Getting Unstuck, Without the Struggle

I was invited to dinner with an old professor last week. When I introduced myself and said I worked with PhD students he said: ‘Ah, how useful! Every PhD student gets stuck, that’s what I have always told my students. It’s normal. A PhD is an endeavor where you will get stuck, and there is no one who will be able to solve your problem. You know more about your subject matter than anyone else. You have to do it yourself, it is a test of character. Dead ends, and walking into walls are part of the process.’

dinnerHe’s right: Struggle is part of the process, it’s part of the deal.

I’m always trying to figure out ways of lessening the struggle though (and if your supervisor is worth his/ her salt they will do the same). Because intellectual struggle is one thing, and truly necessary and inevitable when you’re in this trade, but you don’t want the struggle to start spilling over into how you feel about yourself and your work in a perpetual self-reinforcing negative cycle, ending up truly, properly stuck.

I have found that to allow the stuckness to lessen its grip, we need to change our relationship with it.
We need to stop staring at the problem endlessly, exhausting ourselves in the process.
To untangle the tangle, we have to do some active untangling as well as allowing the untangling to happen.
We need to do some things differently, to break the loop.

This tends to be what happens: We are having a few difficult days which turn into difficult weeks, maybe even difficult months. Research is slow, and slowing, our mood slowly dropping, and we get more emotional about even small setbacks. Now, at one point we properly enter the zone of maladaptive coping strategies and we start seriously worrying, or procrastinating, or pushing ourselves to stay on even longer at work because maybe that way we will get things done.  It’s not happening, and even if we do have a good day we leave worrying because we need to ‘catch up’ for work hours lost in the past weeks or months, and in view of deadlines rapidly approaching. At this point we are scaring ourselves into performing, we feel we need to push harder, somehow get our adrenalin going to cope, maybe we feel we need an absolute miracle to get us out of the pit.

The interesting bit about this scenario is that our energy is now for the most part spent worrying and obsessing about our work instead of on the act of research itself. I have used a pie chart in my HappyPhD workshop named the work/worry ratio. I can confidently say that for the early stretches of my PhD for me the work/worry ratio was 20/80. Not good.

There are practical steps that can take you from worrying and feeling stuck, to getting back into a more pleasant work groove, and one key element is to allow the untangling to happen. We need to take a step back, re-assess what is working and what isn’t, do what we can and chill out about the rest. That last part is important.

Some ways to get started in undoing the I’m stuck-panic loop:

1. Time (and momentum)

Once I knew what exactly my PhD was about, once my question and methods section became more defined, everything became easier, and sped up. I realise this is probably not very helpful if you’re in the beginning stages of the PhD, but it does get better when you gain clarity. You need a direction to be able to move forward (truth!), and especially in the beginning the work is finding that direction. It can be difficult and demoralising, and slow. If this is the case for you, the trick is, as our professor mentioned to not worry too much about it. It’s normal. Part of the game and the process. Shrug your shoulders. I would add to that: it’s important to find tools to keep momentum. One way may be to shorten your work sessions, and ask yourself at the beginning of each session what you want to work on and what you want to accomplish during that particular session. When you lack direction that’s one way of reintroducing it. Bit by bit, one work session at a time.

2. Change the worry habit

When I fell ill, I had no more energy for worrying. We all know worry is futile, but I realised then, that worry is worse. It is harmful, and seriously drains our energy. We can get away with it, that’s why we do it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t harmful all the same. Why was I so invested in worrying? I concluded that it’s one of the stategies that allows us to feel safe. A bit silly, and a bit twisted, and absolutely counter-productive, but at least we’re thinking about work, that must count for something? Errr… Changing this habit means being aware of our worrying, and choosing to shift our attention away from it by either doing something constructive about what we’re worried about (work), or by doing something enjoyable utterly unrelated to our worries (not work – not implying though that work can’t be enjoyable), or by doing absolutely nothing at all (yes, that’s allowed). That’s all. Oh yes, and not be a perfectionist about the ‘not worrying’ bit either – give ourselves a bit of a break!

