How Many Top Publications Do You Have? or The Curse of Performance Metrics

“I don’t really believe in citations myself. I don’t really count citations. I don’t value anybody’s work by the number of citations they have. I think it’s a mistake.”

A quote by Nobel Prize winner James Heckman, uttered at an unusual panel at the 2017 American Economic Association meeting. It was titled ‘Publishing and promotion in Economics: The curse of the top five’, a reference to the top five journals dominating the Economics field. One of the anecdotes told was about graduate students endlessly deferring their ‘entry to the job market’ until they were sure of a top five publication. Waiting, waiting, waiting, then shooting for the stars, for better or worse. It is up or out. Jump though the elusive hoop to have a shot at a life in the academy.

The rigid (sometimes crazy) ways academics’ performances are assessed has negative consequences for science itself, that was the main message of the panel. It negatively affects the quality of knowledge generated and published, it causes rivalries between camps and tunnel vision within disciplines, and it leads to a culture of counting, over content. Oh, and it is really bad for young researchers, who are increasingly ‘writing to the test’, aiming at achieving within the system, no matter the costs.

Heckman showed a graph of how much more difficult it has become to land a publication in a top journal. The field has grown, submissions have increased, and acceptance rates have plunged. The golden tip of the academic pyramid is increasingly out of reach. Yet entering it, even only once, is increasingly seen as as necessary for building a reputation and a career.

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All of this made me scratch my head. Why is it no surprise that life in academia feels like a rat race? (Because it is!!) Why is it no surprise that so many researchers are stressed to the limit? In Economics it is the top five, but it seems every field has its own version. Always running to meet that next measure of performance. We’re never there. There’s always a new metric looming around the corner.

There are no immediate solutions for this conundrum, if there were I am sure the Nobel prize winner and co would have come up with something! Seems academia is stuck with systems that are not necessarily good for science, or academics, for now. At a personal level I feel it asks for a certain resolve to live and work (and ‘perform’) well no matter the rules set by the system. Rules that are often unfair, arbitrary, and rigged against you. Lots of fun!

Some thoughts:

Know the ‘rules’

It’s important to understand the pressures you are subject to. Study them, so you know where they start and end, and to avoid becoming trapped by them. Whatever the performance metrics are in your field and situation, whether it is the deadline for the first draft of your thesis, or getting that top publication to get tenure, get to know how the system works. Look at the structure of it. How exactly is ‘performance’ measured? What counts and what doesn’t? What is expected of people? How realistic are these expectations? Be aware of the rules of the game, seeing it for what it is: a system, a set of concepts, nothing that can ultimately validate or invalidate you. It will allow you to play the academic game with your eyes wide open. (Personally, I wish I’d been more savvy about this in my PhD years. I wish I’d asked my supervisor for more help in figuring out what the written and unwritten rules of the game were.)

Don’t internalise the rules

This is the difficult part. It is all right for professor Heckman to say he doesn’t believe in citations, but what if your evaluations, and whether you have a job at all, depend on it? I really believe that a rebel mindset is the only thing that can save us! (The alternative: internalising the system, but in that case if you lose, what are you going to do? Consider yourself a failure until the end of days? Hm.) Playing along with the rules to the degree you feel you have to is important, but so is remaining fiercely aware it is an impersonal, often arbitrary system. It’s vital to not let it near the way you value yourself. Don’t let anyone tell you lies about how competition or metrics create the best science or researchers. (Maybe refer them to Heckman’s talk!) Resist the oversimplifications. Resist the tendency to measure yourself by your institution’s yardstick. (This often happens without you noticing. All of a sudden you care too much about that dreaded deadline!!!)

Your own terms of success

I read a Camus quote the other day: “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” I liked it. You don’t want your mind loops to start mirroring those of your institution. Nope. Not allowing that to happen. What would be the alternative? What are your own terms of success? What is your own value and reward system? Make sure it is kinder than that of your university. How would you live if you didn’t care about citations or deadlines? (So free!!! This is the part I like.)

Intrinsic motivation

Remind yourself of why you do the work you do. What makes you light up? What is the story you need to tell? What are the data you need to present? Why do you care? What paper is yours to write? What’s your argument? Where does the excitement live? Nurture it. Keep it alive. One of the participants in the EASA panel noted: ‘We don’t want to shrink our world. This I think is shrinking our world.’ Once you get lost in the meta-world of races and achievement, you lose what is so powerful: content, intrinsic value, and intrinsic motivation. Don’t let the system shrink your world. (Here you get to live your ‘romance’ with your work. This is it.)

