Making the most of an hour a day

I have realised, looking through recent posts, that there is a bit of a theme emerging: that of a slightly aimless and depressed writer trying to get off the couch. I feel I should break this theme with a different kind of post, a more optimistic one. Although I have no regrets sharing this low patch of feeling aimless and stuck and unable to get off the  couch – the downs are as much a part of working on a PhD or research project as any other part of it, and an important part to talk about – I do need to get going again. And the only person who can really get me going again is me. So, this post is really about how to make the most of the time you have, and be as productive as you can be.

Many of my readers, and colleagues, are part-time writers and students. Writing and reading and thinking about research is squeezed into the odd hour here or there, or if you are lucky, a research day a week, a weekend, or even a sabbatical from work. But, for the most part (and this was the case for me during my PhD), research has to be fitted into everything else, and not the other way around. For much of my own PhD I had, at most, about an hour a day, most days. Then I had to put the PhD down and do my real job, and be focused on other things. After work, there were extra-murals to fetch and carry from, kids to spend time with, suppers to cook, pets to feed and so on. So, these brief hours here and there were precious and I needed to learn to make the most of them.

From commons.wikimedia.org

From commons.wikimedia.org

This is  not easy. I have written here about finding time to write, and about what that means: less physical hours in the day, and more space in your head to actually think and write productively when the physical time is created. It’s no use making time to write and then having to spend that time just getting back to where you were the previous time you set aside an hour or two to work on your research or writing. You’d just be treading water, becoming increasingly frustrated, and struggling to move forward. Each hour, ideally, needs to move you one step further to a finished thesis, or paper. Thus, you need to make the most of these hours that you can create AND, very key, create as many of them as possible in a consistent manner. Think of these hours as stepping stones: too far apart and you’re stuck in the middle of the river, looking for a place to put your feet and finding the leap a bit scary. Ideally, they need to be fairly evenly spaced, so that you find each step in front of you manageable.

I have also written here and here and here about things you can do to manage your research time effectively, and work on creating a balance between time for your PhD/MA and the rest of your professional and personal life. What I am working on now is creating links between the hours and minutes I set aside to work on specific projects. I read recently that when you are working on a piece of writing you should end off such that your thought is not quite finished, so that you can pick it up again and keep going. The problem with this, for me, is that I might not come back to that piece of writing for a few days, or even a week, and then that thought may have left me. This writing time then becomes about trying to get back to where I was before I left off, rather than picking up the thought and carrying on with it usefully. My trick now is to end off a block of writing time with some brief notes to myself in the form of a holding text, pointing ahead to what I want or need to think, read or write about next time. Thus, when I do pick it up, whether the next day or the next week, my time will be used moving my writing forward. This is one way I create a link.

Another way I am creating links is by getting better at managing my physical time week in and week out. I am learning to keep much more detailed writing TO DO lists, breaking projects into more realistic pieces (such as ‘Read three papers and make notes’ set aside for three or four pomodoros in a morning; ‘draft introduction’ set aside for an hour or two one morning, and so on), and then working out, along with the kids’ stuff, and my other work and home stuff, exactly how much time I can set aside for these pieces and when. Then (mostly), I stick to this, and find that (when I can get it to work) the stepping stones connect together quite well, and I move my writing forward quite productively. A bonus is that I enjoy writing like this more, because I am moving forward with each step, and not going sideways or backwards.

Finally, a common theme in many of my posts about writing: I practice self-kindness. I do not beat myself up (too much) when I can’t quite make it all work out. But, without structure, some organisational skills and planning, and a way of holding myself accountable, I would do very little. Thus, in order to make the most of each hour you can set aside, you do need clear goals, consistency – whether you can make this an hour a day or a few hours over a week or so – and good planning. The more you can get to your writing and research, the more the writing comes and the research plods on, and the more productive and enjoyable that time will become.

Cheating on your PhD; Cheating with your PhD

I’ve been chatting to friends who are working on their PhDs or research lately, and this theme of a kind of intellectual or mental infidelity keeps coming up. I have seen a lot of this on my Twitter feed too, with part-time PhD students I follow talking about having loads of student work to mark, and meetings to attend and other busywork to do that means less time for their PhDs, and a lot of guilt. It’s almost like they feel they are cheating on their PhDs with their jobs; perhaps the converse is true too – that when they work on their PhDs they feel like they are cheating on their other work too.

