How Can I Stop PhD Procrastination?

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I have yet to meet a doctoral student who hasn’t at some point struggled with PhD procrastination. When faced with a task as momentous as writing a thesis, almost any other activity can appear more appealing. This makes it very easy to give in to distractions.    

Distractions can take several different forms. It could be an administrative task or a chore that feels lighter and is easier to tick off your ‘to-do’ list. For instance, if you’ve reached a challenging juncture in your research, doing the dishes or laundry probably feels like a welcomed escape.

You may also feel distracted by the incessant stream of negative news relating to the coronavirus pandemic. Understandably, the current global situation is making it exceedingly difficult for people to focus on what’s in front of them.

A further set of distractions could involve work related to the PhD. This is the kind of distraction that tricks us into feeling like we are progressing with our work while we simultaneously avoid what we are really meant to be working on.

For example, we might continue to read new literature on our topic when we are really meant to be cracking on with writing. Since PhD students are expected to be experts on their topics, they can easily fool themselves into thinking that this additional reading is essential. Yet, the real reason that so many students put off writing is because it may feel safer to read someone else’s work than to start writing their own. 

I must admit that I’ve engaged in all of the above modes of procrastination during my PhD. The moments when I seemed particularly prone to distraction were, ironically, those days that I had the most time available. After blocking out an entire day in the expectation of getting some serious writing done, for whatever reason I would find that I had very little to show for that particular day.

Reflecting on this experience has highlighted to me the importance of managing my time as a way to better manage my tendency to procrastinate. In order to do this, I’ve come to rely upon a tool that enables me to set some parameters around my time.  

The first step is to identify a task that you’d like to complete. It could simply be sketching out the next section of your thesis, working on your bibliography, or progressing with your literature review. Next, set a timer for 25 minutes and for this period of time, do nothing but the task you have identified. After 25 minutes take a short break and then get ready to do another 25-minute round. This simple practice is called the Pomodoro Technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo.[i]

Having used this tool quite a lot I can definitely attest that it works. There’s something about breaking tasks down into smaller increments and setting boundaries around your time that helps to manage distractions. I’ve found that once I carve out the time and space to complete a task by using this method, it becomes a lot easier to protect that time from things that might otherwise encroach on it.

So, for instance, if the phone rings while I’m in the middle of a Pomodoro round, I’ll let it go to voicemail; if I feel tempted to go on social media, check my email or refresh my online news page, I’ll simply wait until I’ve reached my 25-minute mark. This technique works just as well for short-term tasks as it does for longer-term projects.

The next time you find yourself procrastinating, give this simple technique a try and you may be surprised by the results.

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[i]See https://francescocirillo.com/pages/pomodoro-technique  

PhD Plan B: Managing Detours on the Doctoral Path

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The journey towards obtaining a PhD is rarely a smooth path. Even under normal circumstances it is not uncommon for students to encounter setbacks. Below is a list of the types of detours a doctoral student may come across:

  • Having to switch supervisors
  • Someone else publishing on your topic
  • Financial difficulties/running out of funding
  • Having to juggle a job alongside your PhD
  • Realising your topic is no longer feasible
  • Having to switch to a different methodology
  • Recent events or developments that make your topic redundant
  • Being unable to obtain ethics approval for your research or risk assessment approval for conducting field work
  • Having to scale down your project
  • Problems with data collection
  • Feeling distracted or unmotivated
  • Falling behind with deadlines
  • Feeling too busy with side-projects
  • Physical or mental health challenges
  • Difficulties with field work
  • Thesis examiner pulling out at the last minute
  • Challenges with interview subjects
  • Loss of a family member or close friend
  • Relationship challenges
  • Failing an upgrade viva

To this list of common detours along the PhD path we can now add one that no one saw coming and that is ‘global pandemic.’

There are a number of ways the Coronavirus has impacted PhD students around the world. Field work has been disrupted by travel restrictions, research funding may be in short supply, and regular working patterns have been disturbed by the requirement to work from home.

The ongoing crisis is also forcing students to rethink their timeframe for completion with many having to make formal requests for extensions in order to accommodate these unique circumstances.

