How to write a PhD speedily & (almost) painlessly. Strategy 4: Balance work and recovery.

I am writing a series of blog posts condensing the PhD-writing strategies that helped me finish my PhD. I went from being a not-always-effective researcher to finishing my PhD in a couple of hours a day. Read my story here.

Strategy 4: Balance Work and Recovery

Writing a PhD can mess with your head. Let’s restate that: writing a PhD will mess with your head.
It’s a head-messing thing, PhD-writing.

Not to worry too much – head-messing can be handled, and it will occur far less frequently if you have strategies to balance work and recovery. 

What tends to happen instead, is that we balance procrastination, and not being very focused or effective when we are ‘working’ with obsessing about our work when we are ‘not working’. It’s not a winning combination. If you manage to increase your focus when you are working, and learn to get out of your head when you are not working you will be in a much happier place. Not only that; your PhD will gain momentum, and there’s no better feeling!

To start with the ‘work’ bit. Let’s say there are three phases of doing our work: the first phase is characterised by resistance, procrastination and distraction. It’s the Facebooking and Twittering and getting another coffee and chatting to our colleagues and being distracted. The second phase is ‘the zone’ where we are actually doing our work. It may not feel fast or easy, but we are concentrated on getting something done, and doing what we can. Some days are better than others, but we are thinking, writing, analysing, creating, crunching data, inching forward. The third phase is when we keep going beyond the point of diminishing returns. It’s when we try to push on, once our energy has slumped. It’s when we can no longer think clearly, but we feel we ‘should’ be working because we have not gotten enough done yet. Or, because it’s not yet 5 or 6 or 7 o’clock and everybody else is still ‘working’ too. Sometimes, past the point of diminishing returns, we go into overdrive: a possessed and frenetic way of getting things done (fuelled by feelings of “Aaaaaargh I have not done anything today!! But I need to make that deadline. Or I’ll die!!!!”). It’s not a bad strategy if you indeed need to meet a deadline. Sometimes frenetic is OK. In the long run – not so.

If you want your PhD-writing to be easier, faster, smooth, more effective you need to find ways to expand ‘the zone’ and decrease the amount of time you spend procrastinating and in overdrive. If you consider ‘the zone’ a fixed amount of time and energy per day, that means mainly, working in intervals. It means making doing your work a habit (decreasing procrastination), training yourself to be focused when you need to be, and stopping before the point of diminishing returns, which working in set time intervals will help you with.

But today I want to talk more about increasing the quality of focus and energy when you are in ‘the zone’. You need to be ready to work, when you want to work, and the key lies, interestingly, in what you do when you are not working. It’s about recovery. It’s about getting out of your head.

Recovery, relaxation, fun. How frivolous that sounds!
I’ll let you in on a secret: frivolous rules.
It rules productivity, creativivity and happiness.

When you’re doing mentally challenging work, the brain needs some time to reset after you stop working. The brain needs a break, and it does important things such as processing the thinking you have done, and the experiences you have had that day; and coming up with new ideas and solutions in a non-analytical way. We often don’t give it that break – we may worry, obsess, keep thinking about the complexities of the current intellectual knot we are trying to solve without actually solving anything! We go round and round in circles, further depleting our mental energy, and increasing the frantic feelings of helplessness that come with it. At that point, we may start to give in to our fears about ourselves and our work: “This is never going to amount to anything! Aaaaah. I’m never going to meet that deadline! I am behind as it is. I am going to fail. FAIL!”

Which is a very nice way to spend your evening.

And sets you up for your work tomorrow in the best possible way.

Although sheer terror can sometimes get you amazing results (I don’t think I’d have a Distinction from the LSE without it), as a way of life it is not really recommended.

It will burn you out. Suck you dry. Crush you.

Your ‘zone’ will shrink, until only procrastination and overdrive are left.

The alternative is to give your brain the breaks it needs, when it needs it, which allows it to focus and work hard when you want it to.

