How to write a PhD speedily & (almost) painlessly. Strategy 4: Balance work and recovery.

I am writing a series of blog posts condensing the PhD-writing strategies that helped me finish my PhD. I went from being a not-always-effective researcher to finishing my PhD in a couple of hours a day. Read my story here.

Strategy 4: Balance Work and Recovery

Writing a PhD can mess with your head. Let’s restate that: writing a PhD will mess with your head.
It’s a head-messing thing, PhD-writing.

Not to worry too much – head-messing can be handled, and it will occur far less frequently if you have strategies to balance work and recovery. 

What tends to happen instead, is that we balance procrastination, and not being very focused or effective when we are ‘working’ with obsessing about our work when we are ‘not working’. It’s not a winning combination. If you manage to increase your focus when you are working, and learn to get out of your head when you are not working you will be in a much happier place. Not only that; your PhD will gain momentum, and there’s no better feeling!

To start with the ‘work’ bit. Let’s say there are three phases of doing our work: the first phase is characterised by resistance, procrastination and distraction. It’s the Facebooking and Twittering and getting another coffee and chatting to our colleagues and being distracted. The second phase is ‘the zone’ where we are actually doing our work. It may not feel fast or easy, but we are concentrated on getting something done, and doing what we can. Some days are better than others, but we are thinking, writing, analysing, creating, crunching data, inching forward. The third phase is when we keep going beyond the point of diminishing returns. It’s when we try to push on, once our energy has slumped. It’s when we can no longer think clearly, but we feel we ‘should’ be working because we have not gotten enough done yet. Or, because it’s not yet 5 or 6 or 7 o’clock and everybody else is still ‘working’ too. Sometimes, past the point of diminishing returns, we go into overdrive: a possessed and frenetic way of getting things done (fuelled by feelings of “Aaaaaargh I have not done anything today!! But I need to make that deadline. Or I’ll die!!!!”). It’s not a bad strategy if you indeed need to meet a deadline. Sometimes frenetic is OK. In the long run – not so.

If you want your PhD-writing to be easier, faster, smooth, more effective you need to find ways to expand ‘the zone’ and decrease the amount of time you spend procrastinating and in overdrive. If you consider ‘the zone’ a fixed amount of time and energy per day, that means mainly, working in intervals. It means making doing your work a habit (decreasing procrastination), training yourself to be focused when you need to be, and stopping before the point of diminishing returns, which working in set time intervals will help you with.

But today I want to talk more about increasing the quality of focus and energy when you are in ‘the zone’. You need to be ready to work, when you want to work, and the key lies, interestingly, in what you do when you are not working. It’s about recovery. It’s about getting out of your head.

Recovery, relaxation, fun. How frivolous that sounds!
I’ll let you in on a secret: frivolous rules.
It rules productivity, creativivity and happiness.

When you’re doing mentally challenging work, the brain needs some time to reset after you stop working. The brain needs a break, and it does important things such as processing the thinking you have done, and the experiences you have had that day; and coming up with new ideas and solutions in a non-analytical way. We often don’t give it that break – we may worry, obsess, keep thinking about the complexities of the current intellectual knot we are trying to solve without actually solving anything! We go round and round in circles, further depleting our mental energy, and increasing the frantic feelings of helplessness that come with it. At that point, we may start to give in to our fears about ourselves and our work: “This is never going to amount to anything! Aaaaah. I’m never going to meet that deadline! I am behind as it is. I am going to fail. FAIL!”

Which is a very nice way to spend your evening.

And sets you up for your work tomorrow in the best possible way.

Although sheer terror can sometimes get you amazing results (I don’t think I’d have a Distinction from the LSE without it), as a way of life it is not really recommended.

It will burn you out. Suck you dry. Crush you.

Your ‘zone’ will shrink, until only procrastination and overdrive are left.

The alternative is to give your brain the breaks it needs, when it needs it, which allows it to focus and work hard when you want it to.

Your ‘zone’ will expand.
Your work will become easier.
It will flow. And be more exciting.
You will start looking forward to it.

To do so you need to chill out at the end of the workday.

Let go, relax, unwind.

Some strategies:

Meditation: meditation is the most direct way to allow your brain to relax and recuperate. The benefits of meditation have, of course, been reported for ages. Science is now catching up and there is a growing body of literature that validates numerous benefits of meditation. A recent study shows how meditation helps the brain process thoughts and emotions. It activates the ‘reset’ circuits of your brain in the most literal sense. That’s why meditation can be so refreshing. It clears out the stale thoughts and feelings. Oh, and how we need that! We need to get out of our mind loops. (Mindfulness meditation, which forms the basis of the meditations I teach in the HappyPhD Online Course, is a form of nondirective meditation, as discussed in the article).

Exercise: Move your body. You need to get out of your head, and exercise is one of the best ways to do so. It has the added benefit of metabolising stress hormones, so if you are having a stressful time right now, or if you’re worried, exercise promises to give you relief.

Dance: It’s what I like to do. You can go out and dance. Or simply turn the music up and DANCE. If you think you cannot dance, doesn’t matter. Just do it. Be silly. No one is watching. Or if you are at a party and they are indeed watching – so what? Just dance. (I went to a very serious party a couple of months ago with a lot of very serious people attending. I danced anyway. So what if it was by myself? It was fun!)

Beauty: Art is therapeutic. Words, images, music – they can transport you into another world. An enchanted world where the logical mind gets some time to snooze and recuperate. Pick up that novel. Go to see that exhibition. Put on that dreamy playlist. Smell the roses and the honeysuckle. Immerse yourself in beauty.

Fun: Do the things that uplift you. Meet up with the friend who makes you laugh. Go out for drinks, or tea and cake. Watch something funny on TV. Get out of the house. Put on your lipstick and your heels (or put in your diamond earring, like my 18-year old male Italian flatmate used to do). Bring out the margaritas. Your disco needs you.

Nature: Get away from the computer and take a dive into the ocean. Or, just one toe, if for you, like me, the ocean happens to be the North Sea. Kick your shoes off and lie in the grass. Go for picnics and riverside walks. Oh joy.

Sometimes you need a little outside help to get from stuck in your head to a more free-flowing relaxed state. Consider joining a club or weekly class. I love my yoga classes and would not know what I’d do without them. Maybe you need some help from a physiotherapist to build an exercise routine, and maybe a massage will help to unknot some of your muscles that come from having an overanxious mind. If you’re going through a rough patch – therapy can help. Helping you through rough patches is what therapists are for.

I believe you should support yourself in every way you can.

There is no shame in asking for help. It is an act of courage, and an act of self-love and self-respect to give yourself what you need.
Do not deprive yourself of the help someone else can give you.

Support yourself.
Invest in yourself.
Take care of yourself.

What are your strategies for getting out of your head, and balancing work and relaxation? Let me know in the comments! Oh, and could you do me a favour? If you liked what you read, could you share it? Thanks!

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