As the full impact of this crisis continues to take hold, more and more students are having to come up with a ‘Plan B’ for their PhDs.

It is one thing to come up with a PhD Plan B, however, and another to fully accept it. When you’ve been forced to reconsider your plans due to external circumstances, resistance to any change in direction is perfectly understandable.

The thing that stands in between constructing an alternate path and learning to accept that path are the expectations we carry around about the PhD. Below are a few points to bear in mind, which I hope will help you begin to accept your change in direction:

It Doesn’t Need to be Your Life’s Work

Given the dedication and time it takes to complete a doctoral thesis, it is not uncommon to feel as though the end result must amount to your life’s work. However, this could not be further from the truth. In stark contrast to being overly ambitious, the purpose of a PhD thesis is to answer a single question or problem within a set of clearly defined parameters. In this regard, a PhD thesis tends to open up as many questions as it answers.

Some Element of Scaling Back is Inevitable

As you get further into your research you’ll realise what is possible and what isn’t within the scope of your project and the time that you have available. This will typically result in some element of downsizing. The ideas that don’t happen to fit within your project can still be incorporated in the ‘areas for further research’ section of your conclusion – which nearly every thesis will have. Highlighting avenues for further research is an important aspect of your project, even if you are simply identifying an area of research for another person to pursue. Alternatively, you can think of the parts you’ve had to scale back on as inspiration for a follow-on/post-doc project.

You Only Need to Pass

Unlike other degrees in academia, the PhD viva is a straightforward pass or fail. While that may sound daunting, the fact is that all you need to do is obtain a passing mark and no amount of going above and beyond the requirements will change that. As the end product will not be graded in the traditional sense, it is worth considering whether you might already have enough material on hand to pass the viva.

You Will End Up Revising It Anyways

Most students feel under pressure to ensure that their thesis is a ‘perfect’ piece of work when the truth is that PhD theses are rarely, if ever, published as they are. For instance, when it comes to publishing, students are often expected to revise their theses prior to submitting it to a journal or an academic publisher. This is the case whether the PhD consists of a larger book-style manuscript or a series of separate papers. The likely need for some form of revision or updating may lessen some of the pressures associated with producing a perfect end product.

Time-Frames Are Less Significant Than You May Think

Perhaps you’ve had to take a break, postpone your fieldwork or interrupt your studies while you wait for the current crisis to pass. In reality, the time-frame in which you choose to work on your thesis is less important than you think and may not have as much bearing as you believe. Any piece of research should be viewed as a general snapshot at a specific moment in time. For instance, take a look at something that was published quite recently (this year or even this month) which you consider to be a strong piece of work. Irrespective of how strong a piece it is, you can probably identify areas in which that piece could be updated,improved, or revised in line with recent developments. By its very nature, academic research is dynamic and continuously evolving – never really ‘done’. As such, the time-frame for completing your research is perhaps more flexible than you may think.

The PhD is a Marathon, Not a Race

Although you began your PhD journey with a group of peers, it is important to remember that you are each on individualised paths. Every project is unique, as is each students’ working patterns, methodology and time scales for submission. In that sense, there is no genuine basis for comparison between you and your peers. Any supposed competition between you and them is more imagined than real. If your project is impacted by the current pandemic and that results in you submitting later than your peers, it makes absolutely no difference at all. The PhD is not a race to the finish line, it’s a marathon. You may run alongside others, but you run for yourself and at your own pace.

Changing Direction Is a Normal Part of the PhD Journey 

In order to fully embrace Plan B, it is crucial to let go of your past plans and accept where you are now. Plan A, or the plan we come into a PhD programme with, is often an idealised version of what we imagine our research journey to be before having taken any steps on the path. In that sense, switching plans is quite common, and a significant part of the journey is to realize when such a change of direction is needed. It is when we hold on too tightly to the original idea we had, or are unwilling to change direction, that things become especially challenging. The way forward (Plan B) may not be what you had imagined or hoped for, but it will ultimately lead you to the same end point.

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Questioning the Question: Preparing for an Academic Q&A Session

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For many students the most dreaded aspect of an academic presentation is not the presentation itself, but the Q&A session that follows it. Q&As are not only unpredictable, they are also impossible to prepare for. We can never be sure what we are going to be asked and by whom. It is no wonder that the prospect of a Q&A session is unsettling for many. In this post I’ll share my top tips for navigating academic Q&As.

