‘How to write a PhD’ with Roanne van Voorst

Today I talk to Roanne van Voorst about how to build an academic career on your own terms. Roanne is an anthropologist specialized in humanitarian aid, and postdoctoral researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies at Erasmus University Rotterdam. I met Roanne a few years ago, when she took my HappyPhD course with coaching (I am currently in the midst of editing and re-designing the course, it will re-launch in the new year!). One of the topics that came up when we talked was how to use the freedom we have in our academic lives instead of conforming to set norms. Often these discussions stay confined to how to design your workday or workweek, and how to deal with competitive pressures without turning into a professional workaholic.

Roanne takes the concept to the next level. After obtaining her PhD with honours, she decided she would try to create an academic life…differently. Instead of focussing solely on her academic career, she now works part-time as an academic, while running an online business on how to live a courageous and productive life on the side. She has written books about her time living in the slums of Jakarta, multiculturalism, conquering your fears, and her latest, about soldiers returning to civilian life. She gets a few things right, if you ask me!

Today we catch up. I thought it would be interesting to hear Roanne’s perspective on freedom in academia and the choices we have and make, on productivity, on fear, and living a full life.

Roanne’s top tips:

  1. Don’t settle for what is ‘normal’. You can create your own academic career path and create your own rules. You don’t have to conform to what everybody else is doing
  2. You don’t have to work an 80-hour workweek to be successful. It will drain your energy and inspiration
  3. Balance output, input, and rest, for creativity and productivity
  4. Take time to think and reflect, and write from the heart
  5. In the academic world receiving harsh criticism doesn’t mean you aren’t doing well. It means you are exactly where you should be. It’s the job of your supervisor and colleagues to criticize you. It’s your job to practice self-care and reflection, so you can deal with the criticism.
  6. Take your PhD one step at a time. Keep your eye on the next step – don’t look to the end goal, this will cause overwhelm.

I’ve always admired your independence, the choices you make. Can you tell me a little about the process over the past couple of years? When did you know you didn’t want the classic academic career, and how did you carve out a way that combines the best of all worlds? Did you have many doubts?

Thanks for your kind words – likewise, you’ve been an inspiration to me!

I was initially trained as a journalist and worked as a foreign correspondent for several years. I loved the excitement of that job, but missed depth in the news items I made. For this reason I decided to go back to uni and obtain a PhD in anthropology. During and after my PhD I’ve done in-depth fieldwork in Inuit communities, slums; among refugees and humanitarian aid workers and soldiers – and each and every time, I was fascinated with what I learned and enjoyed emerging myself into a complete new world.

However, there were also things about my new academic job that I didn’t like. One of them was the culture of overwork in which working endless hours was regarded not only normal, but as something positive and necessary. For several years, I went along with it. I worked very hard and felt exhausted, but it was never enough. When I’d leave the office at eight in the evening, most of the lights in other offices were still lit. I felt like a faker, a fraud, as if I wasn’t a proper or ‘real’ academic, as the others seemed to be. After some years of trying to make this culture my own, I noticed two things: not only was I so tired of work that I lacked energy for other aspects of my life, I also felt that I was becoming less creative and inspired. My life felt too narrow, as if I could only develop part of my identity.

For a long time, I was in doubt whether I should get back into journalism, but at some point I decided to give it one more chance: I’d experiment to see whether I could be an academic – on my own terms. And although it’s an extremely unconventional way of working, it works well for me.

What does that look like, specifically?

I decided to take a part-time position, I don’t work from 9-5, and I refuse to work 80 hours a week. I also make sure I take the time to talk with my PhD supervisees at length and often, it’s important to me to be an inspiring supervisor and colleague. And I skip unnecessary meetings, the ones mostly spent scrolling on your phone – don’t tell anybody! But seriously: I prioritize other tasks, like thinking, studying and writing.

That must have taken some courage. How were your choices to opt out of the academic rat race received in the academic world?

With scepticism, in the beginning. But honestly, my way of working works well for me, and my colleagues notice. As long as my work is of high quality and I publish it is not a problem. And I know I am energized, happy and inspired, exactly because I stick to my own rules. We tend to forget that no pre-determined rules exist. Who determines what an academic job should look like, or how an academic should behave?

Many academics are addicted to their work and have little to no time for a social life, or other interests. Well, I don’t want that life. I love my academic work, but I also love time off to explore my other interests. Yes, I’m an academic, but I am also a writer, a woman, a rock climber, a wife, a daughter, a public speaker, and a friend. Those identities are important too.

You are also a writer. That’s another way your work deviates from the academic norm. Do you experience a conflict between pursuing academic impact and general impact?

I’ve always seen my writing skills as a strength. After my fieldwork on poverty and slum life, it felt extremely important to me to share what I had learned with as many people as I possibly could. I felt it was my job, in a way, to tell the stories of the people I’d met in the field – people who would remain voiceless, otherwise. So I wrote an academic monograph in which I developed a social theory on poverty and risk behaviour, but I also wrote a popular non-fiction book, and several articles on why it is often so difficult for people to escape poverty.

When I’d spent years of research studying people who lived or worked in risky circumstances, including extreme athletes, humanitarian aid workers and soldiers, I did something similar: I wrote academic articles for colleagues in my field, but I also wrote a non-fiction book in which I shared the main lessons on fear management I’d learned from my interviewees. As a spin-off I developed on-and offline training programmes to help people overcome common fears like stage fright, a fear of failure, fear of driving a car or flying.