3. A basic work routine

Set up a work routine, and do LESS than you think you should be aiming for. The more stuck you are, the more you feel you need to speed up, SLOW DOWN instead. Ignore what fear is telling you and break the panicked ‘I need to work 12 hours a day and it’s not happening’ loop. Schedule one focused work session a day, or two, then be pleased with yourself once you are done, and give yourself the rest of the day off (also from worrying!).  The doing the work and the not worrying part are equally important here. Now, when that goes well for a couple of days, add an extra work session, see how it goes. Keep your focus equally on working and relaxing. Over the course of a couple of weeks, you should be able to build a sustainable work schedule. One metaphor might be that of being stuck in the mud. It’s unwise to go into high gear to try to get out: you will only dig yourself in further in the process. You need to have the courage (and sense) to go right back to first gear and get yourself out of there slooooowly. It’s the fastest way.

4. Keep it light

Often, what we need is momentum, and momentum is quick. Flashes of insight are quick too. What if work could be ‘quick’ and playful instead of heavy and problematic and looming over us? Can we allow ourselves to ‘play’ a bit more, to have some fun with what we’re doing? This light and playful energy gets us out of the pit. Yet we often don’t allow ourselves to enjoy what we’re doing, because we’re too focused on all the ways we’re not doing enough, it is going wrong, all the ways we are stuck, and the situation is impossible. We take our problems and our work very seriously. Forget it. Drop it. Just for one work session at a time, can we forget about how stuck we are? Can we keep it light?

5. Trust the process

It’s supposed to feel slow, difficult and frustrating! Can you become okay with that? What if you don’t have to worry about being behind, what if you don’t have to worry it’s all so slow? What if you do what you can do, whatever that is that day and be content with the messiness of the process? I used to have a yoga teacher who always repeated: “learning to be comfortable in an uncomfortable situation: that’s yoga.” If that’s the definition of yoga, academia is a yogic pursuit! Find comfort in the discomfort. Keep going, one day at a time, and trust it will pay off in the end. When I realised, deeply, that I didn’t have to do anything, except what I was doing, it was a massive relief. Let go. It’s going to be OK. (And the more we let go, the less energy we put into the negative loops, the smoother the process is going to be).

Entertain these thoughts:

Maybe the hole you feel you’re in isn’t that deep… Maybe you aren’t that stuck…Maybe all you need is the courage to do less, in a structured way, with as much playfulness as you can muster. Forget worry and obsession. Let’s do it differently. Focus on your work only when you choose to. Have a life outside work. Worry less. Allow the knots to untangle.

Do you worry about your PhD? Let me know what helps you when you’re feeling stuck… If you’d like a structured way out of worry and stuckness: take a look at the HappyPhD course. It will walk you through the process step by step. As always, if you enjoyed this post could you like or share it? I appreciate it!

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!

Procrastination Part Two: Nine Suggestions

Procrastination. I am still on the topic. As I shared with you in the previous blog post, changing your procrastination habit involves changing your tiny daily actions. It is the smallest, subtle, incremental changes that produce the eventual substantial change in productivity. I am keen on this idea. It makes overcoming procrastination doable. You are no longer mentally fighting the huge imaginary procrastination beast (aka PhD monster), depleting all your resources, but instead see its ability to impress shrink one small action at a time.

Nine anti-procrastination suggestions:

1. Create a minimal, doable schedule

Start small. If you have gotten out of the habit of writing, if you are paralysed by the page, it doesn’t make sense to expect yourself to leap into writing for long hours, days!, on end overnight. The good news: you don’t have to. Start small and over time your routine will expand. I like to start with two successive working sessions a day, of 45 minutes each. Three quarters of an hour is enough to get a substantial amount of work/ writing done, yet it isn’t overwhelming. Think small successes. Small is where the job gets done. Check out this schedule for an idea of what this might look like.

