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.

Worst Nightmare Scenario: Failing Your PhD (and How Not To)

Failing your PhD. How does it happen? I have recently been a remote witness of a behind-the-scenes-drama: a PhD candidate who received a rejection from an external examiner. Her supervisors had approved the thesis, but a member of the committee rejected it, rightfully so as far as I can gather, judging from the report that spans over a thirty pages of why the thesis is lacking and needs at least a year’s more work. It is a tragic situation. I can’t think of many things worse, as far as PhDs go.

When I was writing my PhD I never thought I’d fail, but I did always worry about whether my work was ‘good enough’. And I did fear the scenario that perhaps one of the committee members would request a million modifications that would go against my ideas, or would be diametrically opposed to comments of the other professors. As is so often the case when you have a number of academics commenting on your work, especially when you are trying to tame a multi-disciplinary project. Yet failed PhDs (not counting the cases in which people actively quit) are extremely rare.

What I have learnt about PhDs going off the rails:

Universities do not want you to fail your PhD. Supervisors don’t want you to fail your PhD. Committee members don’t want you to fail your PhD.

It isn’t about you. It is about them. (Of course!) It reflects badly on them. It reflects badly on the university. It reflects badly on everyone involved. (Though naturally, they will put most of the burden for failing, if the project does need more work, on you if they can. So very classy!)

Also, it is a hell of a lot of work to prove the thesis isn’t where it should be, and committee members are hesitant to take this route… They have other priorities: their own research, most notably.

Take this to heart. It is not in their interest to make you fail.

“Don’t worry too much about your PhD. If you stick around long enough at one point they’ll give it to you.”

This is something a professor said to me, only half-jokingly, when I was in my second year and still very much wrestling with my subject, trying to wrangle it into submission. I was pretty shocked (I’m a perfectionist!), as well as amused, but over the years I have started to appreciate the truth of what he was saying.

When I returned to Florence for my PhD defence a professor complained to me about the people who received a PhD who absolutely definitely shouldn’t have passed. Yet these theses do tend to pass.

This may be a comforting idea: you will get your title. Your PhD will pass. Even if it isn’t absolutely electrifyingly brilliant from the first right through to the last paragraph. Even if there are obvious flaws (which there will be, there always are, and that is perfectly OK. But that’s a different blog post). Getting into the PhD programme is the bigger hurdle compared to finishing the thesis. You’ve already done the most difficult bit.

The disconcerting message though: your PhD may not be that much of a priority for other people. It may feel like your life work; to them, it is something they may simply want off their desk. Within deadlines, preferably. Without too much work or hassle.

Red flags everywhere!

Even if you are in a state where you just don’t care anymore and just want to finish, don’t sell yourself short. Supervisors should be invested in your work, at least to a degree! You need the dialogue, you need the feedback, you need the input, you need the debate. If you have absent supervisors who are not contributing as a mentor, and you are doing it all alone, you need to find others who will help you.

In one way my situation was similar to the one outlined above is I had no-one actively involved, due to circumstances (one of which was that one of my supervisors passed away, the other that I was finishing my PhD long-distance), and it was entirely disorienting. I didn’t know whether my work met certain standards. It did, but it would’ve been nice if someone would have been there to tell me! When I got appointed a new supervisor for the thesis defence specifically, it all turned around. I loved his comments (I really do believe love is the right word here. I was a bit intellectual-love-starved at the time) questions, and criticism, and although he wasn’t an expert in my field, the discussion helped me so much.

It also made me realise how much I had been missing out. If you don’t have much support and interaction, it has to change. Find your people. The people who will challenge and support you. They are out there. They want to hear from you. Go and find them, or let others help you find them.

The part you are responsible for, of course, is to engage with their criticism and work with their suggestions as appropriate. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this process, defining my own choices. Creating and defending my work. It’s the part you have to do, the intellectual part, and it is (hopefully) the satisfying part. (Especially once it’s done!!)

