Sunday, August 30, 2009

Tip #8 - Just let go of your PhD Guilt

After I posted my tip on getting social to help break out of a PhD Depression, a reader brought to my attention that I forgot something critical: it's one thing to go out and be social, and it's another to do it without the feeling of dread and guilt that you're behind in your research and should be working.

This is such a good point, and one I often struggle with. So I've thought about how I deal with this PhD Guilt and ways that I should deal with it, and here's what I've come up with:

  • Remember the importance of your mental health - It may seem like you don't have time for a social life, but the depression of no social life will hurt your work more than the few hours outside. So if you can't get yourself to stop feeling guilty about not doing work, think of it as part of your work to make sure your brain has some rest and/or social stimulation. How can it be creative if it's use is confined to such a small task as research? Humans are the most complex question in the world. Interacting with this strange species will refresh your brain more than any overpriced cup of Starbucks (although the people working at Starbucks are, themselves, generally entertaining).

  • Establish a set workday - One of the best and worst things about the PhD program is that there is often no set workday. I find this to be the main reason behind PhD Guilt. It's hard to let go when all day, every day is potentially a work day. So it's important to break this mentality by setting a fixed work day for yourself. There are a variety of ways to do this, but my experience in building good habits says that keeping it simple and consistent at the beginning is best. Don't say "I'll set the hours in the morning" or "Mondays I'll work these hours and Tuesdays I'll work those hours", just set unbreakable work hours Monday-Friday. Treat it like a job. From 9am-7pm, for example, you go to work and when you get home at 7:30 you are done for the day. Eventually you can maybe lighten up on these restrictions just a little - that is one of the advantages of being in a PhD program after all - for example sometimes when I'm really motivated and into what I'm doing, I'll stay until midnight and sometimes on Wednesdays I take a "mental health" hour where I sit out in the sun and linger over my breakfast before going in. But for the most part I have a set workday and I don't stray much from that. One thing you might notice when you set these time boundaries for yourself: instead of half working all day, you'll really work for the portion of the day that you call "work". This is what I discovered for myself. I found that when I had no time boundaries on my work, I tended to float around all day doing some work, some emailing, some chatting on the phone. But enforcing limited hours of work on myself translated into really needing to work while I was at school, which ended up making me feel much better about what I had done during the day when I got home at night. I felt like I deserved to relax.

  • Don't work from your bedroom - I'd say to not even work from home, but I know this isn't entirely realistic for most PhD students. Personally my favorite place to work is at home on my porch, surrounded by fresh air and shaded sunlight, but the more you can distinguish work time from free time (and your home should be your sanctuary not your office) the better. I don't mean that you should have a miserable time when you're working - you should definitely take steps to make that time enjoyable too - but just try to keeping it out of your bedroom should help you with letting go at night. This is especially important if you have any sort of sleeping problems like I do. Do nothing mentally active in your bedroom if possible. This one rule makes all the difference for me and my sleeping habits. When I work in the bedroom I find it impossible to turn my brain off in bed, 5 feet away from my computer. All of the other "turning off" situations I could deal with, but not sleeping is a real killer. I've had so many issues with sleeping though that my rules for good sleep should become a whole tip in itself. For now I say, work out of the house if possible, it's better for your mental health to be around living beings anyway.

  • Set goals - This is also worthy of a whole post in itself, and I'm actually going to expand on it for my next tip post (watch for it on Thursday!). But, in short, break your work into the tiniest little goals possible and assign yourself maybe one or two a day. When you've accomplished them, congratulate yourself and know that anything else you do that day is extra. When you finish working for the day, if you've accomplished the goal then know that you really deserve to be done for the day. Even if you haven't finished that day, know that being behind one goal day isn't the end of the world (and consider breaking your goals down into smaller sub-goals for future days). Check back Thursday for more of my goal-setting rules.

  • Keep a record of what you've done - Some say to do this in a physical journal, I say that the only writing by hand I've done in the last 5 years is signing my name. I tend to create all records electronically and then print them out so that I have a hard copy. Whatever method you like, go for it. Actually discussing all the types of records would make a good future post too, this tip is going to spawn 10 sub-tips! The purpose of this record is so that, when all else fails and you just feel like you don't deserve to have free time, you can look back and see that you were (hopefully) really doing a lot every single day. It's easy to look at the big 1-step picture (publish or build or experiment or whatever), but it's important to remember all of the hundreds of little steps that it takes to get there. If you look back at your record and see how much work you've done, maybe you can be a little easier on yourself.
So, I think these should help anyone having trouble letting go at the end of the day. Let me know if you try any of them and how they work for you. Also let us all know here, in the comments, if you have any suggestions of your own!