‘How to write a PhD’ with Hein De Haas

photo-2Hein de Haas is Professor of Sociology at the University of Amsterdam, and the former director of the International Migration Institute at the University of Oxford. He is also a friend of mine. Almost two years ago, when I was staying in California for two months and he flew in for a conference, we sat down at Saul’s deli in Berkeley for lunch. Over chicken soup with matzo balls and latkes with apple sauce (so good!), we talked about academic writing. ‘We should do an interview!’ I said. ‘Would you?’ He would. Fast forward to present: last week we finally managed. Read Hein’s take on academic writing, success and self-care in today’s ‘How to write a PhD’.

Hein’s top tips:
1. Writing is important: invest in your academic writing skills. Approach your writing as a craft, not high art. High art is paralysing.
2. Write a little every day. I get my writing done in 90 minutes a day.
3. Stay off the Internet until lunchtime.
4. Doing research and writing are inseparable. Writing clarifies thought.
5. Be practical about writing. Develop a daily routine and ruthlessly discipline yourself.

6. Write your abstract first. Keep rewriting and revising it: use it as an anchor for your thinking.
7. Develop your original argument. Trust what you have to say. Don’t become obsessed with the literature. It is not the Holy Script!
8. Don’t forget answering the ‘So what?’ question. Why is your research relevant?
9. To stay in academia: be your own academic. Focus on getting one or two excellent single-authored publications. That is what matters.
10. Take care of yourself: yoga, meditation, music and dedicated times off help.

AD: I know you’re passionate about writing. You’re always stressing how important it is to take writing seriously, and to develop your writing skills. What are your best tips for academic writing?
HdH: Writing is about more than simply reporting your research results. Invest in learning how to write clearly, how to write lucidly. It is best to approach academic writing as a craft, not high art. Anyone can learn how to do it. Approaching writing as high art is paralysing: it assumes you need to be exceptionally talented and you need to get it right in the first go. That’s very far removed from the actual process of academic writing which involves writing, and revising, and then revising and revising once again. As an academic you need to get comfortable with ‘killing your darlings’. When I was younger I used to think I was a good writer. And it’s true that writing comes easily to me, I am a fast writer and I enjoy writing. But the actual craft of learning to write well took dedication and often humbling interactions with mentors and reviewers I was lucky to have met several mentors who told me the truth and had no qualms about showing me how mediocre my writing still was, and how much I still had to learn. I had a great tutor as a freshman anthropology student. He was ultra-critical of my essays. I first hated him for it, but now I am forever grateful, as it was an essential wake-up call. After graduating in geography I worked for a private research and consultancy firm. This was another formative experience, as my mentors there forced me to ‘cut all the crap’ in my prose and to write as clearly as possible. Unfortunately, many academics make their texts impenetrable and vague because of their eagerness to sound scientific. It was in my non-academic jobs that I really learnt to write clearly. Perhaps the most important is the following: never take critique personally, always as an opportunity to improve. But also teach yourself to read your own text with an outsiders’ eye.

photo-1AD: Do you have a writing routine?
HdH: It’s so important to write a little every day. I try to write from 9-11 a.m. every morning. In reality I don’t usually manage the full two hours, more often it is a 90-minute session. I always feel I’d like to do more, but at the same time, I get a lot done in those 90 minutes. People tend to not believe me when they see my publication record, but it is true: this is when I get my writing done. It can be challenging to fit these writing sessions in, especially when you’re travelling, but I insist on four writing sessions a week mimimum. If I don’t manage during the week for whatever reason I will fit a session in on Saturday morning. This goes against my ‘weekends off’ policy, but keeping the writing flowing is as important for my peace of mind. I try to write first thing in the morning. What is very important is to stay off email and Internet. I used to start my day, as so many people, checking email. But I figured out that this is the entire wrong way around. I now stay off the Internet until lunch time, and check my email only once or twice a day, after my most productive writing hours. It’s all about discipline. I learnt this very early on, already during my PhD, when my first daughter was born. Having children has made me much more conscious of time and much more productive during the limited working hours I have. Right now I’m trying something new: waking up very early, at 6 in the morning to do my writing. It is still an experiment…

AD: What have you learned over the course of your academic career about writing?
HdH: Doing research and writing are inseparable. Thoughts are fuzzy and forgiving, the page is not. So when you write things down it helps you solve your conceptual puzzles. To think of doing research with the ‘writing up’ phase the last phase, is an outdated idea. Much better to start writing straight away. I highly recommend reading the book: Writing for social scientists by Howard. S. Becker on how to approach this. Reading that book as a 1st year student in anthropology back in 1989 liberated me in many ways, and encouraged me to approach writing as a craft, a continuous work-in-progress.