If you skip this, because you are lazy, fed up or out of time or money, and you have supervisors who are also lazy and busy, and don’t care so much, you may end up in a situation where the external examiner gives the thumbs down. That is if you are lucky/ unlucky enough (strike through as appropriate) for them to care enough to do so.

Do you have absent supervisors, and no idea where you stand? The HappyPhD course tackles the problem of how to re-engage, once you’re in a negative spiral of avoidance and neglect. It can be done! As always, if you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

The Power of the Mind

How do we prevent our inner critic from taking over?
How do we become more resilient in the face of criticism?
How do we not succumb to feeling stuck when the pressure rises?
How do we make it though a rough patch?
How do we allow more joy and curiosity in?

In the academic world the mind skills we develop and refine are our intellectual muscles, our critical capacity. The part that isn’t paid as much, or any attention to, is how to harness the power of the mind more broadly, on how work with our thoughts, and the feelings attached to those thoughts. Not at all linked to solving academic problems, but everything to do with the person who is trying to do so.

I have sometimes wondered what the academic world would look like if these aspects got more attention. Would levels of depression and anxiety be lower? Would drop-out rates in PhD programmes be lower? Would years spent on completing a PhD be lower? Would the number of publications be higher?

My guess is yes – I think it would make a real difference.

As you know my own PhD experience was not exactly completed in ideal circumstances…it was really, really hard. And the one thing I credit for allowing me to finish the thesis, apart from truly wanting to complete the project, was this: new mind skills. This involved learning how to relate to my thoughts differently, no longer completely identifying with thought all of the time, especially when facing difficulties. And also, something I have been rediscovering recently: knowing when to use the rational problem-focused mind to solve problems, and when to try something different.

Something that has helped me was starting to be more aware of thoughts and beliefs, and the emotions they trigger. I like the way Eckhart Tolle approaches it: he calls the conditioned beliefs ‘ego’, and the emotional/ physical component pain-body. (Tolle was a PhD at Cambridge when he had these insights, and decided to go down the spiritual instead of the academic path…in case you’re contemplating a career change!)

Say we’re talking about academic envy: a colleague gets published, yet your paper is rejected. This may set off a cascade of negative thoughts and feelings: academia is a status system, and if we feel we’re losing (ego) we get scared (pain-body) and resentful (pain-body). Especially so if you think your colleague who is ‘winning’ doesn’t especially deserve it!!

Something similar happened when a ‘friend’ of mine got a paper published, using the exact same title as my thesis working title. Despite being close colleagues he had managed to not mention he was working on the exact same topic as I was working on!! That coupled with my own frustration about my work being so slow and absolutely unpublished due to circumstances, and I nearly lost it! (This did end up as an interesting confrontation at a thesis defence where I bumped into him. I lost my Zen that day.)

Academia as a system is stressful – it is up or out. Publish or exit. Get funded or lose out. It is also often unpredictable and unfair. Being good at what you do is a necessary, but by no means a sufficient condition to do well. The uncertainty, the randomness, the stories we tell ourselves about meritocracy, the ways we rationalise our disappointments: it can take its toll.

To deal with the more stressful aspects of academia, meditation can be extremely helpful.

It helps us observe the thoughts we have and take them less personally:

“Ah – apparently I have so much fear about things not working out for me/ about being ‘not good enough’ (hello imposter syndrome!) / etc. Ah, maybe those are just thoughts, just beliefs. Maybe they aren’t true! Maybe I can just let them be, not pay them as much attention, not buy into the drama of it fully. Maybe there is another way to look at it… A more skillful way, a kinder way. A way in which I don’t put myself down. In which I don’t slip into feeling ‘less than’. A way that doesn’t turn any excitement I may feel about my work into fear. Yes…how about tuning back into curiosity instead.”

This isn’t a conscious process, somthing we can impose by will, it is more of an unfolding. A creating space for this to happen by sitting still, and allowing our mind to settle (or not).

And it helps us work through and ‘metabolise’ the intense emotions that come with these thoughts. It helps calm the pain-body. By sitting with it, by feeling the fear, the disappointment, the resentment, whatever it is, it eventually dissolves. And when it dissolves it stops feeding into the negative thought loop. Which means we are no longer stuck. We can move on.

