Freedom from the Internet

When I was writing my PhD the internet was my nemesis. It was the beginning of the blogging era then, and I spent so many hours reading posts and commenting and being distracted in general. Now, I’d say the worst offender is my phone! I’m not even sure what I’m doing on there.

So. Freedom to the rescue. This is the app I used to go offline with when I was finishing my PhD. At one point I realised I wanted to get work done, and the surfing and daydreaming was making me a bit sick of myself. Nothing as draining as this being in-between. Nothing as self-defeating as sitting around all day doing nothing. Freedom blocks the internet. You can’t undo the block, unless you shut down and restart the computer to get back online. Well, I may have been tempted, but I never rebooted the computer! Instead it was an uneasy minute or so of wanting to be distracted, then more or less giving up and giving in to work. Victory. After a while it becomes a habit to simply work, and oh what bliss.

A few weeks ago I received an email from Freedom to say they now have completely renewed their app to include: recurring work sessions, shutting off social media sites only, and covering phones! Oh, my! You could build some powerful work habits using this tool. (Freedom hasn’t sponsored me into saying this BTW. This is all cheerleading for free.)

Ideally, and how I did it when I finished my PhD, you would have a couple of work sessions in the morning where everything is switched off. The internet, social media, phone. Then in the afternoon, we might use the internet for research purposes, but block our favourite social sites. Sounds like a good idea to me.

Working offline takes a bit of getting used to. To start distractions are an addiction, an itch we will acutely feel once we cannot go online. The space it opens up is uncomfortable.

We are also used to multitasking. We work on an article and insert and look up details, such as references, online simultaneously. Not the best idea. You are busy with two tasks in fact: creating or writing the argument, which takes focused and creative effort, and looking up references, which doesn’t require such focus. I would argue: think and write first, without the internet, without distractions. (Of course, you’ll have a couple of papers on hand, but that’s it.) Then later, in the next work session: fill in the gaps. Find that reference etc. It’s more efficient. You’ll be able to retain your train of thought. You won’t be as easily swept into reading other papers, and get derailed.

You need your work and focus bubble intact. This kind of focus will allow you to work exceptionally well. I see it time and time again when I work with people now, and urge them to go offline, and I know it from my own experience.

Which leads me to the last bit: I haven’t been great with my online habits lately, and I could use some focus right now. My plan is to work offline from 10:00 to 13:00 every day, unless I have to do coaching calls in those hours. Should be manageable. I have to give it a little think whether going offline completely is wise, or whether I should simply block social and other distracting sites, so I can still work on my own site! However I’m going to do it I’ll keep you posted (online ironically. But after my other work is done).

Are you in need of a social media cleanse? Ready to try working offline for a couple of hours a day? Join me! Let me know in the comments what you’d like your work schedule to look like, and how you’re going to implement it. If you’d like a complete programme to coach you and create a complete work routine, take a look at the HappyPhD course. It will do exactly that.

Past the Breaking Point: The Myth of Competition and Performance in Academia

A few weeks ago a to-remain-unnamed director of graduate studies uttered the following statement:

“Unless about 25% of your PhDs drop out, your PhD programme isn’t competitive enough.”

What? Did I hear that correctly? What did he say?!

It wasn’t a mistake. When asked again, and given a chance to perhaps come up with some nuance or disclaimers, he said: “I stand by that. I mean it! If you can’t handle it you shouldn’t be in academia.”

Right.

This is a problem in academia: people in charge talk ‘excellence’ and ‘performance’ and ‘competition’ but they don’t think it through. Instead they rely on misguided models of performance focused on pushing people beyond breaking point.

If you have a 25% drop-out rate it implies people are seriously struggling and seriously stressed (apart from a small number who simply decide academia isn’t their thing). It is in no way a good sign, and much better prevented, both in terms of performance, and in terms of wellbeing.

Let’s spell it out.

Moderate, transient stress leads to high performance. Chronic or high-level stress leads to cognitive malfunctioning and low performance (and high drop-out rates!).

A burst of stress gets you mobilised, and in the short run it helps you perform. With a little adrenalin and other stress-hormones on the go you are brighter, more alert, sharper, faster, better! Your academic performance improves. For a short while you are a supercharged version of yourself. This phenomenon has been well documented in both animals and humans.

So far, so good.

Things get sticky however, if stress either increases in intensity or when stress is prolonged. The details on how exactly this works in the brain are still being explored, but the conclusions in the brain-science literature are unequivocal: long-term stress leads to a shrinking of, and malfunctioning in the brain, which leads to reduced performance. Memory declines, as does executive function. It also opens the way for mental disorders, if you are so predisposed. In sum: there is an ‘inverse-U’ relationship between stress and performance.

