Post-submission thoughts 2: Viewing leisure as yet just another “to do list” item

When a good friend of mine invited me to take part in Run in the Dark Manchester 10k run, I initially through “No way!”. The thought of running outdoors, in the dark, in the middle of November was not appealing. All sorts of excuses immediately surfaced:

“It’s in the middle of the semester! There’s no way I’ll have the time to do this!”

“I’ll have so much to do the next day.”

“We’ll be running outdoors in November. In Manchester. Seriously?!”

What’s funny was that these thoughts came to me in early August, when I was initially invited. Looking back, I find it’s was a ridiculous way of thinking! Expecting to be so busy that I wouldn’t be able to do anything else but work?! The semester was several weeks away and I was already stressing myself out.

In academia it is so easy to get into this mindset of “busyness”, having so much to do that participating in anything else seems like just another thing to add on the “to do list”. As a PhD student I cultivated this mindset for years, feeling guilty that I wasn’t working in the evenings, and believing that it was normal to work every weekend. What’s worse, I began to think that if I wasn’t working everyday then I must be lazy. A bad student. A terrible academic. Academics work all the time, so I should be working too. Right?

I’ve come to realise that this was not the way I wanted to live my life. If you asked me what I’ve done these past four years, the first thought that comes to mind is “work”. I’ve obviously done other things other than work, but I found it hard to separate work from activities / events that I’ve done. Everything became something that I “had to do” and this mindset was just wrong. I feel like I’ve missed out on truly enjoying the moment because I was preoccupied with feeling guilty/annoyed/anxious for not working.

It’s tiring to feel that your whole life has been consumed by work, and since I’ve submitted my thesis, I’ve begun to address my attitude towards work. There’s all this talk of a “work / life” balance in academia, but there is very little effort in the industry to develop this notion into reality. I suppose it’s up to individuals to find this kind of balance, and for the sake of my own mental health, I’ve begun the process of addressing this mindset. One way was to say yes to invitations to events that seem inconvenient, then actually go out and really enjoy the moment.

And so I ran with my friends under a beautiful clear evening sky, and, for the first time in a long while, I didn’t feel guilty.

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Post-submission thoughts 1: The last few weeks before submission

“Post-submission thoughts” is a short series of blog posts that are reflections on my PhD journey.  Nowadays, I feel I have some head space to write about my experiences. Today’s blog post describes the final few weeks before I submitted my thesis. Generally speaking, the eight weeks before my submission deadline could be summed up in the following cartoon by KC Green of Gumshow Comics:

Comic by K C Green of Gumshow Comics http://gunshowcomic.com/648
Comic by K C Green of Gumshow Comics http://gunshowcomic.com/648

This comic has been doing the internet rounds for describing academic life, and for many, it’s not far off reality. However, I used this comic to illustrate my emotional state during the last few weeks of writing. Looking back, my situation wasn’t extreme to the point to meltdown (literally and figuratively), but it was intense. I was so stressed that the only way I could get anything done was to go into a weird state of denial. I had expected these last few weeks would be hard, but knowing this did not prepare me for the reality of it all. So, I went into this emotional auto-pilot as a way of keeping it together.

Getting my thesis into a state ready for submission was not the same as getting my thesis done. There is no ‘finished’ thesis because there is always something that could be changed / improved upon / added. At some point, however, I decided that enough was enough and I needed to hand the damn thing in. I accepted that it didn’t need to be perfect. It just had to be enough.

Practically speaking, my days became highly regimented in which everything, and I mean, everything was scheduled. My thesis working day looked a little like this:

6am – 6:45 – morning run
6:45-8:30 – shower and breakfast
8:30-10:30am – THESIS: chapter 7, section 7.2 and 7.3
10:30am – 11am – check email / social media
11am-11:30 – coffee break (away from desk)
11:30-12:30 noon – THESIS: chapter 7, sections 7.4-7.6 (proof)
12:30-1:30pm – lunch (away)
1:30pm-2pm – general admin
2pm-3pm – THESIS: editing chapter 1, section 1.4
3:30-4pm – coffee break (away!)
4pm-5pm – THESIS: chapter 8, section 8.1
5pm-6pm – THESIS: check refs in new sections / formatting
6pm-7pm – dinner
7pm-8pm – everything else (e.g. laundry, cleaning etc.)
9pm – bed

This is an example of how scheduled my days became. I usually spent about 5 minutes every morning writing out my schedule for the day. It was a way of getting my mind mentally prepared. I worked in chunks of time, often using the pomodoro technique to keep me focused on making progress. I often worked on one section at a time, and not always sequentially. Working this way helped me focus mentally on the immediate task at hand and psychologically kept me from becoming overwhelmed. I’m not sure if this was the most effective way of working but, at the time, it worked for me. Looking back, I realised it was my way of creating some semblance of control over my life. At the time, I thought I was a good way to monitor my progress. In the end I suppose it was a bit of both.

I continued following this schedule for several weeks and although I made steady progress on my thesis, I was miserable. I see myself as a relatively calm and grounded individual, so reaching this level of stress was very, very hard on my mental health. At the time I didn’t realise I had gone into auto-pilot emotionally. All I knew is that I didn’t feel quite myself. It’s been over a month since I’ve submitted my thesis, yet, it is only now that I’m able to process my experiences. I still feel like I’m recovering.

Image credit eschipul

For those of you who submitted your thesis, and those of you who are submitting soon, what were/are your final few weeks like? Please share you experiences in the comments below.

AcWriMo 2014 is coming! You in?

acwrimo1-01November is nearly upon us and that means it’s nearly time for Academic Writing Month 2014!

For those completely new to “AcWriMo” it’s a month long writing event that academics all over the world can take part in. This event was created by @CharlotteFrost and is run with the help of a group of volunteers (including yours truly). For more detailed information, and to read about the history of this event, head over to PhD2Published blog (click HERE).

During #AcWriMo, this is what you do:

1. Decide on a writing-orientated goal. It should be challenging enough yet realistic in terms of what you think you can accomplish in a month’s time.

Some blog posts related to goal setting:

“Change is as good as a rest” by Rachael Cayley 

“Why I participate in AcWriMo” by Rellypops

2. Go public and declare your goal on the AcWriMo accountability spreadsheet found on this link: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1xkLlO3GqTej52RccKqsHwhf6v4pF2yaRZvywY1KuNtM/edit#gid=0

3. Get organised. Create an action plan that will help you achieve your goal. This may involve scheduling your work day, having smaller goals or just a change of work space. Whatever your goal, get yourself a plan of action.

The following blog posts have some great advice on developing a writing strategy:

“Ladder 1: Rung 1″ by Ellen C. Spaeth 

“Writing accountablility part 1″ by Jennifer Lim 

4.  Keep accountable to others by updating your progress online and/or discussing with your friends (in person or on Twitter) how you’re doing. It’s important not to isolate yourself during this event because there’s loads of support available, but you need to ask and reach out to others.

Some useful blog posts on previous #AcWriMo experiences:

“#AcWriMo Peer Pressure: Time, Challenge/Support & Cheerleaders” by Laura Pasquini

“I did #AcWriMo 2013 and survived to tell the tale” by Elizabeth Lundberg 

“#AcWriMo – Writing ‘with’ a community” by Eljee Javier

New to AcWriMo – What are you reservations? Back for more – what would you do differently? Feel free to comment below. 

Photo courtesy of flickr creative commons user woodleywonderworks

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