Question the Question: My first tip is based on the fact that not all questions in a Q&A session are created equal and in fact, some are downright unfair. If, for example, an audience member goes on a rant for a considerable period of time – as almost always happen at some point during a Q&A – it is worth asking if there is a question in what they have asked or if it was more of a comment. In other words, it’s perfectly reasonable to question the question. So, if you happen to get thrown an incomprehensible monologue, by all means, throw it back to the questioner. By doing so you are inviting them to either reframe their question or retract it.

Ask for Clarity: On a related note, remember that it’s not your job to interpret a poorly phrased question so before you attempt to offer a response, ensure that you have understood the question clearly. If anything is unclear, don’t hesitate to ask the questioner for some clarification. One way to do this would be to restate the question as you have heard it and then ask the questioner to confirm if you have understood correctly. Or you could simply ask the questioner to be clearer in how they’ve formulated their question. It may be, as with the case above, that there isn’t actually a question within their question, in which case, you need not spend any time answering it.

Take Notes: A lot of the anxiety surrounding the Q&A comes from the rapid-fire nature of these sessions. There is rarely time to think and gather our thoughts before we are expected to answer. Like many people, I don’t do particularly well when I feel on the spot and I usually think of my best responses hours after an event has passed rather than on my feet! In order to offset some of this pressure, and buy yourself enough time to think, consider writing down the questions as you are being asked them. This tool can be particularly useful if you want to recall key words or phrases as you respond.

Experiment with Another Format: If you’d like to be more selective in your responses, feel free to alter the format of the Q&A to one that would better suit you. This might involve taking multiple questions from the audience and then being more discerning about which ones you’d like to engage with. This will give you the freedom to focus in on the most relevant questions and consider each one at your own discretion.

Repeat Yourself: Although it may seem redundant to you, it may be worth repeating material from your presentation during the Q&A. The audience will not be as familiar with the material in your presentation. What may seem obvious to you or even repetitive, will not be for them. Going back to the presentation will remind them of what you do, particularly if their questions are slightly off topic (as some are bound to be!) An additional benefit of referring back to your presentation script is that it arms you with a ready-made response. This can only help in building your confidence throughout the Q&A session. As I’ve often found, one confident response leads to another and another, and so on.

A Conversation, Not an Attack: Much of the resistance to Q&A sessions stems from the feeling of being on the spot or under attack. Instead of thinking of it as an attack, try and view it as more of a conversation. You’ve just delivered a presentation on a topic that interests you and now you have an opportunity to further discuss this topic. Approaching it as a conversation opens up the possibility for two-way communication between you and the audience instead of a one-sided attack.

Keep Breathing: It is not uncommon to speed up during both the presentation and the Q&A. However, the faster we go, the more we yield to the fight versus flight stress response mechanism. Our fight versus flight response is governed by our more primitive, reptilian brain – the part of our mind that is concerned with our survival above all else. In such a state, we are unlikely to be able to access the more sophisticated and creative thinking associated with our neo-cortex; yet, this is precisely the part of our brain that we’d like to have access to during the Q&A. To ensure that our reptilian brain doesn’t dominate, it is critical to slow down, especially when we feel stressed. So, before you respond to any questions during a Q&A, pause and take a long, slow, deep breath. This simple action will go a long way towards activating the neo-cortex.

Not Every Q Requires an A: Perhaps our greatest fear during a Q&A is that we will be asked something that we don’t know. The most common approach to this type of scenario is to either pretend we do know or to provide an answer to the question we wish we had been asked. Neither of these approaches feels particularly authentic. What if, however, not every Q required an A? If we assume that were true, we could instead say something along the lines of:  ‘I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s a really interesting question. I’ll have to give it some more thought.’ While some may be reluctant to admit that they don’t have all the answers out of fear they might look stupid, in my view it signifies the exact opposite – a person who is confident enough in themselves and in their work to admit that they don’t know everything.

