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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HappyPhD Contest 2014/ 2015

HappyPhD

The new academic year is approaching, and to celebrate I am giving away the HappyPhD self-study course twice!

To enter the competition just pop your name and email address in the box below. Also let me know who you are and why you’d like to take the course.

Then: please share the contest on Twitter and/ or like the HappyPhD Facebook page and share the contest post.

That’s it!

Tweet: Win the HappyPhD 6-week Online Course http://ctt.ec/3kH26+ ‎ via @_AJDavis #phdchat #HappyPhD Click on the bird to tweet about the contest (or create your own tweet, just make sure you insert the hashtag #HappyPhD and my Twitter handle so I can find your tweet).

And/or: like the HappyPhD page and share the HappyPhD Contest post on Facebook

 

The contest is now closed! Winners are: Nivek Thompson and Tamara Taggart

Enter the HappyPhD Contest







I will be announcing the two winners at the end of September (contest closes Friday the 19th of September).

For more info on the course have a look at the HappyPhD page or Read Testimonials

Wishing you all the best for 2014/2015!

Amber

Stress, Underperformance and Mental Health: Why Academia Needs a New Paradigm

Since last week the Twittersphere has been full of talk about the ‘culture of acceptance’ of mental health issues in academia, in response to this article in the Guardian. I have been talking to academics about these issues and their experiences for the past couple of years – most specifically with regard to stress, and how it affects their lives – and what strikes me most is not only how normalised being overly stressed is, but how non-existent a constructive dialogue on stress, mental health, and wellbeing. The fear of ‘showing weakness’ is deeply engrained, and so people choose to express nothing at all. Even academics who are sympathetic to the cause, such as those who contact me and ask me to give a talk, remain mostly silent.

Clearly, something has to change.

Academia needs a new paradigm to think and talk about productivity, stress and (mental) health.

Let’s start with two basic ideas:

1. In academia stress is an institutional characteristic, and should not be taken as an indication of personal failure.

Academia is an inherently stressful work environment. This is true not primarily for reasons of workload as is often suggested (especially in the early years. It gets worse as your academic career progresses), but because of the nature of the job, and the way the system is set up. Most importantly, there is a structural imbalance between effort exerted and rewards received: the rewards for academic work are always delayed, in the sense that hard work put in may only pay off in terms of public acknowledgement (praise, publications) weeks, months or years after sitting at your computer crunching those data or composing that first draft of a paper. In between lies a tough road of criticism, failure, and – if you’re unlucky enough to not know these things come with the territory, and still unsure whether recognition will occur ever, at all – self-doubt. Couple that with competitive pressures and an increasing emphasis on ‘measurable results’, and stress is a given. To repeat: It is not workload that makes you stressed – it is a lack of balance between immediate effort and reward. If rewards are in place people can do the most amazing things. If they are lacking, people crumble. ‘Feeling valued’ may be the most important reward of all. It’s a psychological foundation of wellbeing which is often completely overlooked in academia today.

2. Stress is the single most detrimental factor when it comes to academic performance. It should be dealt with as such, and not as some sort of masochistic test of personal toughness.

There is a big difference between short-term stress, and long-term stress. Short-term stress helps you focus, meet that deadline, write that paper, and do it in a fraction of the time you would normally spend accomplishing the same. It can be exciting and exhilarating. Unfortunately, the same hormones that drive short-term performance in stressful circumstances harm the brain and lower academic performance if their levels remain elevated. This is no joke. The impact is real and harmful. At some point you may no longer function like you did previously, and think it is ‘just you’. It’s not. It’s the result of chronic stress. An understanding of how stress and academic performance are linked is needed, as are strategies to break this vicious cycle. Pushing harder is the absolute stupidest thing you can do in such a situation. Instead, you need to break the stress cycle, to allow your brain to recover and refresh. In the Guardian article a supervisor was quoted as having said that it “was normal to work to the point of illness during the early stages of an academic career.” (Actually, it wasn’t in the Guardian article – it was elsewhere. Argh. Can’t find the piece now. Please forgive the missing reference). That equals saying it’s OK to work to the point of brain injury. Let’s not do that. There must be a clear demarcation between short-term goals that may require a challenging all-consuming sprint, and long-term goals that require a strategy of effort and recovery. That does not mean your work output can’t be high. But you’ve got to work smart, not push to the point of destruction.