This may be an unconventional path in academia, and I’m sure some of my colleagues will think my approach is too popular, or not complex enough to deserve the academic label. But I firmly disagree. Why do social research, if hardly anyone can learn about the findings? Aren’t we supposed to do stuff that is relevant and not only to an elite group of highly-educated, jargon speaking colleagues? If I, as an academic, am capable of communicating my research in a way that people are eventually helped by the research– then it is my responsibility (and joy) to do so.

Let’s get down to the nuts and bolt of how you do all this. How do you get your writing done?

I use a number of strategies that help me be productive. I have a rule of thumb of four hours of output a day – that’s the actual, complex work that I do, like writing an academic article -, and four hours of input – that’s finding inspiration, learning new things and refuelling my creativity, and four hours of rest, recharging and relaxation. I never start my day checking my Email – that only distracts me from my long-term goals. Instead, I start my day with journaling to set clear intentions for the day, and reading non-fiction books that I find inspiring. Then I move on to my ‘productive’ phase of four hours. I start with my most important task. The afternoons are for reading, listening to podcasts, learning new things that interest me or following webinars or online trainings. Currently, I’m inspired by themes such as minimalism, the warrior mind and high productivity, and empathic activism. I also like to go climbing in the afternoon, or walk with my dog. Exercise, to me, is not a luxury. It’s part of my job: I need to be able to think clearly in order to be a good academic, and physical exercise is a great way to do so.

When it comes to writing I always start with a pen and paper, a good cup of coffee and a quiet mind, to think about what my main message is. One useful tactic I use is to ask: if a ghost writer would do this job for me, then what would I tell her to write? How would I explain to her what my puzzle is, what I found, or what fascinates me? How would I explain it to a student? The trick is to write down the answers; then stop for the day – continue the next.

It’s most effective to do this kind of creative work in short bursts rather than forcing yourself to think for an hour or longer. Our brains prefer short peaks of maximum activity, followed by a break of several hours. During this break I try to find distraction. I do easy, practical work, or read something that inspires me. I’ve planted the seed of the question, now I give it time to ripen – the answer will come after several hours or days.

Taking time to reflect and think also helps avoid a common trap: writing (low-quality) articles solely for the sake of getting published. Yes, such articles count towards your publication record, but they do not develop your thinking or add to your body of work in a substantive way. They won’t make you sigh with pride after you’ve written them; at most, you’ll sigh because you’re relieved they’re done and over with! That’s not the way I like to work, and I know for many early career academics, it’s not the way they would prefer to work either – only they may know no other way. Above all I propose we write with a sense of urgency and longing. Personally, I want to feel joy in the creative process that writing essentially is – even academic writing!

Are there any specific PhD writing tips you’d like to share?

What is specific about a PhD, is that it is a long process – a marathon, rather than a sprint. This means PhD students need to look after themselves. They have to keep their energy and creativity high for months and years in a row, despite the on-going criticism they will inevitably receive, the uncertainty of not knowing whether they are doing a ‘real’ job, the stress that sometimes comes with supervision, etcetera. Taking your own needs seriously is crucial for such a marathon job. For most, it means making sure to take plenty of breaks from work, live healthy, work out, and find support in peers or others who can make you feel less lonely.

It is also important to factor in what I call ‘buffer time’. Everything always takes longer than you’d like – especially getting published – and even when you think you’re done, you are most likely not yet done. You need to anticipate that you will have to edit and amend more than you’d hoped for – it’s a normal part of the process. It takes a while to get used to these very long timelines, and to make sure you have the resources for the long haul.

You have studied fear, and how to overcome it. I am sure this is relevant in academia. The mountains PhDs climb are not the physical kind, like the ones you climb in your free time, but that doesn’t mean fear doesn’t strike! What to do when fear of writing gets the better of you?

Generally, PhD students have high standards and grand ambitions. They are also insecure. That’s only natural – essentially, it’s the job of their supervisors and their committee to constantly criticize the work they hand in, and so a PhD student is faced with a lot of harsh words. It’s the job of the PhD student to remind herself that this criticism does not mean she is not doing well. It simply means she is exactly where she needs to be. She needs to keep herself mentally fit, practice self-care, make sure she has a supportive circle around her, rest, and continue her work.

I work with people who struggle with a fear of failure a lot, and I myself have struggled with it throughout my career. One good piece of advice, which suits the mountain metaphor you came up with may be useful here. I learned it when I was studying mountaineers and other extreme athletes, to learn about their risk-taking behaviour and their fear management strategies. When mountaineers climb, they don’t look at the top. It would seem too far away, they would be overwhelmed with a fear of not being able to ever get there. Instead, they only look at their feet – and the first metre ahead. As long as they keep their heads down, literally, hour after hour, they will get closer to the top, and they will be reminded of their progress and hence stay confident. I think this is an amazingly apt metaphor for the writing life.

You are soon starting with a year-long programme that helps people be more productive and successful. I will be participating in the programme myself, and I am so looking forward to it. Can you tell us a little about the programme and how it came about?

I’d been given lectures and workshops about what I call ‘stress-free productivity’ for some years now, and recently decided to turn it into an online training programme to make it accessible and affordable for more people. The programme will run from 1 January 2018 onwards – but before that participants will already receive planners and other tools to help them set their goals. People who join me will not only learn the most effective time management skills, but we will also implement them as we work together on our personal projects. We’re in this together. Me from my computer; you, from yours. Each week, 12 months, for 52 weeks, myself and the other participants are there to advise you when you get stuck, help you overcome self-doubt, and get you in touch with exactly the right people, networks and tools to get you where you want to be. It is be the most complete training programme I have ever developed, and I can’t wait to get started!