AD: What does your writing process look like? Is there a beginning, a middle and an end-phase that differ in how you approach it?
HdH: The end phase involves a lot of editing and trying to delete passages that may be superfluous or where I’m repeating myself. I’m wordy, so I am always trying to keep the word count under control. It is also a more intense phase. I always begin a new piece of work by writing the abstract. Conceptually it is the most important step. By the time the piece is finished the abstract will have been through revision after revision. It what anchors the piece. The phase in the middle is where I grapple with the data.

AD: What would you advise PhDs who are feeling stuck, and unable to write? Do you have tips to overcome writer’s block?
HdH: Be practical about writing. Develop a daily routine and ruthlessly discipline yourself. Don’t wait for inspiration. Inspiration comes often during writing. And start with the abstract. Write your abstract before moving on to anything else. It puts you on the spot; it forces you to come down to the essence of your paper. If you write a book, it can be helpful to write abstracts for each chapter. It has to be a substantive abstract, not one of those teaser abstracts that leaves you guessing, and which requires you to read the rest of the article to understand what it is about. Your abstract should state, in one or two sentences, what the ‘punch-line’, the argument and main finding of your research is. Start with this conceptual puzzle. Make clear what your aim is, which question you are going to answer, and don’t forget answering the ’So what?’ question. It is often overlooked, but it is what ensures your research has appeal beyond the narrow scope of the argument, and is relevant. I have found that paring it down like this, focusing on the research question and developing your own unique argument helps. Of course, while writing the actual paper or book, you will develop new insights, change your opinion or argument – you will adopt your abstract accordingly. Consider it as a continuous work in progress. Looking at it this way instead of seeing writing as an art can be very liberating.

AD: What would you tell PhDs who are looking for their niche, but haven’t quite found it yet?
HdH: It would be to trust what you have to say. Read, but don’t become obsessed by the literature. Instead, switch to ‘active’ thinking. There’s a big difference between trying to find a ‘gap’ in the literature and ‘filling that gap’; and developing an original argument. Filling the gap doesn’t work. There’s always the danger that once you’ve identified a gap, and ‘filled’ it, someone else will have done the same. You’ll find this out the week before finishing your own project most likely! Don’t define gaps in terms of ‘this group or topic has never been studied’, but instead in terms of how you approach that subject. Because you bring your unique perspective, through your own life experiences, your personal background, what you have read, you will always bring an original perspective. Trust your own story. Trust what you have to say – and have the audacity to present your very own take on your topic. Don’t be a slave to what previous authors have said. ‘The literature’ is not the Holy Script! There is a tendency to inflate the big names in the literature, and of course they have done important work. But they too are regular people, who had the courage to write up what they thought in as clear as possible prose. In other words: you can do this.

heinAD: Academia is becoming an increasingly competitive environment, and it isn’t at all the case that you’ll manage to secure an academic position, even when you are an excellent researcher. What would you advise PhDs with ambitions in academia?
HdH: Focus on getting one or two excellent single-authored publications, that is what counts in most disciplines. Sometimes this takes time. In my own case it took 7 years after I had finished my PhD as a monograph for my best theoretical article using the same material to be published. This is now my best cited article. In the meantime, work on articles that are easier to write and get published. Working papers are great: consider them as a first pit stop on the way to a journal publication. It allows you to ‘claim’ your idea, to gain visibility and to generate feedback early on, and they often get cited. Working papers are much better than chapters in edited volumes that often hardly get cited at all. Also: make sure to be your own academic. Don’t become someone’s sidekick, even if that person has the credentials to facilitate your career. Of course, benefit from it if you can, but don’t become too dependent on your mentor. I would also advise PhD students to challenge supervisors who assume their name should automatically be included as authors in each of their students’ papers, without contributing substantially to data analysis or writing the actual paper. It’s fine and even recommended to collaborate, but it’s very important to protect intellectual property and to be self-confident and assertive about that. It will gain you respect – and in many academic circles it is important to also have single-authored papers published. Let your star shine! Don’t be intimidated.