Now, if you have around 25% of your PhDs struggling to the point of quitting as a result of being in your PhD programme, I would dare to predict that you have a vast majority of your PhDs in a chronic-stress state, which is shrinking their hippocampus, over-activating their amygdala and messing with their academic performance as we speak.

Not good.

You may have a few hardy, stoic individuals who are not as prone to react to stress, who are still in their zone of optimal performance, but honestly, with the set-up of academia as it is – it is a chronic-stress environment, as I have discussed before – these people will be few and far between. These effects are subtle enough in the vast majority of people to not disable them in any visible way, but that doesn’t mean their performance doesn’t suffer and their output doesn’t decrease. And that is without taking into account how everyone is feeling!

In my online course I tell the story of practically an entire year of PhDs at a world-renowned institution, selected on ‘excellence’, who more or less collectively crumbled under the pressure. Not because they were ‘soft’ but because this is what brains do when they are bombarded with too much stress for a prolonged period of time. Excellent brains malfunctioning, academic output lost, lives made miserable because of misguided ideas around competition and productivity.

Universities should be smarter than rely on this survival-of-the-fittest mentality. If you want people to excel, why not provide both the challenging environment AND tools that will help them not fall prey to the brain-compromising effects of chronic stress? If you have a significant minority of graduates and colleagues falling ill or dropping out this should be a priority! Drop-out rates should be low, not high, in high-performing departments.

How to get out of the chronic-stress state

The only antidote to the negative effects of chronic stress lie in the relaxation response. Where stress damages, relaxation heals. That is how our bodies and brains are wired. There are numerous ways this can be achieved, including:

1. Working in bursts, followed by a break (see: this post)
2. Getting regular exercise
3. Meditation (see: these posts)
4. Laughter and fun
5. Sleep

At the moment these elements aren’t part of academic culture, which focuses on working excessive long-drawn-out hours without significant breaks, works exclusively from the neck up, considers anything to do with relaxation and contemplation lightly embarrassing, unneccessary and non-rational, considers laughter frivolous, and in no way prioritises wellbeing. We don’t do this soft stuff!

I must disagree.

These components are essential for optimal brain function and sustained high academic performance. ESSENTIAL. This is what should be taught in terms of performance skills. Academia has become so competitive and stressful we are already quite pushed towards the brain-degenerative part of the inverse U-curve. To undo that, and get ourselves back into the challenged, alert, cognitively optimal state, we need to learn to relax consciously. We need to learn put our brain in a healing state. That is the challenge for academics today.

Final comment: the idea of a causal relationship between being hardy and ‘academic excellence’ is absolutely insane and deluded misguided. These are separate phenomena, and by believing otherwise you more or less dismiss an entire population of researchers who may do valuable work. I could and might write an entire blog post on this, but for now I’ll use my own case as an example: my health was severely compromised when I finished my PhD, as it is now, due to an infectious disease which affects my nervous system (and everything else). It made me stress-sensitive to the extreme, which is why I am such an expert on these issues now. Despite all that I managed to write the ‘best’ PhD of our year, the ‘best’ of 35 political science PhDs. It hardly sent shock-waves around the globe, me finishing that PhD, but I do know it made a few people quake with delight for at least a couple of seconds. I am not alone, and it would be a terrible shame if we stress-sensitive ones, the ones for whom the inverse-U-curve is even steeper, and for whom the health and life effects are acute when we push past our boundaries, are weeded out as non-competitive and unworthy of being in academia. Heaven forbid, the hardy and mediocre, and dare I say irrational will take over!

Has anyone at your university ever directly or indirectly implied that it is okay for people to fall ill as a result of working in the pressure cooker that academia has become? Let me know in the comments. If you would like some help in becoming more resilient and less prone to the negative effects of stress, check out the HappyPhD course. It is designed for this purpose. As always, if you liked this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

Procrastination Part Two: Nine Suggestions

Procrastination. I am still on the topic. As I shared with you in the previous blog post, changing your procrastination habit involves changing your tiny daily actions. It is the smallest, subtle, incremental changes that produce the eventual substantial change in productivity. I am keen on this idea. It makes overcoming procrastination doable. You are no longer mentally fighting the huge imaginary procrastination beast (aka PhD monster), depleting all your resources, but instead see its ability to impress shrink one small action at a time.

Nine anti-procrastination suggestions:

1. Create a minimal, doable schedule

Start small. If you have gotten out of the habit of writing, if you are paralysed by the page, it doesn’t make sense to expect yourself to leap into writing for long hours, days!, on end overnight. The good news: you don’t have to. Start small and over time your routine will expand. I like to start with two successive working sessions a day, of 45 minutes each. Three quarters of an hour is enough to get a substantial amount of work/ writing done, yet it isn’t overwhelming. Think small successes. Small is where the job gets done. Check out this schedule for an idea of what this might look like.