2. Be specific. Schedule it. Visualise it.

At the end of a work session, decide when you are going to write the next day. Decide. Schedule. Hold yourself accountable. This is a non-negotiable date with your work. Treat it as you would a meeting in regular life. Be on time. Engage. Show your work some love and respect. It helps to take a second to visualise yourself writing at the time you intend. Oh, all the wonderful feelings that flow from that picture… Feel it. Then on the day sit down at the scheduled time, open your document and become it.

3. Don’t give yourself the option of not writing. JUST DO IT

There’s a decision you need to make, and that decision is: from now on, I am going to write for x hours (not too many) every workday. No Matter What. This isn’t a superficial decision. It is deeeeeeep. (As are you.) And what I mean by this, is that it’s a decision to from now on disobey your fears and ‘reasons’ and excuses, and support yourself wholeheartedly instead. No ifs, no buts, no maybes.  Make it non-negotiable. I made this decision in the later stages of the PhD and it made all the difference. The problem is: we waste our energy on choices, on staying in between yes and no. It is exhausting. Say yes I am going to do this. And do it. It is clean and simple and it frees up a lot of energy that would otherwise be lost.

4. No Guilt

Despite 3, you may mess up. You may not work (as much) as you had intended to. You’re human. Life happens sometimes. The first rule in this situation is No Guilt. The decision I was talking about in tip 3 is about supporting yourself. Guilt is not part of that. We (often unconsciously) think that guilt is what helps us become ‘better’. It doesn’t. All it does is make us feel awful. Honestly, not a good idea. So say no to your inner Calvinist and be your more objective self-compassionate self instead. Recommit, and schedule your work for tomorrow. There is no need to compensate or feel bad, all you need to do is get back on track.

5. Know your triggers

If for whatever reason procrastination got the better of you, be curious why. (Remember 4. No Guilt)
I use a few questions to work with this:

What happened that was more important than doing your work?
What was the excuse that sounded believable that got you out of it?
Was there a warning sign that signalled you were not going to stick to your schedule? What was it?
How could you prevent this from happening tomorrow?

Just another reminder: No Guilt. This is about creating an understanding of yourself, of your patterns, of your triggers. It’s not about making yourself feel bad. (There’s no prize or reward for that.) Being aware is crucial. It helps you create the changes you want to create. So look, be curious, find out. Know yourself.

6. Work offline

This one is so important. We get distracted. Of course we do. Email. Facebook. Whatsapp. Online news. Twitter. Or the seemingly virtuous one: looking up research and references. I am pretty strict about this one: writing time is for writing. It is for creation, not consumption. If you really need to look up an article, make a note in your piece and do it after your work session is over. We need to focus on our thoughts, we need to FOCUS to get our best work done. Going offline (I used Freedom for this purpose when I was finishing my PhD) is the mini ritual that signals to your brain: time to get stuff done. And you will. You may have a lot of resistance to this idea. “I need the Internet” you may object. You probably don’t. Trust what you know already. It is the best source to work from.

7. Set boundaries

In the same category of distractions: set boundaries. This is another reason for a short and sweet and consistent writing practice, instead of one that meanders on all day. It gives you a timetable of availability and non-availability. So useful. When I was finishing my PhD the hours from 10:00 to 13:00 were sacred. I let people know: “those are my writing hours, I will not pick up the phone. I am not available. I’ll be back ‘online’ this afternoon.” I believe that being strictly non-available some of the time is incredibly helpful. It says ‘I respect my work’. If you work in an office environment, learn to say: ‘no’. If you really can’t say no make sure you escape for an hour or two daily to write. Create your own writing bubble. It is bliss.

8. Set yourself up for success

Every writing session ask yourself what the next step is, to get your article/ chapter closer to completion. Answer in terms of what you can get finished today. Find the fine line between being ambitious and being realistic. Challenge yourself, but make sure that what you are trying to do is indeed doable. Write your daily work/ writing goals down if at all possible. Then once you have succeeded, cross the item off your list. Congratulations, well done! (Never too small an accomplishment to celebrate.) This habit helps break the loop of fear and failure and guilt that is procrastination. You’re creating a virtuous cycle of work and productivity and (small, though one day it will be BIG) success instead.

