Staring at the Ocean – When Work Is Overwhelming

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

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

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

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

1. You don’t have to achieve the impossible

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

2. Focus on what you have to say

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

3. Clarity in writing

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

4. Action

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

5. Shift out of overwhelm

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

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