Sometimes it is difficult to access that place by sitting still: we keep going over the same thoughts in our heads, and can’t seem to access the emotions directly. I have found exercise, yoga especially, very helpful in shifting out of negative states. Yoga seems to rearrange things so they make sense again, so you feel more integrated again. It is an active meditation.

Have you tried meditating? I highly recommend the meditations by Bodhipaksa (two of his meditations are part of the HappyPhD Course, the acceptance meditation is my favourite. Though some participants have noted they preferred the mediations I recorded myself), and the short ‘getting present’ and ’metabolising energy’ meditations by Michael Vladeck. I work with these quite a bit. They are really good in terms of getting out of the mind and into the feeling aspect of our life.

If you liked this post, could you share it? I appreciate it. Also: if you missed the first edition of ‘The Nudge’ on shortening your workday, it is now available as a free mini course. Sign up for it below to be treated to five days of encouragement to help shorten your workday but getting as much or more done!

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‘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!

The Lonely Academic

“Engagement predicts wellbeing above and beyond anything else.” A quote from one of Emma Seppälä’s recent articles on work cultures and wellbeing. She is the science director of the Stanford Compassion Center, and if you’re interested in the science of happiness I highly suggest you follow her.

It doesn’t surprise me in the least and it supports what I have experienced myself, and what I now observe in others’ situations. Academia tends to be awfully bad when it comes to engagement. Truly, awfully bad. And I have come to the conclusion it’s one of the worst stressors for researchers, far worse than workload. Most of our problems are not about content, but about connection and feeling valued. And it collectively makes us feel proper miserable.

I thought I’d tell a personal tale to illustrate.

When I fell ill, in 2007, and had to temporarily drop out of the PhD programme (only took me 3,5 years of sick leave!) the experience was quite literally that: of dropping far and hard. And basically no one even taking notice. The fall itself is one thing to come to terms with, and it was hard. But the no one caring was the absolute hardest bit of all.

The Fall

The fall has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The beginning was getting out of the programme. It was settled in a number of emails with my supervisor, the head of department and the grant organisation, and can be summed up as ‘formal’. There were no real problems (unless you count losing your only source of income as a problem), although the grant organisation was a bit fussy about the last month or two I hadn’t been able to work to that date: they wrote me I was ‘lucky I wouldn’t have to pay those two months of grant money back.’ Right. My supervisor and head of department approved my unpaid sick leave, and that was it. I had explained via email about my serious mystery illness. I was no longer in the same country, and even if I had been I was in no way in a position to meet anyone in person to discuss my situation. And that’s the way it stayed… Silent. There was an ‘all my best’ in an email, but that was about it. There were no ‘get well soons’ and there were no inquiries as to how I was doing a few weeks or months down the road. I realise sending cards or flowers is a bit much to ask from academics, but there certainly were none. There was nothing. Oh, yes, the only thing that did happen was that I had to cancel my attendance at a conference, and the panel chair got very cross with me for cancelling. Being sick was not a valid reason to cancel, obviously.

The middle years saw me applying for an extension of my sick leave every six months. They were granted and I was grateful for that. Nobody, including myself, still had any idea why I was so ill. What I found the most difficult to come to terms with, though, was that beyond those few formal emails apparently hardly anyone seemed to have even noticed my absence. I heard from no one. This wasn’t entirely unexpected as I was nearing the fourth year of my PhD programme, a time where people tended to flock to their home country to finish writing their PhD. So the colleagues who were still there probably assumed I had left like so many others, and the colleagues who had indeed already left, were not there to miss me! Maybe no one indeed even noticed at all, because it was a coming and going of people all the time anyway – the flighty life of international academia, and everyone was too focused on their own life, problems, research, career and next steps to register that I had gone missing. I did exchange one or two emails and phone calls with a few academic friends at the beginning, but these communications soon went silent, too. In formal terms the university still supported me. But that was all. Perhaps it is all you can expect, I reasoned. People are busy. And universities are not into hand-holding.

