On Having an Off Day (Or Week, Or Month)

Whatever career you choose, there will always be off days. Off days (or weeks or months) are not a unique PhD student phenomenon. I would like, however, to dedicate this blog post to the dreaded ‘PhD off day’, and the frustrations faced by the hard-working PhD student when it rears its ugly head. 

So to start, what is an off day? The term could mean so many different things to so many people. It can happen at any time, even when you think the pressure of a looming deadline would keep your mind on track. The off day is a stubborn beast and will do what it wants. At the most harmless end of the spectrum, perhaps you are simply distracted, a bit grumpy or sleepy (or any other of the seven dwarfs). You can’t seem to concentrate, you waste hours on Twitter or simply stare blankly at your computer screen. Maybe you get a hundred words onto the page, or complete some small admin tasks; the day wasn’t a total fail, but your were not your best PhD-you. 


Which of the seven dwarfs are you on an off day? Image via Wikimedia Commons, taken from the 1958 reissue trailer for Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs

The more serious off day could be something quite different: a bad mental health day, a day crippled by anxiety, imposter syndrome, loneliness or self-doubt. It could also be a bad physical health day. Symptoms of a short or long term illness distract you, or make work simply impossible. This can quickly be amplified by feelings of guilt about not working, making you more ill and stressed, and so the circle continues. Now, I know that both physical and mental health problems come in many forms, and sometimes more (or much more) than a day is needed to fix the issue. Sometimes, people are super-humans and they just work through it, or adapt their PhD to work around it. I know this subject has been discussed more than once on the We the Humanities twitter feed, and there are some fascinating articles here,  here and here, for example. For now, I want to stay focused on how we as PhD students can handle the less serious off days.

I have an on-going but not too serious illness that pops up now and again to make things more challenging. On better days, I use the time to do my easiest PhD related tasks and admin: emails, making powerpoint slides, collating notes, image captions, footnotes, etc. (See also: hangover days.) On the less good days, I simply take a guilt-free day off. I know myself and I know my body: nobody benefits from me making myself stressed and more unwell. It’s been a while since I took longer than a few days off, but I have done in the past, and no, it did not ruin my PhD or put me behind. (I also believe that period dramas have restorative properties and must be watched when poorly – they are basically medicine – but that might just be me.)

I have also (and particularly in my second year) experienced lots of regular off days, when your brain just doesn’t quite seem wired for PhD work. So if you are just having one of those ‘grumpy-sleepy-I-just-can’t-concentrate-on-anything’ days, what do you do?I have compiled a list (with a little help) of some tactics worth trying if you are attempting to power-through an off day. 

Here are a few ideas that *sometimes* work for me:

  • Change of scene 
  • Change of taskif you are writing, try reading. 
  • Go for a walk this is my version of exercise, use whatever form works for you 
  • Have a shower – you can’t get distracted by your phone/emails etc in the shower. Try planning out tasks, or simply clearing your head
  • Work on other useful but non-thesis related projects – making yourself feel proactive reduces the anxiety about not working
  • Have a thinking / planning day – my supervisor always reminds me that thinking things through, making notes or plans are incredibly valuable tasks 
  • Write in bullet points – try writing sections of text in bullet form – you’ll start filling in the gaps before you even realise you’re doing it.
  • Re-read or re-watch something (simple) that inspires you – I, for example, might watch this video
  • Call or meet a friend
  • Treat yourself to some crappy TV for half an hour but be strict! 
  • Write something easy, like a blogpost – to get your ideas flowing
  • Print out the document you’ve been working on and try editing on paper. I am a stationary addict so nice pens can really help. 
  • Bribe yourself
  • Trick yourself
  • Scare yourself – this is recommended as a last resort only

If none of these things work then, on reflection, I think your body might be telling you that you just need to turn your off day into a day off. 


In the case of the PhD student, exchange waffles (or friends)  for sanity. Image via: http://slammingscreendoors.tumblr.com/search/leslie+knope+waffle

Is there an aspect of PhD life that you’d like to write about? We’d love to hear your ideas for blog posts. Check out our submission guidelines and get in touch! 

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