Healthy Habits for a P.E.A.C.E.-Full Life

By: Nina Cook: It is never too late to start a new habit!

Rice University

Hello! My name is Nina Cook. I’m a fifth-year PhD Candidate in the English Department here at Rice – and I don’t have healthy habits. But I’m trying to get there, and I’ve been trying for years. I think that the first step to developing healthy habits for this grad life we live is knowing what kinds of systems to put in place. Goals are great, but they often lead me to feel like a failure when I don’t live up to the (mostly unrealistic) expectations I set for myself. Systems are better. Easier. More rhythmic and regular. In this blog, I’m going to introduce you to my systems-over-goals approach that is slowly *I hope* helping me to achieve my long-term dream of living a healthy, happy, productive, and P.E.A.C.E.-Full life, even amidst the chaos of pursuing a graduate degree.

Graduate school is funny. Instead of the yearly rigmarole that occurs around December 31st, when the entire country seems to gaze optimistically into the future promising a “New Year, new me,” in graduate school the cycle of endings and beginnings occurs more frequently. Our lives are structured around the rhythms of the semester: Fall, Spring, Summer. This can seem a bit daunting – so much change! Every three months, it’s something different! – but I like to think of the rhythms of grad school as an opportunity, a chance to reevaluate the way I’ve been living my life, the systems I have put in place (both healthy and not), and to ask myself what I want to pursue in the next three-month season. 

We all know what we should do. Workout. Eat our vegetables. Get 8-10 hrs (or at least 6-8 hrs)* of sleep per night. Don’t overdo the caffeine – or the alcohol. Build strong relationships. Participate in the community. Practice positive self-talk. 

We all know that these are tried-and-true systems that help many people achieve the goal of living a healthy, happy, productive, and peaceful life. But we also know the lies that we tell ourselves daily – “I don’t have time to workout!”; “I deserve a hamburger because I’ve been working so hard.”; “I don’t want to ask him/her/them to hang out – what if they say no.”

There are so many reasons not to do the things we know we should do, and so many reasons we may feel that self-care isn’t worth the time, money, or energy it takes. Why go workout when I’ve already been working in the lab on my feet for 10+ hours, or when I’ve been writing nonstop to finish that chapter over the past three days? I feel exhausted – why can’t I sleep?

It's important that we remember that we are not just disembodied minds. No matter how much we rely on our minds in this grad life we’ve chosen, our bodies often don’t care that our minds are tired. While it may seem like minds and bodies are distinct from one another, one thing I’ve found is that my body directly affects my mind (and vice versa). This is kind of scary, when you think about it in the wrong way: e.g., I can’t sleep even when I’m exhausted because my body just won’t relax. But it can also be empowering. I tend to tell myself that I don’t need to care for my body because that’s not part of my job. It’s my job to teach my classes. It’s my job to do my research. It’s my job to finish my dissertation (preferably in 5 years). But what I’ve grown to accept is that my mind can’t do its work of teaching, researching, and writing, if my body doesn’t get the care and support it needs. This doesn’t mean I’m going to become a marathon runner or eat only organic foods. What it does mean is that I need systems in place to ensure that my body is an equal participant in this grad life, and that I recognize the ways in which my body is asking for – is craving – particular behaviors. Since Rice seems to adore acronyms, I’ve decided to name this system P.E.A.C.E. (pacing, eating, arranging, celebrating, and encouraging). In what follows, I’m going to try to explain how I’ve put these five systems into place in my life, and how P.E.A.C.E. has helped me add structure and stillness to my chaotic grad life. 


I don’t like working out. I love the way I feel after, but I hate getting sweaty and the way my body never seems to be able to do as much for as long as I want. But I love walking. I find going on walks peaceful and calming. I like walking alone and with others; in sun and in rain; through nature and through neighborhoods. Some of my greatest ideas have come to me when I was out walking. But for the first few years of my program at Rice, I didn’t walk much at all.