Alright, let’s all sign up. If you are interested in joining Roanne’s ‘One Year of Focus and Success’ programme, you can get all the details here. Choose the affiliate option at check out, and you will get a €100 discount. Be quick! Offer expires Tuesday December 12th. (Small print: I don’t receive any money from Roanne when you sign up through me. Academics need more support and I believe her programme contributes to that cause.) As always, if you found this article useful, could you share it? I appreciate it!

The Paradox of Climbing the PhD Hill: Lowering Your Expectations

There is always a fear when doing academic work that you are not up to the job. That your work isn’t ‘good enough’, that you’re not clever enough, perhaps, to deliver what it takes.

But what if you don’t need to be ‘brilliant’? What if it is more about stamina, persevering, sitting with the difficult questions, and keeping at it, pushing your work forward, keeping going one step at a time? What if it is more akin to climbing a hill (let’s not call it a mountain, it’s only a hill and it is absolutely doable, though sometimes it may feel like a mountain) one step at a time, rather than chastising yourself for not being able to magically teleport yourself to the top.

Spoiler alert: there’s no magic involved. It is all about plodding along, and you will get there. That is, providing you keep going, putting one foot in front of the other.

Keeping it small, but keeping going, is the very untheatrical, very practical, and the absolute best way of proceeding. What is the next step? Do it. Then ask yourself again: what is the next step? And the next one. Do not let yourself be derailed by more existential questions of capability. You are capable. If you feel you may not be (hello imposter syndrome!) know it is part of the trail. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong.

High standards are good and needed in an academic context, but only for the end result. Give yourself permission to have a learning curve in the meantime. Give yourself permission to make mistakes, give yourself permission to not get it right. Give yourself permission to fail, to say or write something that turns out to be dead wrong. (So hard!!)

Give permission for your work to be heavily criticised. It’s okay. It is not personal. It will give you input, ideas to work on. Ideas that will take shape over time. Allow yourself the time to make decisions on what to keep and what to discard. Be okay with the uncertainty of it. It is awfully hard, but it becomes easier once you see how entertaining uncertainty and imperfection helps your work unfold.

Allow your PhD to be a process. That’s a really good idea: because it is a process, whether you like it or not. (And we don’t like it. Because maybe it means we’re not ‘up to it’ if we are not ‘there’ yet. Nooo! Not true. You’re not supposed to be at there yet. But you will get there. You will.)

Very often we don’t even realise our day-to-day standards are excessively high. This is especially true for people who have been always been high-achievers. They are used to achievements coming relatively easily. Writing a PhD is not like that. You rarely get it right the first, second or third draft of a chapter or paper. The process is always slower than you would like. There are always more questions than answers. And there are always flaws, apparent to you or to your supervisor or other readers, who will not hesitate to point them out. It’s never perfect, and your work is never finished.

Expecting perfection is trying to do the impossible. Expecting struggle and failure (however depressing this may sound), and being ok with that is a better strategy. Every ‘failure’ allows you to learn and to move your work ahead. If you get comfortable with failure, you will be in a better place to keep moving forward.

The wrong way of being a perfectionist is to have excessively high standards for yourself and your writing every step of the way. If you do this, you are going to be disappointed in yourself every single day of writing your PhD. Let’s not, OK? It’s difficult enough…

The right way of being a perfectionist is to have excessively high standards for the finished piece of work only. It means you keep going, re-thinking and revising, until you have reached a high standard of work one small step at a time. You have climbed the hill.

To not be fazed by failure, struggle, and mistakes it helps to recognise that they are normal and to be expected. It has nothing to do with your capabilities. Nothing. If you really get this, and start to see it as part of the process rather than weakness to be overcome, thinking and writing will become easier.

In sum: The paradox of climbing the PhD hill is that high quality of work can only be achieved by lowering your expectations and standards (in the short run!). By accepting the messiness of the process, and by not allowing it to trick you into thinking there is something wrong with you, or your work.

How are you feeling about climbing the PhD hill? Are you progressing steadily? Feeling stuck? Have you considered lowering your expectations to cope? Maybe you can manage an hour of work if a whole day of work feels overwhelming. And if that is too much, maybe you can manage 15 minutes? Perhaps you can write a messy paragraph, instead of a ‘perfect’ one. All progress is progress. As always, if you liked this post, share it? I appreciate it!

Worst Nightmare Scenario: Failing Your PhD (and How Not To)

Failing your PhD. How does it happen? I have recently been a remote witness of a behind-the-scenes-drama: a PhD candidate who received a rejection from an external examiner. Her supervisors had approved the thesis, but a member of the committee rejected it, rightfully so as far as I can gather, judging from the report that spans over a thirty pages of why the thesis is lacking and needs at least a year’s more work. It is a tragic situation. I can’t think of many things worse, as far as PhDs go.

When I was writing my PhD I never thought I’d fail, but I did always worry about whether my work was ‘good enough’. And I did fear the scenario that perhaps one of the committee members would request a million modifications that would go against my ideas, or would be diametrically opposed to comments of the other professors. As is so often the case when you have a number of academics commenting on your work, especially when you are trying to tame a multi-disciplinary project. Yet failed PhDs (not counting the cases in which people actively quit) are extremely rare.