AD: Writing a PhD is stressful, as is working in academia. Do you have self-care routines?
HdH: Yes, absolutely. I started doing hatha yoga some six years ago, during a stressful time, which was fantastic in helping me calm my mind. More recently I have been practicing ashtanga yoga and yin yoga, at least three times a week, mostly in the early evenings. I try to make sure I don’t need to work or do anything that might burst the yoga bliss bubble afterwards! I also play the piano: no better way to wind down than playing some jazz and blues. But I’m not saying people should do yoga or play music. It does not matter what you do. Sports, dancing, acting, painting, it can be anything that makes you connect to your body and has nothing to do with your thesis. The point is to tune out from your research and find a healthy balance. Other things that help me manage the workload, and minimise stress are taking the weekends off. Two days preferably, but one and a half day at the very minimum. I also make a point of stopping on time. I generally don’t work after dinnertime, and I generally try to get all my important work done around 2pm. For me it does work much better to focus on getting my tasks done in the morning. I often don’t manage, but I do notice I feel better when I practice a short meditation in the morning and at the end of the afternoon or day. I also try not to watch television late at night and stay off-screen after working hours as much as possible.

You can find Hein’s excellent blog on migration here, and you can sign up for his free Migration 101 course in which he tackles some of the most common migration myths here. See the preview below. Did you like this post? Please share it! I appreciate it.

 

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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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Back to Basics: Relax to Achieve

Relaxation may be the missing link when it comes to your academic performance. I’m interested in this phenomenon: how we sometimes work against ourselves by trying too hard, pushing too much. By internalising a work culture that says working endless hours is the key to success. When everyone is working all the time, or at the very least seems to be working all the time, how to not worry you aren’t keeping up? We lean towards overwork to compensate and somehow make things better.

But does it work? (Answer: no)

Then how to undo this? What’s the alternative?

Sometimes the answers are simple. Excruciatingly simple, like making sure you work doing ‘work hours’ and do not work outside that designated time frame. I was reminded of the ‘simple’ way of fixing the overwhelm and feeling of not-ever-achieving-enough or doing-enough by an email from one of the course participants (quoted with permission). Apparently I teach this!

“I am still exercising, meditating and taking some time off to relax. I really think these three things are crucial. While I did already exercise and meditate before I did the HappyPhD course, I think I really learned the relaxation part. I can say that after the course, for the first time (in my life?) I really took “working hours” seriously and allowed myself to also do other things with joy. The result is: I work less than ever (still quite a lot though, it’s not necessary to go into extremes I figured) but I also achieve much more (more then ever when it comes to my PhD for sure). So thank you for the insight.”

Fascinating how such a simple change of schedule (and mindset: that can be the more challenging part) can have such positive results.

So, breaking it down. Bear with me for stating the obvious:

Work hours: they are the hours you get still and do your work. For most people this would be around 3-5 hours of concentrated work a day. This is enough to achieve a LOT. Maybe add a few hours later on in the day for less demanding work.

Relaxation: these are hours you do not work. I recommend more than you currently manage. Maybe hours a day more! This may sound tempting or terrifying depending on your disposition, but it will likely require a leap of faith if you’re used to working long, long hours.

Also pay attention to how you might help yourself switch from a focus on work, with your brain in a focused analytical mode, into a more free-flowing unworried relaxation state. It can be a challenge with academic work: the mind loves to go on and on, thinking about work, or worrying about it!

Meditation and Exercise: these are sublime tools in helping you transition from work to relaxation. Both help you regulate your physiology (brain) to help you disengage from work when you choose to do so. With exercise the switch is a direct, physical one, with stress hormones and neurotransmitters involved; with meditation you do the same in a subtler way by working with the mind, your thoughts, the breath and your intention. Both are brain training in their own right, and improve your mental faculties and stamina.

The outcome:

Better focus during work hours: you will certainly get more done. Your ideas are likely to be better also: the brain comes up with new insights in a relaxed state, that is, when you are not focusing on the problem you’re trying to solve. It is one of those neat little paradoxes. Best way to solve a problem? Think about it. Then NOT think about it.

Somehow committing to doing less and letting go can be more daunting a prospect than that of doing more, keeping pushing and achieving. The pushing for many of us protects us from feelings of not doing or being enough. It protects us from guilt. Yet it is exactly this mindset we need to overcome in order to get more done. Oh yes, and to feel better! Nearly forgot about that one! Let go a little. Take your eye off the ball for a bit, regularly. Truly helpful. Give it a try.

Are you pushing too hard? Working too much? Does the idea of working less scare you (though it secretly appeals?) Why not devise a very simple structure of work and non-work, and add in a little exercise and a little meditation every (other) day? (With the course to guide you if that appeals) So simple. As always, if you found this post useful could you share it? I appreciate it!

The Inner Compass (or: Feeling Better When Academia Disappoints)

We tend to rely on external events to determine how we are doing: we publish an article and we are up; the article gets rejected and we are down. The meeting with the boss goes well and we are up; they push all our buttons and can’t see our point of view and we are down. We have a productive day and we are up; we have an unproductive day, our computer freezes on us, the data don’t cooperate, nor does the photocopier, we are late for our meeting and down we go.

