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But I think for me, coming from a creative background, there's a creativity element to it, particularly to the crafting and the sewing

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You know that there is that element that, you know, is in my personality.

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But also there's an awful lot of research about the impact of creativity and creative,

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active activities on wellbeing and on kind of personal identity and self kind of realisation,

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actualisation, all this of stuff, which is why creative practises are used in therapeutic context, right?

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Absolutely. And if I can go off on a slight tangent here with respect to some of the research that I've done,

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there's a lot of evidence that in creative writing or their most effective ways to do this and to get outputs,

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to use that terminology again, is to work on the constraints.

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The Olipou movement in post-war France wrote about this idea of

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constrained literature whereby in order to motivate yourself and to stimulate yourself,

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you give yourself limits within which to work. The most famous example of this is  George Perec, who published entire novel that.

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Doesn't use the letter E once. Yes. And I think this feeds into the idea of harnessing your personality rather than trying to fight against it.

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If you are a working person, by which I mean if you're someone who struggles to switch off, switch off.

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And still switch off. And again, I hasten to add, that can often be a very bad thing.

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It's absolutely always a very bad thing.

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The best way to relax, therefore, is to acknowledge that and give yourself something else to do rather than to try and say no.

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Now I am going to relax. The important thing in that case is that you do give yourself things to do.

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Otherwise, when you're on your day off, you will.

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Find yourself itching just to maybe reply to that one e-mail, it wants to feel like you've not wasted your day.

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Yeah, and I think that is kind of that's another bit of it,

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because the days where I don't do very much and like, you know, I've just come back from some annual leave.

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And actually I was incredibly tired because we've been working flat out since January and there's a global pandemic and, you know, all of these things.

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And so I did a lot of sleeping or resting and I didn't actually get to do any

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any sewing or any of my kind of hobby type stuff until the end of last week.

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And I was really frustrated. I was like, I have waste.

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I've wasted wasted the time because the idea that you don't have an output to your time is is really difficult for me.

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And so I think what you're saying about harnessing your personality and finding it's you know, it's the stuff I talk about in terms of self care.

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It's finding what works for you as a person because it will be incredibly specific.

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And hobbies always are incredibly specific. And, you know, sometimes you have to you know, I've I tend to be kind of instructions oriented.

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But during the pandemic, I finally committed to taking up the ukulele and had one for a couple of years.

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But I hadn't I'd sort of mucked around with it but I hadn't really learnt. But my neighbour, two doors down is a ukulele teacher, so we could have outside lessons.

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And it all seemed perfect. And kind of that's been quite a different its creative still

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But there's been quite different thing for me because it doesn't have the end product and goal in quite the same way.

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So but, you know, I find that once I get practising and playing stuff and kind of singing along to my kind of favourite songs,

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which tend to be either kind of 90s pop or the Beatles,

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I don't really have a very diverse taste in music then you know that I find that so soothing and so relaxing.

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And that's been quite a different thing for me because, like, it it's not that kind of goal oriented.

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And also it's something it's something you can do badly. My version of you have to I have to accept that which I'm not very good at.

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As a perfectionist, I'm not very good at not immediately being very good at something.

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That's been a really tough lesson to learn. Weirdly, my version of that, my kind of slightly less constrained but still creative,

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blowing the boundaries between doing nothing and having a rigid set of instructions.

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Practise is also musical. It is making arrangements of entirely inappropriate songs for Brass Band.

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For Brass Band. Yes. Shout out to Exeter Railway Band look us up.

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We have a website and a Twitter page as well. So I've been trying to arrange pop songs,

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venga boys Medley's songs from Frozen for Brass Band because I can't imagine anything better than frozen for brass band.

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No, it is a step into the unknown, though. You have got to be careful. Niches Frozen 2 joke.

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And I think the harnessing of personality thing obviously is is central to this.

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But also I, like a lot of people, really struggled with this kind of thing when the pandemic started.

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So the pandemic started. And, you know, my concept of work life balance and and everything really went out the window.

00:20:30,960 --> 00:20:42,660
And I had to manage my working day in a very different way because, you know, my working life and my home life are now very much integrated.

00:20:42,660 --> 00:20:48,460
And so I had to recalibrate a lot of that. And I actually found myself. You know,

00:20:48,460 --> 00:20:52,590
and in part due to kind of the fatigue that we all experienced as kind of part

00:20:52,590 --> 00:20:56,490
of lockdowns and everything pointing it were difficult to do these things.

00:20:56,490 --> 00:21:00,840
So actually, I, I tried to make them into a habit.

00:21:00,840 --> 00:21:05,760
So I have I this is I mean, this is a revelation into my personality.

00:21:05,760 --> 00:21:17,370
I have reminders on my phone of like chores and tasks I need to do every day. And I added things like read a chapter of a book or, you know,

00:21:17,370 --> 00:21:27,570
sew one seam or one step in a garment to just try and push myself to do those things.

00:21:27,570 --> 00:21:34,350
And some days, you know, all that I could cope with mentally and physically was to read that one chapter and to say that one seam

00:21:34,350 --> 00:21:41,720
But of course, more often than not, you start. And it spirals and.

00:21:41,720 --> 00:21:48,410
I found that really helpful as a way to kind of I don't do anymore to have these reminders because I've got back into it,

00:21:48,410 --> 00:21:53,270
but it's it was a real kind of way to kick start me back into.

00:21:53,270 --> 00:21:56,900
And again, it's harnessing my personality, isn't it? I mean,

00:21:56,900 --> 00:22:00,230
I like to tick things off. I don't like having red dots on my phone.

00:22:00,230 --> 00:22:08,270
So having it in that way and utilising this kind of lists and reminders was a way to get me back into doing it.