After three and a half years I decided that illness or no illness, I wanted to try and finish my PhD, even if I only had an hour a day to work on it because I was so unwell. I am not exaggerating, I wish I was. Communication with my supervisors had become strained, and I felt more than guilty for my underperformance, even though I knew that seen my circumstances what I was trying to do was rather a superhero pursuit. But I was doing it alone, and no one even had the faintest idea of my situation. Explaining did not seem to help either, it was just too far out to understand I suppose. Or maybe people were too busy to register. My main supervisor was getting impatient, and sent me some curt emails. I was lucky in the sense that my other supervisor, who was no longer at the university, thankfully stepped in to help me. She texted me to say she didn’t know what was going on [behind the scenes], but that those emails were not okay. She sorted it out with him, and I was on my way back into the PhD programme…

Fast forward to the moment I actually managed to finish my chapters. The end game. I sent my newest, latest work to my supervisor, and …crickets… Nothing. It took him more than three months, and a number of reminder emails, to read it and get back to me. He probably thought that if I was taking my time, he might as well do the same! Again that sinking feeling of not mattering, of being air. When I flew to Florence months later to discuss my work, he again had not read my new material. Too busy.  Plus some communication errors on my part which didn’t help. He did get back to me with comments after that though. He finally read my new stuff, though he was surprised to learn of my progress. He thought I had lots more work to do, until he actually took the time to look at what I had done. He was shocked to learn my PhD was nearly finished!Then, that summer, he died. A heart attack. It was a tragedy, though to be honest it didn’t even register as a huge shock, as I had become quite accustomed to worst case scenarios materialising into even worse! It felt like this was what life had become: bad, worse, worst! Can’t really expect anything to turn out well now, can you?!

My co-supervisor was in charge from then on, though she too did not quite manage. When I travelled to meet her in Brussels to discuss my final draft I could not help but get the impression that she had not read it. Skimmed over it, yes. Flicked through it, sure. Read it, properly? I doubt it. She had no comments. She said it was fine and ready for defence. I suspect that when I sent my manuscript to the jury no one had ever read my work in full. It felt like a shot in the dark. When one of the jury members then actually engaged with my work, sent me questions and comments, and had intelligent things to say I cried. He had taken the time to read it. He had taken the time to acknowledge I existed. It still near makes me tear up thinking of it. Someone had made an effort. Someone, somewhere, had noticed me, had read my work! Maybe I still mattered in some small way. Maybe I still belonged.

Along the way a few former colleagues showed up. Facebook friend requests or messages mostly. They too, brought me close to tears. From a perspective in which you have never experienced true and prolonged isolation this may sound excessive. But if you’ve been there you will know: it is easy to be forgotten when you can no longer participate. Out of sight, out of mind. And it is hard. It is so hard.

Reflections

I can’t help but get emotional recalling all this. My experience is rather at the extreme end of the spectrum. It shows how difficult long-distance PhD-writing is, especially when you are dealing with health or other obstacles. But more than a simple and singular tale of woe, I believe my experience shows how academia, at its worst, works. It is all based on loose networks, and much independence. This has its advantages, but it has costs associated with it that largely go unrecognised. I believe the highest cost is that of loneliness, the feeling of ‘being on your own’ and having to fend for yourself. For me it was in putting superhuman efforts in, seen my situation, and not having those efforts acknowledged (though later, much later, when I was in Florence for my defence, the secretary confided that my supervisor had always been very positive about me: “She is very smart, and I am sure she will finish!” He had always stuck up for me in meetings. Oh, if only I had know about even a fraction of that!). To be honest it was an absolute horror the way I was treated, and I wasn’t in a position to defend myself.