In terms of happiness it isn’t the greatest model. Seems fair to say that if we are going to rely on external conditions to make us happy, we are not ever going to get there. If we are in academia certainly this is a given.

There is a way out.
It is the inner world, the inner compass.
Attune to that, living inside-out instead of outside-in, and life flows.
We aren’t so easily seduced into misery.
We gain a sense of perspective.
And adventure. And possibility. And ease.
We laugh more and don’t take everything so damn seriously.
We become responsive instead of reactive.
Even when things aren’t going our way, we don’t get as frazzled, because we are more deeply anchored.

When you’re doing academic work this state of being isn’t always readily accessible, unless you have trained yourself to do so. As academics we are mind-centered, and if we don’t watch out we get stuck in our heads. When we do, it is oh so tempting to start believing our negative thoughts, in fact it is near impossible not to do so. We do not recognise them as conditioned thought, thoughts that are automatic and may or may not be true (hint: they are mostly not true). Instead we blindly believe them. We call it being realistic.

The alternative is to align with a deeper wiser place in ourselves, and let that wiser (and more fun) voice do our strategic thinking for us. You might call it using your intuition, or I have also heard it referred to as ‘the quiet voice’, your ‘inner guidance system’, or spirit. It doesn’t really matter what you call it, and words tend to fall short.

The key is in feeling here

Does this option or way of thinking make you feel contracted, small, scared, unworthy, really shit basically? Then you are probably engaged with your negative conditioned egoic mind.

(I am not being precise here in my terminology. It’s complicated. There are all sorts of psychological theories around ego and super-ego which I won’t go into here, because for this practice it doesn’t matter what you call it. It matters whether you can identify these states of being. Labels and theories are less important.)

Or:

Does this option or way of thinking feel expansive, fun, challenging-in-a-good-way? Does it make you feel free? Does it make you smile? Does it make you want to get on with things (even in a non-doing way?) Does it taste of possibility? Then you are tapped into that wiser part of yourself. Your true nature.

The difference between living in one or the other mode, is night and day

When things are bad, being connected with your inner self will make everything a lot more bearable, and you will find your right direction, even if it can’t lift you out of difficult circumstances in a flash. What it can do is give you a radical sense of ownership of the situation, and a sense of adventure and freedom. And nothing is more satisfying than that. The most daunting task becomes doable.

When things are good, though, that’s when the magic feels like magic for real. When things are going well, being connected to your inner self, makes them oh, so, super good. Not in a bi-polar high-then-crash way. No, in a stable way, in a way that you are doing the right thing, and going about it the right way, and the world is your oyster. In an almost-impossible-to-hide-your-smile way.

The challenges of academic life can easily pull you into a mode of defeat in which all your negative thoughts seem real. I have recently worked with a few people facing real challenges: supervisors running off with their data (How on earth am I going to continue to work with this person? Should I leave academia? I am so disheartened), supervisors and colleagues being so negative it saps all their energy (How am I going to cope with this negativity? Is this worth it? Is it always going to be like this?). The answer to how, most always lies in no longer focusing on the external, but tuning into the internal instead. It will give you the energy to handle the daily challenges, and it will give you a sense of direction, on what to do next. A sense of what is best for you. (Also gives you attitude. Strut!)

For me personally the difference between these modes is acute, and it reminds me of how much of our experience is determined by our thoughts – the negative or the more expansive. For the record, I believe the more expansive ones are the real ones, the reliable ones, the true ones. The constricted, negative ones are old, recycled, fear-based ones that keep us stuck. If I have one practice it is this: reminding myself to shift into ’true’ mode. Into expansive mode. Into magic mode.

How to go about this

The first task is to start recognising the old, negative thought patterns. Write down the worst ones. It helps to show you that these thoughts are nothing new, and don’t mean much. They are patterns on repeat.

So, for example, your negative thoughts could be:

I am not going to make it,
I need to get out of here (but can’t),
I need to get *there* before I can be fulfilled (but fat chance that is going to happen),
my work isn’t good enough,
I am not good enough. (Or some version of this)

Find out what yours are. Practice saying these thoughts, and notice what it does to how you are feeling. They probably make you feel really lousy. Shrunk and fallible. Notice what, specifically, happens. Now, when you are out in the world doing whatever you are doing and you start to feel this way: realise it is probably these old patterns playing their depressing tunes. Sometimes that realisation is enough to help shift you out of that state. You are no longer giving these thoughts as much power.