Balancing work/home/life and PhD is incredibly difficult. There is never enough time for all of it, and for us to give everything an equal share of our time and attention. If you are a part-time student, a full-time parent, and you work as well at a demanding ‘day-job’, as was the case with me, you can often feel like you are going mad. And you can often feel like you are ‘cheating’ on someone or something by focusing on the other things – like taking time away from your family or friends on weekends to get a few precious hours of PhD writing or thinking in, or taking time away from your PhD to attend meetings that could have been emails, or get through the hectic teaching, admin or other work that pays the bills. I felt like this a great deal of the time when I was doing my own PhD – like I was not really focused enough anywhere, and that I was indeed letting one of my ‘sides’ down at one time or another by being distracted, and having my mind elsewhere.

I don’t think these feelings of ‘infidelity’, if you can call it that, are avoidable, sadly. It seems, if my Twitter feed and my circle of friends and colleagues are any kind of representative group, that very few PhD students are able to devote all of their time and attention to just their PhDs. Many have families of their own, or people in their lives, who require care, attention and time; many work as well, as PhD funding that pays for you to be full-time and fully focused on just your PhD is not easy to find in most parts of the world. The PhD, demanding and time-consuming as it necessarily is, often has to be fitted into and around all the other demands on our heads, hearts and time, and (certainly for me) it’s cheating with your PhD rather than on it that feels like the issue.

The PhD can feel like the indulgence – the time away from all these other much more important things, often things that you chose to devote yourself to before you chose the PhD. Reading time? Pure indulgence. You could be taking your kid to soccer, doing the grocery shopping, or planning your teaching for the following week. Writing time? Well, shouldn’t you rather be writing those emails that urgently need to go out, or preparing supper, or sorting out a costume for the Readathon at school tomorrow? Thinking time? Forget about it! Maybe you can squeeze in some thinking time if you get out to walk the dog, go for a run, or drive the kids to tennis lessons and wait for half an hour while they play.

Some of that may not be familiar to PhD students who don’t yet have families, but there are surely other things that seem so much more urgent than your PhD work does? If you are a part-time student with a full-time life, spending time with your PhD away from all the other things that came before it can certainly feel like a kind of ‘cheating’, and often comes with feelings of guilt and indulgence attached. Where we can carve a few hours out of the working day to do some reading, make some notes, or even better write 1000 thesis-worthy words, we no doubt feel like we need to lie about what we were doing. ‘I was working on that proposal for the committee – it’s taking a while to come together’ (followed by frantic proposal drafting to make up). ‘I was in the library when you called’ (even though you were at your desk with the phone turned off because you were writing). I have to confess, I did more than my share of this during my own PhD tenure – it was the only way I could actually get everything done with the hours I had in the day, and the amount of RAM in my brain.

I think the point of this post is really to say that, while you can often feel like you are cheating on everything else you have to do and the people you account to, personally and professionally, with your PhD, your PhD is not indulgent, selfish, or unnecessary. Choosing to do a PhD, for whatever reason, is a huge thing to do, especially when you are also working and parenting and being in a relationship, and so on. The reading, thinking and writing work you need to do to produce your research is valid work; it is part of your professional identity; it is valuable, necessary, useful. If you are a woman – a mother/partner/wife/carer – this is an especially important thing to realise and then give yourself permission to act on, because (and I’m not going to get into this here in more detail) women often do carry more guilt about dividing themselves into too many pieces, and devoting themselves to something that’s only for them when just about everything else they do tends to be for other people.

I needed to be told this often during my PhD: working on your thesis, spending time reading and thinking, these are not indulgences and you are not cheating on your kids, your husband/partner or your job. My PhD was not just about professional advancement and status; it was also about me – doing something that meant something to me outside of my job, my home, my family. So, if you need to close your door, pretend you’re not in, shut off the phone, say NO to the meeting or the extra admin or whatever else you can put off, do it. You are neither cheating on or with your PhD – you are doing your PhD.