If even only these two basic ideas would be better known and understood in academia, pointless suffering would be reduced, and publication records would increase in the process. The machismo of ‘working till you drop’ and ‘being tough’ is old-school and misguided. It needs to be replaced with a paradigm of ‘working smart’ and ‘being in touch’. ‘Working smart’ meaning: working with your physiology, not against it. ‘Being in touch’ meaning: being more aware of how ‘in shape’ we are in terms of mental clarity, tenacity and general productivity, and improving our form by working strategically. It also means being more connected with our colleagues, and fostering a supportive environment. Negligence, and the feeling of not mattering – absolutely endemic in the world of doing a PhD, in particular – are poisonous substances personally and professionally. Academia needs a culture that is supportive of academic performance. Competition alone is not enough. Academic competition and academic kindness are needed to be resilient and perform your best.

HappyPhD Contest

Start 2014 Right: Write your PhD in a couple of hours a day!

HappyPhD

To celebrate the new year I am giving away the HappyPhD self-study course twice. To enter the competition just pop your name and email address in the box below. Also let me know who you are and why you’d like to take the course. That’s it!

I’m looking forward to hearing from you! I will be announcing the two winners at the end of January. (Contest closes January 30!)

For more info on the course have a look at the HappyPhD page or Read Testimonials

Wishing you all the best for 2014!

Amber

Tweet: Write your PhD in a couple of hours a day: Win the HappyPhD Self-Study Course: http://ctt.ec/abEcH+  #phd #phdchat  via @_AJDavisClick on the bird to tweet about the HappyPhD Contest (chance to win a Bonus prize :))

 

Sorry! Contest is now closed

Enter the HappyPhD Contest






Goodbye 2013

I am not sad to see the end of 2013 approaching. It’s been a difficult year. Just when I thought the worst of my health struggles were over, it all started anew this spring. It was no joke, and I have spent most of the year searching for answers, and visiting doctors at home and abroad. The good news: I have found answers. The bad news: it’s late-stage Lyme disease. I always thought Lyme was an acute illness that you got after a tickbite. That’s what most people, including doctors, think. But that’s only half the truth: in some cases the immune system manages to suppresses the disease until much later. That’s what happened to me. I went on a hiking holiday 18 years (!) ago, when I was bitten by several ticks. It wasn’t until 2007 that I fell seriously ill. (Just goes to show that I should never have left my natural habitat which is the city/ the library. I spent most of that holiday rolling off hills and steep slopes, having to be rescued by our hiking guide. I didn’t mind that last bit too much, but let’s just say it’s the first and last time I went hiking.)

So, presently I am looking into treatment options, and I am hoping 2014 will be the year in which I will make great strides back to health. The future looks brighter than my present situation, but unfortunately this is a chronic condition. Think months and years of intense treatment, not weeks. Many people relapse after treatment, or do not respond (fully) to treatment, so you can imagine I am not too happy to embrace this diagnosis. It’s a rough road ahead. That said, I have met quite a few people who have significantly improved with treatment so I live in hope.

But in any case, no matter what happens, I am determined to not let this disease take over my life. It’s similar to when I only had a couple of hours of energy a day, and finished my PhD anyway, a couple of years ago. If I could do it then, I can do it now. I have found that when the road ahead is too hard to contemplate, when past hurt and sorrows are close enough for their pain to be felt, and when the present is pretty damn painful too, the only way forward is to pay attention to those things that are going right.

And one of the things that went right in 2013 was the launch of the HappyPhD course. If you are one of the PhD students who took the course this year: Thank YOU!
I tremendously enjoyed working with you. In case you said something nice to me: just know that 2013 was a very good year to say something nice to me. Any kindness rather stood out, and will be remembered forever.

HappyPhD Contest

To celebrate the end of 2013, and get 2014 off to a good start I thought I’d hold a HappyPhD contest. For the new year I am giving away the HappyPhD self-study course twice. To enter the competition just pop your name and email address in the box below.