The second task is to start cultivating your inner world. Everything is already there, that’s not the problem, but we need to practice tapping into it. One way is by starting a meditation practice. It helps us connect to our more spacious self. Another is by noticing when you feel connected, and in high spirits. Anchor into it right then and there, and invite more of it in. Open up to this possibility. You can do this actively, throughout the day, by pausing at set times, and tuning in. In challenging situations, I sometimes use affirmation-type thoughts, such as: “I am willing to see this differently. Show me how to see this differently.” And I surrender the issue, and do my best to suspend judgment. Nine times out of ten something will shift. A better alternative will show up. And I know I am on track. It is an unfolding, and a really exciting one.

If you have never tried this you may be sceptical. I realise this may all sound a bit Pollyannaish, or NewAgey. It really isn’t. It is as real and practical as it gets, and it has nothing to do with positive thinking. You will notice that if you give it a serious try. This stuff is real! But yes, it does require a bit of an open mind and an experimental approach. And your egoic mind will tell you it is a load of nonsense and it is not going to work for you. Defy this voice. Best thing you will ever do. Give it a go. It will be worth it.

Have you ever practiced tuning into your intuition, your inner voice? How did that work out? Let me know in the comments. If you’d like to explore this way of being, but feel you need some help, I love working with people developing their inner world ‘muscle’. Check out my coaching calls (you get a discount if you sign up for my newsletter), that are stand-alone, or go together with the HappyPhD Course, in which using your intuition features prominently. If you liked this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

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 Stay Positive in Academia – Strategy 1 Notice What Is Already There

When you enter the world of academia, you enter the world of critical thought and rejection. It is an art academics are trained in: progress through falsification. At its best it is exhilarating, the challenge of standing your ground amidst criticism, of using it to make your argument shine. At its worst it is deflating, draining you from any enthusiasm you ever felt for your work, and allowing your self-confidence to sink.

Criticism is with you every step of the way. Both externally, when you receive feedback on your work, and internally, when you are in the laborious process of writing your paper and struggling with your inner critic. Over time, it can drag you down.

The question: how to uplift your experience, so criticism can shine by improving your work, and does not drag you down into the realm of self-doubt and feeling defeated?

Unlike the art of criticism itself, which is the professional knife you are taught to sharpen and use without mercy, the skill of using it well, and having it not end up at your own throat scaring you to death, or draining you in the longer term, is not particularly paid attention to.

So. How?

I am not going to utter the words: ‘Be positive’, because I do not believe positivity is something that can be stuck onto an uncomfortable experience, which dealing with criticism mostly is, especially when you are not feeling too sure about your work, or when it is a repeated experience. But I do believe positivity to be the answer. Not so much optimism, although it may play a part, but the goodness that is also present, always, and that we overlook when too caught up in the negativity, hurt and self-defence that often accompany criticism. When we start paying attention, the positive grows and unfolds, and we become resilient.

(May result in using criticism constructively. May even result in laughter and not giving a damn, really, about so-called failure.)

There are many ways to elicit the positive. And I believe the word ‘elicit’ is key. We have to be willing to invite it in, to see it, to appreciate it. And ultimately, to feel it. It cannot be seen by a closed mind, which is frantically running around in defence and justification. We need to open up, first.

Yesterday, I read the line: ‘Would you rather be right or happy?’
Our academic career is built on being right. Our happiness cannot.

And paradoxically, sometimes, we have to let go of being right for the minute, to allow a better, more grounded perception to emerge.
We have to be willing to be open-minded and receptive enough to do so. We feel better. Our mind clears. Our work improves.

I will be sharing a number of strategies on being positive in upcoming blogs.
Today is the first: simply notice.
Drop the argument you are having with yourself, your inner critic, your fears, your supervisor, etc. in your head.

Drop it

Even if only for ten seconds. You can always pick it up later. You don’t have to fight or defend. You don’t have to be right. You will survive without.

Instead, focus on what is right in front of you. What is there to appreciate right now? Forget about your ideas and opinions and ‘shoulds’ for a minute, and shift the focus to what you see, feel, experience.
What is already here, right now?
What is there to like?
What is there to savour?

Start small. You hot steaming cup of tea can be enough. Taste it. Feel the warmth of the mug, heating up your fingers. How does it make you feel? Comforted? Soothed? Does it bring clarity? Does it soften? What is your experience like?

For me, right now: I am enjoying a cup of white tea with jasmine. It’s fragrant, delicate, and luxurious. It’s a tiny pleasure.

(Don’t try this with coffee or tea from a machine. Won’t quite be the same).

Don’t over-intellectualise your experience, simply notice. You don’t have to make yourself feel or experience anything – it doesn’t have to be mind-shattering. Though it may be, in its own way.