Setting up, maintaining, mending your support systems

A friend of mine asked me recently how I managed to finish a PhD in three and a bit years, with a full-time job and a full-time homelife. I found it quite hard to answer her, especially given that, in retrospect, my PhD doesn’t seem all that difficult now (kind of like when you have done something really tough, like had a baby or run a marathon or climbed a mountain, and you think: ‘I could do that again, that wasn’t so bad!’ even though it was awful a lot of the time while you were going through it). So, I have thought a lot about this, and I think I finally have an answer.

I finished in the time I did because of the support I had. This support came in different forms, and I have divided it into four main kinds that made a big difference during my candidacy: home, personal, work, and PhD-specific.

I’ll start with home, because this, for me, was really important, and also really tough to manage consistently. I have a lovely husband and two lovely, but young, children who need me rather a lot. I also need to be there for them rather a lot, and like many parents I have organised my time and life around them since they were born, and a lot of who I am as a person is bound up in who I am as their mother. Not being very present or in control of all things parenting, therefore, was not really a viable option for me during my PhD. But, as I found out, it was really, really difficult to be a very full-time parent and partner, a very full-time academic, and a very committed PhD student (and not be very stressed and hysterical all the time). My husband, thankfully, is a very capable parent when I stand back and let him do things his way, instead of my way, and he was willing to put me and my PhD work ahead of his own in order to support me (for at least most of the three years). But, and this is the key, I really struggled to let that be. I struggled to let go of being all things to all of my family, and let him manage the kids and their lives so that I could focus on questions of theory, data, tense, fonts and all of that big and small PhD stuff I needed to focus on. It was only really in my final year, when I just had to finish, that I sort of got enough of the hang of letting go, and could actually focus on me and my work without feeling guilty or torn, or left out of what my husband and kids were getting up to while I was alone at my desk, writing. Support at home is essential, but you also need to let your home support you.

The second area where I needed, and was fortunate enough to receive, support and time was at work. I ran a small unit during my PhD and my time was largely my own to manage. This was very fortunate because I didn’t feel like I was clocking in and out with someone looking over my shoulder and accounting for each minute of my day. I was able to, some weeks, carve out a morning (and even have a day or two here and there at home) to focus on my PhD, having reorganised the rest of my workload around these PhD mornings or days. My close colleagues outside of my unit were encouraging, and in my final year accommodated (at least some of) my answers of ‘no, I can’t do that right now, ask me again next year’ with latitude for the most part. Again, though, a lot of what I received hinged on me asking for what I needed, and being firm, once I got the support, in letting it be. I had to learn to say ‘no’, which I am not very good at, and I had to learn to let people help me, also something I am not good at. I was fortunate – my close colleagues were a great source of kindness and support, which made up for the indifference from other less friendly colleagues and management. But I also had to find ways of asking for support and time and space in ways that did not put people’s backs up, or seem like I was asking for favours I was not due.  I learnt some valuable lessons about standing up for myself, and also about diplomacy, tact and timing.

A further area where I needed excellent support was in PhD-specific spaces of supervision and peer-groups. I was part of a structured PhD programme with an active online listserv and regular contact weeks where we all got together for workshops, lectures, seminars and supervision sessions. This support, along with the excellent supervision I received, took at least a year off my PhD in my opinion, as I had both real support, and also imagined chastisement if I did not make progress. I had, in other words, people who were keeping tabs on me, although completely supportively and kindly, and this accountability translated into me egging myself on because I didn’t want to let any of them down (and by extension let myself down). Reaching out to form a PhD support group where you feel you are not all on your own, and that your progress, struggles, and triumphs matter to others, can be a crucial source of support.

Finally, I had to learn to be my own support. I had to learn to encourage myself, and be warm and kind rather then mean and derogatory, especially when days of doing no PhD work turned into weeks and stagnation rather than progress was the order of things. I had to make time for myself, and tell myself that this time was not indulgent, or taking time away from my kids or work: that it was necessary and important and worth protecting. This was really difficult, all the way through. It still is. However, doing the PhD taught me to be kinder to myself, and to be more supportive of my own research, my own achievements and my own struggles. If I am not on my own side, how can I convince others that it’s a side they should be on too? I am much more of a cheerleader for myself now, giving myself more of the kindness I find easier to give to others.