9. Focus on finishing

I want to challenge you here. Focus on the finish line. Everyone can read articles for a couple of hours a day. I want you to go beyond that. I want you to create, to produce, to develop your work. To write and FINISH an article. We often get stuck in our fears of not-yet-knowing-enough to write. I say go for it anyway. GO! You can do it. Don’t dither, do it! Academic underconfidence is rife in the formative years of the PhD and the only way to get through it, is by engaging. So make that switch from passive student to active contributor. BE the academic you want to be. Focus on creating. Focus on the finished paper. What can you finish in a week’s time? In a month? In two months? Get excited about your (self-imposed) deadlines and take a leap. Finish something.

I could go on and on, but I need to stop. Do you have anti-procrastination tips to share? And which one of those above is your favourite? Let me know in the comments! If you’d like tailor-made advice I do offer this in my coaching sessions. As always, if you liked this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

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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Building Momentum: Cultivating Sparks and Getting Things Done

Before I presented my first HappyPhD seminar I booked a coaching session with a public speaking coach. We talked story-telling technique, commanding the energy in a room, and we brainstormed about some aspects of my workshop. The conversation meandered and we ended up talking about creativity, and how to bring your work into being. At this point in the conversation she drew me a stick figure:

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She told me there are basically two ways to get stuck when you are creating something (and in life. It was that kind of conversation).  You may have no ideas, or no inspiration. You feel limp. You have lost your sense of wonder. Life is a drag. That’s when the vertical arrow gets blocked. Or, you may have problems implementing those ideas: translating them into reality and communicating them with other people. That’s when the horizontal arrow gets blocked. Releasing these blocks means momentum is restored.

(If you hadn’t noticed yet – this is a bit of a ‘spiritual’ post. No academic references here. Think metaphor, think model. Don’t take it literally.)

Translated to academia it presents a rather fabulous model for building and sustaining momentum.

We need the muse: the being enthralled, the giddiness of ideas and the excitement and thrill when inspiration strikes.

But we can’t stop there.

We need to capture those thoughts and ideas, order them, structure them, put them onto paper, fine-tune, fine-tune more, and present them to the world.

Moving ideas into form (and publication).

I believe the vertical arrow to be responsible for the spark, in our work, in our eyes, in our life. It ensures quality and originality. We cultivate it through feeling and noticing: we need to notice what uplifts us.

At work, we need to notice which ideas speak to us, which words need to be written, which argument needs to be explored. Even if the (desired) outcome is intellectual, the process is one of tuning into our feelings, navigating on inspiration.

More broadly, we need to notice what makes us come alive.
Where does excitement live?
And nourishment?
These aren’t fixed entities: what is it you need right now?

For sparks to show up on a regular basis you need to pay attention.
You need find out where they like to hang out;
they are not that visible to the untrained eye,
and if you get too caught up in the stresses of things (the deadline, the difficulties, the expectations, everything that doesn’t seem to go your way) they fade.
Or we think they do.
We fail to notice them, even if they are still there.

I believe the horizontal arrow to be the motor behind ‘success’. It is the ‘showing up and getting things done’. For academia:

It is the sitting down to do research or write when you do not feel like it.
It is ignoring the inner critic.
It is setting yourself a challenge. It is meeting that challenge.
It is thinking strategically about your work and how you want to position yourself in your field, and in the academic community.
It is being professional and engaged in your work relationships.
It is stretching beyond what you think you are capable of, beyond what you think you are ready for, beyond…
It is being courageous and bold.
It is joining the academic community by participating.
It is, as my mentor Gordon Smith would call it: ‘getting on with it’.
It is coming out of your shell and showing up.
Show up. Show initiative. DO something.

I believe there is great value in learning to tune into what we need: do we need to show up and get things done (horizontal arrow), or do we need to let go, surrender and allow things to happen (vertical arrow)? Do we need to put ourselves out there (horizontal arrow), or do we need to soften and pay attention to inner needs (vertical arrow)?

