Back to Basics: Relax to Achieve

Relaxation may be the missing link when it comes to your academic performance. I’m interested in this phenomenon: how we sometimes work against ourselves by trying too hard, pushing too much. By internalising a work culture that says working endless hours is the key to success. When everyone is working all the time, or at the very least seems to be working all the time, how to not worry you aren’t keeping up? We lean towards overwork to compensate and somehow make things better.

But does it work? (Answer: no)

Then how to undo this? What’s the alternative?

Sometimes the answers are simple. Excruciatingly simple, like making sure you work doing ‘work hours’ and do not work outside that designated time frame. I was reminded of the ‘simple’ way of fixing the overwhelm and feeling of not-ever-achieving-enough or doing-enough by an email from one of the course participants (quoted with permission). Apparently I teach this!

“I am still exercising, meditating and taking some time off to relax. I really think these three things are crucial. While I did already exercise and meditate before I did the HappyPhD course, I think I really learned the relaxation part. I can say that after the course, for the first time (in my life?) I really took “working hours” seriously and allowed myself to also do other things with joy. The result is: I work less than ever (still quite a lot though, it’s not necessary to go into extremes I figured) but I also achieve much more (more then ever when it comes to my PhD for sure). So thank you for the insight.”

Fascinating how such a simple change of schedule (and mindset: that can be the more challenging part) can have such positive results.

So, breaking it down. Bear with me for stating the obvious:

Work hours: they are the hours you get still and do your work. For most people this would be around 3-5 hours of concentrated work a day. This is enough to achieve a LOT. Maybe add a few hours later on in the day for less demanding work.

Relaxation: these are hours you do not work. I recommend more than you currently manage. Maybe hours a day more! This may sound tempting or terrifying depending on your disposition, but it will likely require a leap of faith if you’re used to working long, long hours.

Also pay attention to how you might help yourself switch from a focus on work, with your brain in a focused analytical mode, into a more free-flowing unworried relaxation state. It can be a challenge with academic work: the mind loves to go on and on, thinking about work, or worrying about it!

Meditation and Exercise: these are sublime tools in helping you transition from work to relaxation. Both help you regulate your physiology (brain) to help you disengage from work when you choose to do so. With exercise the switch is a direct, physical one, with stress hormones and neurotransmitters involved; with meditation you do the same in a subtler way by working with the mind, your thoughts, the breath and your intention. Both are brain training in their own right, and improve your mental faculties and stamina.

The outcome:

Better focus during work hours: you will certainly get more done. Your ideas are likely to be better also: the brain comes up with new insights in a relaxed state, that is, when you are not focusing on the problem you’re trying to solve. It is one of those neat little paradoxes. Best way to solve a problem? Think about it. Then NOT think about it.

Somehow committing to doing less and letting go can be more daunting a prospect than that of doing more, keeping pushing and achieving. The pushing for many of us protects us from feelings of not doing or being enough. It protects us from guilt. Yet it is exactly this mindset we need to overcome in order to get more done. Oh yes, and to feel better! Nearly forgot about that one! Let go a little. Take your eye off the ball for a bit, regularly. Truly helpful. Give it a try.

Are you pushing too hard? Working too much? Does the idea of working less scare you (though it secretly appeals?) Why not devise a very simple structure of work and non-work, and add in a little exercise and a little meditation every (other) day? (With the course to guide you if that appeals) So simple. As always, if you found this post useful could you share it? I appreciate it!

The Inner Compass (or: Feeling Better When Academia Disappoints)

We tend to rely on external events to determine how we are doing: we publish an article and we are up; the article gets rejected and we are down. The meeting with the boss goes well and we are up; they push all our buttons and can’t see our point of view and we are down. We have a productive day and we are up; we have an unproductive day, our computer freezes on us, the data don’t cooperate, nor does the photocopier, we are late for our meeting and down we go.

In terms of happiness it isn’t the greatest model. Seems fair to say that if we are going to rely on external conditions to make us happy, we are not ever going to get there. If we are in academia certainly this is a given.

There is a way out.
It is the inner world, the inner compass.
Attune to that, living inside-out instead of outside-in, and life flows.
We aren’t so easily seduced into misery.
We gain a sense of perspective.
And adventure. And possibility. And ease.
We laugh more and don’t take everything so damn seriously.
We become responsive instead of reactive.
Even when things aren’t going our way, we don’t get as frazzled, because we are more deeply anchored.

When you’re doing academic work this state of being isn’t always readily accessible, unless you have trained yourself to do so. As academics we are mind-centered, and if we don’t watch out we get stuck in our heads. When we do, it is oh so tempting to start believing our negative thoughts, in fact it is near impossible not to do so. We do not recognise them as conditioned thought, thoughts that are automatic and may or may not be true (hint: they are mostly not true). Instead we blindly believe them. We call it being realistic.

The alternative is to align with a deeper wiser place in ourselves, and let that wiser (and more fun) voice do our strategic thinking for us. You might call it using your intuition, or I have also heard it referred to as ‘the quiet voice’, your ‘inner guidance system’, or spirit. It doesn’t really matter what you call it, and words tend to fall short.

The key is in feeling here

Does this option or way of thinking make you feel contracted, small, scared, unworthy, really shit basically? Then you are probably engaged with your negative conditioned egoic mind.

(I am not being precise here in my terminology. It’s complicated. There are all sorts of psychological theories around ego and super-ego which I won’t go into here, because for this practice it doesn’t matter what you call it. It matters whether you can identify these states of being. Labels and theories are less important.)

Or:

Does this option or way of thinking feel expansive, fun, challenging-in-a-good-way? Does it make you feel free? Does it make you smile? Does it make you want to get on with things (even in a non-doing way?) Does it taste of possibility? Then you are tapped into that wiser part of yourself. Your true nature.