This semester, that has changed. I’ve reframed walking from a pleasure to a priority, and I’ve allowed myself to recognize that I don’t necessarily have to do an intense, daily workout for my body to receive the training and care it needs. It doesn’t have to be a marathon as long as its movement. Walking is working out – and it can be fun! My new system is simple. I walk from the parking lot (rather than taking the shuttle) every day, I walk after lunch, and then I walk back to the car at the end of the day. 

Systems are best when they are enmeshed in networks, in a series of checks and balances that ensure the system runs smoothly. My pacing system doesn’t rely solely on personal motivation (which often wanes), instead, I have a network of other walkers in place who encourage me to get in my daily movement. We all have either Fitbits or Apple Watches, and we keep each other accountable. We walk together, we talk together—this is my pacing system. 


My pacing system, like I said, is related to my eating (or lunching) system. I often walk after lunch, and this means that I now actually take a break and eat lunch, something which I failed to do often in my first few years at Rice. Breaking for lunch and munching on something (whether it’s healthy or not) divides the day into two nicely and allows for a mini evaluation of productivity. Eating lunch also ensures that my blood sugar remains stable, and it has helped me realize that so often when I feel overwhelmed and low-on-energy, it is just because I am hungry. Also, walking onto campus in the morning helps get my metabolism up and running, which ensures I am ready to eat something around noon.


The first thing I do when I get onto campus is arrange my day. I’ve found that physically writing out a list of what I need to accomplish works best. Having a paper schedule that I can then physically check off and later throw into the wastebin gives me a sense of structure and helps me feel accomplished at day’s end. So often, we get overwhelmed because we have so much to do and are paralyzed, instead of just arranging our necessary tasks in hierarchies from most-to-least important, rolling up our sleeves, and getting to work. Taking my “arranging” step seriously has also ensured that I, as one of my mentor’s Sohpie Esch puts it, “pay myself first.” This means that the higher-importance items on my list will always be those that directly affect my career trajectory and my time-to-degree. One of the most common mistakes I see in first-year graduate students is the tendency to see all tasks as of equal importance. There are things that matter now and will matter five years from now – such as whether you get that peer-reviewed revise-and-resubmit turned around within the agreed upon deadline. Then there are things that hardly matter now and certainly no one will remember in five years, such as whether you read every single word of a five-hundred-page novel for your American Literature class. One should be marked high importance; the other should not. Learn to triage your to-do list, because I can promise you that not everything will get done. 


After you’ve arranged your day, it is important that you acknowledge and celebrate your accomplishments. Like I said, not everything will get done. That’s alright – that’s why we have a system. The high-importance items from today that we didn’t finish roll over to our paper list for tomorrow. Now it’s time to celebrate. You did it! You have paced yourself (both physically and mentally), you fed your body and mind, you arranged your day, and now you get to celebrate a job well done. My celebrations usually take the form of social interaction. If I work hard, I get to play. Tuesday nights, I go to trivia. Wednesday nights, I go to Bible study. Thursday – it’s time for Valhalla. Celebrate your accomplishments – it will make you want to keep using the system. 


We’ve come to the final step of the P.E.A.C.E. system: encouraging others. This might be the most important step. Graduate school tends to turn us all into a bunch of navel-gazing sycophants, trapped in our ivory tower and so caught up in our own problems and anxieties that we do not see the rich, vibrant lives being lived around us. Taking time to encourage someone else – this person may but need not be in your program – allows us to take the focus off ourselves and to truly recognize that we are part of a larger community. It helps us see how beautiful this life can be, and to recognize the beauty of the expansive thoughts and mind-blowing exploits of our colleagues. I can promise you that if you begin to think of yourself as an encourager, first and foremost, it will improve your quality of life.

So P.E.A.C.E. It has helped me – I hope it helps you. Systems are useful ways of structuring our lives and adding stability and stillness. Try it: pacing, eating, arranging, celebrating, encouraging – and let me know if it works for you. I’d love to hear your thoughts about the system: