‘How to write a PhD’ with Hein De Haas

photo-2Hein de Haas is Professor of Sociology at the University of Amsterdam, and the former director of the International Migration Institute at the University of Oxford. He is also a friend of mine. Almost two years ago, when I was staying in California for two months and he flew in for a conference, we sat down at Saul’s deli in Berkeley for lunch. Over chicken soup with matzo balls and latkes with apple sauce (so good!), we talked about academic writing. ‘We should do an interview!’ I said. ‘Would you?’ He would. Fast forward to present: last week we finally managed. Read Hein’s take on academic writing, success and self-care in today’s ‘How to write a PhD’.

Hein’s top tips:
1. Writing is important: invest in your academic writing skills. Approach your writing as a craft, not high art. High art is paralysing.
2. Write a little every day. I get my writing done in 90 minutes a day.
3. Stay off the Internet until lunchtime.
4. Doing research and writing are inseparable. Writing clarifies thought.
5. Be practical about writing. Develop a daily routine and ruthlessly discipline yourself.

6. Write your abstract first. Keep rewriting and revising it: use it as an anchor for your thinking.
7. Develop your original argument. Trust what you have to say. Don’t become obsessed with the literature. It is not the Holy Script!
8. Don’t forget answering the ‘So what?’ question. Why is your research relevant?
9. To stay in academia: be your own academic. Focus on getting one or two excellent single-authored publications. That is what matters.
10. Take care of yourself: yoga, meditation, music and dedicated times off help.

AD: I know you’re passionate about writing. You’re always stressing how important it is to take writing seriously, and to develop your writing skills. What are your best tips for academic writing?
HdH: Writing is about more than simply reporting your research results. Invest in learning how to write clearly, how to write lucidly. It is best to approach academic writing as a craft, not high art. Anyone can learn how to do it. Approaching writing as high art is paralysing: it assumes you need to be exceptionally talented and you need to get it right in the first go. That’s very far removed from the actual process of academic writing which involves writing, and revising, and then revising and revising once again. As an academic you need to get comfortable with ‘killing your darlings’. When I was younger I used to think I was a good writer. And it’s true that writing comes easily to me, I am a fast writer and I enjoy writing. But the actual craft of learning to write well took dedication and often humbling interactions with mentors and reviewers I was lucky to have met several mentors who told me the truth and had no qualms about showing me how mediocre my writing still was, and how much I still had to learn. I had a great tutor as a freshman anthropology student. He was ultra-critical of my essays. I first hated him for it, but now I am forever grateful, as it was an essential wake-up call. After graduating in geography I worked for a private research and consultancy firm. This was another formative experience, as my mentors there forced me to ‘cut all the crap’ in my prose and to write as clearly as possible. Unfortunately, many academics make their texts impenetrable and vague because of their eagerness to sound scientific. It was in my non-academic jobs that I really learnt to write clearly. Perhaps the most important is the following: never take critique personally, always as an opportunity to improve. But also teach yourself to read your own text with an outsiders’ eye.

photo-1AD: Do you have a writing routine?
HdH: It’s so important to write a little every day. I try to write from 9-11 a.m. every morning. In reality I don’t usually manage the full two hours, more often it is a 90-minute session. I always feel I’d like to do more, but at the same time, I get a lot done in those 90 minutes. People tend to not believe me when they see my publication record, but it is true: this is when I get my writing done. It can be challenging to fit these writing sessions in, especially when you’re travelling, but I insist on four writing sessions a week mimimum. If I don’t manage during the week for whatever reason I will fit a session in on Saturday morning. This goes against my ‘weekends off’ policy, but keeping the writing flowing is as important for my peace of mind. I try to write first thing in the morning. What is very important is to stay off email and Internet. I used to start my day, as so many people, checking email. But I figured out that this is the entire wrong way around. I now stay off the Internet until lunch time, and check my email only once or twice a day, after my most productive writing hours. It’s all about discipline. I learnt this very early on, already during my PhD, when my first daughter was born. Having children has made me much more conscious of time and much more productive during the limited working hours I have. Right now I’m trying something new: waking up very early, at 6 in the morning to do my writing. It is still an experiment…

AD: What have you learned over the course of your academic career about writing?
HdH: Doing research and writing are inseparable. Thoughts are fuzzy and forgiving, the page is not. So when you write things down it helps you solve your conceptual puzzles. To think of doing research with the ‘writing up’ phase the last phase, is an outdated idea. Much better to start writing straight away. I highly recommend reading the book: Writing for social scientists by Howard. S. Becker on how to approach this. Reading that book as a 1st year student in anthropology back in 1989 liberated me in many ways, and encouraged me to approach writing as a craft, a continuous work-in-progress.

