6 Tips for Writing a Guilt-Free PhD

When you’re writing a PhD, procrastination and guilt often go hand in hand. Who doesn’t know the feeling that ‘there’s so much left to do’ and worse: ‘I should be doing it right now’?

The issue I have with PhD-guilt is that it’s a) based on sloppy thinking and b) disastrous. Sloppy thinking, because guilt thoughts are most often unfounded, but we believe and act on them anyway. When we’re enjoying the sunshine, we are probably meant to be enjoying the sunshine, not working on our PhD. Disastrous because – well, ever tried to enjoy the sunshine with a guilty conscience? How did that go? So unless you are the type of intellectual who enjoys misery as a state of being (and by all means, go for it if you do), guilt isn’t the best strategy.

To make matters worse, guilt and productivity tend to be mutually exclusive. Obviously (and this is what we tend to worry about), because when we are not working and feeling guilty about it, we are not being ‘productive’. But in my opinion more importantly: guilt gets in the way of relaxation, enjoyment and pleasure. And they’re important, for ourselves, and for our PhD. You need to be able to relax and let go of work-related thoughts and guilt to enjoy productivity that is sustainable over time, and to allow new insights to occur. Relaxation is key to mental recuperation and a prerequisite for creative solutions to academic problems to pop up.

My 6 tips to get guilt to loosen its grip:

1. Make life incredibly easy for yourself
Introduce a simple choice (warning: this may be difficult for PhDs): either something needs to be done right now and you do it. You sit down at your computer, get excited and get on with it. Or, something doesn’t need to be done right now and you don’t do it. You decide it can wait. And then you pour yourself a cup of tea and relax in the garden, watching spring unfold.

2. Just do it
If things do need to get done, just do it. Quit complaining and get to work. There is much pleasure in getting on with things. And you can enjoy a guilt-free bout of faffing about afterwards.

3. Don’t try to do the impossible
You probably have too high expectations of what is even remotely realistic as far as working hours and productivity go. Academic work is slow. Sometimes excruciatingly so. And it’s hard. You can’t do hard mental work for more than so many hours a day. It really helps if you give yourself a break and don’t ask yourself to do the impossible (and then fail and feel guilty).

4. Don’t underestimate your progress
You are probably doing more than enough, even if it doesn’t feel that way. Because academic work is hard and slow and potentially never-ending (see 3.), the feeling you should be doing more never seems to go away. I know I used to complain a lot about how slow my work was going. That is, until I looked up from my computer and my thesis was suddenly and unexpectedly ready to send to my thesis committee. Somehow it all got done. And a lot faster than I had anticipated.

5. Don’t overestimate the number of work hours you need
I didn’t work more than 2-4 hours a day, 4 days a week when I was finishing my PhD and I was oftentimes convinced it would never be enough. But paradoxically, I now realise that working less allowed me to get more done, as it forced me to prioritise. Scary but effective. Don’t underestimate how much you can get done in very little time.

6. Enjoy
Really enjoy whatever you are doing, whether it is work or socialising or procrastination. Really get into it. It’s all you have. Make the most of it.

As academics I believe we should use our strong mental faculties to support ourselves, not tear ourselves down. Our minds are sharp, and if we use them to judge and condemn ourselves, in this case through guilt, it hurts. With PhD-guilt, we most often know somewhere deep down, that the self-flagellation isn’t warranted. Not that it stops us. We may even decide to feel guilty because we feel we should feel guilty. If we’re not working ‘all the time’, feeling guilty is the very least we can do.

But you can choose otherwise. Simply do the work you think needs doing; or decide it doesn’t need doing right now, or maybe even at all. And that’s it. Decide on ‘do’ or ‘not do’ and drop the guilt. Give yourself permission.

Guilt is a mindset. It’s a mindset that can be dropped when we decide we don’t want to put up with it anymore.

Not that I am dissing guilt entirely. Let there always be room for guilty pleasures, but let’s just reserve those moments for things that are actually pleasurable. For chocolate and cake, say (or a combination of the two), or that last drink that wasn’t strictly necessary, for staying up late to watch trashy tv or to gaze at the stars from the roof terrace, and for impulse shopping. Shoe sales, that kind of thing. Or insert guilty pleasure of choice (maybe you are a very serious PhD and you have less shallow guilty pleasures than I do).

Maximise your pleasure: don’t waste your guilt on your PhD.

This blog post was inspired by the #phdchat on doing a part-time PhD storified by Naomi Barnes. If you enjoyed it, please share!

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