The difference between living in one or the other mode, is night and day

When things are bad, being connected with your inner self will make everything a lot more bearable, and you will find your right direction, even if it can’t lift you out of difficult circumstances in a flash. What it can do is give you a radical sense of ownership of the situation, and a sense of adventure and freedom. And nothing is more satisfying than that. The most daunting task becomes doable.

When things are good, though, that’s when the magic feels like magic for real. When things are going well, being connected to your inner self, makes them oh, so, super good. Not in a bi-polar high-then-crash way. No, in a stable way, in a way that you are doing the right thing, and going about it the right way, and the world is your oyster. In an almost-impossible-to-hide-your-smile way.

The challenges of academic life can easily pull you into a mode of defeat in which all your negative thoughts seem real. I have recently worked with a few people facing real challenges: supervisors running off with their data (How on earth am I going to continue to work with this person? Should I leave academia? I am so disheartened), supervisors and colleagues being so negative it saps all their energy (How am I going to cope with this negativity? Is this worth it? Is it always going to be like this?). The answer to how, most always lies in no longer focusing on the external, but tuning into the internal instead. It will give you the energy to handle the daily challenges, and it will give you a sense of direction, on what to do next. A sense of what is best for you. (Also gives you attitude. Strut!)

For me personally the difference between these modes is acute, and it reminds me of how much of our experience is determined by our thoughts – the negative or the more expansive. For the record, I believe the more expansive ones are the real ones, the reliable ones, the true ones. The constricted, negative ones are old, recycled, fear-based ones that keep us stuck. If I have one practice it is this: reminding myself to shift into ’true’ mode. Into expansive mode. Into magic mode.

How to go about this

The first task is to start recognising the old, negative thought patterns. Write down the worst ones. It helps to show you that these thoughts are nothing new, and don’t mean much. They are patterns on repeat.

So, for example, your negative thoughts could be:

I am not going to make it,
I need to get out of here (but can’t),
I need to get *there* before I can be fulfilled (but fat chance that is going to happen),
my work isn’t good enough,
I am not good enough. (Or some version of this)

Find out what yours are. Practice saying these thoughts, and notice what it does to how you are feeling. They probably make you feel really lousy. Shrunk and fallible. Notice what, specifically, happens. Now, when you are out in the world doing whatever you are doing and you start to feel this way: realise it is probably these old patterns playing their depressing tunes. Sometimes that realisation is enough to help shift you out of that state. You are no longer giving these thoughts as much power.

The second task is to start cultivating your inner world. Everything is already there, that’s not the problem, but we need to practice tapping into it. One way is by starting a meditation practice. It helps us connect to our more spacious self. Another is by noticing when you feel connected, and in high spirits. Anchor into it right then and there, and invite more of it in. Open up to this possibility. You can do this actively, throughout the day, by pausing at set times, and tuning in. In challenging situations, I sometimes use affirmation-type thoughts, such as: “I am willing to see this differently. Show me how to see this differently.” And I surrender the issue, and do my best to suspend judgment. Nine times out of ten something will shift. A better alternative will show up. And I know I am on track. It is an unfolding, and a really exciting one.

If you have never tried this you may be sceptical. I realise this may all sound a bit Pollyannaish, or NewAgey. It really isn’t. It is as real and practical as it gets, and it has nothing to do with positive thinking. You will notice that if you give it a serious try. This stuff is real! But yes, it does require a bit of an open mind and an experimental approach. And your egoic mind will tell you it is a load of nonsense and it is not going to work for you. Defy this voice. Best thing you will ever do. Give it a go. It will be worth it.

Have you ever practiced tuning into your intuition, your inner voice? How did that work out? Let me know in the comments. If you’d like to explore this way of being, but feel you need some help, I love working with people developing their inner world ‘muscle’. Check out my coaching calls (you get a discount if you sign up for my newsletter), that are stand-alone, or go together with the HappyPhD Course, in which using your intuition features prominently. If you liked this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

Past the Breaking Point: The Myth of Competition and Performance in Academia

A few weeks ago a to-remain-unnamed director of graduate studies uttered the following statement:

“Unless about 25% of your PhDs drop out, your PhD programme isn’t competitive enough.”

What? Did I hear that correctly? What did he say?!

It wasn’t a mistake. When asked again, and given a chance to perhaps come up with some nuance or disclaimers, he said: “I stand by that. I mean it! If you can’t handle it you shouldn’t be in academia.”

Right.

This is a problem in academia: people in charge talk ‘excellence’ and ‘performance’ and ‘competition’ but they don’t think it through. Instead they rely on misguided models of performance focused on pushing people beyond breaking point.

If you have a 25% drop-out rate it implies people are seriously struggling and seriously stressed (apart from a small number who simply decide academia isn’t their thing). It is in no way a good sign, and much better prevented, both in terms of performance, and in terms of wellbeing.

Let’s spell it out.

Moderate, transient stress leads to high performance. Chronic or high-level stress leads to cognitive malfunctioning and low performance (and high drop-out rates!).

A burst of stress gets you mobilised, and in the short run it helps you perform. With a little adrenalin and other stress-hormones on the go you are brighter, more alert, sharper, faster, better! Your academic performance improves. For a short while you are a supercharged version of yourself. This phenomenon has been well documented in both animals and humans.

So far, so good.

Things get sticky however, if stress either increases in intensity or when stress is prolonged. The details on how exactly this works in the brain are still being explored, but the conclusions in the brain-science literature are unequivocal: long-term stress leads to a shrinking of, and malfunctioning in the brain, which leads to reduced performance. Memory declines, as does executive function. It also opens the way for mental disorders, if you are so predisposed. In sum: there is an ‘inverse-U’ relationship between stress and performance.

Now, if you have around 25% of your PhDs struggling to the point of quitting as a result of being in your PhD programme, I would dare to predict that you have a vast majority of your PhDs in a chronic-stress state, which is shrinking their hippocampus, over-activating their amygdala and messing with their academic performance as we speak.

Not good.