What I have learnt about PhDs going off the rails:

Universities do not want you to fail your PhD. Supervisors don’t want you to fail your PhD. Committee members don’t want you to fail your PhD.

It isn’t about you. It is about them. (Of course!) It reflects badly on them. It reflects badly on the university. It reflects badly on everyone involved. (Though naturally, they will put most of the burden for failing, if the project does need more work, on you if they can. So very classy!)

Also, it is a hell of a lot of work to prove the thesis isn’t where it should be, and committee members are hesitant to take this route… They have other priorities: their own research, most notably.

Take this to heart. It is not in their interest to make you fail.

“Don’t worry too much about your PhD. If you stick around long enough at one point they’ll give it to you.”

This is something a professor said to me, only half-jokingly, when I was in my second year and still very much wrestling with my subject, trying to wrangle it into submission. I was pretty shocked (I’m a perfectionist!), as well as amused, but over the years I have started to appreciate the truth of what he was saying.

When I returned to Florence for my PhD defence a professor complained to me about the people who received a PhD who absolutely definitely shouldn’t have passed. Yet these theses do tend to pass.

This may be a comforting idea: you will get your title. Your PhD will pass. Even if it isn’t absolutely electrifyingly brilliant from the first right through to the last paragraph. Even if there are obvious flaws (which there will be, there always are, and that is perfectly OK. But that’s a different blog post). Getting into the PhD programme is the bigger hurdle compared to finishing the thesis. You’ve already done the most difficult bit.

The disconcerting message though: your PhD may not be that much of a priority for other people. It may feel like your life work; to them, it is something they may simply want off their desk. Within deadlines, preferably. Without too much work or hassle.

Red flags everywhere!

Even if you are in a state where you just don’t care anymore and just want to finish, don’t sell yourself short. Supervisors should be invested in your work, at least to a degree! You need the dialogue, you need the feedback, you need the input, you need the debate. If you have absent supervisors who are not contributing as a mentor, and you are doing it all alone, you need to find others who will help you.

In one way my situation was similar to the one outlined above is I had no-one actively involved, due to circumstances (one of which was that one of my supervisors passed away, the other that I was finishing my PhD long-distance), and it was entirely disorienting. I didn’t know whether my work met certain standards. It did, but it would’ve been nice if someone would have been there to tell me! When I got appointed a new supervisor for the thesis defence specifically, it all turned around. I loved his comments (I really do believe love is the right word here. I was a bit intellectual-love-starved at the time) questions, and criticism, and although he wasn’t an expert in my field, the discussion helped me so much.

It also made me realise how much I had been missing out. If you don’t have much support and interaction, it has to change. Find your people. The people who will challenge and support you. They are out there. They want to hear from you. Go and find them, or let others help you find them.

The part you are responsible for, of course, is to engage with their criticism and work with their suggestions as appropriate. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this process, defining my own choices. Creating and defending my work. It’s the part you have to do, the intellectual part, and it is (hopefully) the satisfying part. (Especially once it’s done!!)

If you skip this, because you are lazy, fed up or out of time or money, and you have supervisors who are also lazy and busy, and don’t care so much, you may end up in a situation where the external examiner gives the thumbs down. That is if you are lucky/ unlucky enough (strike through as appropriate) for them to care enough to do so.

Do you have absent supervisors, and no idea where you stand? The HappyPhD course tackles the problem of how to re-engage, once you’re in a negative spiral of avoidance and neglect. It can be done! As always, if you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

The Power of the Mind

How do we prevent our inner critic from taking over?
How do we become more resilient in the face of criticism?
How do we not succumb to feeling stuck when the pressure rises?
How do we make it though a rough patch?
How do we allow more joy and curiosity in?

In the academic world the mind skills we develop and refine are our intellectual muscles, our critical capacity. The part that isn’t paid as much, or any attention to, is how to harness the power of the mind more broadly, on how work with our thoughts, and the feelings attached to those thoughts. Not at all linked to solving academic problems, but everything to do with the person who is trying to do so.

I have sometimes wondered what the academic world would look like if these aspects got more attention. Would levels of depression and anxiety be lower? Would drop-out rates in PhD programmes be lower? Would years spent on completing a PhD be lower? Would the number of publications be higher?

My guess is yes – I think it would make a real difference.

As you know my own PhD experience was not exactly completed in ideal circumstances…it was really, really hard. And the one thing I credit for allowing me to finish the thesis, apart from truly wanting to complete the project, was this: new mind skills. This involved learning how to relate to my thoughts differently, no longer completely identifying with thought all of the time, especially when facing difficulties. And also, something I have been rediscovering recently: knowing when to use the rational problem-focused mind to solve problems, and when to try something different.

Something that has helped me was starting to be more aware of thoughts and beliefs, and the emotions they trigger. I like the way Eckhart Tolle approaches it: he calls the conditioned beliefs ‘ego’, and the emotional/ physical component pain-body. (Tolle was a PhD at Cambridge when he had these insights, and decided to go down the spiritual instead of the academic path…in case you’re contemplating a career change!)

Say we’re talking about academic envy: a colleague gets published, yet your paper is rejected. This may set off a cascade of negative thoughts and feelings: academia is a status system, and if we feel we’re losing (ego) we get scared (pain-body) and resentful (pain-body). Especially so if you think your colleague who is ‘winning’ doesn’t especially deserve it!!

Something similar happened when a ‘friend’ of mine got a paper published, using the exact same title as my thesis working title. Despite being close colleagues he had managed to not mention he was working on the exact same topic as I was working on!! That coupled with my own frustration about my work being so slow and absolutely unpublished due to circumstances, and I nearly lost it! (This did end up as an interesting confrontation at a thesis defence where I bumped into him. I lost my Zen that day.)