AD: What does your writing process look like? Is there a beginning, a middle and an end-phase that differ in how you approach it?
HdH: The end phase involves a lot of editing and trying to delete passages that may be superfluous or where I’m repeating myself. I’m wordy, so I am always trying to keep the word count under control. It is also a more intense phase. I always begin a new piece of work by writing the abstract. Conceptually it is the most important step. By the time the piece is finished the abstract will have been through revision after revision. It what anchors the piece. The phase in the middle is where I grapple with the data.

AD: What would you advise PhDs who are feeling stuck, and unable to write? Do you have tips to overcome writer’s block?
HdH: Be practical about writing. Develop a daily routine and ruthlessly discipline yourself. Don’t wait for inspiration. Inspiration comes often during writing. And start with the abstract. Write your abstract before moving on to anything else. It puts you on the spot; it forces you to come down to the essence of your paper. If you write a book, it can be helpful to write abstracts for each chapter. It has to be a substantive abstract, not one of those teaser abstracts that leaves you guessing, and which requires you to read the rest of the article to understand what it is about. Your abstract should state, in one or two sentences, what the ‘punch-line’, the argument and main finding of your research is. Start with this conceptual puzzle. Make clear what your aim is, which question you are going to answer, and don’t forget answering the ’So what?’ question. It is often overlooked, but it is what ensures your research has appeal beyond the narrow scope of the argument, and is relevant. I have found that paring it down like this, focusing on the research question and developing your own unique argument helps. Of course, while writing the actual paper or book, you will develop new insights, change your opinion or argument – you will adopt your abstract accordingly. Consider it as a continuous work in progress. Looking at it this way instead of seeing writing as an art can be very liberating.

AD: What would you tell PhDs who are looking for their niche, but haven’t quite found it yet?
HdH: It would be to trust what you have to say. Read, but don’t become obsessed by the literature. Instead, switch to ‘active’ thinking. There’s a big difference between trying to find a ‘gap’ in the literature and ‘filling that gap’; and developing an original argument. Filling the gap doesn’t work. There’s always the danger that once you’ve identified a gap, and ‘filled’ it, someone else will have done the same. You’ll find this out the week before finishing your own project most likely! Don’t define gaps in terms of ‘this group or topic has never been studied’, but instead in terms of how you approach that subject. Because you bring your unique perspective, through your own life experiences, your personal background, what you have read, you will always bring an original perspective. Trust your own story. Trust what you have to say – and have the audacity to present your very own take on your topic. Don’t be a slave to what previous authors have said. ‘The literature’ is not the Holy Script! There is a tendency to inflate the big names in the literature, and of course they have done important work. But they too are regular people, who had the courage to write up what they thought in as clear as possible prose. In other words: you can do this.

heinAD: Academia is becoming an increasingly competitive environment, and it isn’t at all the case that you’ll manage to secure an academic position, even when you are an excellent researcher. What would you advise PhDs with ambitions in academia?
HdH: Focus on getting one or two excellent single-authored publications, that is what counts in most disciplines. Sometimes this takes time. In my own case it took 7 years after I had finished my PhD as a monograph for my best theoretical article using the same material to be published. This is now my best cited article. In the meantime, work on articles that are easier to write and get published. Working papers are great: consider them as a first pit stop on the way to a journal publication. It allows you to ‘claim’ your idea, to gain visibility and to generate feedback early on, and they often get cited. Working papers are much better than chapters in edited volumes that often hardly get cited at all. Also: make sure to be your own academic. Don’t become someone’s sidekick, even if that person has the credentials to facilitate your career. Of course, benefit from it if you can, but don’t become too dependent on your mentor. I would also advise PhD students to challenge supervisors who assume their name should automatically be included as authors in each of their students’ papers, without contributing substantially to data analysis or writing the actual paper. It’s fine and even recommended to collaborate, but it’s very important to protect intellectual property and to be self-confident and assertive about that. It will gain you respect – and in many academic circles it is important to also have single-authored papers published. Let your star shine! Don’t be intimidated.