You may have a few hardy, stoic individuals who are not as prone to react to stress, who are still in their zone of optimal performance, but honestly, with the set-up of academia as it is – it is a chronic-stress environment, as I have discussed before – these people will be few and far between. These effects are subtle enough in the vast majority of people to not disable them in any visible way, but that doesn’t mean their performance doesn’t suffer and their output doesn’t decrease. And that is without taking into account how everyone is feeling!

In my online course I tell the story of practically an entire year of PhDs at a world-renowned institution, selected on ‘excellence’, who more or less collectively crumbled under the pressure. Not because they were ‘soft’ but because this is what brains do when they are bombarded with too much stress for a prolonged period of time. Excellent brains malfunctioning, academic output lost, lives made miserable because of misguided ideas around competition and productivity.

Universities should be smarter than rely on this survival-of-the-fittest mentality. If you want people to excel, why not provide both the challenging environment AND tools that will help them not fall prey to the brain-compromising effects of chronic stress? If you have a significant minority of graduates and colleagues falling ill or dropping out this should be a priority! Drop-out rates should be low, not high, in high-performing departments.

How to get out of the chronic-stress state

The only antidote to the negative effects of chronic stress lie in the relaxation response. Where stress damages, relaxation heals. That is how our bodies and brains are wired. There are numerous ways this can be achieved, including:

1. Working in bursts, followed by a break (see: this post)
2. Getting regular exercise
3. Meditation (see: these posts)
4. Laughter and fun
5. Sleep

At the moment these elements aren’t part of academic culture, which focuses on working excessive long-drawn-out hours without significant breaks, works exclusively from the neck up, considers anything to do with relaxation and contemplation lightly embarrassing, unneccessary and non-rational, considers laughter frivolous, and in no way prioritises wellbeing. We don’t do this soft stuff!

I must disagree.

These components are essential for optimal brain function and sustained high academic performance. ESSENTIAL. This is what should be taught in terms of performance skills. Academia has become so competitive and stressful we are already quite pushed towards the brain-degenerative part of the inverse U-curve. To undo that, and get ourselves back into the challenged, alert, cognitively optimal state, we need to learn to relax consciously. We need to learn put our brain in a healing state. That is the challenge for academics today.

Final comment: the idea of a causal relationship between being hardy and ‘academic excellence’ is absolutely insane and deluded misguided. These are separate phenomena, and by believing otherwise you more or less dismiss an entire population of researchers who may do valuable work. I could and might write an entire blog post on this, but for now I’ll use my own case as an example: my health was severely compromised when I finished my PhD, as it is now, due to an infectious disease which affects my nervous system (and everything else). It made me stress-sensitive to the extreme, which is why I am such an expert on these issues now. Despite all that I managed to write the ‘best’ PhD of our year, the ‘best’ of 35 political science PhDs. It hardly sent shock-waves around the globe, me finishing that PhD, but I do know it made a few people quake with delight for at least a couple of seconds. I am not alone, and it would be a terrible shame if we stress-sensitive ones, the ones for whom the inverse-U-curve is even steeper, and for whom the health and life effects are acute when we push past our boundaries, are weeded out as non-competitive and unworthy of being in academia. Heaven forbid, the hardy and mediocre, and dare I say irrational will take over!

Has anyone at your university ever directly or indirectly implied that it is okay for people to fall ill as a result of working in the pressure cooker that academia has become? Let me know in the comments. If you would like some help in becoming more resilient and less prone to the negative effects of stress, check out the HappyPhD course. It is designed for this purpose. As always, if you liked this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

Say Goodbye to Burnout: 6 Tricks

It seems to be a natural law that when you get whacked over the head by something, difficulties increase exponentially rather than linearly.
As one PhD commented in a conversation we had: “It requires strength when you least have it.”
It does.
It forces you to become smarter than you were, to do things more cleverly.
(Some people call this the ‘gift’ or the ‘lesson’. I don’t know about that, but I do know there are few alternatives).
Sometimes there is a trick, a new way of thinking about things, of doing things, that makes all the difference.
Not a short-cut so much (we wish), but a way that makes more sense.

One trick I have learnt is how to regenerate and rebuild when facing burnout. Well, there are a few tricks to it, really.

The problem: when you are burnt out and exhausted, near collapse or post-collapse, and cannot keep going, it isn’t uncommon to feel you need to go faster to have the slightest chance of ‘catching up’, of staying in the game, of getting back on top. Of surviving even. It can seem existential. It is a cruel trap: no energy to keep going; yet perceived scary future repercussions if you don’t. That’s what it looks and feels like.

Trick 1. It isn’t real
The first thing you need to realise is that fight-or-flight is the ESSENCE of burnout. All problems feel more pressing and unsurmountable. All feels lost. It isn’t. Once your energy, or some of it, returns, problems shrink and become manageable. It is your state of being that comes first, that always comes first. Problems are relative and secondary.

Trick 2. Don’t speed up. Slow down. SLOW down.
The only way out: You’ve got to stop spinning your wheels. You’ve got to stop running when you can no longer run. You have to go against all your natural instincts here. When you are burning out, you are in a near panic state.  Your nervous system says: Run! Yet you cannot outrun this beast. It is a phantom, and the harder you run, the more exhausted you get, and the more likely you’ll end up defeated. Instead: stop, rest, go gently and watch the beast shrink and ultimately dissolve. It isn’t real. It will undo itself, if you insist on peace instead of panic. Let your mind find its centre. That is where all good ideas come from. You will be much more effective, and you won’t have to expend all that energy.

“But the problem is REAL. It’s not a phantom – I have a deadline to meet and it is going to be a close call. Once I meet the deadline I can relax. I will relax. I promise! It will be so good. But not right now, not quite yet.”

Trick 3. Never relax in the future. Do it now.
Deadlines seldom mean as much as we think they do. Thinking our worries will resolve once we get ‘there’, on the other side of the deadline, is one of our mind’s favourite deceptions. It is the fight-or-flight state in action, all over again. The truth: there is nothing special on the other side of the deadline. All you have is now, this moment, this minute, this day at the most. That’s it. That’s all of it, ever. You will never relax ‘then’, and you don’t need to relax ‘then’. You need to do it now. As in, today.