00:22:08,270 --> 00:22:13,700
Yeah, kind of like like coaching a football team made of herbs.

00:22:13,700 --> 00:22:18,770
A lot of it comes down to time management. Oh, that's terrible. Thank you very much.

00:22:18,770 --> 00:22:28,760
But if I were in that situation, I would also put things like do an airfix model or go for a bike ride on my list.

00:22:28,760 --> 00:22:32,620
I certainly do put them into my diary, my planner

00:22:32,620 --> 00:22:38,390
Yeah, because that's an important part of making sure that those are treated as part of your.

00:22:38,390 --> 00:22:44,430
Day to day life and thereby ingraining that sort of time off.

00:22:44,430 --> 00:22:49,490
That is might be better described as time doing other stuff here into your routine.

00:22:49,490 --> 00:22:57,190
Mm hmm. Absolutely. And. It's so I guess to.

00:22:57,190 --> 00:23:04,210
To end on, we've talked about kind of how we force ourselves to take breaks and the hobbies and the interest

00:23:04,210 --> 00:23:09,700
that we have and about the importance of harnessing your personality to make it work to you.

00:23:09,700 --> 00:23:14,320
So I guess if somebody is out there and they're thinking, okay, but I don't know, you know,

00:23:14,320 --> 00:23:20,980
how do I find the Harry Potter Lego sets are my thing or sewing or arranging bengaboys for brass band?

00:23:20,980 --> 00:23:28,750
How how how have you gone on that journey to kind of find those those things that work for you?

00:23:28,750 --> 00:23:30,100
That's a difficult one to answer,

00:23:30,100 --> 00:23:39,650
particularly given that as time as recording opportunities for discovering these kinds of things are a little bit more limited.

00:23:39,650 --> 00:23:46,750
Yes, they were. So, I mean, I wouldn't have discovered my interest in arranging for brass band had I not been in a brass band already.

00:23:46,750 --> 00:23:53,380
I wouldn't have discovered my interest in scale modelling had I not been able to one day be walking through a garden centre,

00:23:53,380 --> 00:23:57,880
see some airfix and think, oh, I might have a go at this.

00:23:57,880 --> 00:24:05,170
But my general advice is, as banal as it might be, would be to explore it.

00:24:05,170 --> 00:24:11,920
Look at what I think about what kinds of things you like to do rather than emerging in terms of.

00:24:11,920 --> 00:24:15,750
Oh. I wouldn't like to do this or I would like to do this.

00:24:15,750 --> 00:24:20,850
Think about what you value in an activity and take it from there.

00:24:20,850 --> 00:24:26,610
Yeah, and I think for me, actually, this is an interesting point of reflection,

00:24:26,610 --> 00:24:38,550
which is that the things that I come back to are the things that I was interested in as a child and as a teenager that really dropped off when,

00:24:38,550 --> 00:24:40,680
you know, if you're.

00:24:40,680 --> 00:24:47,850
If you're a you know, a dancer or an actor or a performer, you know, I did all of those things, you kind of end up dedicating all of your time to it.

00:24:47,850 --> 00:24:51,090
And and then I became an academic and I dedicated all of my time to that.

00:24:51,090 --> 00:24:54,850
And so I went back to those things that I really loved as a child.

00:24:54,850 --> 00:24:58,870
And one of those was building Lego. One of those was crafting. It wasn't sewinf

00:24:58,870 --> 00:25:03,850
It was actually doing cross stitch. I was like an 80 year old lady, an eight year old body.

00:25:03,850 --> 00:25:07,290
But reading. And, you know, all of those things.

00:25:07,290 --> 00:25:13,890
They were actually things that I really loved when I was younger. And I've I've rediscovered them as an adult.

00:25:13,890 --> 00:25:20,160
Which brings me an awful lot of joy. It helps me maintain a work life balance.

00:25:20,160 --> 00:25:30,870
And it maintains my status as to quote my my nephew, the coolest aunt in the world, because everybody,

00:25:30,870 --> 00:25:37,740
every 11 year old boy wants an aunt with an extensive Harry Potter Lego collection.

00:25:37,740 --> 00:25:44,880
I think the activiriwa that you you might enjoy now and activities you enjoyed when you were younger might take on different forms.

00:25:44,880 --> 00:25:50,190
It's worth noting, you know, that if you enjoyed playing with Lego as a child,

00:25:50,190 --> 00:25:54,540
you might not enjoy playing with Lego as an adult although you probably would.

00:25:54,540 --> 00:26:00,540
It might be that that sort of construction idea and that the idea of building things and following instructions.

00:26:00,540 --> 00:26:05,790
Yeah. Might be the thing to look for rather than necessarily sticking rigidly to Lego.

00:26:05,790 --> 00:26:10,980
But yes, I think it's exploring and thinking about those interests that you've had only said the things that

00:26:10,980 --> 00:26:16,200
you value and the things that you've always enjoyed and trying to kind of follow follow that path.

00:26:16,200 --> 00:26:22,220
Oh, absolutely. Yeah. Yes, absolutely. Thanks so much to Edward for joining me for this week's episode.

00:26:22,220 --> 00:26:29,850
And yeah, go out and find those things that interest you and excite you.

00:26:29,850 --> 00:26:31,290
And please, please, please.

00:26:31,290 --> 00:26:40,600
If you get the opportunity, do try and build Lego as an adult, you will be really surprised at how much you still enjoy it.

00:26:40,600 --> 00:26:45,720
And that's it for this episode. Don't forget to like, rate and subscribe and join me.

00:26:45,720 --> 00:27:12,332
Next time. We'll be talking to somebody else about researchers development and everything in between.


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