Academic Self-Care: How to Make Changes Stick

By |2014-02-13T10:00:03+00:00February 13th, 2014|Uncategorized|0 Comments


The only thing we need,
The one thing that keeps us alive,
that drives us,
that is worth living for, is desire.

It is the motor of life.

Hanif Kureishi

In my series of guest blogs on PhD-talk on how to increase your PhD productivity (read them here: 1 mental clarity; 2 workday; 3 attitude) I discuss a number of key practices: exercise, meditation, working shorter hours, creating space between yourself and your work, and cultivating a positive attitude.

But how do you create the motivation to actually implement all of this?

How to bridge the gap between wanting to do something, and indeed doing it and keeping it up?

TemptationHaven’t we all been there?

I am not a very disciplined person, and when temptation comes along I don’t have too many problems being seduced. A friend of mine, tellingly, gave me an Oscar Wilde fridge magnet many years ago, reading: ‘I can resist everything except temptation’. Which, pretty much, sums it up. (Know thyself – oh yes, I do).

I can recall many an evening in Florence when, just nights before I had sworn I would never, ever, EVER!!! eat that much, drink that much and stay up that late EVER again – and especially not on weeknights when I was supposed to work hard on my PhD the next day – to of course, go on and do just that. So much for sobering up and becoming a respectable, disciplined, self-respecting and self-controlled professional person, who works steadily and serenely, and goes to bed on time, and doesn’t let interruptions, seductions, invitations and chocolate cake for dessert interfere with earnestly made plans.

But ah! Why so strict? Let’s loosen up a little. Let’s not be sensible all of the time!

Despite my not-exactly-calvinistic disposition, I have made many self-care and productivity changes that have become such a part of my life that I just DO them, no discipline required. And that’s where you want to be. (It makes people think I am very disciplined, which is quite far from the truth. But dedicated, I am).

To make those changes you need to find out first what you really want. What you REALLY want. The only reason I finished my PhD in a couple of hours a day is because I REALLY wanted to do it. And I REALLY wanted to find out how. So I did. That sort of commitment only comes from a deeply rooted desire. When you align with your desire, it becomes easy to make bold decisions and make things happen. And happen they then do.

For me, recently, I rediscovered how this works when I tried to implement some new self-care practices. One of them was to go to Bikram yoga more often. I had tried it in the past – going to a couple of classes, and then deciding it was too hard/ too expensive/ took too much time/ was too much of a sacrifice in the short run/ any number of other feeble excuses.

A month ago my feelings changed, and I realised it was something I really wanted to do. I felt I needed to do it.

Encouraged by a mentor, I decided to just DO it.
No exceptions, no second-guessing my decision, no maybes.
Just DO it.
Set my alarm clock early. 
Drink my green juice. 
Get my yoga mat out, and out the door.
Just go.
Every day.
And so I did.
It wasn’t that hard.
It was much easier than before.

The main difference was the level of commitment. And the level of commitment I find, depends on the depth of your desire.

Now, 4 weeks in, I have gone to class an average 5-6 days a week. Just like that. (…applauds…)

To find out what is realistically feasible, you have to get honest about what you want, and about what is keeping you from doing it. Sometimes you find out that you don’t really want to do what it takes to make something happen. If that is the case: don’t do it. Wait till you’re ready. Indulge in your temptations, procrastinations and distractions instead. Enjoy it.

One way to find out about your wants and desires is to ask yourself: how would it make me feel if, by magic, the change would have already been made.

If the answer uplifts you – go for it.
If not – don’t.

With my working and ‘being sensible on weeknights’-habits that I could never seem to adhere to, the answer in retrospect is clear. I very much preferred going out with my….lover/ boyfriend/ status undefined….and eating a 4-course Italian meal, followed by a night of wine and conversation and good company, than going to bed early. I didn’t WANT to go to bed early. Who wants to go to bed early? Not me. All the more so, because I was not excited by the working habits I had in place. I set myself up for failure by having a ‘concept’ of what my ideal workday should look like, which included working on my PhD for excruciatingly long productive hours. If I’d inquired I would probably have found out I was asking too much of myself, and as a result, just gave up before even starting.

Once I figured out that working on my PhD for 3 solid hours a day, something I could realistically do, made me feel SO powerful and in control of not only my PhD, but also my life, I WANTED to be at my computer at 10.00 am every morning (not earlier though :)) fresh and ready to go. I wanted to work on my PhD and create some momentum. And I wanted to sleep enough and take care of myself to make it happen.

With Bikram, it’s much the same. Once I realised how much satisfaction I’d get out of going to class most days of the week – that it would give me a (much-needed) sense of grounding and control, the decision to ‘just go’ was easily made.

I aligned myself with my desire.

If you want to make a change, and you really desire the change, commit. Make a decision and just do it. When you take the hesitations out of the equation, it frees up a lot of energy that will help you implement the changes you’d like to make.

Which changes would you like to make to increase your self-care and your productivity? Let me know in the comments!

If you are interested in increasing your PhD productivity, have a look at the HappyPhD Course I created. It will walk you through it step-by-step, day-by-day, for 6 weeks. That is, until productivity has become a habit. 

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