I hope you find some of the above tips useful for your next Q&A session. Feel free to get in touch with me at info@academease.org for any comments or further questions.

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Is PhD Perfectionism Slowing You Down?

board-786119_1280Do you suffer from perfectionism? With the constant pressure to achieve in academia it is no surprise that perfectionism is so prevalent among students. The consequences of perfectionism can be quite debilitating, as a recent study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences reveals a correlation between perfectionism and depression.

While the causes may vary from case-to-case, more often than not, perfectionism stems from a fear of making mistakes. The prospect of making a mistake in and of itself may not be the issue, but more specifically what the mistake might reveal. I’ve noticed this particularly among PhD students and I would argue it has a lot to do with how the PhD process is framed.

When students reach the level of a PhD  – the highest stage in their educational path  –  it can feel like an honour and privilege, but it may at the same time feel quite overwhelming. I often hear doctoral students saying ‘I don’t deserve to be here’ or ‘I’m not good enough to be in my programme.’ In such cases, the weight of the PhD is accompanied with a fear of somehow not being up to the task.

Within this context the prospect of making any mistakes has the capacity to serve as unequivocal proof that we don’t belong where we are or that we aren’t good enough. Determined not to let this happen, many students obsess over every detail of their PhDs and may even find excuses not to share drafts of their work. In this way, perfectionism may temporarily serve us by protecting us from making mistakes, yet it also risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is because perfectionist behaviour inevitably slows us down and therein feeds into the idea that we are not good enough.

Since cultivating a sense of worthiness is not an overnight job, shifting our expectations of the PhD itself may offer the best way to manage perfectionism. With this in mind, there are a few points relating to the PhD that are important to highlight.

1) It Doesn’t Need to be a Masterpiece

Have a look at some of the PhD theses in your university library. You’ll find that they aren’t masterpieces that reinvent the wheel in their respective disciplines. In stark contrast to being overly ambitious, the purpose of a PhD thesis is to answer a single question or problem within a set of clearly defined parameters. In this regard, a PhD thesis tends to open up as many questions as answers and, as such, need not be perfect.

2) You Just Need to Pass

Remember that the PhD examination is a straightforward pass or fail assessment, and all you need to do is obtain a passing mark. Recalling that the thesis will not be graded in the traditional sense may help to alleviate some of the anxiety associated with it.

3) You Will Revise It Anyways

PhD theses are rarely, if ever, published as they are. Typically, students are expected to revise their theses prior to publication. This is the case whether the PhD consists of a larger book-style thesis or a series of separate papers. The likely need for some form of revision or updating may further lessen some of the pressure associated with producing a ‘perfect’ piece of work.

4) Research is Always Evolving

As unsatisfying as it may seem, the truth about academic research is that it’s never really done. By its very nature, academic research is dynamic and continuously evolving. There are aspects of any piece of research that would benefit from being updated, improved, or revised in line with recent developments and new discoveries. This is yet another reason why aiming to produce a perfect PhD may be counterproductive.

As the above points demonstrate, shifting our expectations of the PhD is an important first step in overcoming perfectionism. When we have a more realistic picture of what the PhD entails, we can start to let go of the fear of making mistakes and perhaps even embrace the inevitable imperfections in our work.

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Staying Motivated Throughout Your PhD

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With PhD projects averaging around 4 or more years to complete, it can be difficult to sustain the motivation that first inspired you to start the project in the first place.

A lack of motivation can show up in many different ways. Whether it’s procrastination, feeling low, getting distracted by other tasks, feeling incapacitated and unable to move forward – it’s often a vicious cycle. When we don’t feel motivated, we end up accomplishing very little and this results in us feeling even less motivated than before! And so, the cycle continues.

Whenever you find your motivation waning, it’s important to be gentle with yourself as you work through this and to know there are steps you can take to move forward.

When it comes to addressing this issue, there are two distinct, yet related levels of motivation: (1) Underlying motivation and (2) day-to-day motivation.

The first level, underlying motivation, is about reconnecting with your passion and excitement – the thing that inspired you to pursue a PhD in the first instance. The second level, day-to-day motivation, concerns the more immediate task of maintaining momentum on a daily basis.