In my own life I find there are often subtle shifts I can make to restore momentum. When I am being too controlling, when I am too invested in an outcome, I remind myself to let things happen in their own time (vertical arrow). I step back. At least I try. At the same time, I work at those things that require my energy. I determine what my priorities are and I take action if I can (horizontal arrow).

These days I am pretty in tune, in the sense that I at least recognise when I am ‘in the flow’ and when I am firmly out of it. The two feel completely different, and I am highly sensitive to the difference. If I push too hard, for too long (and I tend to, still) everything comes to a halt very fast. So I reconnect, and figure out what I need to allow things to happen more effortlessly.

The vertical connection comes relatively easily to me – I seem to always have ideas and a little sparkle going on somewhere. That said, when I am being too goal-oriented, or if fear gets in the way, my inspiration gets cut off and I am absolutely gutted. I feel hollow and drained. I NEED the muse by my side to feel like myself. And I need to be in tune to work and create. I cannot do the go-getter thing. When I trust I don’t have to, my best work shows up.  Opportunities show up. (And, distinctions and good reviews show up). The horizontal connection for me means doing my work (whatever that may mean in the moment), and putting it out into the world (who knows, someone may enjoy it!). I have become a huge fan of simple routines to ensure I indeed do so, no matter the circumstances.

Establishing momentum in this inside-out manner has been key to finishing my PhD, and I imagine it will be key in anything I do from here. Why it works, is because it isn’t imposed. It is not about forcing myself to do things. It is more about alignment, than effort.

All of this makes a lot of sense to me, but I have no idea whether it makes sense to anyone else? Can you relate? How do you deal with horizontal and vertical challenges? Would love to know. If these ideas do make sense to you: could you share this post? As always, it is much appreciated!

Getting Unstuck

The vertical arrow is about spark and inspiration, for which we need to be open, curious and playful. It is about being connected to our inner world and working from there.

The horizontal arrow is about achievement (in an effortless way), for which we need to be committed, grounded and courageous. It is about our connection to others and our contribution in the world.

If you are vertically challenged right now, start creating space for sparks to show up.

Some ideas:

  • Brainstorm creative ideas for the chapter or paper you are currently working on – pay special attention to how each option makes you feel. Use your intuition to make work decisions. (Scary. Exhilarating. Powerful.)
  • Read your favourite scholars (or novelists), and let yourself be inspired.
  • Take time off to do nothing.
  • Take time to consciously stop achieving. Being is enough. You are enough.
  • Start a meditation or yoga practice (resets the brain for creativity, contentment and joy).
  • Notice what you want to do instead of what you ought to do. Do what you want to do.
  • Ask yourself: what do I need right now? Listen. Act on it.
  • Allow things to happen.
    Sit back.
    Wait.
    Be receptive.
    Loosen up, lighten up, relax.
    Be still and listen.
    Feel.
  • Pay attention to the small pleasures. And the big ones.
  • Let yourself off the hook:
    You don’t have to do anything right now.
    You don’t have to get anywhere.
    There is nowhere to go! You are already there.
    Notice.
  • Read, dance, eat, go to the cinema or theatre, see friends etc.: do anything that uplifts you.

Whether at work or outside work, the key to more spark is listening in, instead of pushing forward. It is about noticing joy, and following its path. Effortlessly.

If you are horizontally challenged, take action.

Some ideas:

  • Set up work and writing routines and stick to them (I recommend working in intervals)
  • Set yourself a work challenge that stretches you, and go for it. Maybe it is getting your paper written, maybe it is getting your paper published. Maybe it is trying something new, like leading a workshop or organising a panel at a conference. Maybe it is speaking up more in seminars, or presenting your work. Get excited about it and do it.
  • Think strategically about where you want to go next, work-wise. Plan for it. Act on it. Become the person who can do, and simply does those things.
  • Forget about failure. Failure is inevitable and it doesn’t matter. Just keep trying.
  • Ignore the inner critic. Ignore the inner censor. Be fearless.
  • Put yourself and your work out there.
  • Be open to criticism, instead of being defensive. Connect.
  • Take charge. Take a stand. Become visible.
  • Ask yourself how you could contribute. If you were one step ‘ahead’ of where you are now, what would you be doing? Do it now. Don’t wait until you are ready.
  • Set up self-care routines for exercise, diet etc. Don’t do so because you feel you ‘should’. Only make those changes that feel empowering.