Academia as a system is stressful – it is up or out. Publish or exit. Get funded or lose out. It is also often unpredictable and unfair. Being good at what you do is a necessary, but by no means a sufficient condition to do well. The uncertainty, the randomness, the stories we tell ourselves about meritocracy, the ways we rationalise our disappointments: it can take its toll.

To deal with the more stressful aspects of academia, meditation can be extremely helpful.

It helps us observe the thoughts we have and take them less personally:

“Ah – apparently I have so much fear about things not working out for me/ about being ‘not good enough’ (hello imposter syndrome!) / etc. Ah, maybe those are just thoughts, just beliefs. Maybe they aren’t true! Maybe I can just let them be, not pay them as much attention, not buy into the drama of it fully. Maybe there is another way to look at it… A more skillful way, a kinder way. A way in which I don’t put myself down. In which I don’t slip into feeling ‘less than’. A way that doesn’t turn any excitement I may feel about my work into fear. Yes…how about tuning back into curiosity instead.”

This isn’t a conscious process, somthing we can impose by will, it is more of an unfolding. A creating space for this to happen by sitting still, and allowing our mind to settle (or not).

And it helps us work through and ‘metabolise’ the intense emotions that come with these thoughts. It helps calm the pain-body. By sitting with it, by feeling the fear, the disappointment, the resentment, whatever it is, it eventually dissolves. And when it dissolves it stops feeding into the negative thought loop. Which means we are no longer stuck. We can move on.

Sometimes it is difficult to access that place by sitting still: we keep going over the same thoughts in our heads, and can’t seem to access the emotions directly. I have found exercise, yoga especially, very helpful in shifting out of negative states. Yoga seems to rearrange things so they make sense again, so you feel more integrated again. It is an active meditation.

Have you tried meditating? I highly recommend the meditations by Bodhipaksa (two of his meditations are part of the HappyPhD Course, the acceptance meditation is my favourite. Though some participants have noted they preferred the mediations I recorded myself), and the short ‘getting present’ and ’metabolising energy’ meditations by Michael Vladeck. I work with these quite a bit. They are really good in terms of getting out of the mind and into the feeling aspect of our life.

If you liked this post, could you share it? I appreciate it. Also: if you missed the first edition of ‘The Nudge’ on shortening your workday, it is now available as a free mini course. Sign up for it below to be treated to five days of encouragement to help shorten your workday but getting as much or more done!

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Staring at the Ocean – When Work Is Overwhelming

One of the difficulties of PhD research is the magnitude and scope of it. The end product, the thesis, reflects your work of four years (or a bit more if you’re unlucky): how on earth to design and define such a project? What to include, what to exclude? So much material that may be relevant. Which angle to take? Where to start? How to reconcile all the findings? How in-depth to discuss different strands of the literature?

If you’re in the middle of it it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees. You may end up in a state I call ‘Staring at the Ocean’: hypnotised by the waves of the sea of literature and data, of endless possibilities – none quite right – overwhelmed and indecisive.

To avoid spending your days like this I highly recommend working in intervals. Working for 25 or 45 minutes at a time will ensure you don’t space out as much and lose hours. I’ve written a lot about that way of working before, so I won’t rehash that again today, but it should be your first priority if your days seem to be slipping away… You can get so much work done in one 45 minute session, truly. And focusing for 45 minutes is doable, whereas focusing for 6, 8 or more hours is absolutely not. Try it. It is so much easier that way.

That’s focus in terms of time dealt with – now on to the more challenging part: content.

1. You don’t have to achieve the impossible

When you’re wrestling with overwhelm remember this: you don’t have to create a theory of everything. This is especially relevant if you’re doing interdisciplinary research: you don’t have to make everything ‘fit’. It doesn’t and it won’t, no matter how much energy you pour into it. Be aware of the assumptions underlying different arguments, articles and theories: theoretical assumptions, methodological assumptions. At some point you will have to position your work and define its parameters. But don’t worry too much about reconciling inconsistencies ‘out there’. You can let them be. It’s not your job to fix them, only to see clearly how they occur. To see the contrasts and contradictions, and to report on them if relevant. On a more general note: you don’t have to write the ‘perfect’ thesis. It doesn’t exist and that’s all right. There are many ways of presenting your work, your thinking, your data, your results. Trust yourself: you know how to do this. There is no ‘best’ way, but there is a way that is satisfactory (satisfactory is as good as it gets in academia. Sorry!) The trick tends to be to get stuck in and ‘just do it’ (annoying advice I know – read on, I will get more specific) in all its imperfect glory. You can always come back and change things if you have to.

2. Focus on what you have to say

When we are in overwhelm our attention tends to be vaguely focused outwards. This happens, for example, when we read too much, or at the wrong time. Reading takes us into the world of another researcher, into her train of thought, into her own work and thought process of months or years condensed. Information overload! It’s not conducive to focus. The ‘cure’ is to focus in on your own work instead. It’s why I advise to start your day doing your writing, before what you are trying to say is drowned out by competing voices. Gaining clarity about what you are trying to write is half of your work done. (Ask: what am I trying to say here? If the reader should only remember one thing from this entire chapter what would it be?) Get inside your work, inside your piece, write from the inside out, so to speak. Finding your core argument (see here) will help you structure your chapters and provide a hierarchy of arguments and supporting arguments and literature. Tip: put the literature away. You know what you want to say already.

