Are You Feeling Overwhelmed By Your PhD Work?

When faced with a seemingly endless amount of work to do and very little time to do it in, the thing that first inspired us to pursue a PhD may not be enough to keep us going. Feeling overwhelmed can make it difficult to know where (or even how) to start.

The roots of overwhelm often lie in an unexpected place and that is our external environment. While it may not always be obvious, our external environment is often a reflection of how we are feeling – such that a chaotic environment may reveal feeling scattered, stressed, and unfocused. In fact, recent research has begun to draw links between a person’s physical environment and their sense of wellbeing. 

According to a study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, people with cluttered homes and unfinished projects had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol and were reportedly more fatigued and depressed.[i]The study highlights why it can be difficult to think, let alone live, in a space that is disorganised. Similarly, another investigation has examined the relationship between clutter in the home and our sense of happiness and found that ‘clutter had a negative impact on… subjective wellbeing.’[ii]

So, if you are looking for a quick remedy to feeling overwhelmed, it may be worth reflecting on your surroundings. How organised is your work space? Is your desk tidy or filled with clutter? How inviting is your space and how do you tend to feel when you are in it? How often do you tidy and clean your space? Feelings of overwhelm can also be brought on by electronic disarray – for instance, disorganised files on your computer or emails in your inbox. Perhaps some dedicated decluttering time would help make your external environment feel more inviting. 

In conjunction with our external environment, it is also important to examine our internal environment – that is, our thoughts in relation to the PhD. It is understandable if the thought of producing 100,000 words feels overwhelming. It is undoubtedly overwhelming. Yet, the truth is that no one producing a thesis actually writes 100,000 words all at once. They write incrementally – one section at a time, one sentence at a time, one word a time. The more we fixate on the final word count, the more overwhelming it starts to feel and, in turn, the harder it becomes to motivate ourselves. 

Instead of focusing on the long road ahead, just look to the next step immediately in front of you. In practice, this will involve breaking larger tasks down into smaller, manageable and – most of all – achievable goals. Before you begin a task, write down all the component parts associated with that task and what you consider to be achievable for the day ahead. If something still feels overwhelming, it’s usually an indication that the task could be broken down further.  

Establishing a system of incentives and rewards can further support your motivation levels and help to alleviate feelings of overwhelm. Start by keeping a list of things that you can reward yourself with as you attain your goals. They don’t necessarily need to be big or fancy items – small and inexpensive items are actually ideal for a rewards list. It could be things like: seeing a film, treating yourself to a nice meal, going to a museum or a concert, having your favourite ice cream or a bar of chocolate, or watching something you enjoy on Netflix. These are things you might do anyways, but when you consciously utilise them as a way to reward yourself, they tend to take on a new meaning. 

By rewarding yourself regularly in this way, you not only give yourself additional motivation to complete a task, you also practice better self-care. Whereas many students slip into the paradigm of beating themselves up in relation to their work, rewarding yourself regularly will remind you to be gentle with yourself. This can make the entire PhD experience a lot more enjoyable. The headway you make towards achieving your goal – however big or small the step may seem – represents progress. Not only are these steps important to acknowledge, they are worth celebrating in their own right. 

[i]Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi, The Unbearable Heaviness of Clutter’ New York Times,3 January 2019, available at 16 August 2020). 
[ii]Catherine A Roster, ‘The dark side of home: Assessing possession “clutter” on subjective wellbeing’ Journal of Environmental Psychology, 46 (2016): 32-41.  

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