PhD productivity is a funny thing. I have come to the conclusion you often have to move in the exact opposite direction of where your instincts are telling you to go. Hence today’s motto: Stop, pivot, go in the opposite direction! If you want, you can add a ‘breathe’ in there as well…stop, breathe, pivot, go!
Maybe you’re familiar with the following ‘loop’: PhD progress is slower than you might like, deadlines real or imaginary are approaching, you are getting overwhelmed by the amount of work you still need to do, you start feeling bad about it, and yourself, PhD guilt rises, as does the pressure, so you start working longer hours, you are spending more time staring at your screen (never seems to be enough!), you start sacrificing non-work activities, working late like so many of your colleagues do (obviously this is the way it gets done!!), progress still seems slower than it should be, you start having trouble getting out of your head at the end of the day, losing sleep, maybe even waking up in the middle of the night, or too early in the morning, dragging your feet, feeling overwhelmed… It feels like you have lost control of your day, and your work… It is demoralising… The solution must be pushing harder for longer…right?
Stop and breathe!
(You guessed it – all together now)
Stop, breathe and pivot! Go in the opposite direction!
Three ways going in the opposite direction will help:
1. Shorten your workday
Whenever you think you need to work longer days, ask yourself whether this really is the case. Most of the time, not so: it tends to be focus that is lacking, not time. It is fight or flight (and academic culture) telling us to push harder for longer, but what if true focus for a couple of hours a day could fix the problem? This depends a little on the type of work you are doing: if you’re working in a lab or doing heavy time-intensive data-crunching of some sort you may need the hours. But often we need far less time than we think. It takes a lot of guts to try to shorten your work hours: it goes against everything we feel we should be should be doing, and against common academic wisdom. (whispers: “but it works…”)
Shortening your workday doesn’t work per se. It only works coupled with appropriate focus. This means focusing on the work that will help your project move a step ahead (one step at a time is how it is done…), and ruthlessly prioritising. This sounds sensible and completely utterly obvious, but this is a truly difficult step. Why? Because your fears will be right there staring you in the face! Only slightly kidding. It means that instead of going around the difficult bits you start there. You dive in at the deep end. So this is indeed the scariest, most difficult, and most rewarding bit!
3. Get out of the office
The rest of your life misses you! Every extra hour spent staring at the screen is an hour where the rest of your life is sitting at home disappointed. No! It says. I can’t believe you are staring into the void, and preferring it to me!! You never have to feel guilty for going home for a date, and the reason is: getting out of your head, recovering, shifting your attention, enjoying yourself, is how you refill your energy reserves. This matters more than anything, if you want focus to happen. True, perhaps you can work harder for longer for a couple of weeks: a sprint may be necessary and useful now and again. But the PhD is a long, long, long-term project. Better to sprint at work, then sprint home!
Have you ever tried going in the opposite direction of what the ‘work harder, for longer’ mentality dictates? How did it go? If you need some help getting started download the free ZenAcademic worksheet. Or check out the Stress-Free PhD programme and I will walk you through the process every step of the way.