“That is all very high-minded, but if I let go now, if I don’t make it happen now, it is not going to happen! And it will stress me out further. It will stress me out so much I am afraid I will break.”

Trick 4. Do what you can. But not more. Save some energy for tomorrow.
The idea isn’t to come to a complete standstill (although it may feel even slower than that). The idea is to do what you can do WELL WITHIN your limits. What that means will change with time, and day to day. (That’s the beauty and the curse of it). Be in tune with yourself. Once you start feeling panicked, overwhelmed or overly tired you have gone too far. Learn to recognise the warning signs and stop well before. Keep it small. Keep it doable. The goal, if you need one, is to do LESS not more. Try to shift your thinking towards rewarding yourself for doing less. Overthrowing the old ‘I need to do more’ mindset is the accomplishment.

“But will this work? I mean, really?”

Trick 5. Suspend judgment. But assess your progress.
Yes this works. And it works because getting and staying out of fight-or-flight is what does it. It is where you need to be for sustained academic performance (and it feels good too). If you consistently do a little less than what your panic mind is trying to shame you into doing, if you consistently make sure you do not use up all your energy, but instead save up, if you consistently make yourself feel good for looking after yourself exceptionally well instead of burning yourself out: your energy will increase, your focus will increase, your sense of well-being will increase, your self-esteem will increase and yes, in time your output will increase. It’s the vicious circle turned virtuous. It will gain momentum. I promise, even if it feels so slow while you’re doing it, this is the direct route. It can feel scary too. It goes against instinct and habit. Don’t be too intimidated by these fears. You can undo much of it by keeping things very simple: if you have done your work but not overextended yourself (whatever that may mean for you right now) you are doing it right, and you can be very pleased. Over time you’ll see that it does indeed work. It does.

“I keep overextending myself. Can’t help it!”

Trick 6. Don’t we all! No worries. Try again tomorrow. Or better: try right now.
What would get you out of fight-or-flight right now? What feels right? Do that small thing. Take that small step. (Think doing less, not more, as ever…)

Are you struggling with fatigue or burnout? What do you think of this approach? Let me know in the comments. Also: the HappyPhD contest is still open. The course is an anti-fight-or-flight system for academics. If you’d like to win it, please do enter the giveaway! As always, if you found this post helpful could you share it? I appreciate it!

How to Ease Supervision Blues: Three Perspectives

Supervision: too often the stuff of headaches. In the current academic world where research output is valued above all else and academics are stretched and stretched, and sometimes overstretched to meet their multiple obligations, supervision too often becomes an afterthought. Add to that an academic culture in which PhD projects are increasingly squeezed into impossibly linear schedules – with the emphasis again on ‘measurable output’, while academics are not in any way trained on how to coach and supervise, somehow having to figure this out for themselves (and are definitely not all innately able!), accidents happen. No fatalities, mostly, but smooth rides are the exception.

Personal story: When I was writing my PhD supervision was one of my top frustrations, and more specifically the lack of time and effort that went into reading and commenting on my work. This got especially bad when I had to finish long-distance, and was no longer around in the flesh to bug my supervisors. It sometimes took them months to get back to me when I had submitted a chapter, and it was all quite disheartening to say the least. That didn’t stop my supervisor from encouraging me to ‘work hard’ in most every interaction we had, or to in some other way to allude to deadlines or other ‘sticks’ to make me ‘work harder’. In all honesty it drove me nuts, and made me feel insecure and undeserving and it is the exact embodiment and worst outcome of the incentive structure as described above.

If you are caught up in similar frustrating interactions the first thing I’d like to say is this:

It is not personal.
Believe me.
It is not.
It’s simply the outcome of an unfortunate set-up.

Advocating for yourself is too often necessary in supervision relationships, but you’ll be more equipped to do so if you can see that it’s ‘not about you’.
You’ll already be in a much stronger position.

Using the following three perspectives may also help improve the supervision situation.
An exercise. Take your time to do this.

1. What does your supervisor need?

Let’s start from the supervisor’s perspective. Put yourself in his/her shoes. Imagine the glamorous life. Imagine the piles of work, grant applications, emails, rejection letters, admin, departmental meetings, chapters to be edited, flights, conferences and so on and so forth to deal with. Oh, and don’t forget that paper they so want to write but cannot seem to get round to… From this perspective: what does your supervisor want and need in terms of your supervision relationship? Is there any way you could make his or her life easier?

A hint: what professors tend to want is for their supervisees to succeed. They do.
Another thing they want: minimum hassle!
Is there any way you could help the cause?

It starts small, reflecting on your communication: are you sending your papers in on time, showing up on time, not bothering them with things you could sort out on your own, communicating clearly and regularly (but not too regularly), and not being last-minute with requests? (Sorry for this. I am going all head-mistress on you… a bit more to come). If they ask you to do something, do you do it? Are you not hiding?
In short: are you acting professionally? Is there anything you could improve on here?

Put yourself in your supervisors shoes, and try to see with their eyes, hear with their ears.
How does your communication come across?
Are your visible? Reasonable?

What is the state of mind they write that single-sentence email in?
What is the state of their inbox?
See their point of view.

Advanced (optional extra) – Reflect on the role your supervisor would like to have: what are his/her strong points? Maybe it is mainly knowledge or content, and a traditional mentoring role. Perhaps they have an extensive academic network they would like to introduce you to. Are there conferences they are involved in they would like you participate in? Or there may be an opportunity to co-author work. Their style could be formal, or informal…what makes this person tick? Think about it: what would make THEM feel good about their role as supervisor? You know, the proverbial ‘win-win’? How could you both benefit?

If you are thinking: “My supervisor could not care less”, (and this may be the case, though most often it really isn’t, it’s just that they are a bit lost in the supervision thing as are you), imagine what the most hassle-free interaction would look like. Start there.