2. Be specific. Schedule it. Visualise it.

At the end of a work session, decide when you are going to write the next day. Decide. Schedule. Hold yourself accountable. This is a non-negotiable date with your work. Treat it as you would a meeting in regular life. Be on time. Engage. Show your work some love and respect. It helps to take a second to visualise yourself writing at the time you intend. Oh, all the wonderful feelings that flow from that picture… Feel it. Then on the day sit down at the scheduled time, open your document and become it.

3. Don’t give yourself the option of not writing. JUST DO IT

There’s a decision you need to make, and that decision is: from now on, I am going to write for x hours (not too many) every workday. No Matter What. This isn’t a superficial decision. It is deeeeeeep. (As are you.) And what I mean by this, is that it’s a decision to from now on disobey your fears and ‘reasons’ and excuses, and support yourself wholeheartedly instead. No ifs, no buts, no maybes.  Make it non-negotiable. I made this decision in the later stages of the PhD and it made all the difference. The problem is: we waste our energy on choices, on staying in between yes and no. It is exhausting. Say yes I am going to do this. And do it. It is clean and simple and it frees up a lot of energy that would otherwise be lost.

4. No Guilt

Despite 3, you may mess up. You may not work (as much) as you had intended to. You’re human. Life happens sometimes. The first rule in this situation is No Guilt. The decision I was talking about in tip 3 is about supporting yourself. Guilt is not part of that. We (often unconsciously) think that guilt is what helps us become ‘better’. It doesn’t. All it does is make us feel awful. Honestly, not a good idea. So say no to your inner Calvinist and be your more objective self-compassionate self instead. Recommit, and schedule your work for tomorrow. There is no need to compensate or feel bad, all you need to do is get back on track.

5. Know your triggers

If for whatever reason procrastination got the better of you, be curious why. (Remember 4. No Guilt)
I use a few questions to work with this:

What happened that was more important than doing your work?
What was the excuse that sounded believable that got you out of it?
Was there a warning sign that signalled you were not going to stick to your schedule? What was it?
How could you prevent this from happening tomorrow?

Just another reminder: No Guilt. This is about creating an understanding of yourself, of your patterns, of your triggers. It’s not about making yourself feel bad. (There’s no prize or reward for that.) Being aware is crucial. It helps you create the changes you want to create. So look, be curious, find out. Know yourself.

6. Work offline

This one is so important. We get distracted. Of course we do. Email. Facebook. Whatsapp. Online news. Twitter. Or the seemingly virtuous one: looking up research and references. I am pretty strict about this one: writing time is for writing. It is for creation, not consumption. If you really need to look up an article, make a note in your piece and do it after your work session is over. We need to focus on our thoughts, we need to FOCUS to get our best work done. Going offline (I used Freedom for this purpose when I was finishing my PhD) is the mini ritual that signals to your brain: time to get stuff done. And you will. You may have a lot of resistance to this idea. “I need the Internet” you may object. You probably don’t. Trust what you know already. It is the best source to work from.

7. Set boundaries

In the same category of distractions: set boundaries. This is another reason for a short and sweet and consistent writing practice, instead of one that meanders on all day. It gives you a timetable of availability and non-availability. So useful. When I was finishing my PhD the hours from 10:00 to 13:00 were sacred. I let people know: “those are my writing hours, I will not pick up the phone. I am not available. I’ll be back ‘online’ this afternoon.” I believe that being strictly non-available some of the time is incredibly helpful. It says ‘I respect my work’. If you work in an office environment, learn to say: ‘no’. If you really can’t say no make sure you escape for an hour or two daily to write. Create your own writing bubble. It is bliss.

8. Set yourself up for success

Every writing session ask yourself what the next step is, to get your article/ chapter closer to completion. Answer in terms of what you can get finished today. Find the fine line between being ambitious and being realistic. Challenge yourself, but make sure that what you are trying to do is indeed doable. Write your daily work/ writing goals down if at all possible. Then once you have succeeded, cross the item off your list. Congratulations, well done! (Never too small an accomplishment to celebrate.) This habit helps break the loop of fear and failure and guilt that is procrastination. You’re creating a virtuous cycle of work and productivity and (small, though one day it will be BIG) success instead.

9. Focus on finishing

I want to challenge you here. Focus on the finish line. Everyone can read articles for a couple of hours a day. I want you to go beyond that. I want you to create, to produce, to develop your work. To write and FINISH an article. We often get stuck in our fears of not-yet-knowing-enough to write. I say go for it anyway. GO! You can do it. Don’t dither, do it! Academic underconfidence is rife in the formative years of the PhD and the only way to get through it, is by engaging. So make that switch from passive student to active contributor. BE the academic you want to be. Focus on creating. Focus on the finished paper. What can you finish in a week’s time? In a month? In two months? Get excited about your (self-imposed) deadlines and take a leap. Finish something.