AD: Writing a PhD is stressful, as is working in academia. Do you have self-care routines?
HdH: Yes, absolutely. I started doing hatha yoga some six years ago, during a stressful time, which was fantastic in helping me calm my mind. More recently I have been practicing ashtanga yoga and yin yoga, at least three times a week, mostly in the early evenings. I try to make sure I don’t need to work or do anything that might burst the yoga bliss bubble afterwards! I also play the piano: no better way to wind down than playing some jazz and blues. But I’m not saying people should do yoga or play music. It does not matter what you do. Sports, dancing, acting, painting, it can be anything that makes you connect to your body and has nothing to do with your thesis. The point is to tune out from your research and find a healthy balance. Other things that help me manage the workload, and minimise stress are taking the weekends off. Two days preferably, but one and a half day at the very minimum. I also make a point of stopping on time. I generally don’t work after dinnertime, and I generally try to get all my important work done around 2pm. For me it does work much better to focus on getting my tasks done in the morning. I often don’t manage, but I do notice I feel better when I practice a short meditation in the morning and at the end of the afternoon or day. I also try not to watch television late at night and stay off-screen after working hours as much as possible.

You can find Hein’s excellent blog on migration here, and you can sign up for his free Migration 101 course in which he tackles some of the most common migration myths here. See the preview below. Did you like this post? Please share it! I appreciate it.

 

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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!

Going Offline: The Plan

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

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

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

Ah satisfaction! Interesting concept.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Recurring sessions

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

4. Withdrawal

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

5. Visualise

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

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

Freedom from the Internet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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The Art of Focus

Are you in between?
At work, but not working?
At home, but not relaxing?
In bed, but not sleeping?

Drifting off into worry about whether your chapter, or paper, or outline will be finished in time, while the clock ticks and your cursor blinks?
Drifting off into ‘will this ever be good enough’ and ‘what am I doing’?
Drifting off into randomness, into plans and to-do’s, and overwhelm?
Drifting off into conversations in your mind?
Drifting off…

Do you procrastinate?
Worry?
Obsess?
Much?
Do you wonder where the day went, and why you didn’t get done what you wanted to do?
Feel guilty about it?

The art of focus is an art you’ll need to master if you want to break the loop. If you want to break out of being torn and overwhelmed and distracted and not getting anything done. The answer is as simple as it is difficult to do at times: pay attention. Pay attention to what you are doing and see whether it is indeed what you would like to be doing. If not? Now is the moment to get back into the groove, and back on track. Yes. Now. Break out of the loop.

This, in a nut-shell, is the ‘secret’ of being effective at anything really, including being a prolific academic: paying attention.

A tool that helps immensely in doing this, in creating more mental control, as well as control over what you actually do in a day, is meditation. It is brain training. Or mind training. You practice your paying attention muscles and it does pay off. It will become increasingly effortless to stay on track: the track you choose. You gain control. So worth the investment, so worth the effort.

I started meditating by taking an 8-week mindfulness based stress-reduction course, a system based on the work of Jon Kabat – Zinn. That was back in 2008, quite some time ago! I was excited to start, until I found out it was actually quite hard: it was so much about unlearning to overthink. And think, and think, and think is what my mind so loves to do! Thinking about meditation, dreaming of its wonderful effects came a lot easier to me than actually sitting on the pillow and paying attention – which is all meditation really is – without adding all the layers of thought. Thought was entertainment. Stories, fantasies, worries, you name it I am addicted! And now I had to learn to drop it.

And it is all the mental buzz we need to drop. I know now, for a fact, that solutions to anything – from intellectual puzzles to personal problems – do not come from thought, as in actively thinking or ‘obsessing’. They often arise from a different space – one where I feel calm and grounded and content. That space, where peace and joy arise, where you find a different perspective, a perspective that is so much kinder and so much more fun, instead of the continuous reaching and pushing for answers, that space can be accessed through meditation. Yet we need to sit with our chaos for long enough to allow the dust to settle, and the cobwebs to untangle themselves.

In the mindfulness course I took, they used the metaphor of a lake with muddy water. By simply sitting and being, the mud would sink and settle, the water would clear. Overthinking muddles the lake, while paying attention and letting go of the storylines in our head allows it to calm and beautify.

This has been very much my experience. About six weeks into the course – six weeks of chaos on my meditation pillow – I noticed that when a particularly distressing thought came up during the day (was dealing with freaky scary health/ money stuff) I could just let it be. Didn’t cause me to panic, didn’t cause me distress. Not as much distress anyway: the thought came up and I noticed myself thinking: “I am not going to entertain this particular train of thought today. I just can’t be bothered to think all those stressful thoughts. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt, now please let me sit with the sun on my face with a cup of tea, unworried, thank you!” And instead of shaking me, the stressful thought just came and went. The lake was clear.

