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’.
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:
- 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)
- 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)
- 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!)
- 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.)
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
- 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’.
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.
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’.
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!
Are you hiding behind the literature?
It’s tempting, you know. Making academic work all about what others have done. And true, learning about what others have done is one of the core activities in doing your own research. Yet do not forget, your research has a reason to exist in its own right. It must do. Why else bother? And why else would anyone seek your work out?
It’s so tempting to swing between feeling like you have to design some grand theory that explains everything, to somehow integrate all the literature in a way that makes sense; and feeling like you are utterly failing at that, and worse: your own contribution to the debate is meagre, shameful even. Hardly noticable and not worth noticing.
Listen. Your contribution doesn’t have to be of epic proportions to be of value. (Let’s forget about the heroic PhD fantasy). But it needs to be communicated, it needs to be heard. Yes. It needs to come out of hiding. The most important step in academic writing is finding out what that contribution is. What is the argument you are trying to make? That’s what we want to know. How your argument relates to the literature is always secondary. No matter how much more erudite/ profound/ advanced/ impressive that literature is.
I know that many PhDs are asked to write a literature review. I believe this only makes sense up to a point. A literature review needs an angle. It needs a question driving it. That question is what it’s all about. It is the only thing that ensures focus. Without it you are guarantueed to be lost. And your readers will be equally lost.
Finding that question, and finding the answer.
That’s what your PhD is about.
That is it.
Yes, it takes time. Clarity takes time.
It helps to, from some point onwards, start reading less and thinking more.
Focusing in, instead of overloading yourself with more angles, more data, more everything. Because there is already so much of everything.
I’m not saying do not read. You need to be informed of what is out there.
There is always a balance between learning more, and adding to your knowledge that way, and knowing when you are losing yourself in dead ends.
You could picture it as a play. Your play.
Some articles will take centre stage. They are your lead figures, your main characters. They have a lot of lines and you need to know them inside out. The lead figures are the real performers. They carry the weight, hold the space. They are what makes your argument shine, the star sing.
Find out which articles, which scholars, which schools of thought, are at the centre of your research. Learn every little thing about them. This is essential knowledge.
Then, there are couple of less important characters, and loads of extras. They are needed to beef it up, so to speak. Yes, they have their role, and they may have a few words to say here and there. But they aren’t central to the plot development. They are peripheral. It only makes sense to treat them as such. Why waste your precious time on learning absolutely everything there is to know about the extra (no offence)? It will confuse your focus.
What I am saying is read strategically. Ask yourself whether what you have just read/ are about to read is necessary to contribute to your work, or whether you are only losing yourself, distracting yourself. Read accordingly. Don’t waste your time.
Because there’s an even more insiduous way the literature may be hampering your progress: you may be using it as a tool of procrastination. A way to gloss over the fact that you ‘don’t feel quite ready’ to start writing.
If you’re reading for security – Maybe reading this next paper will make you feel more on top of things! – be brave. Put down the article. (Like you’d put down the drug.)
Ask yourself what your work needs, to move forward. (I am serious. Ask.) Then do that thing.
Think, organise your thoughts, create something. You may need to read. Maybe.
But quite likely you’ll need to jump in and write something instead.
If you’re struggling with your academic writing (maybe it’s not happening?) have a look at my free e-book Finding Your Academic Voice. If you liked this post, as always, could you share it? I appreciate it!