I could go on and on, but I need to stop. Do you have anti-procrastination tips to share? And which one of those above is your favourite? Let me know in the comments! If you’d like tailor-made advice I do offer this in my coaching sessions. As always, if you liked this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

Procrastination No More

I am currently working with someone I’d call the Queen of Procrastination. Let me just say that her workday tends to start after midnight, and that only if she has a deadline. Not just any deadline, but a deadline that CANNOT BE MET unless she gets something on paper that very night. She emailed me asking for ‘sage advice’. (I love her.)

The first week we worked together I recommended she set up a minimal work schedule. Minimal, so it would be doable (we agreed on two hours of work per day); and scheduled so it would be practical. It didn’t work. We chatted again a week or so later and she hadn’t done it. She hadn’t managed to sit down and do any work. Nothing. Nada. Niente. She had meant to, of course…but…so many other things, life, pressing issues, an unexpected assignment etc.

Right, I thought. This is going to be a challenge! For her, and for me.

I’d like to note that extreme procrastinators are usually very smart. They have developed these habits because they have been able to get away with it their entire academic career. That’s not possible if you have had to work hard to pass each and every exam, and to finish your papers in your younger years. So there is mostly a bit of genius, a bit of electric action happening. They also tend to be highly creative and imaginative. Fears that will not derail more down-to-earth types will readily undo the average flighty procrastinator. It’s the second reason people tend to procrastinate: fear. The third reason is simply: habit. We do it, because we do it. Because we have become used to it. Because. And that ‘because’ is the hardest of all to fix. There’s no point reasoning with it.

What I decided to do (I interrupted our Skype chat half an hour into the conversation) is create a work schedule template for her that breaks her new work habit down into the tiniest actions. And when I say it breaks it down, I mean it breaks it down.

This is what it looks like:

Work schedule

I have asked her to tick the boxes as she goes along, and to email me her completed schedule after her daily work session. I then respond.

You may argue this seems excessively childish. We’re writing PhDs! We know how to sit down at a computer! A timer? Really? Surely this hand-holding, ticking boxes is a bit much.

I will argue the opposite: this is exactly what academics with above average intelligence, and who suffer from (extreme) procrastination need, and the reason is this: we have wild minds that fly. And we lose ourselves in the abstract. Which is so very enjoyable, but can be truly self-destructive if it means we can’t get those thoughts to translate into matter, whether written words or actions. We get lost. By breaking it down like this we have a way to hook back into reality.

Sit down.

Go offline.

Set timer.

Work.

Timer rings.

Break.

Repeat.

The only opportunity we have to change our habits lies in everyday reality, in changing our tiny actions. It is tedious. Small action, small action, small action, small action. It isn’t wild and free and unconstrained. Our minds balk. Yet this is how it is done. And once it starts getting done, once we learn to focus, once it becomes a habit to focus, that’s when the exciting bit begins: a body of work unfolding. Now it’s not only our mind that flies, it is our work that flies. (Some of the time.)

This PhD told me that she suspected she’d have graduated cum laude if she had only been able to put more regular hours of work in, instead of irregular short frenzied adrenaline-fuelled bursts of it. I think she is right. It’s early days, and there are more techniques we are exploring to help her with her procrastination habit, but I can report back that so far it is working. She is sending me emails: “It worked like a charm. I feel so happy I managed to work today!!!!!” Couldn’t be more pleased!

Do you struggle with procrastination? Would a schedule like this help you? Let me know in the comments. The HappyPhD course will help you establish a super-efficient procrastination-proof writing routine, if you prefer with my personal coaching to help you along. As always, if you liked this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

Stress: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Say ‘stress’. What comes up for you?

For most people ‘stress’, means: ‘I have too much to do’ or ‘I am so stressed I want to pull my hair out!’

I want to look at it a little differently. I want to look at stress as a demand you place on yourself, or is placed on you. That’s neutral. It depends on what exactly the stressor is, and how you react to it whether it’s a positive or negative.

To make it more specific: let’s say your stressor is a deadline. We all know how deadlines have a knack for kicking us into gear, for pushing us to achieve, and for actually making us finish projects. The fight-or-flight response quite literally gives us a jolt. That may actually be a good thing!

I was chatting to one of the HappyPhD course participants some time ago, and he mentioned he never understood the importance of stress when it comes to performance until he read a book I recommended: ‘The art of full engagement’ by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. They use a physiological approach to performance, one I also apply in the HappyPhD course, which focuses on managing your energy instead of managing your time. Utilising stress and stressors to improve your focus is an important part of that. The approach they – and I – recommend is to work in intervals, in sprints. Challenge yourself, stress and stretch yourself, then relax.

