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.

Reflections

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.

Remedies

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!

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!

Say Goodbye to Burnout: 6 Tricks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But will this work? I mean, really?”

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

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

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

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

The Art of Focus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How to Juggle Work and Writing a PhD

One of my HappyPhD clients wrote me to ask whether I had any special advice for people who work part- or fulltime and consequently don’t have the whole day to work on their PhD. She wrote that she felt she always had to ‘squeeze the PhD in somehow’ and felt overwhelmed with the stress of it all.

When you’re juggling a job and a PhD we’re talking about an extra constraint you’re dealing with: time. It’s a hard constraint, a boundary, a limit, which creates extra pressure and stress.

None of us like boundaries and constraints.
We prefer to be free, and to have all the time in the world!

But do we, really, if we stop to think about it? Would it do us any good?

I have come to believe that constraints, in general, are essential.
Even when they severely limit our options and are unwelcome.
Even if they force us to into narrow uncomfortable places.

Constraints can be beautiful,
if you utilise them,
if you see the promise they hold.

If you are writing your PhD part-time, please don’t buy into the myth of the blissful, fulltime, uninterrupted PhD.

No such thing exists. 

(The exception that proves the rule: I have one PhD friend who describes his time in a full-time, mostly unstructured PhD programme as heaven uninterrupted. Lucky man.)

The fantasy of having unlimited time is overrated. Unlimited time kills productivity.
PhD students with too much time on their hands are often equally stressed, simply differently.
They may lose themselves in procrastination and self-doubt.
There is too much time to think.
Too much time to become paralysed.
Too much time to become stuck.
They have the opposite problem compared to the busy people: not enough boundaries, not enough structure, not enough momentum.

Interestingly, the solution in either situation lies in the structures you build into your life, how you use the constraints imposed on you, and how to maximise their inherent potential.

Let’s see how that could work for a time-pressured, working PhD candidate:

1. Time limits gently (or not so gently) nudge you to prioritise your research
Thank time limits for giving you an incentive to create focused time for your research. In most fields, you don’t need that much time to write a PhD. What you do need is focused time. Time in which you can give your full, undivided attention to your thesis. It’s not quantity but quality that matters. If you are writing a PhD with a job on the side, your situation is not unlike that of most academics further up the academic ladder who have to juggle teaching, managing courses, administration, supervision and research. Busy but prolific academics prioritise their research. They carve out time in their day for research only. It is incredible what you can get done in an hour or two a day. If you are struggling to juggle many tasks and demands, that would be where I suggest you start – by asking: which time in the day or week could I set aside for research only? Preferably early in the day as that is, for most of us, when our concentration is at its best. Make it a priority. That is all that is required.

2. Time limits help you get your work done
I have written a lot about how working in intervals can help you get your work done in far less time (see for example: How to write Your PhD speedily and (almost) painlessly: Strategy 3. Work in intervals). Take advantage of the time stress and pressure a job imposes by working in bursts. It’s better to work on the thesis for 2 x 45 minutes, than to attempt to work for eight hours straight. I received an email from one of the course participants (she took the HappyPhD course a year ago) with an update, and she told me that her work finally gained momentum when she started to shorten her workday, and let go of the idea that she had to work a full day to be productive. Instead she started working in 45-minute bursts, sometimes only one. That helped. Another course participant emailed me to say that the idea of working in intervals truly ‘clicked’ for him, when he realized that stress is important and useful. You need stress to perform at your best. If you already have stress because you are working part- or fulltime, so much the better! Use it to improve your thesis. Take the sprint mentality to heart. The trick to making working in intervals work, is to go full-out and dive straight into your work. Work like your life depends on it for the length of time you have decided upon. Then STOP. Don’t feel guilty for stopping after 45 minutes, or two times 45 minutes. It’s enough. Let me repeat that, because it’s important:

It is enough. 

Embracing that idea will greatly reduce any guilt you may have about ‘not working enough’.

3. Time limits allow you to simplify your life
There is beauty in clean lines and clean surfaces, and clean, simple routines. You are probably yearning for some of that if you are overwhelmed with it all: the thesis, the job, the children maybe, the social calendar, all the daily tasks and responsibilities. If you have a busy schedule you cannot do everything. I learned how to simplify the hard way. Due to my health circumstances I have learned to say no to nearly everything. It hurts, because I have to disappoint people, and because I miss out on activities I would otherwise enjoy, but I have simultaneously found it to be liberating. It is great to be able to set your own priorities, and if you do it with full conviction it is very powerful. The word ‘No’ is a liberating word. Use it often. You choose how to spend your time, and you can drop things you don’t want to do. Free yourself from the drudgery of the hamster wheel. You are not a hamster and you don’t have to live like one! Experiment with saying no. Maybe you have social ‘obligations’ that are less than fulfilling. Say no. Don’t go. Maybe you burden yourself with trying to be everything to everybody. Is that really such a good idea? Find out where true value lies, and do those things. Drop the rest. Try saying no to everything and everyone (within limits, of course. Don’t get yourself fired because you took my advice! Although the upside of that situation is you’ll have loads of time to work on your PhD.) You don’t have to do it all. Liberate yourself.