Focus on habits, not goals

If goals are increasingly arbitrary, increasingly elusive, but meeting these goals increasingly important, how to handle the pressure? One way is to shift from focusing on goals, to focusing on the habits you have in place to achieve those goals. You have no control over whether your paper will be published or where, but you do have control over how you write that paper (more control, at least). Focusing on your small achievements every day really helps. (I have written lots about working in waves, and other ways to enhance your productivity before, see the productivity tag)

The good life

What, in or outside of work, gives you joy, pleasure, fulfilment? It is impossible to not get dragged down by the pressure, the measuring and the rejections, from time to time. You need copious antidotes in your life. A shield of them! Small pleasures, and bigger ones. What makes you come alive? What are you grateful for? What makes you forget about the stresses of work for a bit? Who are your friends outside of academic life? Do those things. Notice those things. Be with these people. Wellbeing is a skill (to a degree). If you are attuned to the good in your life, the negative holds less power. (Very true. Small shift in perception makes for a very different life.)

What are your experiences with performance metrics? Do you have a way of working with the system without losing yourself? For more support: The HappyPhD Course will help you create a productivity system in which you set the rules, not your university. It will help you bounce back faster, and stay on track, also when you’re faced with deadlines, pressure, and inevitable rejection along the way. If you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

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How Are You Unwilling to Support Yourself? (And a story about Trump)

How are you unwilling to support yourself?

Answering this question (and changing my habits accordingly) was fundamental in getting my PhD process (and much else) to a better place. The question popped up in one of my feeds: it was a timely reminder. Sometimes I feel academics wear their unwillingness to support themselves as a badge of honour: how much we endure, the long hours we work, how stressed we are, seems to somehow reinforce the idea of how ‘tough’ academia is, and how ‘tough’ we are if we can ‘handle it’. It is a little like the starving artist myth. Suffering (though the vulnerable part of it must stay strictly private) gives us an edge, an indication we are doing it ‘right’. It is supposed to be hard. And we are supposed to do it all by ourselves.

I could skip straight to some ways you might be able to better support yourself, but I thought I’d tell a tale first. Stay with me. It is related. It is about Trump voters. (If you are sick of Trump, I am sorry!!)

I read a book, and since I read it I understand Trump voters.
True.
You should read it.

It is: ‘Strangers in Their Own Land, Anger and Mourning on the American Right’ by Arlie Hochschild. She spent five years (!) living in Louisiana, making friends with Tea Party enthusiasts, and trying her very best to get past the empathy wall, as she calls it. It is such a good read. (A concerning read also.) Hochschild’s fascination are the paradoxes, the way people applaud policies that may harm them directly or indirectly. The specific paradox she had in mind when she came to Louisiana was why people in poor, severely polluted industrial areas approve of a repeal of even a minimum of environmental and protective regulations.

Many of the folks she got to know much appreciated outdoor life: they fish, they hunt, they spend time in nature. How to understand why people actively support the poisoning of their waters, their fish, their land? How to understand why people actively support policies that allow themselves, their neighbours, their children, to get sick and even die from toxin-induced illnesses directly related to the industry on their doorstep? The stories in the book are shocking, yet people stand by their convictions. Regulation is bad. Protection is bad. We want less of it not more.

Why so reckless?
How to square this circle?

According to Hochschild, a sociologist, emotional self-interest, as opposed to rational or economic self-interest, is an important part of the answer. People care about how life feels to them, and how it makes them feel about themselves, above all else. She tells us we all have a subjective, internalised narrative that fuels how we see the world. She calls this our ‘deep story’. It is a narrative to make sense of it all. And we tend to reject facts incompatible with these narratives. (Well, that explains 2016.)

Hochschild tells one story of a safety inspector at one of the industrial plants in charge of installing air quality monitors. “To set up the monitors” he recalls, “I wore a respirator. Some of the guys started to taunt me, the corporate sissy who couldn’t tough it out like they did. But when they laughed at me, I could see their teeth were visibly eroded by exposure to sulfuric acid mist.”

Not shying away from danger is a source of honour for these guys, it is considered bravery. Not wearing protective gear says: “I’m strong, I can take it.” It doesn’t really matter whether or not their health is severely affected, whether it makes them sick. Copping to that would make them appear weak.

In her book Hochschild names this archetype The Cowboy. It relates to stoicism.