2. What does your work need?

On to the next bit. This question helps separate the personal from the professional, and it is brilliant at taking the sting out of otherwise painful situations. You may be familiar with them: those where egos clash. Put your work at the centre, and the egos matter a bit less. Clarity, thank god.

So, look at your work, as it stands now.

Get inside of it.

Imagine you are it.

What does it need to get better?
What are the next steps?
What does it need from your supervisor?
(As well as: What does it need from you? You can make a list of that too)
Do parts of your work need feedback? In what way?
If you envision your work as fully finished, which parts are still missing, and which part of that needs your supervisor’s input?
I like the idea of two academics – the junior and the senior – contributing to a joint cause: your work.
Your work is the only diva allowed: what does she need?
Any institutional hurdles you need your supervisor’s help with?

Once you find out: push for it.
Make it happen (err…politely of course).
This is your job.

The difficult thing about supervision relationships is that once burned once or twice it becomes tempting to hide. To disappear, as the echoes of criticism or past conversations still hurt. To disappear because no reaction seems to be forthcoming. To disappear, as your supervisor seems to be uninterested and unresponsive. It helps to remember it’s not about you. It very seldom is. (They’re probably simply crazy busy). The key here is to not make yourself inferior or insignificant (even if your supervisor makes you feel that way).

You are not inferior, and you and your work matter.

Real or perceived failure are SO part and parcel of academia. Communication gone wrong so is too. Unfortunately it does take some effort to not let it get to you. And sometimes you won’t manage.
Top strategy: Get excited about your work, and ask for feedback from there. It is the absolute best place to engage from.
Don’t limit yourself to your supervisor either. If he/ she cannot provide the feedback you need, maybe someone else can.

3. What do you need?

And finally…what do you need? Ask yourself what you personally need.

What would you like?
What do you need?

You cannot change your supervisor (oh, if only!), but there are always ways to improve your supervision relationship. Clear and specific goals and deadlines, jointly agreed on, may help for example (no more vague ‘work hards’!, no more waiting for months for feedback, one hopes). Regular supervision meetings and communication may help (makes everyone a bit more human, real and clued up). Speaking to them in person instead of relying on email may help. Clearing the air on something that is bothering you may help (diplomatically). Or letting go of some grievances in private (rant alert!) may help as well. Maybe you need more feedback, or less. Is there any way this could be discussed and arranged?

Take yourself seriously.
If you feel like you’re being dismissed, don’t add to that by dismissing yourself.

In addition to that: it is so important to take care of yourself. Self-care is no luxury in demanding circumstances, and academia can be pretty brutal. Are there ways to be gentler with yourself with regard to the situation? Are there ways to stop making yourself small, if that is what you are doing? Ways to let off steam if you are particularly pissed off? Ways to enjoy yourself more, brighten it all up a bit? To guilt on yourself less? What do you need?

Play around with these questions. In the answers, look for the intuitive hit or ‘aha’. Mostly you want the process to be effortless, not laboured. Works better that way!

How’s supervision going? Any insights to share from doing the exercise? Let me know in the comments! If you want to take it a step further: there is a whole week on supervision in the HappyPhD Course. Also, as always, if you found this post helpful, could you share it? I appreciate it!

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Summer Slow Down: Time to Relax, Recharge, Reflect

Summer. Time to relax, recharge, and…reflect.
How was your academic year?
What went well? What didn’t?
Anything you’d like to change?

This slow time of year (though I know, it’s academia, for some of you conference season may be right round the corner) is an excellent time to reflect and ask some questions we don’t tend to get round to when we’re hopping around from one obligation to the next. With our eyes on the next short-term goal, and immersed in the details of our work, perspective gets lost. The summer is a time to chill out a bit, zoom out. Only then can we see the big picture.

The first part of that: we need to plan an escape. Oh yes, we need to get away.
Especially if you have workaholic tendencies, or if you feel ‘behind’: you need to stop, slow down, and you definitely need to not work for a bit.
I firmly believe in having a daily work/writing routine. I also firmly believe in breaks. Complete breaks.
If you think you are going to use the summer to ‘catch up’: that may be a good idea (or it may not be), but in any case make sure you get away as well. Away, away. No work, no writing, no nothing.

Sometimes I marvel at the non-stop-ness of this world. The always and ever-connectedness. The constant information overload, email, the reading and posting to social media from holiday or wherever. Not that it is bad per se, but disconnecting, letting go, switching off has more and more become a conscious act, which requires some awareness (and a bit of self-discipline!) on our part. Ironically, of course, the more strung out we are, the more difficult it is to get out of the loop, away from the screen, and the phone, and our mind-numbing habits. It is also more difficult to step away from work. We often feel we need to keep going, as in this academic world of self-made man, deadlines always loom. The more tired we are, the more pressing they feel. We need to step out of that. Step out. Get away. Recharge.

Book that ticket.
Get on the plane, or the train.
Get your sunglasses out.

The nice thing about holidays (apart from the holiday itself) is what they allow us to do: see clearly.
They help us unwrap, they give us perspective.
They give us time to reflect, not necessarily in an active way, simply by a change of scenery.

Which leads us to the second part: clarity.
When back from holiday, but before starting work again, ask yourself: If you had to pick one thing, one habit, or one stressor: what has been the biggest energy ‘leak’ the past academic year?

For me, personally, a major shift in my PhD productivity (back in the day) occurred when I realised I was losing so much energy in second-guessing myself. It was time to get out of my own way. That was it. That was all. I had been self-sabotaging in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, and it was time to stop. It sounds ridiculous, of course – who in their right mind would self-sabotage?-, but honestly, we all do it in some way. For me, seeing that, and recognising it for what it was, helped tremendously.