But in more subtle ways waiting and disappointment and plugging away by yourself, while not having your effort acknowledged is everywhere in academia. It is there by design, and by circumstance. It is in putting all the lonely hours in. And how many of them there are! It is in the wait when you have submitted an article, and then the rejection. It is in the negative review that shows the reviewer has not made the beginning of an effort to engage with your argument. It is in rejection itself and the feeling of not-mattering period. It is in all the bureaucratic rules and regulations. It is in the arbitrary counting of publications that goes along with getting tenure. It is in the unacknowledged email, because people are too overwhelmed by email to respond. It is in the self-absorption and busyness and absentmindedness of everybody. It is in the juggling a thousand things and projects at once when you are further on in your career. It is in the having to disappoint and being disappointed. It is in disconnection. I have come to believe this is a far greater stressor than deadlines or workload per se. It drains the spirit. Academia is built on criticism and delayed gratification, and for good reasons. But somehow the human architecture, the architecture that says we are social beings with social needs tends to be overlooked. Benign neglect may be benign, but it is still neglect. Some departments are better than others. I can say mine was about the worst.

Remedies

In terms of remedies, Seppälä’s work on positive work cultures gives important insights. She mentions caring for, being interested in, and maintaining responsibility for colleagues as friends. She mentions providing support for one another. She mentions avoiding blame games. She mentions inspiring others, and emphasising the meaningfulness of work that is being done. She mentions treating one another with respect, gratitude, trust and integrity.

Your department may not be quite there yet. But there are things you can do yourself: invest in your colleagues and your peer-network. Engagement matters, and that definitely includes going for cups of coffee. Build relationships. Meet up for lunches or seminars. Co-author. Get in touch and stay in touch. (Maybe even shoot that colleague who is on sick leave an email!) Show you care. I know, very uncynical, but do it. It matters. It also means to keep a keen eye on communication if you are in a long-distance situation. It’s imperative. Skype calls may work. People seeing your face is important. More in general, in the PhD phase: invest in communication with your supervisors on a regular basis. Connect, connect, connect, even if it is against the norm, or feels uncomfortable (no need to become a stalker, but hey, they are allowed to be reminded of your existence!) I wish I had done so more, instead of coping by myself because I didn’t want to impose or be a burden. If you are an early career researcher: invest in your network. Collaborate. Show up for others. If you supervise PhD students, or others: make communication a priority, even if your time is scarce. You get the idea. A little love goes a long way.

If you are feeling really lonely and isolated right now please realise you are not really alone, even if it feels that way. You never are. People do think of you. They do. And in more positive terms than you will likely assume. (Though sometimes they are temporarily being too busy/ too much of a jerk to realise. And if this is structurally the case you may want to think about leaving…) This too is a lesson I have learnt. You matter. You are special and you are worthy. It has nothing to do with outside appearances. And it certainly has nothing to do with how well you are performing or not-performing. When it comes down to it we are never really alone. There is lots of love, always. Sometimes unexpressed, and beneath the surface, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Tap into it. There is a pool of love beyond the hurried email, beyond the rules and the requirements, beyond the surface of things, if we dare to believe in it. It is a very unacademic thing to do, but I highly recommend it.

How do you deal with the loneliness of academia? Any tips? Let me know! If you are in less that great dynamics with your supervisors, as I was, have a look at the HappyPhD course. It has an entire week on supervision. There are tools that can help. As always, if you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

The key is in feeling here

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

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

Or:

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to go about this

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

So, for example, your negative thoughts could be:

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Say Goodbye to Burnout: 6 Tricks

It seems to be a natural law that when you get whacked over the head by something, difficulties increase exponentially rather than linearly.
As one PhD commented in a conversation we had: “It requires strength when you least have it.”
It does.
It forces you to become smarter than you were, to do things more cleverly.
(Some people call this the ‘gift’ or the ‘lesson’. I don’t know about that, but I do know there are few alternatives).
Sometimes there is a trick, a new way of thinking about things, of doing things, that makes all the difference.
Not a short-cut so much (we wish), but a way that makes more sense.

One trick I have learnt is how to regenerate and rebuild when facing burnout. Well, there are a few tricks to it, really.

The problem: when you are burnt out and exhausted, near collapse or post-collapse, and cannot keep going, it isn’t uncommon to feel you need to go faster to have the slightest chance of ‘catching up’, of staying in the game, of getting back on top. Of surviving even. It can seem existential. It is a cruel trap: no energy to keep going; yet perceived scary future repercussions if you don’t. That’s what it looks and feels like.