When I read the passage I felt myself retreating further and further to the liberal side of the empathy wall. How can people be so stupid?! Sure, let all your teeth fall out and in time die an entirely preventable premature death in the name of honour, why don’t you?

Yet ten minutes later I realised there are so many ways we do this in our own lives. It may be less extreme and less blatantly obvious, also because we are blind to our own emotion-based narratives.

In the big picture one way academics do this, I realised, is though the culture of overwork and over-identification with work. Rationally it makes very little sense, but don’t tell anybody! It is important to us!

On a smaller, personal, scale we may be toughing things out in true Cowboy-style, when help and (self-)protection are available.

When I was at the EUI I never used the (free) counselling service, as I thought that was for when you had ‘real’ problems. I also didn’t take the mindfulness course on offer as I didn’t really see how that related to my PhD. The academic culture was one where help was there, but only on the periphery. And you didn’t (want to) identify as being out there, I suppose. The university certainly didn’t help. Looking after yourself and performing well at work certainly weren’t overtly linked in a positive way.

What a difference compared to some of the corporate workplaces I know of where getting help and lifestyle are at the heart of what they call: high performance. Think Google. A friend of mine who works at one of the large consulting firms lent me a book from a two-day workshop they collectively attended: Sink, Float or Swim: Sustainable High Performance Doesn’t Happen by Chance — It Happens by Choice. It was all about looking after yourself, eating right, rest, mindset etc. Self-care! How un-Cowboy. (Though the narrative that it is the individual who ‘chooses’ success, is pretty Cowboy in its own right).

What is the real indicator of strength and bravery: being able to tough it out, not needing any protective gear or strategies, not needing anyone else’s advice or guidance, doing it all relying on your own strength and stamina? Or taking precautions, protecting yourself from unnecessary risk, going against the norm, being ‘smart’ about it? Which stories do we tell ourselves?

I thought it an interesting question.

How might you better support yourself, and be a little less Cowboy? Any programmes or help your university offers you might benefit from? The HappyPhD course may be exactly what you’re looking for. As always, if you liked this post could you share it? I appreciate it.

‘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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How to Plan Your Work

How do you plan your work? I’m always intrigued by people who schedule every project, cutting their projects into bite-size chunks, then organising them into their week. I’ve never been able to do that, and sometimes I wonder whether anybody can really tame academic work into cooperating like that?? With academic work everything always seems to take endlessly longer than you think it would. It seems frustrating to always come up short.

What’s the alternative?

In my experience simplifying and prioritising are what is called for, followed by implementation. It means you come up with a clear idea of what matters to you, and what matters less, and adapt as you go. It creates time to implement your ideas also, it makes work doable and manageable. That sounds lovely, but it also means you will have to say no to other things, to other people’s priorities’ for you and to some of the ’things that come up’ along the way that steal your attention. That is too much to try to achieve using self-discipline. No matter how much you ‘want to’ or ‘intend to’ stick to your plans, the only way you will is by using as little of your energy as possible on constantly having to persuade yourself.

Some practical tips:

1. Be Clear on What You Want to Achieve

This is about considering your short-, medium- and longterm goals. Better start with the longterm goals and deadlines, then define the shorter term ones. Even simply writing these goals down will alert part of your mind into working towards them. (Try it.) Being specific here helps. Make it tangible. Write down exactly which papers or chapters you’d like to complete, and which other project deadlines you have. Then make a rudimentary plan, but don’t stress about it. It’s only a general outline, nothing set in stone. Spend ten minutes on it not ten hours. The most important part of this process is the prioritising of projects. Ask yourself: ‘what if I could only achieve one thing in the next x number of months? What would it be?’ Feel it. That is how you know what should be at the top of your list. Then go on to what is second most important. Etc.

2. Reserve Your Best Time Slots for Doing Your Important Work

Prioritise the work that will help you meet your goals. Have a look at your workday. Which part of the day are your best work hours? Use these ‘best’ hours for your most important work. Create a perfect bubble to work in. Whatever you need to do to make sure the best hours of your day are spent on your most important projects, do it. It doesn’t have to be all day, but 2 or so hours a day will make all the difference.

3. Keep up the Momentum

One way to keep momentum high is to stop work slightly earlier than you are used to, and use the last few minutes, or even moments to mentally record what you are doing, what you have done, and where you want to take it next. This helps tremendously when getting back to work the next day. It creates a work flow all you need to do about it step back into. There is something habitual about procrastination. Once we get into the habit of getting straight to work it loses its hold.

