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!

Summer Slow Down: Time to Relax, Recharge, Reflect

Summer. Time to relax, recharge, and…reflect.
How was your academic year?
What went well? What didn’t?
Anything you’d like to change?

This slow time of year (though I know, it’s academia, for some of you conference season may be right round the corner) is an excellent time to reflect and ask some questions we don’t tend to get round to when we’re hopping around from one obligation to the next. With our eyes on the next short-term goal, and immersed in the details of our work, perspective gets lost. The summer is a time to chill out a bit, zoom out. Only then can we see the big picture.

The first part of that: we need to plan an escape. Oh yes, we need to get away.
Especially if you have workaholic tendencies, or if you feel ‘behind’: you need to stop, slow down, and you definitely need to not work for a bit.
I firmly believe in having a daily work/writing routine. I also firmly believe in breaks. Complete breaks.
If you think you are going to use the summer to ‘catch up’: that may be a good idea (or it may not be), but in any case make sure you get away as well. Away, away. No work, no writing, no nothing.

Sometimes I marvel at the non-stop-ness of this world. The always and ever-connectedness. The constant information overload, email, the reading and posting to social media from holiday or wherever. Not that it is bad per se, but disconnecting, letting go, switching off has more and more become a conscious act, which requires some awareness (and a bit of self-discipline!) on our part. Ironically, of course, the more strung out we are, the more difficult it is to get out of the loop, away from the screen, and the phone, and our mind-numbing habits. It is also more difficult to step away from work. We often feel we need to keep going, as in this academic world of self-made man, deadlines always loom. The more tired we are, the more pressing they feel. We need to step out of that. Step out. Get away. Recharge.

Book that ticket.
Get on the plane, or the train.
Get your sunglasses out.

The nice thing about holidays (apart from the holiday itself) is what they allow us to do: see clearly.
They help us unwrap, they give us perspective.
They give us time to reflect, not necessarily in an active way, simply by a change of scenery.

Which leads us to the second part: clarity.
When back from holiday, but before starting work again, ask yourself: If you had to pick one thing, one habit, or one stressor: what has been the biggest energy ‘leak’ the past academic year?

For me, personally, a major shift in my PhD productivity (back in the day) occurred when I realised I was losing so much energy in second-guessing myself. It was time to get out of my own way. That was it. That was all. I had been self-sabotaging in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, and it was time to stop. It sounds ridiculous, of course – who in their right mind would self-sabotage?-, but honestly, we all do it in some way. For me, seeing that, and recognising it for what it was, helped tremendously.

So, what is your major ‘thing’?
Is it a circumstance, a bad habit, negative self-talk? What is your (self-)sabotage?
It may be a circumstance, like your living situation or a professional or personal relationship that is not working.
It may be a habit, such as procrastination, or overworking, or being last-minute about everything including important deadlines.
It may be a mental or emotional hurdle such as feeling underconfident, or engaging in unnecessary self-criticism.
It may be really simple, like not getting enough sleep. It may be quite complex, say, a problem with supervision that may be difficult to even define.
(Or you may not have a ‘thing’. Nah – don’t believe you).

What drives you nuts?
Whatever it is, commit to improving on it over the next year.
Most often, when we tackle the big obstacle, the smaller ones simply melt away. The details will take care of themselves.

What is the major ‘thing’ you’d like to do differently the next academic year? How will you go about it? Let me know in the comments. If you’d like some structural support in your habit, or other ‘thing’-change consider the HappyPhD course or a coaching session with me. (I have discounted rates for the coaching sessions for those on my mailing list. If you want in, sign up below). Enjoy your holiday!

 

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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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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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