Having a life outside the PhD

When you’re hyper-focussed on working on your PhD, especially when you get towards deadlines and you’re furiously writing or editing, it’s easy for things to fall through the cracks, and for other areas of your life to start going awry. This always reminds me of Bridget Jones saying, ‘it’s a truth universally acknowledged that the moment one area of your life starts going okay, another part of it falls spectacularly to pieces’. My to-do list of personal things gets longer and longer, and my heads becomes filled with ‘should have done this’, or ‘I forgot to do that!’. Worse than that, I end up cancelling plans with friends, and hide myself away in my PhD box.

When my PhD starts to make other things fall through the cracks, I take a day off from working on my thesis in what I call a ‘life admin day’. I recently had one of these, where I spent the day filing paperwork, cleaning the fast food wrappers out from my car, tidying my bedroom, taking out recycling, washing up the pile of dirty dishes in the kitchen, catching up on my finances, and doing backups of my computer. Sometimes, I’ll take the opportunity to tackle laundry, catch up on messages to friends, go shopping for all the bits and bobs that I need, do a bit of organisation (Marie Kondo style), or even catch up on all the TV shows that I’m behind on and that are cluttering the tabs on my internet browser. Whatever’s on my to-do list, big or small, it gets done.

Diary with to-do list

It’s such a good feeling to be able to tick off all of the things that have been nagging me (actually, I cross them out, it’s more satisfying), and to feel like order has returned to my life. Until you’ve sorted them all out, you don’t really realise how distracting all of those un-checked things on your to-do list are. As soon as I get started on my ‘life admin’ day I feel instantly better, like I’m restoring order and calm to my world, which had been in chaos, as if I had been trying to work in the middle of a hurricane.

It’s also a great reminder that my PhD isn’t everything. I still have other things in my life, including myself(!) that I need to look after, and living under the pressure of a piled-up to-do list just isn’t good for my mental health. Taking a day off every now and then to straighten things out is a great way to take some time away from research, writing and editing, to focus my brain on other things for a while, and do some ordinary things. It’s also nice to be working with my hands for a little while, and not having to think too much. The day after my ‘admin day’ I feel refreshed, and have new energy to tackle my PhD (a rare occurrence!).

Equally – and I’ve lately tried to do this every day (to varying degrees of success) – I’ll take time out to do the things that I enjoy. Your life can’t just revolve around keeping organised and doing the PhD. You need to take time out for yourself, keep doing the little things that make you happy – the things that make you who you are.

I’m by no means great at doing this, but I’ve found little ways to keep my interests going. As a singer, I’ll take the time for a long shower and sing to my heart’s content, or, as an avid reader, run a hot bath and get stuck into a novel. Sometimes, I’ll just go to the shops and buy a cheap bunch of flowers, since arranging them and being able to look at enjoy them for a week or two makes me happy. Other times, I’ll revisit my passion for drawing and painting. Recently, I took a day off to go and visit a local wildlife park with some friends, where we also found a play park which we shamelessly enjoyed like children. When the weather is nice, I’ll go for a walk with a friend, maybe take a photo or two. If it’s raining or cold (it’s Britain, so it often is), we’ll watch a film. Whatever it is that you enjoy, don’t let yourself lose it while you’re in the quagmire of research and writing. Make time outside of your research schedule to enjoy what you do.

All of this is to say that you shouldn’t forget about other things while you’re working on your PhD. Your PhD isn’t everything, and it shouldn’t be! You still need to do things to keep the rest of your life organised, and do things to look after yourself. Don’t let yourself become so consumed by your thesis that it’s your entire being. It doesn’t have to be all work and no play, nor an endless stream of depression, anxiety, and isolation. You have an identity outside ‘PhD student’, and it’s important to remember that.

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Lizzie via email at egm9@st-andrews.ac.uk or connect with the blog on Twitter

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