4. Time limits and stress invite you to take better care of yourself
Time stress and having a million responsibilities, AND writing a PhD on top of it all can cause you to feel depleted and run down. Take it as a cue to open up to more self-care and compassion. Be compassionate, and know that you don’t have to do it all (even if it feels that way) and you don’t have to be perfect. Writing a PhD is not an easy task, and combining a PhD and work is a challenge. It’s okay to not do it perfectly. And it’s okay if other things in your life are not done perfectly either. If you have worked on your PhD for an hour, even if you wanted to do more – celebrate! Appreciate your small achievements. Every step, no matter how small, matters. That you showed up matters. It’s so tempting to forget to take the time to actually feel that feeling of appreciation. Connecting with those feelings that are so easily rushed past is the most important thing you can do when you are feeling swamped. Be kind to yourself in how you approach yourself and your work. Give the PhD your all when you are working on it, sure, but it is equally important to nourish yourself, and cherish yourself. Don’t expect yourself to do the impossible. Remind yourself you are already doing a pretty good job. Because you are. Take a minute to see that, to feel it, and to appreciate yourself for all that you do.

What are your strategies for juggling work and the PhD? Let me know!
If you enjoyed this post, could you share it? You’d make my day. Thanks.

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On Holiday – Or: Strategies to Actually Unplug

Summer holidays. The academic year is done, the deadlines have been met, the plane tickets have been booked, the ‘out-of-office’ reply almost written.

Cue: sunglasses, sunscreen, novels, countryside or city trips. And shutting that office door firmly behind you for a good couple of weeks.

Except: How to close that office door firmly?

What about work that still needs to be done? What about the incoming emails?
There may be upcoming conferences, not too far ahead, that need abstracts and papers and presentations.
There may be marking still to do. Or revisions of papers that you will now finally have the time to get round to.
And, now you’re at it, why not try to catch up a bit? There are chapters that need to be finished and this may be the perfect opportunity.
This summer you will finally, finally get on top of things.

Okay. Wait. Stop. Stop!

1. There is never a perfect time for anything in academia, so this is probably NOT the perfect time to ‘catch up’ on work.

2. You need and deserve a break. It will be fun and it will serve you in the long run. You need to recharge periodically (daily, weekly, monthly, yearly), and it should be one of your priorities.

3. If you want to have any chance at all surviving the academic rat race in the long run, re-read point two.

The funny little paradox at the heart of academic life: many academics choose to pursue an academic career because of its freedoms, but their daily lives revolve around their work, year-round and too often around the clock. It can be a prison of sorts. Workloads can be high. Work obsession can be intense. And getting out of your head can seem almost impossible.

Unplugging can be a real challenge.

Disclaimer: for some of us, unplugging for holiday isn’t an issue. For me personally, holiday came easy in my PhD days. I never even used to bother to write an out-of-office reply. I just packed my suitcase in the evening and left the next day, for a month or so. Après moi le deluge. But then, that was before the hyper-connected days of smartphones. Yes, I’m old. But if you are like me (enviable in this respect only, I can assure you) just go off and enjoy your holiday! Will see you when you get back!

If you are struggling with work addiction or work overload and want to go on holiday unplugged and unburdened here’s a short guide:

1. Be clear on your obligations. If you indeed have a conference to attend, or a deadline to meet that cannot be postponed: plan for it. Reserve space in your agenda for summer work, if you absolutely have to. Make sure you get your work done before you leave on holiday, or after you get back. Plan for it. Then relax about it.

2. Claim your holiday. Holiday is what you deserve, what you’ve earned and what you want to enjoy. So write a mental out-of-office note to yourself, and listen to this wise holidaying part of your being. Be brave and unplug from email. If you have a daily writing habit, or other daily work habits (good for you!), I suggest putting them on hold for a couple of weeks. Put academic reading on hold for a couple of weeks as well. It is possible to put things on hold. No pianos will drop from the sky to flatten you.

3. If you have other daily habits that may be energy drains, or that do not allow for your switching off – I’m thinking Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Pinterest – contemplate boldly unplugging. Now, I know that I bragged about what a star I am at holiday and unplugging above – but that was pre-smartphone era. When I went on a mini-holiday last month I found myself Tweeting, and feeling quite frustrated when I had no connectivity. What?? Yes. Proof that I too am no longer immune to connectivity addiction. Because I’m old, but not that old. What I do a lot of the time is simply not take my phone with me. Addiction control.