These tiny moments of appreciation provide the entry point for a shift in perspective. They help you recalibrate, re-set. They free you from your mind-loops, even if only for a minute. And a minute is all you need. Pay attention, notice and appreciate, and the mind opens up. Happiness wells up. Because that is what it does, when we do not obstruct it. Circumstances become just that: circumstances. Criticism loses its edge, and failure starts feeling less fatal.

Maybe the criticism you received wasn’t that personal after all? Maybe you start seeing how you could address a variety of points and issues raised. Maybe you feel strengthened in the way you originally chose to approach the question, and you don’t need to change a thing. Maybe change is needed. Or maybe you find out none of it matters, and you have been focusing on the wrong thing!

Maybe. Maybe is the beginning of loosening up, of giving up our rigid fixations. It is the beginning of possibility. It is the beginning of feeling excitement for what we are doing. It is the beginning of the next step. It is the beginning.

Try cultivating positivity by taking a short break to enjoy whatever there is to enjoy right now. What did you think? Did you notice a difference? As always, if you liked this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

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Meditate With Me

They say you should always take your own advice. Practice what you preach.

Confession: I didn’t.

I ‘lost’ my meditation practice summer last year.

For years I’d been meditating before bed, and I’d take about an hour to wind down. At ten or ten thirty, I’d put the book away, turn off the TV,  turn off the computer, switch the phone off – unplug, to simply sit with myself, on my meditation pillow wrapped in a meditation shawl, for twenty minutes or half an hour, followed by some journalling. It was perhaps my favourite time of day – the turning inwards in the evening. But it got too hard. As I mentioned before, my health problems increased once again in 2013, and I found myself in a mess with a whole list of bizarre, scary and debilitating symptoms with no one to turn to for help. (Later that year I got a diagnosis, after well over six years of suffering: it turns out to be Lyme disease). Sitting on my meditation pillow became torture – it was too scary to turn inwards, for fear of what I might encounter, or more accurately: what I did encounter.

Escape sounded a lot better. Any escape would do.

So, in the futile pursuit of relief, I kept the computer or TV on late into the night for distraction, or went to the gym and quite literally exercised till I collapsed (which didn’t take much as I had stopped sleeping almost entirely. But still: don’t be stupid. Don’t do this.) In another attempt to please keep hell at bay I went on a retreat in Thailand, where I relearnt what I already knew: when things get tough, or in any situation really, your resilience comes from within. It comes from being centered in yourself, and from the joy and inspiration that lives there. Always. You just have to tap into it (but sometimes you have to go through some scary, yukky, intense things to get there). Nevertheless, I still wasn’t ready to meditate by myself when I returned from Thailand – I was too uneasy and anxious and scattered and was suffering too much.

Something changed a couple of weeks ago. I felt a yearning to get back to my practice. I had to. But I didn’t quite know how. So what I did is sign up for an e-course: Susannah Conway’s ‘The Sacred Alone’, which guides you gently into creating a daily checking in with yourself through meditation and journalling. Oh. Best decision I’ve made this year. It was exactly what I needed – someone who would go there with me, even if only virtually. Bliss. My practice is back.

Meditation is how I shift from worry, fear, pushing myself too hard, or any of the other unhelpful states I may find myself in, to a place of flow and magic and thrill.

 

I find out there is always enough.
I find out I don’t need to get anywhere.
I am already there.

 

Interestingly, once my perception shifts, it replenishes my energy. Instantaneously. And I know that if I live and work from this place of ease and flow, everything will be OK. Enough with the pushing and shoving and trying too hard. (Not always easy).

When I first started meditating I took an 8-week mindfulness course. I loved the idea of meditation, but I found out that actually doing it is difficult. And boring. The difficulty and boredom are a crucial step. Sometimes it is all there is. But in the long run it pays off.

In terms of academic work I believe having a meditation practice does two important things: firstly, it is mind training. You learn to focus on what you choose to focus on. This skill is invaluable when you are in the business of doing challenging mental work. It also teaches you to let go and relax when you choose, which is helpful in a profession where the boundaries between work and private life are foggy at best, and switching off is notoriously difficult.

Secondly, it helps you stay connected with your inspiration and creativity. It helps you wash off the criticism and all the small and larger failures along the way. It makes you resilient. You will find out: you have an inner compass and it is accurate. All you need to do is check in with it.

This week, why not give meditation a go and meditate with me? Set your timer for 5, 10, or 20 minutes and focus on your breathing, or listen to a guided meditation online. (There are 4 full-length guided meditations in my HappyPhD Course). And sit. Sit with me. It will be wonderful.

I’ll be talking about my meditation practice this week on twitter – so follow me there if you want to join me. Let me know how it goes.

