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!

HappyPhD Online Course Testimonial

Judith was the first PhD student to take the HappyPhD Online Course. She’s a pediatric resident at the University Medical Centre Utrecht, the Netherlands, and is finishing her PhD on the side (you go girl!). She is the sister of a friend of mine, and I asked her to test-drive the course. Yesterday we sat down to chat, to discuss her experience.

Judith, you’ve just finished the HappyPhD Online Course. This is a big moment for me. I have spent many months putting the course together, but as they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I’d love to know what you thought of the course and whether it has benefited your PhD and the rest of your life. I’ve got some questions. To start with two big ones: why did you sign up for the course and what was the most important thing you got out of it?

The main reason I signed up for the course was to learn how to handle the ‘never-finished’ aspect of writing a PhD. It’s a project that’s always there in the background no matter what you’re doing. There’s always more to do. It’s never finished. I wanted tools to address this issue.

Did you get them?

Yes. Week 6 on breaking ‘never there, never good enough’ – thinking really helped. But more in general, the whole course helped! It helped me realise that many issues I struggle with are universal, not personal. I could relate to so many of your stories and examples. It was as if you’d written the week on supervision for me personally! It was great to read that it’s not just me. And it was good to get insight into how and why certain patterns come into existence.

It’s the odd thing about writing a PhD. Many of the issues PhD students struggle with result from structural features of the academic model. It isn’t personal. But when you’re writing a PhD it feels personal. To be honest, I am really glad you could relate. It affects me too [laughs]: although I have thought a lot about how the structural features of academia affect PhD students’ experience of writing a PhD and it’s what I teach, I still sometimes think: but what if it was just me? What if I was the odd one out? What if other PhD students have an entirely different experience? Of course, there is always your own share in every experience, but I know for a fact: it’s not just you!

The course also gave me tools to deal with negative thoughts. I’m more relaxed about them now. Doing the course really helped create awareness around some negative patterns I had.

Did the course change your life? Share your life-changing moments with me [laughs] [Judith laughs too] I’ll rephrase that question: did anything in your life change as a result of the course?

Actually it did. I have become more aware of the importance of creating time to reflect and relax daily, as well as time to get things out of my system by exercising. It has made a difference. My mind is calmer. The course also helped me reduce feelings of anxiety and overwhelm. By the way, I really love the HappyPhD meditations! Your voice is really nice to listen to! Better than the guy’s voice on the other meditations.

[blushing] Really?? And I selected the other meditations because he has a really nice voice.

I prefer yours!

Thanks. You’re too kind. [blushes some more] On to the critical questions. I realise that not all tools are for everyone. Were there parts of the course that weren’t that helpful for you?

Only the section on ‘working in waves’. I work in the hospital during the day (and sometimes at night) and I simply can’t influence what my working day looks like. It’s non-stop. No time to relax in between. I have no say in it. But if I had been in a ‘writing phase’ of my PhD I would have definitely used those tools. Every week of the course was useful. It’s a really great course.

Would you recommend the course to others?

Yes! I would highly recommend the course to anyone writing a PhD, and especially to people just starting out. Not because the course isn’t useful later on, but because they will regret not having taken the course earlier on! It has given me many insights I wished I had had years ago.

Are there people you wouldn’t recommend the course to?

No. It’s for everyone writing a PhD. Your topic doesn’t matter. Everyone should take this course! The only prerequisite is to not be adverse to a certain level of self-reflection. And that you don’t get a fit when you hear the word ‘meditation’.

Yes, well. You know what I always say: meditation is a skill, not a belief. It is mind training, and academics can benefit tremendously. Lastly, if you could sum the HappyPhD Online Course up in just a couple of words, what would they be?

Great experience! * Combines solid content with snappy and funny writing * Highly readable and well put-together – the course materials really draw you in * Many tools that will benefit your PhD and the rest of your life * Reading the course materials is like looking in a mirror – it reflects your own experience back at you. * The stories are very honest and very real. Reading them leads you to understand yourself and your PhD experience better. And to have a little more compassion for yourself.