Support systems are not easy to set up, maintain, and especially to mend if they have fallen apart. They require care, time and emotional energy, and these things are often in short supply during a PhD candidacy. However, without these four different kinds of support, something as long, challenging, often lonely and also triumphant as doing a PhD would be much more difficult than it could or should be.

Turning procrastination into productivity

I am procrastinating. About writing. Again. I do this a lot, and I don’t really know why. I actually like writing. I like feeling the stretching in my brain as I make connections and think through my ideas and revise and rewrite and fiddle. This, for me, is mostly something I really enjoy doing. But, right now, I just can’t seem to make myself do it. So, I procrastinate and I muck about with other, related, things like finding new papers to download that I may or may not make time to read, or writing lists of ideas I have for papers I want to write (but am plainly not writing). This makes me feel productive, but only to a point and then I start to feel stuck, impotent and un-able. This was a frequent feature of my life during the PhD too. So, I am currently wondering how to jump-start my writing engine, and turn all this (very vaguely) productive procrastination into proper productive writing and thinking. How, indeed?

One of the things I am battling with is time. I know, right? Time. There is never enough of it, and yet there is actually always some time if you make it. I got so mad during my PhD with someone who said ‘If you really wanted to do it, you would make time for it’. How smug and annoying I thought they were. ‘I am doing it, I do really want to do it, but I have a full-time job and kids and a husband and LIFE – I just don’t have time to make!’ (This was my furiously uttered retort, in my head). However, on reflection, I think there was a tough kernel of truth in what that person was saying. We all, everyday, make choices about what we do with our time. We sometimes make these choices rather unconsciously, going along with the tide of the day and following the ‘to dos’ on our lists; sometimes we are a lot more conscious about what we choose to do, when and why. However, either way, choices are made. Right now I am writing this blog, when I should be writing a comprehensive report that was due last week. I could write this post tonight, but I am doing it now. This is a conscious, productive procrastination move for me. I am not on Facebook tracking down a random ex-friend from high school, so I’m not procrastinating on nonsense (so I do feel a bit virtuous). But I am putting off the writing which I really ought to and need to be doing. Why?

This is the big question, isn’t it? Why do we do this? Why am I not writing this paper, when I have plotted it out, I have the data, the literature, the conclusions – all the pieces I need? Why did I take so long to write my chapters, especially the earlier ones, when I had most of what I needed to get started? Why is it so much easier to be writing this post than writing that report or the paper(s)? For me, it’s two things. The first is the level of cognitive demand. Writing this post is way easier than writing that report, because in order to write the blogpost I just need to be a little bit inspired with an idea and then have fun with it. I can’t (and hopefully won’t) write complete nonsense, but I don’t have to be so rigorous and cautious in my writing. The report is a different kettle of fish. Several thousand words longer and far more detailed and demanding, as I have to do some reading and will probably have to write a few drafts. [By the end of the day ideally (it’s 11.09am now).] I think the same was true when I was writing the PhD chapters. The cognitive demand was so much greater for those chapters than for the many other smaller tasks and pieces of writing I had to do in my job that I almost always chose to procrastinate, albeit quite productively, by doing everything other than getting to my thesis writing.

The other thing is something I have written about before: headspace. I find that I actually can make the physical time to read and write – and I’m doing okay with the reading this week so far – but I am struggling to clear space in my head to do the reading and thinking proper justice, so that I can turn this into writing in the form of these papers that are percolating away inside my head. By doing other useful things, though, I find that I am really limiting my potential productive writing time because I am filling up that headspace. So here, procrastination really stops being so productive and becomes a stumbling block for me instead. I think this is where that tough kernel of truth comes back to haunt me. I can make lots of excuses, especially when there is a job and a family and LIFE to account for, about why I  cannot be as productive as I know I need to be to make progress with my writing. We can all do this. But, the hard truth is that until I can be tough with myself, say no to these other things that may need to be done but may well be able to wait (like this post which I could have written tonight), I am not going to turn all of this procrastination into something more productive in terms of my writing. For me, it comes down to reorganising the ‘to do’ list with those red and green pens, saying something firm yet encouraging to my tired brain, and facing up to the challenge of the cognitive and headspace demands by just getting stuck in. I’m going to use these words to spur me on:

Image from mkalty.org

Image from mkalty.org

PhD guilt and shame

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about making time to write. This week I had a conversation with a friend and fellow PhD traveler that inspired me to write a follow-on post about what to do when you feel you can’t make time to write. What do you do when you have neither physical hours or headspace enough to read, think and write? How do you deal with the almost inevitable feelings of shame, guilt and panic that threaten to derail you?

