I’ve written about the PhD monster before. It comes out of the shadows to haunt you, and looks over your shoulder telling you “this is too hard”, “you’ll never finish this project” and in general completely clouds your judgement. It makes finishing the PhD seem like a completely elusive goal. No matter your good intentions, it will steal your energy, and cause you to topple over in overwhelm.
The reality is: writing a PhD is doable. Finishing the PhD is doable. You can do this.
So how to put this monster in its place? How to shrink it, do you can get on with what you want to be doing, that is working on your project, and finishing it well?
This summer I worked with a couple of PhDs who wanted out of overwhelm. Can you relate?
Are you getting frustrated and overwhelmed even after only a couple of minutes of ‘work’?
Are you heading towards your laptop full of enthusiasm, only for it to dissipate in a flash?
Do you find yourself doing a million other things, such as reading and ‘further research’, instead of writing that next paragraph?
Do you find yourself discouraged at your lack of clarity?
What helps tremendously when your project is overwhelming you and you’re feeling a bit deflated, is to make sure you are setting yourself doable tasks. Break it down. If you’re still not getting anywhere, break it down further.
Example: your supervisor/ a reviewer has asked you to add more about X in your paper.
Plan of action: break it down into doable steps. Note: ‘Adding more about X’ to your paper isn’t one task. It is a whole series of tasks. Let’s have a look at what it may involve:
- Scan your paper to find parts where an introduction to X might be relevant
- Selecting that part/ those parts where you want to introduce X
- Brainstorming about what exactly about X you want to include: how does it fit with your main argument/ research choices?
- Look up papers/ references about X and scan (stay focused! Distraction alert) them, to see how others have done this/ to make sure you make well-informed decisions on what to include
- Write a first draft of the paragraph introducing X
- Polish til done
Maybe I have missed a few steps! Writing a paragraph sounds like ‘nothing’, but it involves a lot of work!
One way to keep momentum high is to give yourself a fixed timeframe to get the next small step done. Say 15 minutes to find the parts where an introduction to X may be relevant. Then another 15 minutes to select the parts you want to work on. You can also do this intuitively (sometimes we can take steps very fast indeed), but the key point here is to not let yourself be distracted. Stay on task. If this task is done, move on to the next.
Some tasks will be more intellectually and creatively challenging than others, and may not generate immediate, tangible results. That doesn’t mean it’s not work, or that you’re not moving forward!! The thinking, the pondering, the not-yet-knowing is all essential. It is what academic work is all about. Using a timer can be really helpful here, to make sure you don’t slip into overwhelm, to keep it concrete and doable. Setting limits helps. Give yourself 20 minutes to think about something, or 45 if you are in a creative/ thinking flow. Know when you want to stop, and intend for the task, even if it is intangible, to be completed at that point. If it isn’t, don’t worry, you can give yourself another work session to plug away at it. Or not! And this is the important part. You have a choice. It’s easy to let a whole morning or afternoon slip away, so now is really the time to check back in.
Ideas need time to develop. Give yourself that time. Maybe if you check back in with the same questions tomorrow the answer that was elusive today will present itself just like that. Ideas are interesting like that, they emerge. We’re not in control of this process. But we are in control of the task we are working on. That’s the aim anyway.
Focus on doable tasks, set time limits for your work sessions, and check in with yourself at the beginning of each work session to make sure you are working on the next small task that will help your paper one step closer to completion. This is how you build your paper step by step, without much of the noise and overwhelm.
If you want help with this: I can coach you. I can help you tame your project so it becomes doable, and you can get out of overwhelm. Have a look at the Stress-Free PhD Programme. Along with coaching, your PhD will be back on track before you know it.