3. Clarity in writing

The strategies of finding clarity when dealing with overwhelm run along a spectrum from highly abstract, structured, and deductive; to loose, inclusive, and inductive. Creating a chapter outline, with a main message for each section, then later filling it in is an example on the abstract end. So is creating diagrams to visualise your argument and chapter structure. On the other end of the spectrum, writing longhand may help, or simply starting to type and let the words spill out for a set amount of time, meditating on ‘what do I have to say in this section?’ Personally, I prefer the abstract end, too many words overwhelm me further, although I am on guard against overstructuring, as it may kill the vitality of the piece. Squeeze it too tight, and it is not quite right. Messing around with different ideas in notebooks, drawing, outlining, all that helps. At a certain point you may find that an intuitive approach works best. I used to ask: ‘What next?’ – and the next paragraph to write would ‘show up’ (Not so rational or deductive! But it works!). A balance: being focused enough to get words down, but relaxed and open enough to allow it to happen is what you’re looking for. Maybe I even dare use the word surrender.

4. Action

Commit to action, and in this case action means writing, it means taking the next step forward, it means committing to finishing the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter, the thesis! It can be scary to even think of finishing, it triggers fears of our work not being good enough, or of missing something, or not getting it right, not making it. Or it may even triggers fears of what we will have to do once we are done. (Stay in academia, leave? Find a job? Money? Yikes?!) Maybe that uncertainty is something we don’t want to deal with right yet. Don’t fall for this. Finishing something will make things better, not worse. It is invigourating. It lifts the mood. It will create space in your mind and your life. It will allow you to make better decisions, work- and otherwise. Keep the steps small and manageable. Forget about ‘the thesis’, think only about the next manageable piece of work. You can do this! What’s the next step? Do it. What’s the next step? Do it. What’s the next step? Do it. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

5. Shift out of overwhelm

Overwhelm is a state of mind, and you can shift out of it. But first you need to be aware you are ‘doing’ overwhelm. A mindfulness or meditation practice is so useful to gain awareness of which space we are inhabiting mentally. No reason to beat yourself up about it, only to decide: oh hey, yes that’s right, I don’t really want to do overwhelm anymore. I can do something else instead. Perhaps there’s an alternative. Maybe you remember a time when work was going well, when you were sharp and focused. When you were excited about your ideas. When you actually enjoyed your work. Use those memories – they are states of mind too, and often simply by thinking of those times, by immersing yourself in that experience, you may be able to slip back into it. Music may help also. Maybe you need a playlist to help you get energised to focus, or more soothing tracks to find a calm place that will help you work. And if it really, truly isn’t working, it is better to decide to fully relax, do something else, distract yourself, and try again later. Don’t stay in-between. Alternate between focus, and relaxation.

Do you find yourself ‘staring at the ocean’ often? What ways have you found to shift out of it? I’d love to know. With regard to getting going with writing and finding clarity, my e-book ‘Finding Your Academic Voice’ may help. You can download it here (it’s free). As always, if you liked this post could you share it? I appreciate it!

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!

The Lonely Academic

“Engagement predicts wellbeing above and beyond anything else.” A quote from one of Emma Seppälä’s recent articles on work cultures and wellbeing. She is the science director of the Stanford Compassion Center, and if you’re interested in the science of happiness I highly suggest you follow her.

It doesn’t surprise me in the least and it supports what I have experienced myself, and what I now observe in others’ situations. Academia tends to be awfully bad when it comes to engagement. Truly, awfully bad. And I have come to the conclusion it’s one of the worst stressors for researchers, far worse than workload. Most of our problems are not about content, but about connection and feeling valued. And it collectively makes us feel proper miserable.

I thought I’d tell a personal tale to illustrate.

When I fell ill, in 2007, and had to temporarily drop out of the PhD programme (only took me 3,5 years of sick leave!) the experience was quite literally that: of dropping far and hard. And basically no one even taking notice. The fall itself is one thing to come to terms with, and it was hard. But the no one caring was the absolute hardest bit of all.

The Fall

The fall has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The beginning was getting out of the programme. It was settled in a number of emails with my supervisor, the head of department and the grant organisation, and can be summed up as ‘formal’. There were no real problems (unless you count losing your only source of income as a problem), although the grant organisation was a bit fussy about the last month or two I hadn’t been able to work to that date: they wrote me I was ‘lucky I wouldn’t have to pay those two months of grant money back.’ Right. My supervisor and head of department approved my unpaid sick leave, and that was it. I had explained via email about my serious mystery illness. I was no longer in the same country, and even if I had been I was in no way in a position to meet anyone in person to discuss my situation. And that’s the way it stayed… Silent. There was an ‘all my best’ in an email, but that was about it. There were no ‘get well soons’ and there were no inquiries as to how I was doing a few weeks or months down the road. I realise sending cards or flowers is a bit much to ask from academics, but there certainly were none. There was nothing. Oh, yes, the only thing that did happen was that I had to cancel my attendance at a conference, and the panel chair got very cross with me for cancelling. Being sick was not a valid reason to cancel, obviously.