Your ‘zone’ will expand.
Your work will become easier.
It will flow. And be more exciting.
You will start looking forward to it.

To do so you need to chill out at the end of the workday.

Let go, relax, unwind.

Some strategies:

Meditation: meditation is the most direct way to allow your brain to relax and recuperate. The benefits of meditation have, of course, been reported for ages. Science is now catching up and there is a growing body of literature that validates numerous benefits of meditation. A recent study shows how meditation helps the brain process thoughts and emotions. It activates the ‘reset’ circuits of your brain in the most literal sense. That’s why meditation can be so refreshing. It clears out the stale thoughts and feelings. Oh, and how we need that! We need to get out of our mind loops. (Mindfulness meditation, which forms the basis of the meditations I teach in the HappyPhD Online Course, is a form of nondirective meditation, as discussed in the article).

Exercise: Move your body. You need to get out of your head, and exercise is one of the best ways to do so. It has the added benefit of metabolising stress hormones, so if you are having a stressful time right now, or if you’re worried, exercise promises to give you relief.

Dance: It’s what I like to do. You can go out and dance. Or simply turn the music up and DANCE. If you think you cannot dance, doesn’t matter. Just do it. Be silly. No one is watching. Or if you are at a party and they are indeed watching – so what? Just dance. (I went to a very serious party a couple of months ago with a lot of very serious people attending. I danced anyway. So what if it was by myself? It was fun!)

Beauty: Art is therapeutic. Words, images, music – they can transport you into another world. An enchanted world where the logical mind gets some time to snooze and recuperate. Pick up that novel. Go to see that exhibition. Put on that dreamy playlist. Smell the roses and the honeysuckle. Immerse yourself in beauty.

Fun: Do the things that uplift you. Meet up with the friend who makes you laugh. Go out for drinks, or tea and cake. Watch something funny on TV. Get out of the house. Put on your lipstick and your heels (or put in your diamond earring, like my 18-year old male Italian flatmate used to do). Bring out the margaritas. Your disco needs you.

Nature: Get away from the computer and take a dive into the ocean. Or, just one toe, if for you, like me, the ocean happens to be the North Sea. Kick your shoes off and lie in the grass. Go for picnics and riverside walks. Oh joy.

Sometimes you need a little outside help to get from stuck in your head to a more free-flowing relaxed state. Consider joining a club or weekly class. I love my yoga classes and would not know what I’d do without them. Maybe you need some help from a physiotherapist to build an exercise routine, and maybe a massage will help to unknot some of your muscles that come from having an overanxious mind. If you’re going through a rough patch – therapy can help. Helping you through rough patches is what therapists are for.

I believe you should support yourself in every way you can.

There is no shame in asking for help. It is an act of courage, and an act of self-love and self-respect to give yourself what you need.
Do not deprive yourself of the help someone else can give you.

Support yourself.
Invest in yourself.
Take care of yourself.

What are your strategies for getting out of your head, and balancing work and relaxation? Let me know in the comments! Oh, and could you do me a favour? If you liked what you read, could you share it? Thanks!

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How to write a PhD speedily & (almost) painlessly. Strategy 3: Work in intervals

I am writing a series of blog posts condensing the PhD-writing strategies that helped me finish my PhD. I went from being a not-always-effective researcher to finishing my PhD in a couple of hours a day. Read my story here.

Strategy 3: Work in Intervals 

Q 1: How many hours have you been sat staring at your computer screen today?

Q 2: How many of those hours have you spent not doing the work you ‘should’ be doing?

If the ratio of A1: A2 becomes too high it produces guilt. And possibly feelings of self-loathing. That, and your productivity drops, in both a relative and absolute sense.

The remedy is simple. When you’re doing mentally challenging work, the absolute best way to go about it, is to work in intervals. Focus on your work, as in FOCUS, for twenty minutes, three quarters of an hour, or an hour and a half (that’s the absolute maximum I would recommend – possibly too long already), followed by a short break.