Did it stay like that? No! The mind is a muddy lake, at least mine is, and I expect yours to be too. But we can learn how to move out of chaos quicker. That is my experience. You still get into it, but you have tools to get yourself out of it. To calm the waters.

I still meditate, though a little more free-flowing than in the early years. I have become quite proficient at moving into calmer, and more loving, states of being, on the meditation pillow. It really does turn the joy up, and the worry down. Applying the same techniques in daily life is an ongoing practice.

What about you? Do you meditate? Would love to hear what it does for you. If you’d like to learn how to meditate: creating a meditation practice is an important part of the HappyPhD Course. It has meditations by Bodhipaksa, as well as my own. The HappyPhD meditations I designed specifically for the PhD life of us Overthinkers Anonymous. They help you switch off, after a day of thinking (no more obsessing about the PhD!), as well as shift towards a more joyful, sparkly way of being, when you are worried). As always, if you enjoyed this post, could you share it? I appreciate it!

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On Holiday – Or: Strategies to Actually Unplug

Summer holidays. The academic year is done, the deadlines have been met, the plane tickets have been booked, the ‘out-of-office’ reply almost written.

Cue: sunglasses, sunscreen, novels, countryside or city trips. And shutting that office door firmly behind you for a good couple of weeks.

Except: How to close that office door firmly?

What about work that still needs to be done? What about the incoming emails?
There may be upcoming conferences, not too far ahead, that need abstracts and papers and presentations.
There may be marking still to do. Or revisions of papers that you will now finally have the time to get round to.
And, now you’re at it, why not try to catch up a bit? There are chapters that need to be finished and this may be the perfect opportunity.
This summer you will finally, finally get on top of things.

Okay. Wait. Stop. Stop!

1. There is never a perfect time for anything in academia, so this is probably NOT the perfect time to ‘catch up’ on work.

2. You need and deserve a break. It will be fun and it will serve you in the long run. You need to recharge periodically (daily, weekly, monthly, yearly), and it should be one of your priorities.

3. If you want to have any chance at all surviving the academic rat race in the long run, re-read point two.

The funny little paradox at the heart of academic life: many academics choose to pursue an academic career because of its freedoms, but their daily lives revolve around their work, year-round and too often around the clock. It can be a prison of sorts. Workloads can be high. Work obsession can be intense. And getting out of your head can seem almost impossible.

Unplugging can be a real challenge.

Disclaimer: for some of us, unplugging for holiday isn’t an issue. For me personally, holiday came easy in my PhD days. I never even used to bother to write an out-of-office reply. I just packed my suitcase in the evening and left the next day, for a month or so. Après moi le deluge. But then, that was before the hyper-connected days of smartphones. Yes, I’m old. But if you are like me (enviable in this respect only, I can assure you) just go off and enjoy your holiday! Will see you when you get back!

If you are struggling with work addiction or work overload and want to go on holiday unplugged and unburdened here’s a short guide:

1. Be clear on your obligations. If you indeed have a conference to attend, or a deadline to meet that cannot be postponed: plan for it. Reserve space in your agenda for summer work, if you absolutely have to. Make sure you get your work done before you leave on holiday, or after you get back. Plan for it. Then relax about it.

2. Claim your holiday. Holiday is what you deserve, what you’ve earned and what you want to enjoy. So write a mental out-of-office note to yourself, and listen to this wise holidaying part of your being. Be brave and unplug from email. If you have a daily writing habit, or other daily work habits (good for you!), I suggest putting them on hold for a couple of weeks. Put academic reading on hold for a couple of weeks as well. It is possible to put things on hold. No pianos will drop from the sky to flatten you.

3. If you have other daily habits that may be energy drains, or that do not allow for your switching off – I’m thinking Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Pinterest – contemplate boldly unplugging. Now, I know that I bragged about what a star I am at holiday and unplugging above – but that was pre-smartphone era. When I went on a mini-holiday last month I found myself Tweeting, and feeling quite frustrated when I had no connectivity. What?? Yes. Proof that I too am no longer immune to connectivity addiction. Because I’m old, but not that old. What I do a lot of the time is simply not take my phone with me. Addiction control.

4. There is no enjoyment in holidaying if you feel guilty about it. Reserve guilt for your worser sins. Holidaying is a virtue. Treat it as such and indulge yourself.

Sending you sunshine, and lots of uninterrupted time off. Looking forward to seeing you in the new academic year!

Amber

 Holiday

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