How to Write a Happy PhD

By |2018-11-07T09:21:59+00:00November 7th, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Behind the scenes I am preparing for the next live sessions of the Stress-Free PhD Programme. This means I’ll be running the course with a live session at the beginning of the week, where you can ask questions (and I’ll answer them!) to get the most out of the programme. The programme is designed to help you write your PhD in fewer (and happier) hours a day. This can be done! But it takes a few steps, some of which are to do with a shift in mind-set (we’ll be going against the conventional wisdom of working longer hours is better), some of which are practical steps (figuring out what exactly a productive workday looks like for you, and how to create such a workday in a realistic way).

Writing a happy PhD is the third pillar of the course (the first is creating a basis for productivity with self-care, and the second is creating a highly effective workday)

Writing a PhD is difficult, but often it is not the work itself that presents the main challenge. It is the (self-)criticism inherent to academic work, the constant trying to do the near impossible, and then being criticised either by ourselves or others for failing, that gets us down. It can be hard! A friend of mine compares working in academia to eating shards of glass every single day. You have to be a bit of a stoic to be able to do it. In fact you have to be an über-stoic. That is bad news for us non-stoics. How to cope when you don’t have insides of steel?

Creating space in your day

The best strategy for mental and emotional resilience in academia has two components: the first is to create space between work and self. As academics, with minds on overdrive, and highly individualistic work, it isn’t surprising that the distinction between work and self becomes foggy. It’s a recipe for disaster. To help separate ourselves from our work it is helpful to create a time-structure in your day that will make the distinction between work and play; and get in the habit of swiching between focus and relaxation: work when you want to, and relax when you so choose. I’ve written about the practical side of this last week. Taking control of your time and your mental energy and focus will start making the difference between being stuck in the zone of procrastination and guilt and feeling down, or being in the zone of getting things done and sustaining momentum.

Pay attention to the positive

The second is to start appreciating the positive more, and start taking it as seriously as you take criticism and negativity. Our brain has a negativity bias: it registers what it perceives as a threat or a problem more forcefully than it does positive experiences. It may feel like the absolute objective truth that everything sucks, including your PhD, especially when you are processing a lot of criticism (the job description of being an academic). It is not.

Seeing and experiencing the positive in a situation, and cultivating these qualities in your life will start lifting you out of any PhD blues you happen to sink into. The nice thing about being a non-stoic is that you can use your feelings to lift you up and soar. If negativity impacts you in a major way, so can positive feeling states. Cultivating these feelings is a skill you can develop. It is not about positive thinking, or positive affirmations, or any other sort of constructed positivity. It is about finding and appreciating real excitement, beauty, joy, or wonder, or whatever your positive flavour of choice happens to be. It’s next to impossible to give you a roadmap, as this is such a personal process, but I can suggest a few simple strategies to get you started. Start by choosing to give energy to the things that are going well, and the things and people that make you feel good. Take note of these small positive things daily. Give yourself compliments for every small achievement. And be compassionate with yourself when you feel you are falling short. This may sound too obvious, but if you honestly give it a go, you will see that your experience of life (and your PhD) will change for the better.

Inner drive

Another important aspect of creating an experience of effortless flow in your work is to find out more about your inner drive. Why are you doing this work in the first place? What aspects of your work get you excited and ready to go? Working with our feelings and motivation in this way, helps us shift from a mode of working from fear (deadlines, criticism, failure, aaargh!), to a mode of working from inspiration.

How to do it

Start balancing the negative with the positive: ask yourself what uplifts you in any situation. Start paying attention. These tiny shifts will keep adding up. It is a muscle that academics, especially, need to train and grow. Finally, reflect on the aspects of your work that excite you. How do you feel when you are truly engaged with what you are doing? How could you cultivate more of this feeling in the way you work? Start to be more aware of whether you are working in the ‘old’ way – that perhaps feels like forcing, pushing or clenching, and see whether, in those moments, you can be aware enough to recalibrate. Take a short break, find your excitement, and choose to work from there.

Feel like your PhD could do with a positive boost? Join us for the next Stress-Free PhD Live Sessions. They start Monday November 12th! Check out the details here, and enter the GiveAway (I’m giving away two places in class, here). Over the course of 6 weeks you’ll see real shifts, and the PhD slump will be a thing of the past…

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