Jam Frog (CC BY-SA 2.0) Via Flickr
Feeling overwhelmed? It’s important to remember that yes, your thesis is a huge project, but you will reach the end. Whether you are at the very beginning of your research thinking: “where do I start?” Or you have just received feedback on your final chapter and want to throw the whole thing in the bin. One of the best ways to tackle the challenge is to break it down into tiny little pieces. Think of it like a jigsaw. Yes, sometimes you want to throw it out the window or take a hammer to it. In the beginning, you may not be able to see what the end result will look like. But slowly it all comes together to form a recognisable picture.
Sticking with the jigsaw theme… Some days you will get huge chunks of the puzzle solved quickly and easily. You will feel unstoppable and will want to be a researcher for the rest of your days. Go you! Sadly, on other days you will feel like you have achieved nothing. You will be stuck in the blue sky patch of the jigsaw, going nowhere. I am here to tell you that these days are frustratingly regular. But fear not, you are not failing. And there are things you can do to combat the drain on your resolve and wellbeing.
My dog looking cheery while out for a walk
First, step away from the computer or the notepad and the books. Go outside, breathe in some fresh air and walk. If you have access to a dog then this is even more enjoyable since a dog is always overjoyed to go rambling for a few hours and will instantly cheer you up! If the desire to burn away your frustration takes over, then go for it: run, cycle, hit the gym hard if you need to. On the other hand, if you are feeling low, do something that helps to settle you. I never used to understand the appeal of yoga until I started BodyBalance classes at my local gym. They are just the right blend of relaxation and burn for me. I now can’t wait for the restful period at the end: it’s one of the few times I allow myself not to think about what I think I should be doing. While exercise is always recommended for stress, if you know that other things work better for you, then crack on. By that I mean of course, things like reading a book purely for the pleasure of it (and not because it was listed in the bibliography of the last article you read or because your supervisor mentioned it). If you are more of a cinema or Netflix person, then grab the popcorn. I don’t mean alcoholic beverages or smoking, which are well known to exacerbate anxiety and stress.
Take a Break
Some of the places I have gone to in a bid to relax last year: Loch Lomond, Scotland, for a long weekend (left) and Riviera Maya, Mexico (right) for a longer holiday.
If you get stuck, sometimes it is even worth stopping for the rest of the day and returning to your research tomorrow. I know this strikes fear into the heart of many of us, but truly letting your mind rest and restart is better than forcing it into a state of heightened anxiety and stress. You often won’t get any productive work done and you will still feel bad about yourself. The difference? You will sleep badly, if at all, having eaten a terrible, quick meal on the hoof. The jigsaw isn’t going anywhere. That old adage about fresh eyes is true. You often do see things clearer in the morning when you have a clear head. Getting a decent sleep is imperative throughout your research. As someone who really struggles with sleep I speak from experience. In the early days of my research I tried to stay up late and get up early to cram as much into my days as possible. Naturally, I burnt out pretty quickly. Recognising my own best working patterns was helpful, but more important was accepting that my health came first. I wasn’t going to achieve anything if I was half-asleep at my meetings and my brain was dulled after barely an afternoon of work.
Your health can really suffer if you put it last on your list of priorities. Many researchers seem to think that they can’t take time off, when in fact you are allowed annual leave just like any other form of employment. Check your PGR Code of Practice for details. Taking a long weekend or indeed a holiday can recharge your batteries. And if you do feel under the weather it is better to let yourself recover than force yourself to work. Often you make yourself more unwell (and infect the other people in your office or department). It isn’t only your physical health that can suffer if you don’t take some self-care steps. Here at the UofG, mental health and wellbeing is something that is really well supported. Think of Wellbeing Week and other support services highlighted recently on our blog here.
Take Action. Don’t Avoid.
Bernard Goldbach (CC BY-SA 2.0) Via Flickr
It is also true that no matter how much you invest in self-care, there will be nights when you can’t help but worry that you didn’t do enough that day, that the thesis is never going to be finished or that you don’t feel you can give your presentation at the upcoming conference. The best way to combat these fears is to be active. This can sound like the worst advice ever when you are anxious, but taking even the smallest action can feel like a weight off your shoulders. If you are stuck in a writing rut for example, then make sure that you get all of your admin tasks for the week done. Go back to basics and bullet point your ideas. Or use a mind-map. No one ever has to see these notes, but at least you will feel like you have done something when you go to bed at night. And who knows, maybe they will spark off your writing even if it ends up being a whole week later than you planned. Of course, temporary stress is different from debilitating anxiety, and if you are feeling truly overwhelmed by your worries then please do reach out. You can find support via the UofG Counselling and Psychological Services.
It is also important to remember that there is a difference between useful procrastination and avoidance. That means that sitting on Facebook or going for the weekly food shop is avoidance because it isn’t helpful: it doesn’t achieve anything and it doesn’t even make you feel any better, if anything you just feel more anxious later. On the other hand, ticking small things off your list like meeting your supervisor, preparing your GTA seminars, and updating your bibliography aren’t going to write your thesis chapter for you, but they are necessary and will motivate you to keep going. More importantly, they do count as work, albeit of a different kind. Give yourself permission to finish at a reasonable time even at times like this. Have a proper dinner. Go to bed. And start again tomorrow.
Share your self-care tips @UofG_PGRblog or in the comments below and let’s get talking about well-being in the researcher community.