Whether at work or outside work, the key to overcoming horizontal challenges is action and engagement. Show up. Your contribution is welcome and needed.

Sometimes we are challenged in all directions. In that case start anywhere. These approaches beautifully complement each other. Inspiration will help lift yourself above your fears and worries and into action. Action, engagement and movement will help you out of any slump and reignite your spark.

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How to write a PhD speedily & (almost) painlessly. Strategy 4: Balance work and recovery.

I am writing a series of blog posts condensing the PhD-writing strategies that helped me finish my PhD. I went from being a not-always-effective researcher to finishing my PhD in a couple of hours a day. Read my story here.

Strategy 4: Balance Work and Recovery

Writing a PhD can mess with your head. Let’s restate that: writing a PhD will mess with your head.
It’s a head-messing thing, PhD-writing.

Not to worry too much – head-messing can be handled, and it will occur far less frequently if you have strategies to balance work and recovery. 

What tends to happen instead, is that we balance procrastination, and not being very focused or effective when we are ‘working’ with obsessing about our work when we are ‘not working’. It’s not a winning combination. If you manage to increase your focus when you are working, and learn to get out of your head when you are not working you will be in a much happier place. Not only that; your PhD will gain momentum, and there’s no better feeling!

To start with the ‘work’ bit. Let’s say there are three phases of doing our work: the first phase is characterised by resistance, procrastination and distraction. It’s the Facebooking and Twittering and getting another coffee and chatting to our colleagues and being distracted. The second phase is ‘the zone’ where we are actually doing our work. It may not feel fast or easy, but we are concentrated on getting something done, and doing what we can. Some days are better than others, but we are thinking, writing, analysing, creating, crunching data, inching forward. The third phase is when we keep going beyond the point of diminishing returns. It’s when we try to push on, once our energy has slumped. It’s when we can no longer think clearly, but we feel we ‘should’ be working because we have not gotten enough done yet. Or, because it’s not yet 5 or 6 or 7 o’clock and everybody else is still ‘working’ too. Sometimes, past the point of diminishing returns, we go into overdrive: a possessed and frenetic way of getting things done (fuelled by feelings of “Aaaaaargh I have not done anything today!! But I need to make that deadline. Or I’ll die!!!!”). It’s not a bad strategy if you indeed need to meet a deadline. Sometimes frenetic is OK. In the long run – not so.

If you want your PhD-writing to be easier, faster, smooth, more effective you need to find ways to expand ‘the zone’ and decrease the amount of time you spend procrastinating and in overdrive. If you consider ‘the zone’ a fixed amount of time and energy per day, that means mainly, working in intervals. It means making doing your work a habit (decreasing procrastination), training yourself to be focused when you need to be, and stopping before the point of diminishing returns, which working in set time intervals will help you with.

But today I want to talk more about increasing the quality of focus and energy when you are in ‘the zone’. You need to be ready to work, when you want to work, and the key lies, interestingly, in what you do when you are not working. It’s about recovery. It’s about getting out of your head.

Recovery, relaxation, fun. How frivolous that sounds!
I’ll let you in on a secret: frivolous rules.
It rules productivity, creativivity and happiness.

When you’re doing mentally challenging work, the brain needs some time to reset after you stop working. The brain needs a break, and it does important things such as processing the thinking you have done, and the experiences you have had that day; and coming up with new ideas and solutions in a non-analytical way. We often don’t give it that break – we may worry, obsess, keep thinking about the complexities of the current intellectual knot we are trying to solve without actually solving anything! We go round and round in circles, further depleting our mental energy, and increasing the frantic feelings of helplessness that come with it. At that point, we may start to give in to our fears about ourselves and our work: “This is never going to amount to anything! Aaaaah. I’m never going to meet that deadline! I am behind as it is. I am going to fail. FAIL!”

