Why is is so hard to get on top of things?

  • because no-one except you sees the holistic picture. Those in positions to  support and advise you (as supervisors, partners, colleagues, friends) only see part of your life. If often feels like they take the part they see for the whole of you
  • because the doctoral journey is freighted with emotional baggage, as well as practical and intellectual challenge
  • because this is such a transformational stage, with multiple transformations going on at the same time, any and all of which can be painful, unclear and dislocating
  • because there’s so damn much going on at the same time and it all matters. A great deal.

    Without irony: the struggle is real.

    OK, but what can you do about it?

    When time is short, energy low and pressures high, check you’re working as smart as you can across the breadth of your life by carrying out a five-step mini-audit. 

    For over a decade, I’ve worked with thousands of research students, and these steps address five of the the most common underlying stressors I’ve come across.

    The steps won’t magically solve anything, but they should help you identify areas in your life where you’re leaking energy or work, and simple ways to plug those leaks (plugged leaks = quick wins, which feel great).

    There’s sound neuroscience behind this: as Daniel Levitin describes beautifully in The Organised Mind (Penguin 2015), there’s a finite amount of data our brains can process in a day. The fewer lower-level decisions our brains need to make, the greater potential we have to bring concentration to bear where we want to. 

    1. Stop reading content which talks about productivity tips or focusses on improving discrete academic skills


    Eugh, productivity. For most PhD researchers, notions of – and approaches to – productivity imported from manufacturing and business are completely unsuitable, yet there’s something weirdly compelling about the promise of success and happiness they contain. There are far more constructive, flexible and authentic ways to plan and measure academic progress (trails forthcoming post ….).

    For now, trust me, you can’t hack your way piecemeal out of overwhelm with tips from eclectic blog posts, so take a break from reading stuff that ultimately makes you feel worse. 

    In gardening terms, you need to dig the ground over, get rid of stones and feed it. These ‘quick fix’ articles are the equivalent of a little bit of half-hearted pruning. Momentarily satisfying, but any benefits are isolated and short-lived.

    n.b. Be clear: sometimes choosing not to do something is also a constructive step forwards. If you find you’ve got FOMO, save the content somewhere and read it later.

    2. Clear information clutter from your working brain

I’ll level with you: this can be a big job. While, alas, there’s rarely the option to simply discard aspects which don’t ‘spark joy’, even tackling it a little bit at a time can be a really quick win in terms of improving how in-control of life you feel. 

Imagine your brain like a computer desktop – we’re trying to close as many open tabs as possible, safe in the knowledge that the information is secure, organised and easily accessible.

Quick start: 
Look for anywhere you hold or might need access to information/data into your non-academic life. Click here for a pdf of ideas to get you started.

3. Check you’re actively managing your life

You need to be running a system that makes sense to you and is easily accessible in all the places and at all the times you might work on your research.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s paper or digital (or a combination of the two), as long as you see it as a single system and use it consistently. 

After much trial and error, I now use Trello for everything (work, home, family). It’s free for a single-user account and I have it on my desktop, tablet and phone, so I can access it everywhere. 

It uses the Japanese visual project management system of Kanban boards. You set up one board for each project, then write each task written on a card, and file it in a column according to the status of the task. As its status changes, you move the card around. You can add details, links and due dates to cards, colour code and tag them. I’ve also downloaded an add-on that connects the boards, so I can get a complete dashboard of my next-steps across all projects. 

On my (Mac) desktop, I use an app called Workspaces, within which I have a separate workspace for each area of my life (home and family, day job, TTR, etc.). It acts a quick-access binder for the platforms, files, links, URLs and contacts I need for that work. It’s saved me hours of time hunting and re-hunting for things.

Online, I used a password generating and saving app, which creates strong, unique passwords for all my account and auto-enters them when I’ve entered my master password at the start of a work session. The app syncs my passwords to my phone and tablet. Lifechanging.

Quick start questions: 

  • Have you got a life management system that really works for you?
  • Is it flexible enough to accommodate different aspects of your life, so all you can see it all in one place?
  • Can you access it wherever you need to?
  • If you’ve got one, do you have a regular standing process for reviewing where you’re up to with your different projects?

