I only vaguely realised the Borg was a Star Trek reference when the phrase ‘It’s like fighting the Borg!’ popped into my head as I was thinking about social media consumption and addiction. I googled it just now, right after I promised myself I was going to get started writing this blog post. Technically I could even say it is part of work, right? Googling for my blog is doing research! I also know it is one of the habits I was much, much stricter about when I was finishing my PhD: I was uncompromising. I didn’t work online at all for the first few work sessions of the day, and it made being focused so much more doable.
I didn’t develop self-discipline necessarily. I opted for the easier way: to fight the bots with a bot so to say. I used an app called Freedom, which would block the Internet entirely, or certain sites that were difficult to resist. And difficult to resist they can be. There were three ways in particular being shielded from the online world helped.
A Morning Routine
It helped me get going in the morning. Every morning I started writing/ work at 10:00, and making sure my computer would automatically go offline at that time helped tremendously in making that routine a habit. I remember the almost withdrawal-like effects when I first installed the app, the world becomes very quiet without our trusted online distractions. Suddenly you’re there with the blank page. And then you realise: this is exactly where I need to be. I need to be right here, right now with the black page. That’s the whole point of it! Over time my mind and mental habits adjusted and my brain’s inner alarm clock just knew it was time to start work, and time to focus. It becomes second nature. And not to make an ad of this blog post, but it feels like Freedom.
Staying with the Work When It’s Hard
The first challenge is to actually sit down and think and write. The next challenge is to keep going when it feels difficult. And there are so many ways writing can feel difficult. Blessed are the days and weeks you have a clear idea of what you’re doing, and the writing trickles onto the page uninterrupted. It is more likely that you may think you have some relevant thoughts, but once you start putting them to paper they aren’t as coherent and brilliant as they seemed in your head. Thoughts are almost like dreams in that way: in the mind everything is possible but then try squeezing it into logically coherent sentences, in a logically coherent whole. Almost impossible! Right, do you have an impulse to check out yet?? Writing is emotionally difficult. We know writing and developing our concepts takes time, in fact it makes sense. But it is uncomfortable! Academic work is so slow. Could it be any slower?? So we need to help ourselves stay with the work, and the difficult feeling, instead of going off and checking Insta.
Develop Your Voice
Finally, we need some help staying with our work. I always say: the ocean is vast. By that I mean: the ocean of the literature is vast and deep and at times perilous! Perilous in the sense that it can take us off course – you can sail absolutely everywhere, but it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily where you need or want to go! In fact it can take you entirely off track. Working offline for me meant that I didn’t go sailing off in any direction searching for new literature or references etc., drifting off along the way. Instead I worked with what I already knew in the mornings (I would have a few papers downloaded for reference), and if I was unsure of anything or I thought my sentence needed a reference, or I was sure someone or many people had written about this before, I would make a note, jot it down, and keep going! Keep going with my thoughts, my argument, immersed in what my paragraph or chapter was trying to do. Blocking out the internet helped me stay away from wasting hours on research that may not have been that useful. Of course, I would still need to do some of that research, but it would have to be done intentionally, once I had more of an overview, not when I bumped into a challenge or interesting thought or reference at sentence level. You need to prioritise, otherwise the ocean will swallow you whole!
Voilà, three reasons why it makes sense to block the internet: it will help you get started, keep going, and write something worthwile. Switch off for a couple of hours a day. Go old-school…
If this way of working appeals, consider joining the Stress-Free PhD Programme. Over the course of the programme you’ll develop new work habits that will allow you to finish any research project in far fewer hours a day. Definitely worth it.
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