‘How to write a PhD’ with Eva Lantsoght

Eva LantsoghtDr. Eva Lantsoght received her PhD in civil engineering at TU Delft, the Netherlands, last summer. She talks about her PhD experience, and about how PhD productivity and self-care relate to each other.

I am excited to introduce to you dr. Eva Lantsoght. Excited, because she very much lives what I like to call the ‘new’ academic lifestyle. That is, she is an academic who takes very good care of herself, her energy and her time. She practices yoga, she meditates, and if you follow her on twitter you know she is productive and prolific. Her blog PhDTalk, which she started at the beginning of the 2nd year of her PhD programme, is an excellent resource for anyone writing a PhD. Go over and have a look. I was interested to hear from Eva about her routines and practices, and how they affected her PhD experience. Let’s hear it.

Eva’s top 10 tips for writing a PhD:

    1. Your life does not depend on your PhD. It’s the other way around: the quality of your PhD depends on how much of a life you are having.
    2. Take care of yourself: a tired brain won’t move science forward.
    3. Feeling stuck? Take a break. Don’t keep working harder and harder until you hit rock bottom.
    4. Plan a weekend away from the PhD: relax, refocus and replenish.
    5. Own your work!
    6. Plan for success. Use time-management techniques to keep yourself on track.
    7. Start work early, finish early. Take breaks. (Listen to lab guys).
    8. Sleep well, eat well, journal, do yoga and meditate!
    9. Focus on the positive: add love and record gratitude.
    10. Connect, get informed and get inspired online #phdchat.

AD: Eva, what is your top tip to improve your PhD experience?
EL:
Realize that your life does not depend on your PhD. In fact, your PhD and the quality of your focus, will depend pretty much on how much of a life you are having. Simply put: a tired brain won’t come up with novel ideas that push your field of study forward. I’m a terrible perfectionist, and I wanted to do so well on my PhD. At a certain point, I was pushing myself beyond measure, trying to stay on top of my experiments
while working on cases for my funding body. I was in the lab from 8am to 4pm, and then making calculations from 4pm to 10pm. I started making mistakes… That’s when I realized that my brain is not a 24/7 machine. I started to make appointments with myself to go to the gym, and to go home on time to play with my cat, and to make sure I’d get enough hours of sleep. My productivity and number of good ideas started to increase when I made that change.

AD: And what would you advise PhD students who are feeling stuck or lost? PhDs come with rough patches.
EL: Be gentle with yourself. If you have a good relationship with your supervisor(s), let them know that you have hit a rough patch. During the final months of writing my dissertation, I’d plan “refresh and refocus” weekends every now and then: I’d go to the gym, go to read a book in a coffee place in the beautiful city center of Delft, watch a number of TED talks or online lectures, catch up on sleep, cook a big stew or big pot of chili (to freeze portions for whenever I’d need it), etc. Don’t keep working harder and harder until you hit rock bottom. Instead, take a break from your worries and try to refresh your mind.

AD: Was there anything else you wish you’d known that you know now, when you were writing your PhD?
EL:
What I learned in my first year, is that doing research is different from doing homework. Suddenly, you are the one in charge of the entire project. It took me some time to realize that I had to take ownership of my project, and determine the direction. And, as I mentioned earlier, I wish I realized from the beginning the value of enough sleep and enough time for exercise and self-care.

AD: You seem to be very prolific. What were your working habits during the PhD? Do you have any productivity tips to share?
EL: I always showed up at my office at 8am in the morning. While that might not be typical behaviour for PhD students, I followed the example of the staff members, and the schedule of the tech guys in the lab. I took a lunch break at noon to go “upstairs” with the other PhD students and lab guys. Whenever I tried to skip lunch to keep on working, they convinced me of the benefit of taking a break and sharing some good laughs. I tried to leave my office between 5pm and 6pm every day as well, and then spend the evening doing things I enjoy…

Early on during my PhD, I attended a 3-day course in which I learned all about planning. Since then, I’ve been making time monthly and weekly to go over my planning, assess my progress, and course-correct where needed. I started to use time-tracking tools (I like ManicTime a lot), to know exactly how much time certain tasks take me – information I used to improve my planning. When I was doing “boring” stuff (plug-and-chuck numbers around in spreadsheets, for example), I’d often blast some music into my earphones, and use the Pomodoro method to get the task done in 25-minute chunks.

AD: Could you tell me a bit about what I call the ‘new’ academic lifestyle. Could you tell me about your self-care practices?
EL: Sure, I really think these habits were crucial to my staying sane throughout my PhD days (and now my freshly-appointed-assistant-professor-days).