My fellow PhD travelers are part-time students with full-time lives. Many have children and partners, all have jobs that demand a lot of their headspace and time. The field I am in, higher education studies, sees many PhD students coming into their studies part-time while working full-time as lecturers or managers. If you are lecturing, you are teaching, marking scripts, attending meetings, supervising students, planning curricula, evaluating your courses, plodding away at endless admin related to all of this, and you’re probably doing other bits and pieces that are part and parcel of university life. If you’re in management I would imagine that there are many meetings, many policies and documents to engage with and read and discuss, and probably also people to manage and more endless, plodding admin work. So, chances are, if you are this kind of PhD student – the kind with a pretty busy job and life outside of work, that PhD time is already limited, and feelings of panic, despair, guilt and shame are probably just below the surface most of the time. This was certainly true for me.

These feelings, while they may well be a very real part of many PhD students’ journey, are dangerous though, because getting swallowed by them can really paralyse you and your progress towards your completed thesis. But how to avoid these feelings? I’m not sure you can. If your PhD is not the only thing you have on your plate (and whose reality is this, really?), chances you you will feel one or more of these feelings at one or more points during your PhD. So, perhaps the question is how to manage these feelings so that you don’t become paralysed and derailed.

Putting in place and drawing on your support systems is an obvious answer, I think. For some this may be a doctoral writing group with people in your university, or in your department. These kinds of groups can offer a space for support, and also for feelings of struggle, shame and paralysis to be shared and not swept under the proverbial rug. Sharing these feelings with colleagues who may be going through something similar often helps. At the very least, you are assured that it is not just you; at the most they may have helpful advice for you. If you have a supportive supervisor, as I was fortunate enough to have, sharing some of your present struggle with them may help too. Even if your supervisor is not as supportive as your peers and colleagues are, letting them know what’s going on with you in a way that makes you feel less exposed and more likely to get support (and you will have to work this way out for yourself) is a good idea. Keeping the person (or people) tasked with guiding you through your PhD in the dark is probably not a great strategy, and their requests for progress reports and writing in the absence of understanding that you’re in a difficult place can make you feel more guilty and desperate.

Another strategy I tried when I just could not make or find time for my PhD, which was sometimes for a few weeks at a time, was to keep scribbling in my personal research journal, even if it was just to take 5 minutes to write ‘awful week – hectic at work, so many deadlines. Just not getting anything done. Feel desperate’. Acknowledging my feelings and struggles, even to myself, made them less overwhelming somehow. It wasn’t all just in my head – by writing it down I could just accept that this was my reality at that time, and put my head down and try to get the other hectic things done so I could try and make time to work on my PhD. I think there is a lot to be said for verbalising (even in writing) a feeling or issue, and getting it out of your head, even to yourself. Journalling can be a very helpful tool during your PhD.

I think my last piece of advice to my struggling friend and to all PhD students in this place right now is to stop saying mean things to yourself about how little progress you are making and how unlikely it is that you will finish on time and how terrible a PhD student you are being right now. This will only feed those negative emotions and will probably also make you feel resentful of your PhD and the demands it will make on your time until it is finished. If you resent it, you are then less likely to want to go back and immerse yourself in it. So, STOP. Get a piece of paper or your own research journal and a pen out. Write: ‘Dear (your name), I know you are having a rough time right now, and time for writing is scarce. I know your head is full of other things. BUT, you can do this. You are a productive person. You work hard. You will finish me. Just take a deep breath, put your head down and get these other things done, and then make that time to get back to me again. All will be well. Love, your PhD’. Write something kind and encouraging. Then make a realistic list of the other things you have to do. With a red pen, list the things that are urgent, like exams that have to be marked or a report that must be in on a certain date. With a green pen, list the things that could be delegated (yes, delegated) or could wait until later on. Then, make that time for your PhD. It is there, although it seems buried deep beneath these other demands. Perhaps part of letting go of guilt and shame is also just letting go of having to be the one who does it all, and embracing being the one who can and does say no to things that can be done later or by someone else.