4. Prioritise as You Go Along

Are you working on the right thing? My problem with static schedules is that they are always outdated. Much better to keep checking in with your priorities. In the HappyPhD Course I teach a technique on doing so. One part of it consists of asking: ‘What is the most important thing I could work on right now to move my project closer to completion?’ This is slightly different from the more general question of priorities above. Your answer in the moment depends on what you just got done, how much time you have, and also how much mental energy you have at that time. Sometimes you need to go for it, try to untangle the most pressing intellectual knot (hahaha I just corrected a typo: I had typed – entangle the intellectual knot. Freudian slip there, we’re all masters at entangling intellectual knots). Other times it is wiser to do something else. I have found this way of working (if we act on our intuitive answer) to far surpass any linear way of approaching our work.

5. Keep It Doable

When you’re paralysed it tends to mean work is scaring you so much you’d rather not go there. It has become too big. Too difficult. Don’t forget: you can do this. You are going to figure it out. It just takes time. And it takes a lot of small incremental steps to get there. But you’ll get there. So instead of worrying about abstract things like deadlines or whether you will manage, assume you will. Because you will. Don’t lose your energy on rumination. Instead, focus on the next thing you can do. Ask: what next? Keep it small. Be pragmatic. Keep going. It is so powerful to defy those doubting internal voices, and proving them wrong while doing so makes life even better.

6. Keep Your Finger on the Pulse

Most important in planning isn’t the scheduling. It is the emotional pull for you to ‘want to do’ what you ‘need to do’. If you can’t get yourself to work on your project pay attention to why that is the case. Sometimes a simple pragmatic change such as changing your work schedule helps. If you promise yourself you ‘only’ have to work on your project for 90 minutes, say, every day, it may make it less intimidating. It will get you going. Or perhaps it is about permission to prioritise your research over your other to-do’s and obligations, especially if you’re busy and have other many other demands on your time. If the feeling persists you may have to go deeper. Maybe your project needs to change: it may need more interaction or supervision. Maybe you need to approach it differently. Or maybe you should be doing something else entirely…the internal drive isn’t always there, but if it is almost never there your future may lie outside the world of research. But that’s an entirely different post… (I wrote about quitting your PhD previously here)

Do you have tips on planning your projects? Do you work with a static schedule, or prefer something more fluid? Let me know. Also, download ‘Finding Your Academic Voice’ if you haven’t done so already, for more on this. As always if you liked this post could you share it? I appreciate it!

The Nudge: Coming to You Next Week

In academia workdays never seem to end. Firstly because there’s a culture of long hours (which isn’t necessarily the best way to go about it), and secondly because it just never ends…even when you’re not working, the project is still on your mind. The two combined can make for exhaustion and discouragement. I thought it would be a good idea to spend some time reflecting on how that happens, and what we might do instead. How we might create a schedule that isn’t quite as 24/7. How to work less, but get more done, and feel better too. If this appeals: sign up to receive a week of daily guidance here. I’ll be sending out an email every morning next week, so keep an eye on your inbox!

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‘Not everyone should get a PhD’ and other academic productivity fallacies

A few weeks ago I taught a workshop on academic productivity, and how self-care and perhaps counter-intuitive strategies such as shortening your workday may help. The audience were economists: PhD students, as well as a few faculty. Let’s just say it was an interesting experience! The dynamics were completely different compared to the other workshops I have taught, where the atmosphere tends to be relatively open, laid-back and sort of intimate. This time, however, that didn’t happen. Instead, there was a more challenging atmosphere, with more critical questions asked. By the supervisors, not the PhDs, I must add.

The resistance to some of what I was saying made me think: they may have gotten the impression that I was falsely portraying and underestimating what it takes to be a prolific academic in a competitive field. Maybe even worse, that I was pointing people in the wrong direction: that I would be encouraging them to be ‘too soft’ which just doesn’t cut it. The supervisors probably truly believe in the linear model of performance: that working longer hours is better, that pushing yourself is the answer to most productivity questions, that if you’re not tough enough to survive in the competitive world of academia (economics is a tough field indeed) it is too bad and simply means you are not cut out to be an academic, and that ‘self-care’ is too soft to be taken remotely seriously.