If you’ve ever worked in a highly competitive environment – and if you’re writing a PhD you probably have – you know what that feels like: the adrenalin pumping, the thrill of a challenge. For me personally the best (and worst) memories of stress were when I was studying at the LSE. The workload was gruelling, and the standards set high. I loved it. Well, and hated it in equal measure! But what it definitely did was make me achieve.

Building that type of experience – the thrill, the buzz of it – into your workday is a good idea, and it is so gratifying. Most importantly forget about high achieving for hours on end. It doesn’t work like that: work really intensely for half an hour, or an hour, an hour and a half at the most, at a time. That’s what works. Take longer than that and you lose momentum. It becomes a steady-state affair, a marathon even. Buzz lost.

If you use stress and stressors in this way, stress becomes a positive experience. It will help you get where you want to go. It will help you achieve what you want to achieve.

Stress turns bad when there is no off-switch. If we push ourselves relentlessly with no significant breaks we suffer, and our word count does too! The same physiological response to a challenge which is so beneficial in the short run has negative consequences in the long run: once stress hormones run rampant in our systems for long enough they tear us down. I’m not being metaphoric. There is ample evidence of the stress reaction over time having a negative impact on pretty much every bodily system, and that includes your brain. You’re asking why you’re underperforming when you’re feeling ‘stressed’? That’s why.

Now stress is never simply about work, it is about our lives outside work as well, and it is about how we handle all the stressors we encounter. Sometimes it feels like there IS no off-switch. And that is why it’s so important to cultivate the off-switch in ourselves. For me, yoga, meditation, taking time off, regular routines, do the trick. Where is your off-switch? How could you cultivate it? Take some time to ponder.

Stress can turn ugly when it gets us spinning our wheels to such a degree that we feel we need to push harder, and harder, yet we are no longer effective. We start to worry, overthink, we react emotionally in situations because we are strung out, life seems to be pitted against us. We lose touch with the saner parts of ourselves. We are in overdrive. It is the fight-or-flight response gone mad. If you are feeling like this: take a few steps back. Take a proper break, a few days at least, maybe longer depending on how you feel, until you regain your sense of perspective.

So many academics I know have had to take time off work at some point because work/life stress got the better of them. Nobody talks about this much, but it is very common. Self-care goes a long way in preventing more serious stress-related health problems. Be kind to yourself, and prevent burning out. Relax, take care, do what you need to do to get back in touch.

How are your stress-levels? Healthy exhilaration or are you chronically strung out? What are your favourite ways to relax and undo the fight-or-flight response? Let me know! If you’re interested in setting up some work and self-care routines for an exhilarated, definitely not-strung-out academic life take a look at the HappyPhD course. It will help. As always, if you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

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Keeping Up, Meeting Deadlines, and Making Habits Stick

At this time of year, time seems to speed up. The summer is in sight, as are too rapidly approaching PhD deadlines. When we start getting panicky about things it helps to step back and ask what might make a difference. A difference to how we work, how we write, how we get things done, how we feel. What might help us accomplish our goals?

I have become a big fan of habits, and have learnt how to build them purposefully and gradually. The gradual bit I am still not too keen on, but as I have found out with much trial and error, it is the only way that works. You can’t go cold turkey into a massive habit overhaul: after an initial enthusiastic burst of ‘good behaviour’ it won’t stick, it’ll be overwhelming and you’ll end up feeling like you’ve failed. It’s a shame this. It would be nice if creating positive habits was as easy as writing them out on a list and implementing like a maniac. Instead, I have found there are three main keys to habit change, and it is best to implement one habit at a time.

The first key is to pick the right habit (for you).  Which habit will make the most of a difference? This is your ‘What’.

What?

There are always a million things we could do ‘better’, and as we are probably all perfectionists here, I won’t need to explain the concept. Yet instead of driving ourselves crazy over details, why not ask yourself: what would make a real difference with regard to what you’re trying to achieve? One thing. One. Yes, we are prioritising. (Does the idea of picking only one change make you nervous? Why not simply allow yourself a sigh of relief? One thing is enough. You can always add something later on).

Let’s say you are trying to meet a deadline and your word count is not progressing as you might like.
Some suggestions to consider:

  1. Rest and sleep – will make you that more clear-headed/ ready for work/ less freaked out. (Recommended if you feel you are indeed on the edge of freaking out/ if it all feels like it’s too much)
  2. Working in intervals – this makes such a difference. It will allow you to be far more productive, while not wearing you out. (Recommended if work load is an issue)
  3. Creating a writing habit – write first, before you do anything else. Or at any time of the day you are sure to do it. Habit number one of the prolific academic (True!)
  4. Stopping on time – often the days seem endless, and our focus fizzles out. Create a deadline in your day, every day. Stick to it, and work hard to meet it. Then stop. Well done. It’s so simple. (Recommended if you are low on energy yet need to write more than you can seem to manage.)
  5. Working offline – single-tasking. It works, by forcing you to focus and think and write, though be prepared to miss your favourite distractions! (Recommended for all social media junkies/ distraction addicts/ if you have a can’t see the wood for the trees problem)
  6. Exercise – Just 20-30 minutes three times a week will lower your stress levels, while making you feel more alert and clear-headed (Recommended if you are feeling sluggish or down, and have a difficult time getting going)
  7. Starting a meditation routine – Increase focus, decrease stress, feel better. (Recommended for centering, overwhelmed, and when in a state of discontent or unable to tap into your intuition)
  8. Going easy on the coffee/ carbs/ booze – If you’re rollercoastering through your days, using coffee as an upper, alcohol as a downer, sugar as a pacifyer: you may need a break (Recommended if your brain is rollercoastering with you.)

Add any of you own. Now ask yourself: which of these changes might help me the most? Which one appeals? Ask yourself what would it feel like to have that change in place? Feel good? Yes or No? Would it solve some of the problems you are up against? Once your rational mind (sounds sensible) and your feeling mind (feels good) agree: that’s the habit you are looking for.

The second key is to make sure your new habit is compelling. If you want to do it, you are much more likely to do it. This is your ‘Why’.

Why?

Changing your habits can be a bit of a challenge. To make new habits stick, and decrease the chances of getting annoyed with yourself for not being able to do such a ‘simple’ task, ask yourself why you would like to make that change. What is the bigger picture? Now, don’t stop at ‘I would like to finish this paper by the end of next week, therefore I need to be more focused at work, therefore I am going to work for two hours on my paper every day, before I do anything else.’

Ask yourself what it feels like to accomplish that. Ask yourself how it would feel right after you have put your two early morning hours in. Ask yourself how it would feel to do that on a regular basis. Now ask yourself how it would feel to meet the deadline.

Future trip:

Picture yourself. Right there, at your computer. Finished manuscript in hand. The date, the time. You are well on time. You are done.

How does it feel?

Immerse yourself in this feeling.

That feeling will keep your habit in place. Anchor into it. Use it. Use it whenever you feel you can’t be bothered.

If your habit doesn’t feel good for whatever reason it’s not the right habit to change. Pick something else. Pick something that you will actually do. What moves you? Pick that one.

The third key is to keep going, and you’ll increase the odds of that happening significantly if you prepare for those moments that might challenge your new habit. This is your ‘when’.

When?

Trigger moments: those moments when we ‘want’ to stick to our new habit, yet we cave in…because it’s not quite a habit yet. You’re ready to start your early morning write, yet email beckons, or coffee beckons, or a chat with your colleague beckons, or (God forbid) an email from a colleague for a coffee, now, beckons. Now you’re outnumbered!! Can’t help it! Off for coffee.

Know your triggers. Once again imagine yourself in the situation: what is going to come up? What will seem more important, or more fun, or just plain easier? Could you plan for any of that? Be prepared…to say no. To do things differently. If you’re having trouble, go back to your why – the feeling of it. It will help you stand firm, and it will help you do what you ultimately want to do.

Which habit would you like to change or implement? Let me know! If you are looking for a system of academic habit change – have a look at the HappyPhD course. It has good reviews. As always, if you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

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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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Are You Hiding Behind the Literature?

Are you hiding behind the literature?

It’s tempting, you know. Making academic work all about what others have done. And true, learning about what others have done is one of the core activities in doing your own research. Yet do not forget, your research has a reason to exist in its own right. It must do. Why else bother? And why else would anyone seek your work out?

It’s so tempting to swing between feeling like you have to design some grand theory that explains everything, to somehow integrate all the literature in a way that makes sense; and feeling like you are utterly failing at that, and worse: your own contribution to the debate is meagre, shameful even. Hardly noticable and not worth noticing.

Listen. Your contribution doesn’t have to be of epic proportions to be of value. (Let’s forget about the heroic PhD fantasy). But it needs to be communicated, it needs to be heard. Yes. It needs to come out of hiding. The most important step in academic writing is finding out what that contribution is. What is the argument you are trying to make? That’s what we want to know. How your argument relates to the literature is always secondary. No matter how much more erudite/ profound/ advanced/ impressive that literature is.

I know that many PhDs are asked to write a literature review. I believe this only makes sense up to a point. A literature review needs an angle. It needs a question driving it. That question is what it’s all about. It is the only thing that ensures focus. Without it you are guarantueed to be lost. And your readers will be equally lost.

Finding that question, and finding the answer.

That’s what your PhD is about.

That is it.

Yes, it takes time. Clarity takes time.

It helps to, from some point onwards, start reading less and thinking more.

Focusing in, instead of overloading yourself with more angles, more data, more everything. Because there is already so much of everything.

I’m not saying do not read. You need to be informed of what is out there.