While these two levels of motivation can be viewed as mutually reinforcing, the steps I would recommend for addressing each are slightly different. Moreover, while both levels are equally important, I would suggest concentrating on underlying motivation first. This is because even if we arm ourselves with the best tips relating to daily motivation, these tips can only be a temporary fix if we’ve lost our deeper motivation and can no longer identify why we are doing something.

So how can we begin to reconnect with our underlying motivation? Let’s try the following exercise.

Exercise: Finding Your ‘Why’

Find a quiet space where you can sit comfortably without distractions. Gently take a few deep breaths in and out.  When you are ready, start to write down all of the things that are worrying you about your PhD on a few sheets of paper. It could be things like: ‘I’m not working fast enough,’ ‘I’ll never get this done,’ ‘my work isn’t good enough,’ ‘what if I can’t find a job when I finish?’. All of the things that are worrying you about the PhD, just write them down.

Now, I’d like you to roll up each scrap of paper into a ball and throw them into a bin, one by one. Imagine yourself feeling lighter and lighter as you throw each piece of paper away. By going through this process, you are opening up space and quieting that critical voice in your head. If you find that more worried or anxious thoughts are coming to you, continue to repeat this part of the exercise.

Next, when you are ready, I want you to begin to ask yourself the following questions and be as honest with yourself as possible: why do I want to do this? What first inspired me to pursue a PhD? Was it a person I met, a place I visited or a book I read? And why did I choose this particular topic? What excited me about this field and this research topic? What can I do with the PhD that I couldn’t do without it? What doors will the PhD open up for me?

Take a few minutes to reflect on your answers. What has come up for you? Was there anything unexpected or surprising in your answers? Many of the students that have gone through this process are able to find their ‘why’ – that kernel of inspiration or passion that first inspired them to pursue a PhD. The thing that so often gets in our way and blocks us from connecting to that passion are our own thoughts, anxieties and worries. But what if you were able to sit in the place of inspiration more regularly? How would it feel to work on your research more regularly from this place of excitement?

As you go forward, can you identify whether there are things that remind you of your ‘Why’? Something that you can glance at that will automatically enable you to reconnect to why you are doing this. It could be a photo of someone, a book, a painting, an image on your desktop or some other object that that reminds you of your why. If you are able to identify something, perhaps you can keep this item in your work space as a way to tap into your underlying motivation more frequently.

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Track Your Progress and Not Your Word Count

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One of the most challenging aspects of completing a PhD is the difficulty of knowing whether you are on track. When you are pursuing a degree that lasts for several years, how do you really know if you are moving forward, particularly when you are working independently? For most students, the default mode for measuring progress is to either compare yourself to others or to add up the number of words you have written.

Although your word count may seem like the most obvious and reliable way to measure progress, there is so much more that goes into completing a thesis than simply producing a set number of words. There are days when you might not write very much, or anything at all, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t making progress.

The setbacks, challenges, and frustrating days when you feel like you are going in circles are, to a certain extent, inevitable and something that every student will experience. In order to keep yourself moving forward, it’s important to allow for the fact that this is all part of the process. Even when you feel like you aren’t progressing, chances are you probably are.

So rather than tracking your progress on the basis of the words you write and how much closer you are to reaching your final word limit, try alternative strategies for tracking progress – like journaling or a time-management tool called the Pomodoro Technique. Another option to track your progress is to find an accountability partner– someone you can regularly check in with as you work towards your goals.

Alternative techniques such as these not only help you to acknowledge the progress you have made, they also serve as an important reminder that the PhD journey does not always follow a straight path.

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Beware of the Urge to Compare

compare-643305_1280How often do you compare yourself to those around you? In many ways, the competitive nature of academia encourages us to compare ourselves to others. With our work being constantly assessed and evaluated, measuring our progress in relation to others may start to feel very natural.

While the comparison game may seem to be a useful way for determining how well we are doing, there is also something deeply counterproductive about measuring ourselves in relation to others. This became particularly evident to me when I was completing my PhD.

During the PhD, there was no obvious basis for comparison between me and the students in my cohort. Although we had course work during our first year and yearly upgrade panels, these were not graded. We were all pursuing our own independent research projects over a four-year period, wherein the only requirement was to submit a 100 000 word thesis.