The middle years saw me applying for an extension of my sick leave every six months. They were granted and I was grateful for that. Nobody, including myself, still had any idea why I was so ill. What I found the most difficult to come to terms with, though, was that beyond those few formal emails apparently hardly anyone seemed to have even noticed my absence. I heard from no one. This wasn’t entirely unexpected as I was nearing the fourth year of my PhD programme, a time where people tended to flock to their home country to finish writing their PhD. So the colleagues who were still there probably assumed I had left like so many others, and the colleagues who had indeed already left, were not there to miss me! Maybe no one indeed even noticed at all, because it was a coming and going of people all the time anyway – the flighty life of international academia, and everyone was too focused on their own life, problems, research, career and next steps to register that I had gone missing. I did exchange one or two emails and phone calls with a few academic friends at the beginning, but these communications soon went silent, too. In formal terms the university still supported me. But that was all. Perhaps it is all you can expect, I reasoned. People are busy. And universities are not into hand-holding.

After three and a half years I decided that illness or no illness, I wanted to try and finish my PhD, even if I only had an hour a day to work on it because I was so unwell. I am not exaggerating, I wish I was. Communication with my supervisors had become strained, and I felt more than guilty for my underperformance, even though I knew that seen my circumstances what I was trying to do was rather a superhero pursuit. But I was doing it alone, and no one even had the faintest idea of my situation. Explaining did not seem to help either, it was just too far out to understand I suppose. Or maybe people were too busy to register. My main supervisor was getting impatient, and sent me some curt emails. I was lucky in the sense that my other supervisor, who was no longer at the university, thankfully stepped in to help me. She texted me to say she didn’t know what was going on [behind the scenes], but that those emails were not okay. She sorted it out with him, and I was on my way back into the PhD programme…

Fast forward to the moment I actually managed to finish my chapters. The end game. I sent my newest, latest work to my supervisor, and …crickets… Nothing. It took him more than three months, and a number of reminder emails, to read it and get back to me. He probably thought that if I was taking my time, he might as well do the same! Again that sinking feeling of not mattering, of being air. When I flew to Florence months later to discuss my work, he again had not read my new material. Too busy.  Plus some communication errors on my part which didn’t help. He did get back to me with comments after that though. He finally read my new stuff, though he was surprised to learn of my progress. He thought I had lots more work to do, until he actually took the time to look at what I had done. He was shocked to learn my PhD was nearly finished!Then, that summer, he died. A heart attack. It was a tragedy, though to be honest it didn’t even register as a huge shock, as I had become quite accustomed to worst case scenarios materialising into even worse! It felt like this was what life had become: bad, worse, worst! Can’t really expect anything to turn out well now, can you?!

My co-supervisor was in charge from then on, though she too did not quite manage. When I travelled to meet her in Brussels to discuss my final draft I could not help but get the impression that she had not read it. Skimmed over it, yes. Flicked through it, sure. Read it, properly? I doubt it. She had no comments. She said it was fine and ready for defence. I suspect that when I sent my manuscript to the jury no one had ever read my work in full. It felt like a shot in the dark. When one of the jury members then actually engaged with my work, sent me questions and comments, and had intelligent things to say I cried. He had taken the time to read it. He had taken the time to acknowledge I existed. It still near makes me tear up thinking of it. Someone had made an effort. Someone, somewhere, had noticed me, had read my work! Maybe I still mattered in some small way. Maybe I still belonged.

Along the way a few former colleagues showed up. Facebook friend requests or messages mostly. They too, brought me close to tears. From a perspective in which you have never experienced true and prolonged isolation this may sound excessive. But if you’ve been there you will know: it is easy to be forgotten when you can no longer participate. Out of sight, out of mind. And it is hard. It is so hard.


I can’t help but get emotional recalling all this. My experience is rather at the extreme end of the spectrum. It shows how difficult long-distance PhD-writing is, especially when you are dealing with health or other obstacles. But more than a simple and singular tale of woe, I believe my experience shows how academia, at its worst, works. It is all based on loose networks, and much independence. This has its advantages, but it has costs associated with it that largely go unrecognised. I believe the highest cost is that of loneliness, the feeling of ‘being on your own’ and having to fend for yourself. For me it was in putting superhuman efforts in, seen my situation, and not having those efforts acknowledged (though later, much later, when I was in Florence for my defence, the secretary confided that my supervisor had always been very positive about me: “She is very smart, and I am sure she will finish!” He had always stuck up for me in meetings. Oh, if only I had know about even a fraction of that!). To be honest it was an absolute horror the way I was treated, and I wasn’t in a position to defend myself.

But in more subtle ways waiting and disappointment and plugging away by yourself, while not having your effort acknowledged is everywhere in academia. It is there by design, and by circumstance. It is in putting all the lonely hours in. And how many of them there are! It is in the wait when you have submitted an article, and then the rejection. It is in the negative review that shows the reviewer has not made the beginning of an effort to engage with your argument. It is in rejection itself and the feeling of not-mattering period. It is in all the bureaucratic rules and regulations. It is in the arbitrary counting of publications that goes along with getting tenure. It is in the unacknowledged email, because people are too overwhelmed by email to respond. It is in the self-absorption and busyness and absentmindedness of everybody. It is in the juggling a thousand things and projects at once when you are further on in your career. It is in the having to disappoint and being disappointed. It is in disconnection. I have come to believe this is a far greater stressor than deadlines or workload per se. It drains the spirit. Academia is built on criticism and delayed gratification, and for good reasons. But somehow the human architecture, the architecture that says we are social beings with social needs tends to be overlooked. Benign neglect may be benign, but it is still neglect. Some departments are better than others. I can say mine was about the worst.