So, what is your major ‘thing’?
Is it a circumstance, a bad habit, negative self-talk? What is your (self-)sabotage?
It may be a circumstance, like your living situation or a professional or personal relationship that is not working.
It may be a habit, such as procrastination, or overworking, or being last-minute about everything including important deadlines.
It may be a mental or emotional hurdle such as feeling underconfident, or engaging in unnecessary self-criticism.
It may be really simple, like not getting enough sleep. It may be quite complex, say, a problem with supervision that may be difficult to even define.
(Or you may not have a ‘thing’. Nah – don’t believe you).

What drives you nuts?
Whatever it is, commit to improving on it over the next year.
Most often, when we tackle the big obstacle, the smaller ones simply melt away. The details will take care of themselves.

What is the major ‘thing’ you’d like to do differently the next academic year? How will you go about it? Let me know in the comments. If you’d like some structural support in your habit, or other ‘thing’-change consider the HappyPhD course or a coaching session with me. (I have discounted rates for the coaching sessions for those on my mailing list. If you want in, sign up below). Enjoy your holiday!

 

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Stress: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Say ‘stress’. What comes up for you?

For most people ‘stress’, means: ‘I have too much to do’ or ‘I am so stressed I want to pull my hair out!’

I want to look at it a little differently. I want to look at stress as a demand you place on yourself, or is placed on you. That’s neutral. It depends on what exactly the stressor is, and how you react to it whether it’s a positive or negative.

To make it more specific: let’s say your stressor is a deadline. We all know how deadlines have a knack for kicking us into gear, for pushing us to achieve, and for actually making us finish projects. The fight-or-flight response quite literally gives us a jolt. That may actually be a good thing!

I was chatting to one of the HappyPhD course participants some time ago, and he mentioned he never understood the importance of stress when it comes to performance until he read a book I recommended: ‘The art of full engagement’ by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. They use a physiological approach to performance, one I also apply in the HappyPhD course, which focuses on managing your energy instead of managing your time. Utilising stress and stressors to improve your focus is an important part of that. The approach they – and I – recommend is to work in intervals, in sprints. Challenge yourself, stress and stretch yourself, then relax.

If you’ve ever worked in a highly competitive environment – and if you’re writing a PhD you probably have – you know what that feels like: the adrenalin pumping, the thrill of a challenge. For me personally the best (and worst) memories of stress were when I was studying at the LSE. The workload was gruelling, and the standards set high. I loved it. Well, and hated it in equal measure! But what it definitely did was make me achieve.

Building that type of experience – the thrill, the buzz of it – into your workday is a good idea, and it is so gratifying. Most importantly forget about high achieving for hours on end. It doesn’t work like that: work really intensely for half an hour, or an hour, an hour and a half at the most, at a time. That’s what works. Take longer than that and you lose momentum. It becomes a steady-state affair, a marathon even. Buzz lost.

If you use stress and stressors in this way, stress becomes a positive experience. It will help you get where you want to go. It will help you achieve what you want to achieve.

Stress turns bad when there is no off-switch. If we push ourselves relentlessly with no significant breaks we suffer, and our word count does too! The same physiological response to a challenge which is so beneficial in the short run has negative consequences in the long run: once stress hormones run rampant in our systems for long enough they tear us down. I’m not being metaphoric. There is ample evidence of the stress reaction over time having a negative impact on pretty much every bodily system, and that includes your brain. You’re asking why you’re underperforming when you’re feeling ‘stressed’? That’s why.

Now stress is never simply about work, it is about our lives outside work as well, and it is about how we handle all the stressors we encounter. Sometimes it feels like there IS no off-switch. And that is why it’s so important to cultivate the off-switch in ourselves. For me, yoga, meditation, taking time off, regular routines, do the trick. Where is your off-switch? How could you cultivate it? Take some time to ponder.

Stress can turn ugly when it gets us spinning our wheels to such a degree that we feel we need to push harder, and harder, yet we are no longer effective. We start to worry, overthink, we react emotionally in situations because we are strung out, life seems to be pitted against us. We lose touch with the saner parts of ourselves. We are in overdrive. It is the fight-or-flight response gone mad. If you are feeling like this: take a few steps back. Take a proper break, a few days at least, maybe longer depending on how you feel, until you regain your sense of perspective.

So many academics I know have had to take time off work at some point because work/life stress got the better of them. Nobody talks about this much, but it is very common. Self-care goes a long way in preventing more serious stress-related health problems. Be kind to yourself, and prevent burning out. Relax, take care, do what you need to do to get back in touch.

How are your stress-levels? Healthy exhilaration or are you chronically strung out? What are your favourite ways to relax and undo the fight-or-flight response? Let me know! If you’re interested in setting up some work and self-care routines for an exhilarated, definitely not-strung-out academic life take a look at the HappyPhD course. It will help. As always, if you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

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Keeping Up, Meeting Deadlines, and Making Habits Stick

At this time of year, time seems to speed up. The summer is in sight, as are too rapidly approaching PhD deadlines. When we start getting panicky about things it helps to step back and ask what might make a difference. A difference to how we work, how we write, how we get things done, how we feel. What might help us accomplish our goals?

I have become a big fan of habits, and have learnt how to build them purposefully and gradually. The gradual bit I am still not too keen on, but as I have found out with much trial and error, it is the only way that works. You can’t go cold turkey into a massive habit overhaul: after an initial enthusiastic burst of ‘good behaviour’ it won’t stick, it’ll be overwhelming and you’ll end up feeling like you’ve failed. It’s a shame this. It would be nice if creating positive habits was as easy as writing them out on a list and implementing like a maniac. Instead, I have found there are three main keys to habit change, and it is best to implement one habit at a time.

The first key is to pick the right habit (for you).  Which habit will make the most of a difference? This is your ‘What’.

What?

There are always a million things we could do ‘better’, and as we are probably all perfectionists here, I won’t need to explain the concept. Yet instead of driving ourselves crazy over details, why not ask yourself: what would make a real difference with regard to what you’re trying to achieve? One thing. One. Yes, we are prioritising. (Does the idea of picking only one change make you nervous? Why not simply allow yourself a sigh of relief? One thing is enough. You can always add something later on).