I’m looking forward to hearing from you! I will be announcing the two winners mid-January.

CONTEST IS NOW CLOSED

HappyPhD

Enter the HappyPhD Contest






HappyPhD Online Course Testimonial

Judith was the first PhD student to take the HappyPhD Online Course. She’s a pediatric resident at the University Medical Centre Utrecht, the Netherlands, and is finishing her PhD on the side (you go girl!). She is the sister of a friend of mine, and I asked her to test-drive the course. Yesterday we sat down to chat, to discuss her experience.

Judith, you’ve just finished the HappyPhD Online Course. This is a big moment for me. I have spent many months putting the course together, but as they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I’d love to know what you thought of the course and whether it has benefited your PhD and the rest of your life. I’ve got some questions. To start with two big ones: why did you sign up for the course and what was the most important thing you got out of it?

The main reason I signed up for the course was to learn how to handle the ‘never-finished’ aspect of writing a PhD. It’s a project that’s always there in the background no matter what you’re doing. There’s always more to do. It’s never finished. I wanted tools to address this issue.

Did you get them?

Yes. Week 6 on breaking ‘never there, never good enough’ – thinking really helped. But more in general, the whole course helped! It helped me realise that many issues I struggle with are universal, not personal. I could relate to so many of your stories and examples. It was as if you’d written the week on supervision for me personally! It was great to read that it’s not just me. And it was good to get insight into how and why certain patterns come into existence.

It’s the odd thing about writing a PhD. Many of the issues PhD students struggle with result from structural features of the academic model. It isn’t personal. But when you’re writing a PhD it feels personal. To be honest, I am really glad you could relate. It affects me too [laughs]: although I have thought a lot about how the structural features of academia affect PhD students’ experience of writing a PhD and it’s what I teach, I still sometimes think: but what if it was just me? What if I was the odd one out? What if other PhD students have an entirely different experience? Of course, there is always your own share in every experience, but I know for a fact: it’s not just you!

The course also gave me tools to deal with negative thoughts. I’m more relaxed about them now. Doing the course really helped create awareness around some negative patterns I had.

Did the course change your life? Share your life-changing moments with me [laughs] [Judith laughs too] I’ll rephrase that question: did anything in your life change as a result of the course?

Actually it did. I have become more aware of the importance of creating time to reflect and relax daily, as well as time to get things out of my system by exercising. It has made a difference. My mind is calmer. The course also helped me reduce feelings of anxiety and overwhelm. By the way, I really love the HappyPhD meditations! Your voice is really nice to listen to! Better than the guy’s voice on the other meditations.

[blushing] Really?? And I selected the other meditations because he has a really nice voice.

I prefer yours!

Thanks. You’re too kind. [blushes some more] On to the critical questions. I realise that not all tools are for everyone. Were there parts of the course that weren’t that helpful for you?

Only the section on ‘working in waves’. I work in the hospital during the day (and sometimes at night) and I simply can’t influence what my working day looks like. It’s non-stop. No time to relax in between. I have no say in it. But if I had been in a ‘writing phase’ of my PhD I would have definitely used those tools. Every week of the course was useful. It’s a really great course.

Would you recommend the course to others?

Yes! I would highly recommend the course to anyone writing a PhD, and especially to people just starting out. Not because the course isn’t useful later on, but because they will regret not having taken the course earlier on! It has given me many insights I wished I had had years ago.

Are there people you wouldn’t recommend the course to?

No. It’s for everyone writing a PhD. Your topic doesn’t matter. Everyone should take this course! The only prerequisite is to not be adverse to a certain level of self-reflection. And that you don’t get a fit when you hear the word ‘meditation’.

Yes, well. You know what I always say: meditation is a skill, not a belief. It is mind training, and academics can benefit tremendously. Lastly, if you could sum the HappyPhD Online Course up in just a couple of words, what would they be?

Great experience! * Combines solid content with snappy and funny writing * Highly readable and well put-together – the course materials really draw you in * Many tools that will benefit your PhD and the rest of your life * Reading the course materials is like looking in a mirror – it reflects your own experience back at you. * The stories are very honest and very real. Reading them leads you to understand yourself and your PhD experience better. And to have a little more compassion for yourself.