As our main task was to write, the default mode of comparison became how many chapters each of us had produced. I recall being asked several times throughout my PhD by other classmates: ‘how many chapters have you written?’ and feeling bad that it wasn’t enough in comparison to what some of the other students had managed to produce. It started to feed into the feeling that I was constantly behind and not performing as well as my colleagues.

Of course, this chapter counting took no notice of how unique each PhD project was, not to mention the different working patterns of each student, differences in methodology, and the resulting differences in terms of the timescales for completion. Given all of this, counting chapters – and draft chapters in particular – as a measure for comparison was pretty meaningless.

The futility of this metric became even more apparent as the time for submitting the thesis drew nearer. Interestingly, and to my surprise, those who had written the most in the initial stages of the PhD were by no means the first to submit. This really brought home to me how ridiculous the ‘chapter counting’ comparison was.

But my realization also applies to the more general comparisons we tend to draw between ourselves and others. Whether we are using academic benchmarks or another metric for comparison, we will always find people who seem to be doing better than us as well as people who may not be – it all depends on where we focus our attention.

Either way, we’d be much better off not to make the success or failure, progress or lack of progress of others, mean something about ourselves. As you go forward, try and beware of your own urge to compare and ask yourself whether the comparison is actually serving you.

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Coping With Academic Criticism

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Compliments can be hard to come by in the academic arena. This is particularly the case for PhD students. Criticism can come from a variety of differently places – your supervisor, colleagues, or other faculty members in your department.

Endless criticism can feel exhausting and become a major de-motivator. It can also be difficult not to take the criticism personally, particularly if you are used to excelling academically, as many doctoral students are. In this post I want to address how to cope with academic criticism throughout your PhD.

The first thing is to simply realize that the criticism of your project is normal and even to be expected. While you may have grown accustomed to receiving compliments on your work, it’s important to appreciate that the PhD is an entirely different ballgame and by its very nature, subject to a higher level of scrutiny. So as strange as it may sound, it is actually an indication of the more demanding level you are working at.

Since a higher amount of criticism is to be expected during the PhD, it’s also important to understand that it’s meant to help you. It may feel awful in the moment, but whenever I ask a student I’m coaching to reflect on the criticism they receive, they almost always acknowledge that it will make their project better in the long-term. The key question to ask yourself is – is this criticism constructive? If the answer is yes, try viewing the criticism as an opportunity to enhance or improve your project.

When the criticism isn’t particularly constructive or delivered in a respectful manner, it usually says more about the person delivering the criticism than you. Part of navigating the criticism surrounding your work is to decide which criticisms you want to take on board and which ones to disregard. It’s all part of taking ownership of your project.

If you are feeling weighed down by the volume of criticism you have received and are starting to seriously question the value of your project, don’t hesitate to request more balanced feedback. This may be something along the lines of: ‘thanks for your helpful feedback. I now have a sense of what the gaps are and what can be improved. To make sure I’m on the right track, it would be great to hear what aspects of the project you think are promising.’ People don’t always realize how their feedback is coming across, so there’s nothing to lose by asking for what you need.

The next point is to remember that the PhD is what you are doing and not who you are. With that in mind, try your best not to overidentify with your research or with the criticisms you receive of it. This can be challenging, as our projects are often deeply personal to us, but at the end of the day, the criticism of your work isn’t an attack on you or a reflection of your worth.

Finally, rather than seeking approval externally, remember that the main person who really needs to buy into your project is not your supervisor, your colleagues or anyone else – it’s you! What you think matters more than anything else. So instead of waiting to hear that you are doing ok, start to give yourself the validation you are seeking by keeping track of what aspects of the project you find valuable. Begin writing them down and come back to this list whenever you need a boost.

In my next post I’ll address a related topic of how to manage your relationship with your supervisor.

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Setting Goals and Shifting Expectations

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For many people, the start of January is a time for taking stock and setting goals for the year ahead. So, what are your goals for 2019?