The best-known application of this method is the Pomodoro technique, which works with twenty minute intervals. They even have an app that allows you to log what you have been working on in those twenty minutes. A little OCD, but sometimes a little OCD is just what we need, especially when we’re feeling a bit lost. Tracking progress can help you stay grounded and focused on what you are trying to do, such as finishing that paper you are working on. It will also help you see you are making progress, even if it may feel very slow. The slow part doesn’t really matter. Progress is progress.

When I was finishing my PhD, with very low energy levels, I was forced to work in intervals, and I was amazed at how effective it was. I have never been someone who could work for very long stretches at a time – a 6-hour workday is about the most I have ever managed, but even in 6 hours there is a lot of daydreaming, being distracted and numbing out you can do. Worrying, there is a lot of that you can do too. When my energy levels dropped I no longer had hours to work. I had minutes. It was dramatically bad. And I found out very quickly that if I spent these precious minutes being distracted I would never finish my PhD. But I wanted to finish my PhD! So I had to change strategy.

I started working in half-an-hour intervals, which slowly crept up to 45-minute intervals, a length of time I still like to work in. It’s long enough to get a substantial amount of work done, but it’s short enough to not lose a sense of urgency. The urgency is important. You can easily spend your 20 or 30 or 45 minutes not doing anything much at all. And in that case, nothing much is going to happen! You need to take your work time seriously. For me, it means I need to get excited about what I am trying to do. My late mentor Gordon Smith once told me (he was talking exams) to: ‘Get excited and write like you have never written before! Make it crisp, make it sharp! You have to be on a whirl!’ It’s that energy I try to infuse into my working hours. For me, it works.

It’s also important to make sure you are not distracted. Switch off your phone, the Internet (yes!) etc. and focus. No distractions.

Of the four PhD-writing strategies I am sharing in this series (see tag: Write a PhD almost painlessly), the strategy of working in intervals, together with the strategy of prioritising are the two that have made the most of a difference to my productivity levels. I can say that I truly became more productive in 2 – 3 hours of work a day compared to the ‘normal’ workdays I was working before. Try it.

If you want to give working in intervals a go, here are some resources:

I have already mentioned the Pomodoro website. I have never used their tools (I use a timer on my computer instead), but I have heard good things.

The book ‘The Power of Full Engagement’ by Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr. Theirs is a productivity system I highly recommend. They focus mostly on the business world, very different to the pressures of academia, but many of their recommendations are equally applicable.

If you suffer from low energy levels, like me, I suggest Michael Nobbs’s website Sustainably Creative. He is an artist with ME whose work slogan is: ‘little and often’. Very impressed with the way he manages to create beautiful things with very little energy to his disposal. He calls it: ‘Getting your important work done’.

Finally, the HappyPhD Online Course will help you build, and implement your personalised version of working in intervals tailored to academic work. I walk you through it day by day, until this way of working has become second nature. I would be absolutely delighted if you’d join me to create a PhD life that works for you!

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How to write a PhD speedily & (almost) painlessly. Strategy 2: Stop doubting yourself

I am writing a series of blog posts condensing the PhD-writing strategies that helped me finish my PhD. I went from being a not-always-effective researcher to finishing my PhD in a couple of hours a day. Read my story here.

Strategy 2. Stop Doubting Yourself

Self-doubt. It’s the devil.

It comes creeping in, seducing you into thinking your work is lousy, you are not moving ahead fast enough, and you will never get anything worth reading written.

It comes at times expected (after having your work criticised by a supervisor, after that presentation that left you deflated, or in the run-up to a deadline) and unfortunately also at times unexpected (as in: when in the shower washing your hair, panic strikes: I know NOTHING about what I am supposed to be an expert in. NOTHING!).

The real problem is not the devil as such.

The problem is we believe its whispers.

And then obsess about it.

And maybe even obsess about being obsessed about it.

We know we shouldn’t feel this way, because we know we are capable, yes?