Let’s say you are trying to meet a deadline and your word count is not progressing as you might like.
Some suggestions to consider:

  1. Rest and sleep – will make you that more clear-headed/ ready for work/ less freaked out. (Recommended if you feel you are indeed on the edge of freaking out/ if it all feels like it’s too much)
  2. Working in intervals – this makes such a difference. It will allow you to be far more productive, while not wearing you out. (Recommended if work load is an issue)
  3. Creating a writing habit – write first, before you do anything else. Or at any time of the day you are sure to do it. Habit number one of the prolific academic (True!)
  4. Stopping on time – often the days seem endless, and our focus fizzles out. Create a deadline in your day, every day. Stick to it, and work hard to meet it. Then stop. Well done. It’s so simple. (Recommended if you are low on energy yet need to write more than you can seem to manage.)
  5. Working offline – single-tasking. It works, by forcing you to focus and think and write, though be prepared to miss your favourite distractions! (Recommended for all social media junkies/ distraction addicts/ if you have a can’t see the wood for the trees problem)
  6. Exercise – Just 20-30 minutes three times a week will lower your stress levels, while making you feel more alert and clear-headed (Recommended if you are feeling sluggish or down, and have a difficult time getting going)
  7. Starting a meditation routine – Increase focus, decrease stress, feel better. (Recommended for centering, overwhelmed, and when in a state of discontent or unable to tap into your intuition)
  8. Going easy on the coffee/ carbs/ booze – If you’re rollercoastering through your days, using coffee as an upper, alcohol as a downer, sugar as a pacifyer: you may need a break (Recommended if your brain is rollercoastering with you.)

Add any of you own. Now ask yourself: which of these changes might help me the most? Which one appeals? Ask yourself what would it feel like to have that change in place? Feel good? Yes or No? Would it solve some of the problems you are up against? Once your rational mind (sounds sensible) and your feeling mind (feels good) agree: that’s the habit you are looking for.

The second key is to make sure your new habit is compelling. If you want to do it, you are much more likely to do it. This is your ‘Why’.

Why?

Changing your habits can be a bit of a challenge. To make new habits stick, and decrease the chances of getting annoyed with yourself for not being able to do such a ‘simple’ task, ask yourself why you would like to make that change. What is the bigger picture? Now, don’t stop at ‘I would like to finish this paper by the end of next week, therefore I need to be more focused at work, therefore I am going to work for two hours on my paper every day, before I do anything else.’

Ask yourself what it feels like to accomplish that. Ask yourself how it would feel right after you have put your two early morning hours in. Ask yourself how it would feel to do that on a regular basis. Now ask yourself how it would feel to meet the deadline.

Future trip:

Picture yourself. Right there, at your computer. Finished manuscript in hand. The date, the time. You are well on time. You are done.

How does it feel?

Immerse yourself in this feeling.

That feeling will keep your habit in place. Anchor into it. Use it. Use it whenever you feel you can’t be bothered.

If your habit doesn’t feel good for whatever reason it’s not the right habit to change. Pick something else. Pick something that you will actually do. What moves you? Pick that one.

The third key is to keep going, and you’ll increase the odds of that happening significantly if you prepare for those moments that might challenge your new habit. This is your ‘when’.

When?

Trigger moments: those moments when we ‘want’ to stick to our new habit, yet we cave in…because it’s not quite a habit yet. You’re ready to start your early morning write, yet email beckons, or coffee beckons, or a chat with your colleague beckons, or (God forbid) an email from a colleague for a coffee, now, beckons. Now you’re outnumbered!! Can’t help it! Off for coffee.

Know your triggers. Once again imagine yourself in the situation: what is going to come up? What will seem more important, or more fun, or just plain easier? Could you plan for any of that? Be prepared…to say no. To do things differently. If you’re having trouble, go back to your why – the feeling of it. It will help you stand firm, and it will help you do what you ultimately want to do.

Which habit would you like to change or implement? Let me know! If you are looking for a system of academic habit change – have a look at the HappyPhD course. It has good reviews. As always, if you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

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The Art of Focus

Are you in between?
At work, but not working?
At home, but not relaxing?
In bed, but not sleeping?

Drifting off into worry about whether your chapter, or paper, or outline will be finished in time, while the clock ticks and your cursor blinks?
Drifting off into ‘will this ever be good enough’ and ‘what am I doing’?
Drifting off into randomness, into plans and to-do’s, and overwhelm?
Drifting off into conversations in your mind?
Drifting off…

Do you procrastinate?
Worry?
Obsess?
Much?
Do you wonder where the day went, and why you didn’t get done what you wanted to do?
Feel guilty about it?

The art of focus is an art you’ll need to master if you want to break the loop. If you want to break out of being torn and overwhelmed and distracted and not getting anything done. The answer is as simple as it is difficult to do at times: pay attention. Pay attention to what you are doing and see whether it is indeed what you would like to be doing. If not? Now is the moment to get back into the groove, and back on track. Yes. Now. Break out of the loop.

This, in a nut-shell, is the ‘secret’ of being effective at anything really, including being a prolific academic: paying attention.

A tool that helps immensely in doing this, in creating more mental control, as well as control over what you actually do in a day, is meditation. It is brain training. Or mind training. You practice your paying attention muscles and it does pay off. It will become increasingly effortless to stay on track: the track you choose. You gain control. So worth the investment, so worth the effort.

I started meditating by taking an 8-week mindfulness based stress-reduction course, a system based on the work of Jon Kabat – Zinn. That was back in 2008, quite some time ago! I was excited to start, until I found out it was actually quite hard: it was so much about unlearning to overthink. And think, and think, and think is what my mind so loves to do! Thinking about meditation, dreaming of its wonderful effects came a lot easier to me than actually sitting on the pillow and paying attention – which is all meditation really is – without adding all the layers of thought. Thought was entertainment. Stories, fantasies, worries, you name it I am addicted! And now I had to learn to drop it.

