A weekend moving 20kg bags of haylage, a pile of logs and digging out the compost. This might not be everyone’s idea of a ‘weekend away’ but I couldn’t ask for a better break. Going back to my childhood home on the Isle of Wight always feels like I’m going on holiday. To get away from the heavy London air and your favourite seat in the library you take the boat across the Solent (sitting outside if it’s not dark, even if it’s bloody cold). Every time I walk through the front door I’m attacked by two mad Labradors who were pups and trained by me and my brother so are too excited to see us whenever we’re back.
The weekends home are always a breath of fresh-air and leave me feeling tranquil to re-attack my research. I’m well aware that not everyone has such a luxury of a farm by the sea but something I have learnt is that manual labour is one of the best cures for the pressures of academic, postgraduate and research life and there are endless opportunities for this right on your door step. Perhaps yomping up the South Downs is not your thing but there are opportunities in London (and other UK cities) which may take your mind off the pressure and eyes off the computer screen.
I discovered BorrowMyDoggy last year while watching a family play with their dog in the park. If you don’t have the time, effort or space for a dog, but still want the company and exercise this is a great idea (if you’re considering a pet you should take a look at my blog about my Guinea Pig!). This Tinder for dogs is an app which matches you with a dog in need. Some people can’t give their dog the exercise or company they need and that’s where you come in. After looking through profiles and different needs, you can message the owner and decide times, places and lengths according to your schedule. You can take a dog for a 2 hour walk across the park or a 30 minute stroll along the river. The best thing is the app covers you with insurance and 24/7 vet helpline, just in case!
If you’re not sure about the responsibility of this, you can still work with animals in the city. City Farms & Community Gardens offer volunteering opportunities across London from looking after the animals to carrying out general maintenance work or working with after-school groups. Working on something that is hands-on with people from various backgrounds and walks of life remove you completely from your research and allow you to re-find your piece of mind and find your zen.
Not an animal person? Being outside and getting your hands dirty is another great way to clear the mind. You’re focused on digging or planting or planning, outside, surrounded by nature. Groundwork London‘s objective is “creating better places in London”. You could work on refurbishing playgrounds or park, or planting up areas that have been damaged. Working in a community on something that doesn’t require the intensity or stress of your research. It’s something that doesn’t have to be perfect and you can do while thinking about nothing.
I have found that I am my most creative and productive the few weeks after doing a few days of hands-on and active work. Whether it’s walking the dogs, moving logs, planting trees or banging in fenceposts. Making the time to be outside, be active and switch your brain off might just be the best thing for your PhD. It might also calm down that pulsing vein in your forehead…