4. There is no enjoyment in holidaying if you feel guilty about it. Reserve guilt for your worser sins. Holidaying is a virtue. Treat it as such and indulge yourself.

Sending you sunshine, and lots of uninterrupted time off. Looking forward to seeing you in the new academic year!

Amber

 Holiday

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6 Tips for Writing a Guilt-Free PhD

When you’re writing a PhD, procrastination and guilt often go hand in hand. Who doesn’t know the feeling that ‘there’s so much left to do’ and worse: ‘I should be doing it right now’?

The issue I have with PhD-guilt is that it’s a) based on sloppy thinking and b) disastrous. Sloppy thinking, because guilt thoughts are most often unfounded, but we believe and act on them anyway. When we’re enjoying the sunshine, we are probably meant to be enjoying the sunshine, not working on our PhD. Disastrous because – well, ever tried to enjoy the sunshine with a guilty conscience? How did that go? So unless you are the type of intellectual who enjoys misery as a state of being (and by all means, go for it if you do), guilt isn’t the best strategy.

To make matters worse, guilt and productivity tend to be mutually exclusive. Obviously (and this is what we tend to worry about), because when we are not working and feeling guilty about it, we are not being ‘productive’. But in my opinion more importantly: guilt gets in the way of relaxation, enjoyment and pleasure. And they’re important, for ourselves, and for our PhD. You need to be able to relax and let go of work-related thoughts and guilt to enjoy productivity that is sustainable over time, and to allow new insights to occur. Relaxation is key to mental recuperation and a prerequisite for creative solutions to academic problems to pop up.

My 6 tips to get guilt to loosen its grip:

1. Make life incredibly easy for yourself
Introduce a simple choice (warning: this may be difficult for PhDs): either something needs to be done right now and you do it. You sit down at your computer, get excited and get on with it. Or, something doesn’t need to be done right now and you don’t do it. You decide it can wait. And then you pour yourself a cup of tea and relax in the garden, watching spring unfold.

2. Just do it
If things do need to get done, just do it. Quit complaining and get to work. There is much pleasure in getting on with things. And you can enjoy a guilt-free bout of faffing about afterwards.

3. Don’t try to do the impossible
You probably have too high expectations of what is even remotely realistic as far as working hours and productivity go. Academic work is slow. Sometimes excruciatingly so. And it’s hard. You can’t do hard mental work for more than so many hours a day. It really helps if you give yourself a break and don’t ask yourself to do the impossible (and then fail and feel guilty).

4. Don’t underestimate your progress
You are probably doing more than enough, even if it doesn’t feel that way. Because academic work is hard and slow and potentially never-ending (see 3.), the feeling you should be doing more never seems to go away. I know I used to complain a lot about how slow my work was going. That is, until I looked up from my computer and my thesis was suddenly and unexpectedly ready to send to my thesis committee. Somehow it all got done. And a lot faster than I had anticipated.

5. Don’t overestimate the number of work hours you need
I didn’t work more than 2-4 hours a day, 4 days a week when I was finishing my PhD and I was oftentimes convinced it would never be enough. But paradoxically, I now realise that working less allowed me to get more done, as it forced me to prioritise. Scary but effective. Don’t underestimate how much you can get done in very little time.

6. Enjoy
Really enjoy whatever you are doing, whether it is work or socialising or procrastination. Really get into it. It’s all you have. Make the most of it.

As academics I believe we should use our strong mental faculties to support ourselves, not tear ourselves down. Our minds are sharp, and if we use them to judge and condemn ourselves, in this case through guilt, it hurts. With PhD-guilt, we most often know somewhere deep down, that the self-flagellation isn’t warranted. Not that it stops us. We may even decide to feel guilty because we feel we should feel guilty. If we’re not working ‘all the time’, feeling guilty is the very least we can do.

But you can choose otherwise. Simply do the work you think needs doing; or decide it doesn’t need doing right now, or maybe even at all. And that’s it. Decide on ‘do’ or ‘not do’ and drop the guilt. Give yourself permission.

Guilt is a mindset. It’s a mindset that can be dropped when we decide we don’t want to put up with it anymore.

Not that I am dissing guilt entirely. Let there always be room for guilty pleasures, but let’s just reserve those moments for things that are actually pleasurable. For chocolate and cake, say (or a combination of the two), or that last drink that wasn’t strictly necessary, for staying up late to watch trashy tv or to gaze at the stars from the roof terrace, and for impulse shopping. Shoe sales, that kind of thing. Or insert guilty pleasure of choice (maybe you are a very serious PhD and you have less shallow guilty pleasures than I do).

Maximise your pleasure: don’t waste your guilt on your PhD.

This blog post was inspired by the #phdchat on doing a part-time PhD storified by Naomi Barnes. If you enjoyed it, please share!