I’ve mentioned more than once how overwhelmed I feel by my PhD at times. There are publications, conference papers, grants, and public engagement pieces to write alongside your thesis, all to fulfil the undefined and amorphous goal of ‘employability’. Not to mention all those other logistical and bureaucratic tasks that need doing as well as that sneaking suspicion that there are probably about a hundred other things you should do to really standout. I think, in part, we feel overwhelmed because it is overwhelming.
I think it’s helpful to look at what causes this feeling of being overwhelmed more specifically. From my reading and my own experience, I think it is exactly the undefined nature of the goals and requirements that make up this feeling. For instance: What exactly is ‘academic rigor’? In an undergrad or even master’s the requirements are laid out fairly clearly, but especially when we start looking at the goal of a career in academia those requirements begin to blur. Without concrete requirements and especially well defined intermediate goals it’s hard to feel like you’re making progress. I find when I don’t feel like I’m making progress, I don’t take breaks or protect my time because I feel behind. All of which then leads to feeling more overwhelmed and less productivity.
I’ve found that this same issue is trending in HR as businesses are trying to deal with the negative effects of overwhelmed employees. Not all the advice they give is applicable because much of it focuses on improving management techniques and leadership styles. But I think that difference presents a helpful insight; we are our own managers. It seems obvious, but I think it’s helpful. If I was managing a team or even an individual I wouldn’t manage them how I manage myself. I wouldn’t because one, it would just be cruel, and two, I know it wouldn’t be effective, efficient, or helpful.
So why do I manage myself so poorly? Consciously I know it’s not helping, but there’s a voice in my head that tells me that overwhelmed feeling is what pushes me to work harder. I think the first step to improving is thinking about managing myself as I would manage someone else. I think that alone would improve my wellbeing, but I also think the objectivity that brings would help me better implement some of the tactics I’ve gleaned from HR articles that I’ve synthesized and adapted below.
5 ways to manage yourself better
Define tasks and goals – This is simply mapping out the intermediate goals that will get you where you want to go. For me that’s through submission and the viva to a post doc and hopefully a job in academia. To map out those goals I’ve found it helpful to look at the tick boxes listed in post doc and job applications to at least get a better idea of what I’m aiming at.
Celebrate accomplishments – When you’ve identified intermediate tasks and goals you can then celebrate when you’ve accomplished them. It may sound odd, but this will help give you the confidence and motivation to keep working by forcing you to recognise the progress you’re actually making.
Take the time to disconnect – I know personally there’s part of my brain always thinking about my PhD, but unless I make the time to disconnect I’ll just burn out. Part of the problem is I don’t do a good job of guarding my personal time that would give me the space to disconnect. I’m that guy who’s sending emails at 1am and knows the late-night library staff far too well. The way to deal with this is to set aside time to disconnect. This could be rules similar to no sending or checking emails after a certain time or on the weekend or setting aside a day a week not to do any work on your thesis.
Varying tasks instead of multitasking – We all know multitasking doesn’t work, but we all try it because in that moment it feels like we’re doing more even though we’re really doing less. Instead try varying tasks. Often, I try set aside whole days and even weeks, labeled ‘research’, which sounds great until I can’t focus on the subject anymore or I get stuck. By recognizing the number of different goals and tasks you have you can switch between them when you’ve hit a sticking point in one. The idea is that it will help you keep working and keep your motivation up because you’ll still be making forward progress.
Community – This is another one I’ve talked a lot about, but that’s because it’s important. Feeling overwhelmed is just a particular kind of stress. Communities act as a support that help us deal with that stress in a healthy manner. Particularly, with the feeling of being overwhelmed communities help us disconnect from work and recharge our batteries. So, make time for that meal, coffee, or pint with friends; your PhD will still be there when you get back and you’ll be better able to face it when you do.
As always these are ideas, which I’m writing as much to remind myself as to be helpful to others. I have my doubts about my own ability to implement them, but I’m certainly going to try and keep trying. I know I won’t get them all right from the beginning, but that’s part of being human. And if I was managing myself like I would manage someone else, I would understand that, give me some grace, and encourage me to keep trying by pointing out where I’ve made progress. So, be kind to yourselves, remembering you’re not alone, we all feel overwhelmed, and we can find healthy ways to cope with this feeling of being overwhelmed.
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