So why then do I feel this way? Why? There must be something wrong with me.

And so it goes.

Read more »

How to write a PhD speedily & (almost) painlessly. Strategy 1: Prioritise

I am writing a series of blog posts condensing the PhD-writing strategies that helped me finish my PhD. I went from being a not-always-effective researcher to finishing my PhD in a couple of hours a day. Read my story here.

Strategy 1: Prioritise

Time is tricky. That is true, in general, but it’s especially true when you’re writing a PhD. Unless you’re in a highly structured PhD programme you likely have a lot of unstructured time to do your research. Which may mean reading, thinking, and writing, gathering data, running your analyses, or staring out of the window waiting for inspiration to strike. Maybe you do a lot of the latter. Don’t worry. We all do. It’s necessary. But how not to let your PhD get lost in time? How to make sure your PhD gets written, and deadlines get met? Wasting time is only fun, if you’re not stressing out. Ah – the eternal academic struggle!

The problem with academia, especially in the early phases when you are still discovering what your work is about, is that time can seem both endless (the empty days) and a pressing problem (the deadlines). It can also seem as if you have gotten absolutely nothing done, even after a full day at your computer.

The solution? Prioritise.

As in – seriously prioritise.

If you could choose between writing 500 words, of a literature review, say, or a methods section, or an analysis of your data; or if you could check Twitter: what would be the best use of your time in terms of getting your PhD written?

For me, personally, this question was key to finishing my PhD. I finished my PhD with severe energy limitations, and this was about as bad as it got: are you going to check Twitter, or are you going to write two paragraphs today? There was no energy to do both.

I also had to ask myself: am I going to read or write today? There was no energy to do both.

If the answer was ‘read’, I had to ask myself: am I going to read this paper, or that paper? There was no energy to do both.

If the paper seemed less than relevant after a page or so, I’d abandon it, and choose something else to do. My energy was running out, already, and I had absolutely no intention of wasting it on reading a paper I was not going to use.

If this sounds like a torturous way of finishing your PhD you are right: running into walls as a way of life is in no way enjoyable. But it’s effective, I can tell you that.

For me, energy became a life-or-death type limit. It forced me to be very clear on what I wanted to do, and to devise ways to do it. I was forced to channel my energy.

The reason we so often NOT prioritise and focus is because we don’t have to. We have lots of time, lots of energy and lots of possibilities. Why not explore a little? Sometimes, exploring and cruising are indeed the best thing to do. Until they’re not, and we’re still doing it.

Not prioritising and not focusing are also the easy way out. It’s hard to choose one course of action, one next step. Once we’ve chosen, we also find out how hard the implementation of that step may be. Writing 500 words sounds easy, and sometimes it is, but very often it’s not. It confronts us with all the things we don’t know, all the answers we don’t have, all the blank space that is waiting to be filled. And we better fill it with something intelligent. That’s difficult. So we digress. Float off. Disengage. Check Twitter.

Ask yourself when you sit down at your desk in the morning: 

If there was only one thing I could do, one action I could take, one paper I could read, one analysis I could run, one paragraph I could write, today –what would I choose? What is the absolute most important thing I could do today if I wanted my PhD to move ahead?

Take the question seriously. Take the limitation seriously. What if this really was the only thing I could do today? As in the only thing.

Then, take the answer seriously too. DO it. Take your own advice. Do what you need to do, and don’t be distracted.

Afterwards, you’re free. Free to wonder, free to drift, free to waste time. Free to check Twitter.

If you want, and have the energy, you can repeat the ‘if there was only one thing I could do’ question, and get more important work done.

But you don’t have to. Take it from me: we often do too much. Too many unimportant tasks, which with hindsight may not have been more than distractions. (Do you really need to read all 25 papers? No. Probably not.)

Force yourself to prioritise. Even if you can only manage one work session of an hour a day – if you use it wisely you will make great strides.

You will have done your ‘most-important-thing’. It is all you ever really need to do.

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