How I'm Staying Motivated & Managing My PhD Guilt
Ask any researcher, postgrad student, or any student for that matter, and they’ll tell you, THIS SHIT IS HARD! But for me personally, a woman with a ton of responsibilities outside of academia, a tiny little thing called ‘guilt’ is part and parcel of my PhD. It’s this weird, disturbing, insidious thing that says, ‘you are not good enough’, ‘you do not work enough’, ‘you do not read enough.’ But, what I’ve come to realise is that I am good enough, and I am not alone- most PhD students experience this feeling too! PhD is often a very solitary pursuit, work that depends largely on your own motivation. That motivation certainly has its peaks and troughs, but I’m going to tell you how I ride those waves, without guilt as my constant and only companion.
QUALITY OVER QUANTITY
Until recently, I’d wake up, vault out of bed and grab the laptop, with the intention of writing as many words as humanly possible in one day. By lunch, I’d be staring at the flashing cursor on my scanty word document, having already lost the will to live. I think the problem was that I’d set the bar too high for myself. Instead, what I try to do now is write 250-500 QUALITY words a day. If more words come, then great. This lessens the guilt if, say, by the end of the day, I’ve only written a few paragraphs.
More importantly, I’ve sat and thought about what’s actually holding me back when it comes to my writing. Do I procrastinate? Yes. Why? Because I’m kind of afraid, afraid that my supervisors will think that what I’ve written is utterly rubbish and not up to PhD standard. I’m a perfectionist, which means that I write a few lines then spend hours altering and correcting the hell out of it. By the end of the day I’m infuriated with myself, wondering how I’ll ever make up the time that I’ve wasted. It’s a vicious cycle, but one that can definitely be broken. It’s time to lay those fears to rest and embrace my greatness. The hardest part of a PhD programme is getting in (or so I’ve heard). I wouldn’t be where I am now if I wasn’t up to the task. I’m made of quality stuff me!
STEP AWAY FROM THE DESK
Instead of sitting for hours at a time staring at said flashing cursor, I get up, stretch, change the scene, get some air. I love the great outdoors, but I spend far too much time cooped-up inside, stressing over word count, articles and books that I need to locate. Speaking of which, a trip to the library is another one of my little tricks. Yes, I go there to write when my house is overly active, but it’s a great way to change the scene, to see some other faces, and to take in the fresh air as I stroll from my car, through the tree-lined walkway, to the cave of wonders that is the library building.
Other things that I’m trying to implement include going for a swim at my local leisure centre (usually first ting in the morning, before my day begins), signing up for fitness/yoga classes (at lunchtimes or in the evening), or if I’m short on time, rolling out my yoga mat in the front room and following a 20-30 minute video on YouTube to de-stress. Yoga with Adrienne is great for all levels, and Pop Sugar has some great stuff too if you’re after something a bit more energetic! The bottom line is, getting up and moving around every now and then breaks up the writing and makes me feel heaps better! Exercise releases endorphins and gives me a natural high. When I return to my desk, I come back with fresh eyes, all the better to spot things and make (quick) adjustments.
DON’T DITCH YOUR FAMILY AND FRIENDS!
Kind of an extension of the previous point, but I’ve had to work really hard on this one. The level of guilt that accompanies an invitation to coffee with my bestie, or a family function, is just unreal! Well, this summer was the perfect time to make a change. I know I need to get the boring, finishing bit done, and soon. But I work really hard on my PhD, so I made a pact with myself to play even harder, just for a little while anyway. I drew up a sort of bucket list, of things I’ve wanted to do for ages that were shut down by the raging guilt-monster. I’ve since attended Royal Ascot for the first time, and Matt’s BBQ - a festival in the South of England where I lived my best life for a day. There have been other little things too, like the cinema and theatre with my kids (it’s the school holidays too, gah!), brunch with pals, and time out with my hubby. These things have reminded me who I am- who I was before I got lost in the fog of academia. I hold onto that, because I want to be that same person at the end.
The key thing is to spend time with loved ones and forget the dissertation for a bit! It may sound ominous, but it’ll still be there when you get back. I keep reminding myself how lucky I am to have the people that I have around me. They always check-in to see how I am and if I’m coping. So the least I can do is to show my face and let them know how much I appreciate that. This weekend, I witnessed my cousin-in-law marry the woman of his dreams. It was such a beautiful day, set in the picturesque grounds of the Nuthurst Grange Country House Hotel, West Midlands (seen here in these photographs). If I’d stayed at home buried in my work, I’d have missed the beauty of that. Sometimes you’ve just gotta come up for air! (…the wise words of a friend, yelled over to my hubby, who was face-down in his soup bowl at the time.)
What are your tips for overcoming that guilty feeling that comes with studying? How do you stay motivated enough to continue?