Continuing the theme of consideration, self-care, and work-life balance, I would like to share with you my experience of #PhDlife overload which I encountered last term.
As a PhD student with high ambitions and an equally high mortgage payment, I have tendency to say ‘yes’ to most things and up until now it has served me well. By saying ‘yes’ and having the to confidence to say ‘I can do that’, I have learnt so many new things and met some wonderful new people. I’ve travelled the country (next stop, the world!) and stood up to many fears. Because of this I am making connections – people know who I am and what I can do. I am building my network and my skill set, the foundation of a successful career, right?
But what good is a network if I don’t have the time or energy to nurture it? What if people know what I can do, but I can’t actually do it because I am doing too many other things? My drive to be a PhD superhero was becoming counter intuitive. Instead I was more like PhD cartoon character resembling Wile E. Coyote, dashing around chasing the metaphorical Road Runner. I started to miss appointments, couldn’t keep up with emails and found myself working into the evenings and over the weekends – what Jenny Delasalle calls “Drowning busy“. As the term progressed I began to feel the physical and mental effects of my over-ambition. I became more emotional than usual, I was skipping meals and starting to suffer regular insomnia. Anyone who knows me knows how much I worship food and sleep, so this was not good.
So what did I do, and what did I learn?
What too much felt like
It wasn’t all gloom. Like any negative experience you can take some positives, and mine was finding out where my limits lie. My limits may be lower than some, they may be higher than others, but nevertheless they are my limits and now I have a better sense of what they are. Hopefully I will now recognise when I am reaching said limit and will start to do something about it sooner next time.
The value of a proper break
In her pre-Christmas blog, Rethinking leave – to stop or not to stop this holiday season, my wise post-doc colleague Sarah Wayland suggests ways in which we can balance our desire to work with our need for a break over the festive period. This year, I fell firmly within the 33% of the Piirus community who used the holiday for some peaceful time-off. I knew I needed it this year, to regroup, re-energise and reflect. And it was good! Although I never stopped thinking about work entirely, I thought about it in a reflective way i.e. what have I learnt, what can I do differently next year, what does my body and mind need? As a social scientist, this process is becoming second nature to me but this year I have actually scheduled time in my weekly plan (see below) to actively reflect and contemplate where I am and how things are going.
Ok, I give in – a rigid plan does not work. Tried, tested, failed (again, and again). So this year, my weekly and monthly plan is structured but more vague. For example, on Monday morning I will spend some time planning, a little bit of time on admin then select something nice off my to-do list, and I’ll do the horrible stuff off the to-do list in the afternoon. And I’ll reflect on the success of this routine at the end of the month and probably tweak it for the demands of February. I will do this on Friday afternoons, during the time I have put aside to reflect. Maybe this will work for me, maybe it won’t but this term I will allow myself time to think about it and act if it needs to change.
Money or your life
Circumstances meant I also found myself as the main earner in the household during this time, and so I was actually very grateful that I had agreed to an additional teaching load. However, I was also continuing with a number of unpaid commitments, all in the name of gleaning experience and developing my career profile. So next time, if I find myself in a situation where I need the money then this is what I must prioritise, and sadly let go of the things I do for free. It doesn’t have to be forever – can the committee do without you this term? Can that collaborative article wait another few weeks? Which leads nicely to my next lesson learnt:
Tell people you are struggling
You might find people are more sympathetic than you expect. If they don’t know you are having a hard time they cannot support you. For example, my wonderful bosses at piirus.ac.uk noticed something was up as soon as I started to drop off the radar, so I explained what was going on and they allowed me to take the time I need to get through the next few months and come back when life returned to normality (hello! I’m back!). I am so grateful for this and fortunate to have such a positive working relationship with people who understand the nature of this kind of work, and of human nature, but you have to ‘fess up or else they will assume you can carry on regardless. Admit you are a hu[wo]man and ask for help.
Learn to say no
I have nothing to say here that hasn’t already been written by my eloquent colleague Kathy McKay in her blog on saying no. As ECRs we may not feel we have the luxury of saying no, hence why Kathy calls it a ‘brave’ step, but it’s not just superheroes who can be brave.
I could probably add more to this list, and I would love to hear your own tips as I am sure many of you have experienced superhero overload at least once during your PhD and beyond. I’m sure we all have high hopes for 2017 – how we will do things differently, how we will de-frazzle and not let things spiral out of our control. I certainly do, so I’ll let you know in a couple of months how I get on.