There is always a balance between learning more, and adding to your knowledge that way, and knowing when you are losing yourself in dead ends.

You could picture it as a play. Your play.

Some articles will take centre stage. They are your lead figures, your main characters. They have a lot of lines and you need to know them inside out. The lead figures are the real performers. They carry the weight, hold the space. They are what makes your argument shine, the star sing.

Find out which articles, which scholars, which schools of thought, are at the centre of your research. Learn every little thing about them. This is essential knowledge.

Then, there are couple of less important characters, and loads of extras. They are needed to beef it up, so to speak. Yes, they have their role, and they may have a few words to say here and there. But they aren’t central to the plot development. They are peripheral. It only makes sense to treat them as such. Why waste your precious time on learning absolutely everything there is to know about the extra (no offence)? It will confuse your focus.

What I am saying is read strategically. Ask yourself whether what you have just read/ are about to read is necessary to contribute to your work, or whether you are only losing yourself, distracting yourself. Read accordingly. Don’t waste your time.

Because there’s an even more insiduous way the literature may be hampering your progress: you may be using it as a tool of procrastination. A way to gloss over the fact that you ‘don’t feel quite ready’ to start writing.

If you’re reading for security – Maybe reading this next paper will make you feel more on top of things! – be brave. Put down the article. (Like you’d put down the drug.)

Ask yourself what your work needs, to move forward. (I am serious. Ask.) Then do that thing.

Think, organise your thoughts, create something. You may need to read. Maybe.

But quite likely you’ll need to jump in and write something instead.

If you’re struggling with your academic writing (maybe it’s not happening?) have a look at my free e-book Finding Your Academic Voice. If you liked this post, as always, could you share it? I appreciate it!

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Never There, Never Good Enough: How to Escape the Academic Rat Race

Are you there yet?
Is the paper you want to write finished, are your deadlines met?
Your data crunched, your analyses lucid, your argument convincing?
Are you on top of things?
What about your publication record? How many top publications can we count?
Oh – is it too early to think about publications?
It is never too early to think about publications.
You need publications.
What about the rest of your cv? Are you ticking the boxes, doing enough?

Are you. Doing. Enough?

Academia, at its worst, is a machine that runs on numbers. In an attempt to quantify the unquantifyable, academic performance is reduced to publications and citations, to deadlines met and funding secured. And you’re supposed to tag along. That is, if you want to keep your position, keep moving forward and upwards. If not: out.

It becomes a state of mind: the pushing, the reaching, the grasping, the scrambling.
We have to Get There

‘There’ is a fiction. It’s always just past the horizon. We know so, of course. We know that when this paper or chapter is done there will be a next one to write. One deadline down, many more to go. It’s a merry-go-round, we know! Yet maybe we will feel more secure, even a little, with the next milestone reached… Life will be better, easier, less stressful with the deadline behind us, the achievement achieved.

That is how we think. That is how we work.
With our eyes on the prize – the next one. Always the next one.
Going a little crazy in the process.

It always surprises me how short the moments of triumph, of satisfaction, are. Even the grand prizes, the actual publications (which you will get, somewhere down the road), the promotions, and the grants awarded. They satisfy…for about five minutes. Then once more our eyes are on the future, hurtling forwards, feeling like we have not yet done enough.

As I write this, students in Amsterdam are occupying the Maagdenhuis to protest against what they call the neoliberalisation of higher education, their main focus on democratisation and ‘de-financialisation’. One of their demands is a shift from a quantitative, output-based financial model towards qualitative forms of evaluation. It is a rebellion against the status quo. Against the bureaucratic machine. Against all the counting.

I say we couple the rebellion against the system, with an internal rebellion. A rebellion against the mind-set of ‘never-there-never-good-enough’. The ‘never-enough’ mind-set the machine cultivates. The mind-set we believe in. Does it do us any good, the kicking ourselves ahead? Does it really make us productive, or does it simply make us stressed and unhappy? Would anything change if we stopped engaging with these thoughts that bring us down, that convince us we should be better than we are? What if we stopped entertaining them every chance we get?

I am not discounting the challenges of academic life. Unfortunately, some of the pressures are real. But it’s precisely because they are real that we need to use our energy towards doing our work, and living our lives. It is too easy to get caught up in worries, to let it sap all the joy. No more, I say. No more.

What if we challenge the assumption that the prize will be delivered…tomorrow…once we’ve worked hard enough…once we are deserving?

What if the prize has been delivered already…what if our work is exactly where it should be…and what if we are already there?

Because we are.

Set your goals, but then –
Trust in an unfolding.
Where you are, right now, is far enough.
It is the only place to be.
You are going to meet the deadline.
You are going to publish, and publish well.
Your PhD/ chapter/ paper will be finished and written and published and read. It will.
Dwell in that space, of being already there.
How wonderful it is, without the stress.
How wonderful to enjoy the process.
All you have to do is your work for today.
The one next step. It’s the only and most important step there is.
It is enough.

