Tips for Grads: Take a break with a Break Box

By Olivia Gacka, PhD Student

This is an unusual year, being the first semester back fully in-person but with the pandemic still ongoing, and the burnout is palpable around campus. One of my favorite coping exercises for when things get overwhelming is what I like to call my Break Boxes. I’ve used them at various times in my academic career and have always been thankful I took the time to put them together.

The idea is that you fill a box with items that make you happy, like little treats that you don’t have on a regular basis, and things you know will brighten your day. When you need a break or a pick-me-up, get the box and pick one item to give yourself a boost. This isn’t a substitute for medical or psychological care, and if you need those things, you should seek them out. But I find that tiny boosts every so often can be the pick me up I need to not just get to the finish line, but to find moments of joy on the way there.

Want to make your own box? Here’s how you do it:

  • First, collect your items. Examples of things I’ve put in my boxes in the past include:
    • Snacks: I always include a candy I love but try not to eat too often (I love sour candy but for the sake of my teeth I try to keep it a special treat), more expensive tea or coffee than what I have normally, or any little snack that I know will brighten my day.
    • Gift Cards: Sometimes you want to do something nice for yourself but the thought of spending more money when you’re already anxious makes it all worse! Part of the beauty of a Break Box is being able to make that investment for yourself in advance with one or two $10 or $15 gift cards to some of your favorite places, like an independent bookstore, a plant nursery, or a place that sells your favorite sandwich or meal. I usually keep the amount lower, so I don’t totally break the bank, but make it enough to offset the cost of buying myself something nice or delicious when I really need a pick me up.
    • Fillers: Some memorable filler items I’ve included in the past have been candles, an extra charging cable I had lying around because I knew I would have lost or destroyed mine by the end of the semester (and I was correct), and little notes from myself or friends with funny jokes or words of encouragement. Some of the best things I have put in my boxes haven’t even been purchased items, but things I took the time to realize my future self would need to be able to find in a hectic time.
  • Next, pick the box. I’ve always used a small cardboard box to house my items. Shoeboxes are ideal for this purpose. Sometimes, if I’m feeling especially excited, I’ll take some time to draw on the box or wrap it in wrapping paper. It’s an excellent wellness activity and helpful so you remember that what is in the box is not, in fact, shoes.
  • Finally, put it away, but don’t forget about it! You don’t want to hide your box so well that you fully forget it exists, but you also don’t want it right in front of you, otherwise the contents will be gone in a week. I’ve found that putting it away in my closet but making notes in my calendar once a month to remind myself it exists is a good compromise.

Everyone’s Break Box will look different, but whether you fill it to the brim or just pick two or three little items to be there for you when you really need a break, the point is to do something for yourself. That is an investment always worth making.

Tips for Grads is a professional and academic advice column written by graduate students for graduate students at UW­–Madison. It is published in the student newsletter, GradConnections Weekly.