I’ve come to learn what a powerful role our words play when it comes to setting goals. For instance, whenever I set the goal of writing a ‘chapter’, my inner perfectionist automatically goes into high gear and starts to take over. I instantly feel the weight of what I’m working on and the expectations surrounding it. Who is going to read it? What if it isn’t any good? Why am I bothering with this in the first place? This is how I talk myself out of doing things before I’ve even started.

In order to quiet my inner perfectionist, one technique I’ve started to employ is to soften the language I use surrounding a specific task. So, whether it’s a lecture I’m preparing or a chapter I’m writing, I almost always refer to it as a ‘sketch’, outline’ or even a ‘blueprint’ and I preface whatever I produce as ‘preliminary.’ While it can feel heavy to expect myself to produce a full chapter, writing a preliminary sketch is something I can do.

With this very subtle shift in language, I begin to alleviate any pressure and anxiety associated with the task. It’s a way of tricking my mind into relaxing while I move closer to reaching my goal and in this way, the seemingly impossible task I would otherwise worry about gets completed without me really noticing.

As you start to plan for 2019, ask yourself whether you can shift the language around any of your goals for the year ahead.

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Do You Have Difficulty Switching Off?

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People talk about ‘switching off’ from work as though it were simply a question of flicking a button and going into relaxation mode. When it comes to longer-term projects, it can feel challenging – if not impossible – to draw a line between work and non-working time. This is because even if we don’t physically bring our work home, we often carry the mental weight of it with us.

I certainly found this to be the case when I was completing my PhD thesis. No matter where I was or what I was doing, some aspect of the work was always on my mind. I didn’t know what it meant to switch off or how to go about doing it. Not only did my inability to detach mean that I never had a proper break, it also made my work a lot less enjoyable.

As we approach the holiday season, I’ll share a few steps that have helped me learn how to switch off from work.

Step 1

Set an end to your work day in advance: The first step is to set an end to your work day before you even start working. Not only will this give you something to look forward to, having an end time set in advance will help you to make the most of your working hours. Most of us are taught the virtues of being a hard worker from a very young age, so the notion of consciously and deliberately taking time off work – rather than taking time off when we reach burnout or exhaustion – can feel quite alien. Yet the value of carving out some non-working time in your day and making this non-negotiable, will far outweigh any initial reluctance and discomfort with this step.

Step 2

Find an activity unrelated to your work: Now that you’ve set an end to your work day, it’s important to fill that space with something other than work. If we don’t fill that time, it is more likely that work will creep back into the space we’ve carved out. Try and select an activity that is completely unrelated to your work. It might be a long-lost hobby, a sport, a craft, a language or anything else that you’ve been interested in trying but haven’t managed to find the time for.  At this point, I hear a lot of people saying ‘I can’t afford to do a hobby or take time off each day… I have so much work to do’ which is something I’ll address in the next step.

Step 3

Give yourself permission: Much of the resistance to switching off stems from the fact that many of us don’t feel like we can afford the time off or that we even deserve it. With so much to do, the prospect of deliberately switching off can quickly develop into feelings of guilt. The next step I recommend is to actively give yourself permission by tackling the guilt head on. For this step I recommend something along the lines of a PhD process journal. This will enable you to work through any feelings of guilt and give yourself the permission you need to switch off.

Step 4

Adopt a transition activity: Sometimes the challenge with switching off relates directly to the type of work we are engaged in. This is a result of the fact that nearly all research projects involve expending a great deal of mental energy on tackling complex problems. The nature of PhD research makes it difficult to go directly from the lab, the library, or the office into relaxing. In order to give our brains some space to recalibrate, it can be helpful to try and adopt a transition activity between our work and our downtime. Exercising or even a brisk walk can be a great way to transition between work and downtime. Another good transition activity is grocery shopping, as it gives our brain another task to focus on as we start to wind down.

Step 5

Carry a notebook with you: Even if we were to strictly observe the above steps, our thoughts may still gravitate towards work. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – some of the best ideas I had during my PhD came to me when I wasn’t actively trying to work on it. This is why I often recommend that students carry an ideas notebook with them. That way, if an idea comes to you, you can quickly make a note of it and return to it the following day instead of getting caught up in that thought when you are trying to relax. This allows you to remain receptive to thoughts and ideas without having them derail your downtime.

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