I try to actively cultivate an attitude of being ‘already there’, of taking the more desperate edge off. In fact it’s a whole different way of seeing things, of being. Being much more open to what is already there – it is sweet. (And it may even make you excited about the work you are doing.) Can you relate? Do you take the time to enjoy what is already there? Let me know! If you’d like to cultivate such a mind-set, have a look at the HappyPhD course. It will help you become more present, more content. As always, if you enjoyed this post, please share. I appreciate it!

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I Love My Yoga Practice

I have been practicing yoga for many years, for about fifteen to be precise. I got into yoga when a friend bought a series of power yoga DVDs on TellSell. (I know. Always take the classy route.) I would go over to her house weekly and we would practice together, and lounge about on her sofa, chatting and drinking tea in post-yoga bliss afterwards.

For me, bliss it is. Yoga really does bring me back to my center, my core. It makes me feel strong and clear, and soft and surrendered at the same time.

When I started my practice I had a repetitive stress injury, which was bad. Bad as in it felt like my arm, shoulder and hand were about to drop off. Bad, as in I couldn’t open a carton of milk any more because it hurt too much. Bad, as in I couldn’t work for a couple of months because I could no longer type! Physiotherapy (eight months of it) made it worse. In the end, a combination of acupuncture and yoga made it better. I even took the DVD to the physiotherapist’s office: “Look, this cured me!” And it did.

Since then I have practiced about a million different styles of yoga: power yoga, hatha yoga, yin yoga, kundalini yoga. When I studied in Leiden and was writing my Master’s thesis I would roll out my mat for 50 minutes of power yoga with Bryan Kest on DVD at the end of the day, every day. It saved my shoulder and my wrist. When I studied in London I joined the Yoga Club and we practised our headstands in seminar rooms and the LSE basement. It saved my sanity. (LSE yogis are competitive! My teachers would be showing off their poses and moves wherever they could. Trying to outdo each other in backbends and arm balances and crazy ridiculous postures. And have arguments about what constituted yoga – East vs. West. Indian teachers versus American). In Italy, I again reverted to my home practice, as I couldn’t find a studio or teacher I liked. Unfortunately so. But when I returned to Amsterdam I found a lovely yoga studio with classes that were mellow and friendly. When I was very poorly, it was my saving grace. And now, I do Bikram yoga.

If you haven’t heard of Bikram yoga: it is about the most intense type of yoga there is. You do 26 postures in a heated room. Heated as in hot! 40 degrees. You pour with sweat, for 90 minutes, while twisting and stretching and strengthening, with mirrors reflecting your inelegant attempts at yoga back at you. If this doesn’t sound appealing: it isn’t particularly appealing! But it’s addictive and it’s fantastic. I feel rubbish most of the time (OK, all of the time, in honesty) because of my Lyme disease, but when I walk out of Bikram class, no matter how difficult it was, I feel clearer, brighter, more grounded and energised. Even if I still feel horrible, I feel better.

This academic year, my boyfriend decided to join me with an experiment of his own: going to Bikram class for four to five days a week. Before work. If you know him, you know this is a bit of a revolution. In the almost-decade we have been together I have not known him to go to bed before 1 or 2 or 3 a.m. or get up before 10 a.m. Ever. Unless he had to catch a flight, or if the university administration had been particularly evil and assigned him to teach a morning course. Now he is in the hot room at 6.30 a.m. Every day. The difference it has made has been astonishing. The man is on fire (in the best possible way imaginable). More focused, more clear-headed, more grounded. (There is more, but I have to stop there, because I know he wouldn’t want me to discuss the private details of his life. He leaves all the spilling the beans to me.)

I realise this all sounds like a bad commercial and perhaps a confirmation that the Bikram aficionados truly have a few screws loose, which I am not going to deny. But the truth is the difference has been incredible. The bottom line: the yoga experiment has been more than successful. It reinforces the ideas I teach in my seminars and in the HappyPhD online course: that the cure for feeling swamped at work isn’t working longer hours in an attempt to get more done. It is making sure you have structures in place that help you stay calm, clear and focused. The physiological component is an important one: exercise in general, and yoga in particular will help you create mental space, as well as mental strength. Which is never a bad idea.

Resources:

Bikram Amsterdam
City Yoga Amsterdam
Yogaglo

PS – The Bryan Kest series I practiced for years (Energize, Tone & Sweat) is also on Youtube. I particularly like the Tone practice. The videos are beyond cheesy, which I think must be the defining characteristic of my taste in yoga!

Do you practice yoga? What do you like about it? Tell me. Also, if you enjoyed this post, could you share it? As always, much appreciated.

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