Shrink the PhD monster

MonsterPhDOne of the PhD students taking my online course refers to her PhD as having become an ‘uninvited monster’ that has gotten into her body and her feelings, and doesn’t ever seem to leave her alone, no matter what she is doing.

The problem with PhD monsters is that they don’t really go away by themselves once they have taken up shop. But there are some tried and trusted remedies to use when dealing with one. (If you don’t like the monster analogy, and don’t want to admit to owning one, this blog post could also read: how to increase your PhD productivity).

1. Work, and then relax. Repeat.

PhD monsters appear mostly when we spend a lot of time thinking we should be working when we’re not. To shrink the monster it helps to not just sit at your computer, but actually work on your PhD. It scares them. For best results work in intervals. Choose work sessions with a fixed length (20-90 minutes maximum), work!, and when the session is over consciously choose to relax. Then repeat. After a couple of work sessions you can, with authority, tell the monster to get lost for the rest of the day/evening. PhD monsters hate when you’re relaxing and having a good time, so make sure you do enough of it. (Translation: alternating between work and relaxation ensures sustainable productivity.)

2. Create structure in your day

PhD monsters thrive if you allow them to take over your day. Do not allow this. Take charge by creating a daily schedule in which working on your PhD for a set period of time is a priority. Preferably work on your thesis first thing in the morning, and get rid of distractions, whether email, internet or colleagues. Don’t think you can work on your PhD for more than so many hours a day (say 2-4 on a normal day, with 6 being the occasional absolute maximum). Don’t believe people who say they can. Dismiss the PhD monster once the work for the day is done. Don’t believe it when it tells you you should still be working. You don’t. It’s better to work shorter focused hours, than prolonged procrastinating ones. (Translation: prioritising the PhD and being realistic about your limitations allows for a steadily growing body of work, without the guilt created by unrealistic expectations.)

3. Make writing a habit

PhD monsters are sneaky. Beat yours at its own game. You can slip past it by making writing a habit. Write every day, preferably starting and stopping at the same time. The less room there is for conscious decisionmaking concerning whether or not you are going to write, and for how long, the less room there is for the PhD monster to sneak in and start harassing you into procrastination. Once you’ve done your writing for the day, the more chance of it leaving you alone for a bit. (Translation: habits minimise choice, doubt and mental anguish, thereby increasing energy and focus available for the task at hand.)

4. Stay plugged in

PhD monsters like attention. They shrink when you don’t give it to them. Learn how to let your monster be there, without paying it too much respect. One way to do this is to learn to meditate. Another is to do things you enjoy doing. Stay plugged into your life. Your real life, in which you do actual things. Not the life created in your imagination, where your PhD monster can take over and the edge of the cliff feels very near. It’s called being present. PhD monsters tend to be allergic to being present, and similar spiritual stuff. They are also allergic to having beers with friends. (Translation: Having a life outside the PhD increases the odds and ease of its completion.)

If you need more help shrinking your PhD monster, the online course might be for you. It is a bit more serious, and a lot more in-depth than my writings here. Plus I will gladly help you with your personal PhD struggles. It’s what I enjoy doing most.

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