4. Know thyself: Energy map your tasks and day(s)

This is such a thorny issue for many of us, working around external factors over which we don’t have day to day control (part-time work, caring responsibilities, health-related etc).

I find it helpful to map my To-Do list onto my variation on the Eisenhower Matrix: mine maps low/high concentration against short/long tasks.

Here’s how I use it:

  • it’s saved on my computer, and I keep a stash of printed copies on my desk
  • every couple of days I take a fresh one, and transfer all my to-dos onto it
  • if I’m feeling fancy, I use different colour pens for different areas of activity (stationery for the win!)
  • next, I look through my planner, and identify windows I will have for work (or which could crop-up if my small person gets engrossed in something)
  • I assess each window in the same terms (likely to have  low/high concentration, and be able to tackle short/long tasks) and mark it accordingly.
  • as the week progresses, I just work through what needs doing slotting tasks into matching windows.

This way, if circumstances dictate your week can only bring you short windows of low concentration, you’re not carting around a mental to-do list which starts ‘write fabulous draft chapter’, at which you can only fail. 

And if you find you’ve had 2-3 weeks in a row that don’t have space and time for certain types of work (let’s take a stab in the dark and suggest ‘long periods of high concentration’, such as you might need for writing), this becomes visible to you as something you need to address.

5. Check you’re using the right writing tools for you

If you’re happy with your writing set-up, fabulous. If you’re not, there’s an ever increasing range of options to help you tweak it to a better state.

If, like me, you’re a distractible writer, there’s a range of platforms which can help you crank out the ‘shitty first draft’ (SFD) of something (and if you’ve not come across this liberating notion, check it out here). 

These range from blockers that will only allow you to use that programme (some have a timer function built in too), to utterly stripped-down word processing programmes that keep the focus squarely on the writing. Among my writing circle, preferences vary significantly depending on operating system, functions, and aesthetics, so have a hunt around. Many options are free, or relatively inexpensive.

My biggest discovery of recent years has been Scrivener (available for Windows and Mac OS), which has revolutionised my writing process. It’s designed to get you to a first draft and, while it was originally developed for fiction and scriptwriters, it works brilliantly for me for academic and personal writing. 

It takes a little while to get into it and get your system set up but, for me, the effort’s paid dividends. It’s unblocked my thinking about my writing from being a linear flow (which my SFDs never are, anyway) to thinking of sections as being modular and much easier to move around and play with. It’s also great as organised storage for sections of text which get cut from drafts, for easy retrieval later.

Quick start questions:

  • What tools do you use for writing?
  • Are there particular aspects of writing you struggle with that software might be able to support?
  • What software is available that might do this (if you can’t find it by internet searching, asking #AcademicTwitter can be a great help)

5. Ask for help around the ‘how’

PhD students often think of asking for help from supervisors, other academics and peers about content or output:

  • Could you help me get my head around a particular concept? 
  • Could give me feedback on my research presentation?
  • Could you read my draft chapter?

When was the last time you asked for ideas or guidance on the actual process of the doing the work? While that might seem daunting, particularly for those working despite imposter syndrome, it can generate enormously useful responses.

Quick start:
Pick someone close to home; is there a fellow student who does something particularly well? Always on top of the theory? Has a great relationship with their supervisor?

  • invite them to have coffee,
  • do general catch-up chit-chat
  • when the opportunity presents itself, drop your question in lightly
  • move the conversation on afterwards and they probably won’t even remember you asked. 

Because why spend time and energy re-inventing the wheel if, instead, you can test drive one that’s already working for someone else and see if it feels a good fit for you?

Conclusion: Identify what you can change. Change it gently and systematically. 

You can’t change many of the things which contribute to your overwhelm: our lives are complicated with many important and information-dense elements.

You can change how you relate to these elements, by breaking them down, giving them a steady ‘home’ within your information-management set-up, using your system consistently to store and retrieve information and, over time, learning to trust that you can cognitively ‘let go’ because your system is in place.

TLDR: Changing how you relate to the information-dense elements in your life changes the impact they have on you. Take it gently, stick at it, and within just a couple of weeks you’ll feel steadier, freer and more in-control.

I’d love to hear from you: Hop over to Twitter to let me know how you get on!

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