The point I was trying to make was the opposite: the ’soft stuff’ is what makes you better able to handle the pressures of academic life. It is what gives you the cutting edge. It is what allows you to perform better. It is in economist’s terms output-maximising. And wellbeing-maximising too. There is no trade-off, which is the beauty of it.

The issue: how to convince hard-nosed ‘more-is-better-you-should-be-tougher-and-push-yourself-harder-relaxation-is-for-weaklings’ economists of the value of such an approach. I don’t know whether I did or can, but I am willing to try as I really feel the paradigm needs to change for academia to become an environment that is less destructive, both in terms of the wellbeing, and in terms of academic productivity lost because people aren’t doing as well as they might, with a little different approach.

So, in a nut-shell what I propose is that the relationship between stress/ pressure/ competition and academic performance isn’t linear. If anything, it follows a concave curve, and at present academics are often situated well beyond the maximum (too much stress, sub-optimal perfromance). Empirical studies support the view that academia is a high-stress (potentially burnout-prone, low-performance) environment (See for example this study where academia is ranked the 6th most stressful profession). From a brain perspective a worsening of academic performance in these circumstances makes sense: chronic stress is just about the brain’s worst enemy, it has a real impact. And sadly the statistics support this analysis: academics suffer disproportionately with mental health problems, an indicator of a highly stressed and sub-optimal performing brain. In this scenario lowering stress levels so your brain has some space to think and actually perform is the best thing you could do for your academic career.

Unfortunately though there is still a survival-of-the-fittest mentality in universities, which considers anything to do with stress relief, especially admitting that it may be beneficial or ‘needed’ a sign of weakness. Push harder is the device, and if you can’t ‘handle it’: tough, academia is not for you. This is Neanderthal reasoning, sorry! It is true that at present the hardier ‘marathon-type’ academics are often the last ones standing, but that’s a result of the current set-up, not how it could be. And it isn’t in any way an optimal situation, either individually or collectively.

These were the main questions/ remarks/ arguments put to me by the supervisors during my talk. I’d thought I’d walk you through them:

1. “Competition is good for academic performance!” (Challenging the idea I put forward that high competition/ high stress results in a worsening of academic performance).

It depends. I’m not really worried about the intellectual challenge of pursuing a PhD contributing to chronic stress and underperformance, it is more about what I tend to refer to as ‘the rest of it’. It is important to understand: (chronic) stress which negatively impacts performance arises primarily not due to high demands or workload, but because those high demands lack matching reward structures. And academia is terrible in this regard. It doesn’t think in terms of process or support or reward, only in terms of output, often defined in a strictly linear way. And this is getting worse. There are many fears and insecurities inherent to the academic process and capability and effort do not necessarily neatly translate into ‘output’ (if only). Getting published sometimes takes years not months. The process can be messy and unpredictable and rife with uncertainty. Nothing new, but this uncertainty, specifically, is a major stressor. A culture in which destructive criticism may be the norm, instead of constructive criticism and support and mentoring and collaboration, as is often the case in more competitive departments, exacerbates the problem.

The point: You don’t want chronic stress to start interfering with people’s ability to work! This is often framed as an individual weakness, and private problem, but I disagree. It’s a collective problem, caused by structural features of academia, and should not be contributed to individual ‘failure’ or ‘weakness’. I’d argue that in the present situation where surveys show that around 37% of PhD students might be considered clinically depressed (44% for economics PhDs!), the vast majority of PhDs are suffering from the detrimental effects of chronic stress. From an academic performance perspective this is a worst case scenario! From a departmental perspective striving for ‘excellence’ it is too! The remedy of pushing people harder in this situation is counterproductive.

2. “Competition in this field will only get more intense, not less intense.” (So you’d better get used to it!)

True. The question is how to adapt and thrive in a competitive environment, and that isn’t necessarily by pushing harder longer. The best analogy I have found here is with the world of professional sports, and the role recovery plays in improving your performance. At some point you cannot train more hours a day, or you will overtrain, and your performance will be worse. Interestingly though, when you focus on improving the rate at which you recover, you can also increase the intensity of the training sessions, and your performance improves. Efficient recovery means performance gains. The exact same applies to research: in a competitive environment you have to couple intense work with intense relaxation. This means having recovery practices in place. Working in intervals, similar to athletes doing interval training, is one way of doing that and will absolutely allow you to shorten your workday with productivity gains. Sounds a bit scary, doing ‘less’, but it works. If you are performing well, it will allow you to find your competitive edge. If you are feeling ‘overtrained’, it will allow you to gradually increase your effective working hours, and allow your brain to recover and perform better.