AD: Let’s start somewhere- I know you are into yoga: when did you become interested in it, what is your practice like, and how does it benefit your work?
EL:
I started practicing yoga at the end of my PhD, while I was working on the comments of my committee and revisions of my dissertation. I felt the need to take “stretching” breaks and I started practicing standing yoga sequences full of balancing poses to train my focus. I also started to follow YouTube yoga classes. As I ended my gym membership and moved away from Delft (and spent some time in the USA, Belgium and then Ecuador), I bought a subscription to a paid online yoga website, and I’ve been using it a lot since then to practice yoga first thing in the morning.

AD: What about meditation? I read your blog on mindfulness, which is the tradition that got me into meditation. What is your practice like?
EL:
I used to have a very good meditation habit, sitting on my pillow first thing in the morning, but somehow in the process of moving countries, I lost the habit. I’m trying to bring it back in my daily schedule, but so far with mixed success. So I’ve been on and off with meditation, but I know it’s essential to the well-being of my brain – I really need to strengthen that habit again.

AD: You wrote a wonderful blog on little things you can do to boost your mood. Two of your tips are ‘Love’ and ‘Gratitude’. I believe they are essential muscles that academics in particular need to train. Can you tell me a little about how that works in your own life?
EL:
It might sound idealistic, but I think our world is deprived of love, and I try to radiate a bit of love to all beings I encounter (which doesn’t mean I never lose my patience or snap at anyone, but my intentions are loving). Loving-kindness is an essential part of my meditation practice, and I try to bring some of that into my everyday life. In my journal, I keep a gratitude list, and I write down 10 positive experiences I had every single day to focus on the positive in my life. Even when I think life is horrible, I try to bring a smile to my face and count my blessings, and very often it’s the simple things in life: having been able to have dinner together with my husband, seeing my cat run around in a funny way through the house, etc.

AD: Let’s talk food. I myself have been eating an ever-healthier diet the past years. For me, now, it has to do with my health issues, and my current diet would probably be too extreme for most, even though I try and keep it delicious within the restrictions. That said, if there is one habit that I would have changed when I was working on my PhD, it would have been cutting back on sugar and carbs (though, easier said than done when you’re writing a PhD in Italy: The spaghetti! The ice cream! Italy is carb heaven). In the past I often relied on sugar highs to give me productivity highs. But I used to crash afterwards. I find eating a no-sugar low-carb diet keeps my energy levels and mood far more stable. What about you?
EL: I’ve always been rather picky about food. My mom is an excellent cook, and for that reason I turn away in horror from most food court / university cantina food. I always cooked as a student (although most often limited to veggie burgers with frozen veggies – as my friends like to recall), and during my PhD, I became more organized: I learned to cook batches of stews and chilies, used to shop for food once a week, and right after that, chop and cook a few days’ worth of vegetables. I’m not vegetarian, although I mostly eat plants – I’ve learned that these give me and my brain the best imaginable fuel. Sugar and greasy fare typically make me drowsy and sleepy (although that doesn’t mean I can always stay clear of these temptations).

AD: You sound quite busy. Are you someone who can work late? I myself am not. In the early years of writing my PhD my cut-off point would be 6 pm, or in the extreme case 7.30 pm. Any later than that and I couldn’t sleep. Now, I try to stay away from the computer after 4pm. Not that I am managing at the moment. But in an ideal world I wouldn’t be on my computer/ online in the evening.
EL:
I usually have a quiet evening routine, that leaves me time for journaling and reading in bed before I go to sleep. I can’t stay working on my computer until 10pm, then roll into bed, close my eyes and fall asleep – I need to zone out at the end of the day to enjoy a good night’s rest.

AD: Finally, completely different topic: you are very active on twitter and social media. How can PhD students use these media to their advantage?
EL:
When using the internet, there’s always a risk of getting “sucked in” and waste a lot of time. That said, however, I think PhD students can use social media platforms to their advantage: by learning from people in the same field, or by reaching out to PhD students worldwide who might be experiencing just the same feelings/struggles/joys as you (for that reason, I love the #phdchat hashtag on Twitter). There’s a ton of information on the internet, in blogs of fellow PhD students or academics, and much of that gets shared on these social media platforms – so you can browse the “headlines” and see what might be of interest to you (an article about writing, maybe, or a blog post about someone’s experiences in the lab?). In my experience, Twitter is also a great platform to reach out to the industry – by reading information that companies in your field post, and then interacting with them.

Thanks Eva!

If you are inspired to give yoga a try, following our yogi lead, but can’t find a local yoga school, or if you travel a lot, give online classes a go. Eva likes http://www.myyogaonline.com, while I have used www.yogaglo.com in the past. Two very good places to start.