Trick 1. It isn’t real
The first thing you need to realise is that fight-or-flight is the ESSENCE of burnout. All problems feel more pressing and unsurmountable. All feels lost. It isn’t. Once your energy, or some of it, returns, problems shrink and become manageable. It is your state of being that comes first, that always comes first. Problems are relative and secondary.

Trick 2. Don’t speed up. Slow down. SLOW down.
The only way out: You’ve got to stop spinning your wheels. You’ve got to stop running when you can no longer run. You have to go against all your natural instincts here. When you are burning out, you are in a near panic state.  Your nervous system says: Run! Yet you cannot outrun this beast. It is a phantom, and the harder you run, the more exhausted you get, and the more likely you’ll end up defeated. Instead: stop, rest, go gently and watch the beast shrink and ultimately dissolve. It isn’t real. It will undo itself, if you insist on peace instead of panic. Let your mind find its centre. That is where all good ideas come from. You will be much more effective, and you won’t have to expend all that energy.

“But the problem is REAL. It’s not a phantom – I have a deadline to meet and it is going to be a close call. Once I meet the deadline I can relax. I will relax. I promise! It will be so good. But not right now, not quite yet.”

Trick 3. Never relax in the future. Do it now.
Deadlines seldom mean as much as we think they do. Thinking our worries will resolve once we get ‘there’, on the other side of the deadline, is one of our mind’s favourite deceptions. It is the fight-or-flight state in action, all over again. The truth: there is nothing special on the other side of the deadline. All you have is now, this moment, this minute, this day at the most. That’s it. That’s all of it, ever. You will never relax ‘then’, and you don’t need to relax ‘then’. You need to do it now. As in, today.

“That is all very high-minded, but if I let go now, if I don’t make it happen now, it is not going to happen! And it will stress me out further. It will stress me out so much I am afraid I will break.”

Trick 4. Do what you can. But not more. Save some energy for tomorrow.
The idea isn’t to come to a complete standstill (although it may feel even slower than that). The idea is to do what you can do WELL WITHIN your limits. What that means will change with time, and day to day. (That’s the beauty and the curse of it). Be in tune with yourself. Once you start feeling panicked, overwhelmed or overly tired you have gone too far. Learn to recognise the warning signs and stop well before. Keep it small. Keep it doable. The goal, if you need one, is to do LESS not more. Try to shift your thinking towards rewarding yourself for doing less. Overthrowing the old ‘I need to do more’ mindset is the accomplishment.

“But will this work? I mean, really?”

Trick 5. Suspend judgment. But assess your progress.
Yes this works. And it works because getting and staying out of fight-or-flight is what does it. It is where you need to be for sustained academic performance (and it feels good too). If you consistently do a little less than what your panic mind is trying to shame you into doing, if you consistently make sure you do not use up all your energy, but instead save up, if you consistently make yourself feel good for looking after yourself exceptionally well instead of burning yourself out: your energy will increase, your focus will increase, your sense of well-being will increase, your self-esteem will increase and yes, in time your output will increase. It’s the vicious circle turned virtuous. It will gain momentum. I promise, even if it feels so slow while you’re doing it, this is the direct route. It can feel scary too. It goes against instinct and habit. Don’t be too intimidated by these fears. You can undo much of it by keeping things very simple: if you have done your work but not overextended yourself (whatever that may mean for you right now) you are doing it right, and you can be very pleased. Over time you’ll see that it does indeed work. It does.

“I keep overextending myself. Can’t help it!”

Trick 6. Don’t we all! No worries. Try again tomorrow. Or better: try right now.
What would get you out of fight-or-flight right now? What feels right? Do that small thing. Take that small step. (Think doing less, not more, as ever…)

Are you struggling with fatigue or burnout? What do you think of this approach? Let me know in the comments. Also: the HappyPhD contest is still open. The course is an anti-fight-or-flight system for academics. If you’d like to win it, please do enter the giveaway! As always, if you found this post helpful could you share it? I appreciate it!