3. “I don’t believe in this. You should just handle stress when it comes up. Making exercise, meditation, self-care part of your work day just creates more stress.”

May I roll my eyes at this one? If this is your private opinion, fine, but supervisors should hold their tongue. Stress isn’t something that ‘suddenly happens’ (academia is a chronic stress environment, not an acute stress environment) and discouraging people from looking after themselves is simply wrong. I can see why time pressure may make taking time for self-care difficult, especially when you’re stuck in a panicked mind-spin about work, or if you have an overloaded schedule already. But doing so will make a difference. Don’t take my word for it, try it. Work isn’t just about work. It is about creating the right circumstances to perform well, and that deserves some of your time and attention.

And finally my favourite:

4. “Not everyone should get a PhD” (Repeatedly.)

I have no words… I feel I should have spoken up more when a supervisor said this to the researchers during the workshop. Academia is a pressure cooker, and the supervisor says if you can’t stand the heat get out of the pot! How about we acknowledge the fact we are collectively being boiled and find strategies to deal with it, other than letting people figure it out for themselves and struggle in private. People are underperforming, not because they are not capable, but because they are not taught and mentored on how to perform well in a hyper-competitive environment. They are supposed to figure it out on their own, or else. If they feel vulnerable, they should just shut up and go away and push harder and do better. In my opinion this is a foolish stance. It doesn’t create better academics. It creates academics who are afraid they ‘aren’t good enough’ no matter how brilliant and talented they are. It creates a culture of fear and depression. It creates and sustains underperformance. Stress is a constant feature of academia, yet many of the stresses and struggles of academia remain hidden. People keep it to themselves because they are afraid of being seen as weak. Case in point: I heard after the workshop that some PhDs refrained from asking questions because of the supervisors’ presence and critical stance. That is the problem, people. It is to do with not being allowed to be seen as ‘weak’. Nothing to do with intelligence, talent or capability. Or output…

Reminds me of some of the dialogue in PhD the Movie

PhD: Sir, I’ve been meaning to tell you: I’ve been having some problems…
Supervisor: Problems? In academia we don’t use the word ‘problems’. It’s considered a sign of weakness. Call them challenges, issues if you must.
PhD: I have…issues.
Supervisor: Not my problem!

Note: If you’re someone dealing with a supervisor like this, the HappyPhD course does have a module on how to handle difficult supervisors. May come in handy…

I am creating a week of email ‘nudges’ to help shorten your workday and be more productive. Let’s try and implement some of these productivity ideas. (Not quite sure yet when: I said late July before, but I’ve had some delays… New date to be announced.) Do join us! It is free and you can sign up for it here.

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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!

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!

Your Best Shot at Staying in Academia: Tips from an Economist

2016-01-03 14.05.42I spent a good week in San Francisco earlier this year, travelling with my boyfriend who, with two colleagues, was to recruit some potential assistant professors for his department. My boyfriend is an economist. If you are not familiar with the academic job market in the economics field picture this: the job market is an actual physical market where demand and supply meet. In this case the venue was a suite in a swank hotel in the financial heart of San Francisco (picked by yours truly) where three young(ish) professors spent three long days interviewing job candidates. As was happening in hotels all across the city those particular days. Why San Francisco? Because one of the largest economics conferences was held concurrently, just a block down the road. So indeed people fly halfway round the world for a few sessions and a couple of interviews, and may be lucky enough to be selected for one or more ‘fly-outs’ to present a job market interview at interested universities.

The setting is bizarre (which I don’t necessarily object to), and it is also incredibly competitive (which is why the economics case is one to pay attention to, as I am seeing other disciplines moving in the same direction). In fact it is so competitive that I heard my boyfriend mutter something along the lines of: “I would not have stood a chance in the current job market. These CVs!” Back home he had more evaluating to do. This time for grants. Again, a similar sentiment: “I’m not so sure my chances would have been as great to get a VIDI grant if I had applied now, compared to ten years ago.” Ouch. The job market is changing. And however much we hate it (and I do believe most academics aren’t too keen on this development, collectively squeezed as they are) you have to somehow work taking into account the present conditions. That or leave, which is increasingly an option to take seriously, especially right after the PhD.

2016-01-05 18.27.59

I asked Bas (pictured on the right, waiting for well-deserved best-of-San-Francisco-ramen-noodles after a long day of interviews), as he now is part of the human machinery of academic hiring and judging what he would advise current PhDs and ECRs.