Which is a very nice way to spend your evening.

And sets you up for your work tomorrow in the best possible way.

Although sheer terror can sometimes get you amazing results (I don’t think I’d have a Distinction from the LSE without it), as a way of life it is not really recommended.

It will burn you out. Suck you dry. Crush you.

Your ‘zone’ will shrink, until only procrastination and overdrive are left.

The alternative is to give your brain the breaks it needs, when it needs it, which allows it to focus and work hard when you want it to.

Your ‘zone’ will expand.
Your work will become easier.
It will flow. And be more exciting.
You will start looking forward to it.

To do so you need to chill out at the end of the workday.

Let go, relax, unwind.

Some strategies:

Meditation: meditation is the most direct way to allow your brain to relax and recuperate. The benefits of meditation have, of course, been reported for ages. Science is now catching up and there is a growing body of literature that validates numerous benefits of meditation. A recent study shows how meditation helps the brain process thoughts and emotions. It activates the ‘reset’ circuits of your brain in the most literal sense. That’s why meditation can be so refreshing. It clears out the stale thoughts and feelings. Oh, and how we need that! We need to get out of our mind loops. (Mindfulness meditation, which forms the basis of the meditations I teach in the HappyPhD Online Course, is a form of nondirective meditation, as discussed in the article).

Exercise: Move your body. You need to get out of your head, and exercise is one of the best ways to do so. It has the added benefit of metabolising stress hormones, so if you are having a stressful time right now, or if you’re worried, exercise promises to give you relief.

Dance: It’s what I like to do. You can go out and dance. Or simply turn the music up and DANCE. If you think you cannot dance, doesn’t matter. Just do it. Be silly. No one is watching. Or if you are at a party and they are indeed watching – so what? Just dance. (I went to a very serious party a couple of months ago with a lot of very serious people attending. I danced anyway. So what if it was by myself? It was fun!)

Beauty: Art is therapeutic. Words, images, music – they can transport you into another world. An enchanted world where the logical mind gets some time to snooze and recuperate. Pick up that novel. Go to see that exhibition. Put on that dreamy playlist. Smell the roses and the honeysuckle. Immerse yourself in beauty.

Fun: Do the things that uplift you. Meet up with the friend who makes you laugh. Go out for drinks, or tea and cake. Watch something funny on TV. Get out of the house. Put on your lipstick and your heels (or put in your diamond earring, like my 18-year old male Italian flatmate used to do). Bring out the margaritas. Your disco needs you.

Nature: Get away from the computer and take a dive into the ocean. Or, just one toe, if for you, like me, the ocean happens to be the North Sea. Kick your shoes off and lie in the grass. Go for picnics and riverside walks. Oh joy.

Sometimes you need a little outside help to get from stuck in your head to a more free-flowing relaxed state. Consider joining a club or weekly class. I love my yoga classes and would not know what I’d do without them. Maybe you need some help from a physiotherapist to build an exercise routine, and maybe a massage will help to unknot some of your muscles that come from having an overanxious mind. If you’re going through a rough patch – therapy can help. Helping you through rough patches is what therapists are for.

I believe you should support yourself in every way you can.

There is no shame in asking for help. It is an act of courage, and an act of self-love and self-respect to give yourself what you need.
Do not deprive yourself of the help someone else can give you.

Support yourself.
Invest in yourself.
Take care of yourself.

What are your strategies for getting out of your head, and balancing work and relaxation? Let me know in the comments! Oh, and could you do me a favour? If you liked what you read, could you share it? Thanks!

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Failing Forward

There is one simple test you can take to see whether you are fit to be an academic. It’s the first entry requirement, if you will. And it’s only one simple question. The answer will determine whether you will whither or thrive, do or die.

Here it comes:

Are you OK with feeling like a failure for the rest of your life?

If the answer is yes, you may proceed down the academic path, if the answer is no, you may have to reconsider.

I recently read an article on what successful academics in their early career have in common, and the first point was to ‘refuse to feel like a failure’.