And it is all the mental buzz we need to drop. I know now, for a fact, that solutions to anything – from intellectual puzzles to personal problems – do not come from thought, as in actively thinking or ‘obsessing’. They often arise from a different space – one where I feel calm and grounded and content. That space, where peace and joy arise, where you find a different perspective, a perspective that is so much kinder and so much more fun, instead of the continuous reaching and pushing for answers, that space can be accessed through meditation. Yet we need to sit with our chaos for long enough to allow the dust to settle, and the cobwebs to untangle themselves.

In the mindfulness course I took, they used the metaphor of a lake with muddy water. By simply sitting and being, the mud would sink and settle, the water would clear. Overthinking muddles the lake, while paying attention and letting go of the storylines in our head allows it to calm and beautify.

This has been very much my experience. About six weeks into the course – six weeks of chaos on my meditation pillow – I noticed that when a particularly distressing thought came up during the day (was dealing with freaky scary health/ money stuff) I could just let it be. Didn’t cause me to panic, didn’t cause me distress. Not as much distress anyway: the thought came up and I noticed myself thinking: “I am not going to entertain this particular train of thought today. I just can’t be bothered to think all those stressful thoughts. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt, now please let me sit with the sun on my face with a cup of tea, unworried, thank you!” And instead of shaking me, the stressful thought just came and went. The lake was clear.

Did it stay like that? No! The mind is a muddy lake, at least mine is, and I expect yours to be too. But we can learn how to move out of chaos quicker. That is my experience. You still get into it, but you have tools to get yourself out of it. To calm the waters.

I still meditate, though a little more free-flowing than in the early years. I have become quite proficient at moving into calmer, and more loving, states of being, on the meditation pillow. It really does turn the joy up, and the worry down. Applying the same techniques in daily life is an ongoing practice.

What about you? Do you meditate? Would love to hear what it does for you. If you’d like to learn how to meditate: creating a meditation practice is an important part of the HappyPhD Course. It has meditations by Bodhipaksa, as well as my own. The HappyPhD meditations I designed specifically for the PhD life of us Overthinkers Anonymous. They help you switch off, after a day of thinking (no more obsessing about the PhD!), as well as shift towards a more joyful, sparkly way of being, when you are worried). As always, if you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

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Never There, Never Good Enough: How to Escape the Academic Rat Race

Are you there yet?
Is the paper you want to write finished, are your deadlines met?
Your data crunched, your analyses lucid, your argument convincing?
Are you on top of things?
What about your publication record? How many top publications can we count?
Oh – is it too early to think about publications?
It is never too early to think about publications.
You need publications.
What about the rest of your cv? Are you ticking the boxes, doing enough?

Are you. Doing. Enough?

Academia, at its worst, is a machine that runs on numbers. In an attempt to quantify the unquantifyable, academic performance is reduced to publications and citations, to deadlines met and funding secured. And you’re supposed to tag along. That is, if you want to keep your position, keep moving forward and upwards. If not: out.

It becomes a state of mind: the pushing, the reaching, the grasping, the scrambling.
We have to Get There

‘There’ is a fiction. It’s always just past the horizon. We know so, of course. We know that when this paper or chapter is done there will be a next one to write. One deadline down, many more to go. It’s a merry-go-round, we know! Yet maybe we will feel more secure, even a little, with the next milestone reached… Life will be better, easier, less stressful with the deadline behind us, the achievement achieved.

That is how we think. That is how we work.
With our eyes on the prize – the next one. Always the next one.
Going a little crazy in the process.

It always surprises me how short the moments of triumph, of satisfaction, are. Even the grand prizes, the actual publications (which you will get, somewhere down the road), the promotions, and the grants awarded. They satisfy…for about five minutes. Then once more our eyes are on the future, hurtling forwards, feeling like we have not yet done enough.

As I write this, students in Amsterdam are occupying the Maagdenhuis to protest against what they call the neoliberalisation of higher education, their main focus on democratisation and ‘de-financialisation’. One of their demands is a shift from a quantitative, output-based financial model towards qualitative forms of evaluation. It is a rebellion against the status quo. Against the bureaucratic machine. Against all the counting.

I say we couple the rebellion against the system, with an internal rebellion. A rebellion against the mind-set of ‘never-there-never-good-enough’. The ‘never-enough’ mind-set the machine cultivates. The mind-set we believe in. Does it do us any good, the kicking ourselves ahead? Does it really make us productive, or does it simply make us stressed and unhappy? Would anything change if we stopped engaging with these thoughts that bring us down, that convince us we should be better than we are? What if we stopped entertaining them every chance we get?

I am not discounting the challenges of academic life. Unfortunately, some of the pressures are real. But it’s precisely because they are real that we need to use our energy towards doing our work, and living our lives. It is too easy to get caught up in worries, to let it sap all the joy. No more, I say. No more.

What if we challenge the assumption that the prize will be delivered…tomorrow…once we’ve worked hard enough…once we are deserving?

What if the prize has been delivered already…what if our work is exactly where it should be…and what if we are already there?

Because we are.

Set your goals, but then –
Trust in an unfolding.
Where you are, right now, is far enough.
It is the only place to be.
You are going to meet the deadline.
You are going to publish, and publish well.
Your PhD/ chapter/ paper will be finished and written and published and read. It will.
Dwell in that space, of being already there.
How wonderful it is, without the stress.
How wonderful to enjoy the process.
All you have to do is your work for today.
The one next step. It’s the only and most important step there is.
It is enough.

I try to actively cultivate an attitude of being ‘already there’, of taking the more desperate edge off. In fact it’s a whole different way of seeing things, of being. Being much more open to what is already there – it is sweet. (And it may even make you excited about the work you are doing.) Can you relate? Do you take the time to enjoy what is already there? Let me know! If you’d like to cultivate such a mind-set, have a look at the HappyPhD course. It will help you become more present, more content. As always, if you enjoyed this post, please share. I appreciate it!

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