How to prepare if you want to stay in academia?

This is what I’ve distilled from our conversations on the topic:

1. Publications

No surprise here. Publications are a sine qua non. Make sure you have at least one single-authored paper in the mix, and go for quality over quantity. [AD: I remember a conversation with my late supervisor in Florence who was concerned by the CVs with lists and lists of multi-authored papers, often produced without much individual say. To him this heralded the end of the profession. Some of his colleagues rather disagreed, and urged their PhDs to collaborate and ‘pool resources’ so to speak, often including themselves in the mix, at times adding themselves as first author despite little intellectual investment in the work. Depends very much on the field…]

2. Push to the frontier

The PhD and ECR years are an investment to learn all there is to learn about your field, then push to the frontier of knowledge in your field. This is very much a marathon-like pursuit: training, training, training, putting the miles in, rather than having to do with genius or superior intellect. Many academics aren’t exquisitely bright. They do well because they chose their niche well and simply were consistent and kept at it. It doesn’t matter where you start exactly, just get going. Put yourself out there.

3. Beware of ‘lamp post academics’

Imagine I’ve dropped my wallet in a dark little alley at night. Now, where do academics tend to look for the wallet? Right, you’ve guessed it – on the main road where the lamp post is. At least there they can see what is going on! In other words: avoid doing data-driven research. It doesn’t answer any interesting questions. Sure, you may be able to get a publication out of it, and some people manage to build their entire careers on data-driven research, but it’s hardly satisfying and it doesn’t impress. Try to find the wallet in a place you may actually find it, even though it might take some stumbling around in the dark.

4. Develop your idea, make it researchable and convincing

If you’re trying to get a grant for a project there are three things you’ll need to demonstrate:
1. That you’re capable. That you can perform the research proposed.
2. That whatever you are proposing to do is important. You need an idea, and you need to show that that idea will contribute to one of the important debates in the field.
3. You need to convince the evaluation committee their money will be well spent.
Don’t underestimate the second and third part. They are what gives you a competitive edge. Many people are capable, only a sub-set have interesting ideas, and only a small sub-set manage to communicate successfully how exactly the project will be set up. Many academics are great at theorising, but get stuck in the clouds. Don’t be one of them. Tell us why your research is important, and be as specific as you can regarding the details of how research will be carried out, what exactly the grant money will achieve. Many researchers fail to do so. They overestimate the importance of skill and technique and method and get caught up in showing off how clever they are. The main idea and realisation of the project are the more important parts, and is what will make your proposal stand out.

5. Get to know your field

Go to seminars regularly, and contribute. Get to know people. Pay attention. To succeed in academia you need to get involved, to show up, to engage. How does the tribe work? What are the do’s? What are the don’ts? Read between the lines. What are the important debates? What triggers the main discussions? How do people ask questions and how are they answered? Observe and learn. Engaging is an investment in your human capital, and you cannot go without.

Academia is a verb

What I have learned from observing Bas carving out an academic career for himself over the past decade is that academia is very much about doing the work, about getting engaged, about putting yourself and your work out there. Academia is a network of people with ideas, and becoming part of this network is as important as the ideas themselves. Another thing I’ve noticed, and the reason I believe he is doing well is inner drive. Depending on workload and competitiveness in your field inner drive is what will allow and motivate you to continue on the academic trail. You need abundant inner resources to overcome the obstacles and hurdles that are par for the course. Without, academia can be a tough gig, and you may be better off somewhere else…

Which of the above advice speaks to you? Should you focus in on that next publication, rewrite that grant proposal, or spend some more time getting to know people in your field? The inner drive part is addressed in the HappyPhD course. It will give you tools to uncover it, and help you work with ‘effortless effort’. As always, if you like this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

Going Offline: The Plan

Imagine yourself working without interruptions, without distraction, without being sucked into mind-numbing information overload.
Imagine focus.
Imagine creative thought and analysis happening.

Now imagine such sustained focus happening for a couple of hours a day, at least five days a week.
Imagine what that might mean in terms of output.
Think chapters, articles, publications.

Imagine what it (both the doing and the results) might mean in terms of satisfaction.

Ah satisfaction! Interesting concept.