I could not disagree more.

If an academic doesn’t get to feel like a failure, who does? In fact, failure is the essence of an academic’s career, some may even argue the very essence of his existence. Failure is everywhere in academia, from the criticism that defines the academic model (you fail, your argument fails, your paper fails!), the daily grappling with all the question marks and the unknowns, to the system that will sit on your papers for many months before spitting out a rejection.

Feel like a failure you will, and you must.

But work with failure, and with being and feeling like a failure, and you may get very far. Academic superstardom may be within reach.

So how does one go about being a complete, utter, and very successful failure?

Two words: strategy and celebration.

To be strategic with failure, it helps to expect it.

Expect it every step of the way.
You are going to get it wrong.
Your work is going to be criticised and rejected.
Again. And again. And again. And again.
And again.
Repeat.
This is normal.
It’s the way academic work works,
the way an argument progresses,
the missing bits, the falling apart, the crossfire.
This is it. It’s what it is supposed to look like.
The coming together goes mostly unnoticed, but it happens in between.
It’s a little like the writing between the lines:
it’s there, just difficult to see or decipher at times.
Trust it is happening anyway.

Most importantly, know that your feeling of failure is not personal. Of course it feels that way. How could it not feel that way? But it’s good to know, at least, that this is not about you. It’s not about your capability. And it’s certainly not about your worth.

It’s just academic work as usual. Sometimes it helps to realise.

What also helps is to be intent on using failure to your advantage. Feel the ugly duckling feeling, but don’t let it drag you into inertia. Ask yourself what the feeling of failure is about, and use it as fuel.

Example: maybe you feel like a complete failure
(Why on earth am I trying to write a PhD anyway?),
because your work got criticised.
Sort out the useful commentary from the non-useful.
Use your best judgment, and know that YOU are ultimately the one who decides on whether criticism is justified, and whether it means you need to re-address an aspect (or many aspects) of your work, or whether you should stick to your guns and do it the way you initially saw fit.
You are the authority here. You call the shots.
Naturally, don’t be stupid about it – if criticism is valuable, use it. USE it.
Take action on it, move forward.
Make decisions.
Or, if you can’t right now, make the decision to let that particular knot be a knot for now.
It will get addressed at some point. It will sort itself out. Taking charge helps.

To deal with the feelings that go along with failure, learn to not take it too seriously.
So you feel like a failure. So what? Really. It doesn’t matter.
Don’t get too wrapped up in your own perfected personal version of how much you suck.
You’re wonderful, you know. You really are.
Failure just happens to be part of your job. It’s not part of you.

To counter some of the suckies, celebrate your failures. Yes, celebrate them.
Every failure means you are doing something right. Every failure means progress.
Your work may progress quite unnoticed, because you are so focused on everything that is wrong with your work, it becomes difficult to notice what you got right!
Try to see both. Academia is about failing forward.
Learn to view it that way, and it becomes easier.

I also suggest celebrating every tiny thing that deserves celebration.
Celebrate every small success, in whatever from it comes.
Celebrate the paragraph you wrote.
Celebrate the paper you read.
Celebrate the chapter finished, or the regression analysis done.
Whilst you’re at it, don’t forget to celebrate the smile from the stranger on the street, or the dog wagging its tail, or that text message that made you crack up.
Celebrate the kiss and the embrace.
Celebrate the rain and the clouds and the bottle of wine in your fridge.
Celebrate your favourite tea in your favourite mug.
Celebrate the colour of the aubergine (OK, OK – I know – I am pushing it here, but I do and I have! I celebrate every grape on the fruit bowl).

I used to scoff at people who would talk about appreciating and celebrating the small stuff. What fun is small stuff? I thought. I want my life to be big and bold and bright and adventurous. Not really into the small stuff. Now I realise the small stuff IS the big stuff.
It can blow your mind, the beauty of it.

Think big, be bold, celebrate.
The magic is at your fingertips.
Right now. Failure and all.

I have become pretty good at failing forward. It’s a skill I teach. Let me show you how: take a look at the HappyPhD Online Course