PhDs are slow and slippery projects, it is not at all uncommon for them to feel completely out of control, at some or many stages of the process. Feeling in control of what you are doing may be right up there at the top of your lists of wishes and wants! Feeling a lack of control is the twin sister of feeling helpless, and the two of them are not the cheeriest of company. A few tips to help dodging them:
1. PhDs are uncertain creatures
The first thing to note is that feeling a lack of control is normal, at times central, to any PhD project. Unlike projects and assignments that are smaller and where you get immediate feedback on how you have done, this one is a huge, sprawling one, and a project where you are supposed to something innovative and worth a couple of years of your time too! Who sets the bar? How do you know how you are doing? Often, it can be impossible to tell. Simply acknowledging the feelings of uncertainty that doing a PhD provokes, and recognising them as normal, par for the course, and not something to stress out about can help. If you are feeling like you have nothing to hold onto right now work-wise, it doesn’t mean anything about how your project is going. It just means you are doing a PhD.
2. Devise a set work schedule
I keep going on about this, but it really, truly helps to have working habits you can rely on. They can be the structure that creates stability, the routine you allow on to know you are on track. Why? Because you are doing the work. Measuring and monitoring PhD progress can be difficult when looking at the content of what you have done in a day, a week, a month, or sometimes even a year! But counting work sessions is easy. And keeping it simple is what comes highly recommended. Know that as long as you keep going one work session at a time, you will have a PhD at the end. Your feelings of uncertainty about it don’t count! (If you want to devise good working habits I recommend working with the ZenAcademic Worksheet. There is a free mini course to accompany it in the free resources section too!)
3. Create momentum
You may not be able to control your output (see: 1. PhDs are uncertain creatures), but you have control over your effort and input. To create a sense of momentum (and control) procrastination needs to go. You can do this! To help yourself, make sure you keep your work sessions short (= doable) and set your aim high, one session at a time, as if you are going in for a sprint. (If setting your aim high invokes a sense of dread, set it low. That is also fine. Whatever makes you get to work, whether you need a challenge or a gentle nudge right now.) A whole workday may be intimidating, but a short work session is doable. No, perhaps you cannot solve that intricate intellectual problem you are struggling with today, or even this month. But you can work on understanding an aspect of it in the next 45 minutes. It is an exhilarating way of working: jumping right in. Whatever you get done in that work session, know it is enough. Then take a break and repeat. By the time you get to lunch you will have made real strides. It counts! And it makes you feel good.
4. Complete something
Counting work sessions is one way of feeling and knowing you are accomplishing something (even when the tangible rewards will only come in future). Another way is to complete a task. And notice and celebrate. Every small step counts. How could you divide the work you want to do today into smaller, doable tasks? It takes the mystery out of it, helps the fog clear. You may feel like you don’t have a grip on the entirety of the project, and that you somehow have to figure out how the pieces fit together before you can move on. It tends to work the opposite way: pieces fall into place as you go along, because you are moving along. What is the next small task you could complete (in the next hour, today, by the end of the week) that would help your project ahead? Then do it and celebrate!
5. Set boundaries around your workday
It is all good and well feeling out of control at work at times, but the unfortunate thing is the mind keeps going afterwards! It wants it figured out! Which may mean your mind keeps going in circles, and refuses to relax. One of the challenges of writing a PhD is getting it to not occupy more of your mind and life-space than is healthy and balanced. Setting an intention of not working (or thinking about work), can be powerful. When will you switch off? Evenings? Weekends? After 6 every day? Block (a lot of) time in your agenda for doing anything but work. Exercise helps gets your mind off things. So does yoga. So does meditation. And so does having fun!
Do you feel in control of your project? What do you do to feel more in control of your work? Any tips to add to the five above? As always, if you found this post helpful, could you share it? I appreciate it!