The paradox of satisfaction: we have to give up more superficial satisfaction-seeking behaviour in order to be able to do or achieve those things that indeed satisfy. Very zen idea to stop chasing the carrot and to stop scratching the itch. To stick with the example of working offline: our internet habits are fuelled by seeking immediate gratification, and if we’re not careful we get stuck in an addicitive, and ultimately not-so-satisfying-loop. If you’d like to get scientific about it (sort of), the specific loop we’re talking about is the dopamine loop. Dopamine rules seeking behaviour, and is released one notification at a time. Unfortunately the pleasurable effects are short-lived, and this mechanism isn’t self-limiting, as anyone who has spent significant time on FB or Twitter will attest to.

Last week I talked about how going offline helped me tremendously when I was finishing my PhD. The blank page becomes the only page for your eyes to focus on. It’s annoying and quiet and challenging in the beginning (dopamine loop withdrawal!) but wait til you get going. Creative work happens in the void, despite this being an uncomfortable truth in the age of distraction.

So how to actually implement the radical idea of focused offline work:

1. Determine how long you would like to go offline for

I like to work in 45 minute segments. When I was finishing my PhD I would do three offline ones in a row, with a short (non-internet) break in between, in the mornings. That would be most of my work for the day done! Perhaps you don’t have three hours, maybe you have two or only one. What matters most is that you do it – sit down and work – and do it consistently. Don’t underestimate a 45 minute session: with the right mindset you can get a lot of work done. Or, maybe you are working on your PhD full-time, and three hours seems next to nothing. I’ll repeat: don’t underestimate the 45 minute session. I like to err on the side of working ‘not enough’, as it gives you momentum, rather than working ‘all day, every day’ and slowing down to prevent burning out. Quick, fast, get in there and work. That is how it is done.

2. Determine whether to go fully offline or block certain sites only

Working offline completely might seem near impossible. I say go as offline as you dare go. We tend to think we ‘need’ the internet because we use it. I say try to use the brain instead. It is magnificent. The internet is secondary. (I know. Very old-school idea.) Perhaps you’ll need to download some articles etcetera. Do it. Do it before you start. If you absolutely must, you could use certain specific sites, while blocking others. I have talked about the Freedom app before. It now allows you to block a selection of sites, or the entire online world. Such a blocklist option seems to me very handy. I consider social media to be particularly unhelpful when in the act of producing academic work. Block those as a very minimum. Then add any guilty pleasures to the blocklist. Save them for later, once the work is done.

3. Recurring sessions

I believe in habits. They provide structure, and they allow us to get things done while skipping the step of ‘shall I or shan’t I’. Imagine the world where you switch on your computer and simply get to work. Imagine a world where you don’t lose half your morning to browsing. Imagine not having to use any willpower to achieve any of this either! Doesn’t that sound appealing? Freedom (or the app of your choice) again, to the rescue as it allows you to create recurring sessions, by blocking your favourite social sites for certain hours every day by default. Slightly terrifying prospect, but it might just work. Could be a tremendous help in creating a daily work/writing habit. My opinion: a consistent writing habit really is the cornerstone of a successful academic career. The beauty of it is the habit part: it is difficult in the beginning, but it becomes easier with every repeat.

4. Withdrawal

Withdrawal symptoms are likely to happen. We are in the dopamine loop for a reason. The temptation, offline, might be to procrastinate in the old-fashioned way: by sitting around daydreaming, making endless cups of tea, or chatting with your colleagues. (Some people who work at home report they procrastinate by cleaning the house. Sadly I have never discovered such tendencies in myself.) Stay with it. Stay with the page. Get into your work. Drown out all that is external and unrelated. Sit. Sit and work! Defer satisfaction seeking, defer gratification. You can do it, and you will be so pleased. Also have a look at the previous articles I wrote on procrastination here (with worksheet) and here.

5. Visualise

The short ‘imagine’ exercise at the top will help you stay on track. I firmly believe that the imagination leads. It’s not enough, of course. It needs a follow-up actually ‘doing’, but that becomes easier when you have a clear vision on what you’d like to achieve, and especially how that’ll make you feel. Being anchored into that positive feeling/ achieving state will help you to get going and keep going. It’s a topic that deserves a blog post of its own, but for now: keep the image, the feeling-image of it, in mind, and re-connect with it when motivation wanes…

Let’s make this offline thing a wave, a movement. What are your plans, and how are you going to support your new offline habit? How is it going so far? If you’d like a structured step-by-step foolproof system to help you build indestructible work habits have a look at the HappyPhD Online Course. It will guide you day-by-day until you cannot imagine working in any other way. As always: if you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!