In terms of remedies, Seppälä’s work on positive work cultures gives important insights. She mentions caring for, being interested in, and maintaining responsibility for colleagues as friends. She mentions providing support for one another. She mentions avoiding blame games. She mentions inspiring others, and emphasising the meaningfulness of work that is being done. She mentions treating one another with respect, gratitude, trust and integrity.

Your department may not be quite there yet. But there are things you can do yourself: invest in your colleagues and your peer-network. Engagement matters, and that definitely includes going for cups of coffee. Build relationships. Meet up for lunches or seminars. Co-author. Get in touch and stay in touch. (Maybe even shoot that colleague who is on sick leave an email!) Show you care. I know, very uncynical, but do it. It matters. It also means to keep a keen eye on communication if you are in a long-distance situation. It’s imperative. Skype calls may work. People seeing your face is important. More in general, in the PhD phase: invest in communication with your supervisors on a regular basis. Connect, connect, connect, even if it is against the norm, or feels uncomfortable (no need to become a stalker, but hey, they are allowed to be reminded of your existence!) I wish I had done so more, instead of coping by myself because I didn’t want to impose or be a burden. If you are an early career researcher: invest in your network. Collaborate. Show up for others. If you supervise PhD students, or others: make communication a priority, even if your time is scarce. You get the idea. A little love goes a long way.

If you are feeling really lonely and isolated right now please realise you are not really alone, even if it feels that way. You never are. People do think of you. They do. And in more positive terms than you will likely assume. (Though sometimes they are temporarily being too busy/ too much of a jerk to realise. And if this is structurally the case you may want to think about leaving…) This too is a lesson I have learnt. You matter. You are special and you are worthy. It has nothing to do with outside appearances. And it certainly has nothing to do with how well you are performing or not-performing. When it comes down to it we are never really alone. There is lots of love, always. Sometimes unexpressed, and beneath the surface, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Tap into it. There is a pool of love beyond the hurried email, beyond the rules and the requirements, beyond the surface of things, if we dare to believe in it. It is a very unacademic thing to do, but I highly recommend it.

How do you deal with the loneliness of academia? Any tips? Let me know! If you are in less that great dynamics with your supervisors, as I was, have a look at the HappyPhD course. It has an entire week on supervision. There are tools that can help. As always, if you enjoyed this post, 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.)


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!

Procrastination No More

I am currently working with someone I’d call the Queen of Procrastination. Let me just say that her workday tends to start after midnight, and that only if she has a deadline. Not just any deadline, but a deadline that CANNOT BE MET unless she gets something on paper that very night. She emailed me asking for ‘sage advice’. (I love her.)

The first week we worked together I recommended she set up a minimal work schedule. Minimal, so it would be doable (we agreed on two hours of work per day); and scheduled so it would be practical. It didn’t work. We chatted again a week or so later and she hadn’t done it. She hadn’t managed to sit down and do any work. Nothing. Nada. Niente. She had meant to, of course…but…so many other things, life, pressing issues, an unexpected assignment etc.

Right, I thought. This is going to be a challenge! For her, and for me.

I’d like to note that extreme procrastinators are usually very smart. They have developed these habits because they have been able to get away with it their entire academic career. That’s not possible if you have had to work hard to pass each and every exam, and to finish your papers in your younger years. So there is mostly a bit of genius, a bit of electric action happening. They also tend to be highly creative and imaginative. Fears that will not derail more down-to-earth types will readily undo the average flighty procrastinator. It’s the second reason people tend to procrastinate: fear. The third reason is simply: habit. We do it, because we do it. Because we have become used to it. Because. And that ‘because’ is the hardest of all to fix. There’s no point reasoning with it.

What I decided to do (I interrupted our Skype chat half an hour into the conversation) is create a work schedule template for her that breaks her new work habit down into the tiniest actions. And when I say it breaks it down, I mean it breaks it down.

This is what it looks like:

Work schedule

I have asked her to tick the boxes as she goes along, and to email me her completed schedule after her daily work session. I then respond.

You may argue this seems excessively childish. We’re writing PhDs! We know how to sit down at a computer! A timer? Really? Surely this hand-holding, ticking boxes is a bit much.

I will argue the opposite: this is exactly what academics with above average intelligence, and who suffer from (extreme) procrastination need, and the reason is this: we have wild minds that fly. And we lose ourselves in the abstract. Which is so very enjoyable, but can be truly self-destructive if it means we can’t get those thoughts to translate into matter, whether written words or actions. We get lost. By breaking it down like this we have a way to hook back into reality.

Sit down.

Go offline.

Set timer.


Timer rings.



The only opportunity we have to change our habits lies in everyday reality, in changing our tiny actions. It is tedious. Small action, small action, small action, small action. It isn’t wild and free and unconstrained. Our minds balk. Yet this is how it is done. And once it starts getting done, once we learn to focus, once it becomes a habit to focus, that’s when the exciting bit begins: a body of work unfolding. Now it’s not only our mind that flies, it is our work that flies. (Some of the time.)

This PhD told me that she suspected she’d have graduated cum laude if she had only been able to put more regular hours of work in, instead of irregular short frenzied adrenaline-fuelled bursts of it. I think she is right. It’s early days, and there are more techniques we are exploring to help her with her procrastination habit, but I can report back that so far it is working. She is sending me emails: “It worked like a charm. I feel so happy I managed to work today!!!!!” Couldn’t be more pleased!

Do you struggle with procrastination? Would a schedule like this help you? Let me know in the comments. The HappyPhD course will help you establish a super-efficient procrastination-proof writing routine, if you prefer with my personal coaching to help you along. As always, if you liked this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!