Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Tip #10 - Just start

So how ironic is this...I have had the hardest time starting this post. I'll tell you why.

A few weeks ago, after I had written a few tip posts, I realized it would be really cool if, after 10 tips, I wrote a "10 tips for staying sane while getting your PhD" post. That post would summarize each tip and link to it so that new comers and old regulars could reference all 10 tips at once.

When I did that I decided I needed to really drill down to my top 10 sanity tips. I wanted these to be 10 great tips, culminating in the ultimate 10th tip.

I thought about what this perfect 10th tip could be. I wrote out a ton of tips and picked the creme de la creme, and I was ready.

Each tip came flowing out of me. Tip 9 came flowing so hard that it became a two part megaseries.

But then pressure hit.

I had come to tip #10 and it had to be the tip that eloquently and appropriately finished my top ten tips list. And I froze.

Does any of that sound familiar? Ok, you might not be a blogger, but you're a self-directed creator just like I am.

Do you find yourself putting so much pressure on yourself that you can't even start?

This tip is as simple to write as it is hard to implement. Just start.

Start reading.

Start researching.

Start writing.

Start asking questions to anyone who will listen and/or answer.

Start figuring out where to submit your work.

Get off facebook, stop tweeting, your clothes can get washed later.

As I was putting off this post I found a really great article about procrastination. The funny thing is, before I found it, I wasn't even thinking of the word "procrastination". The reason is that I never feel these days like I'm putting things off in the same way I did in college. It doesn't feel like laziness to me - in fact it's the exact opposite. There are just too many things to do nowadays.

I'm not laying in bed eating bon bons and watching Die Hard, I'm organizing committees and putting out credit card fires (seriously, another extra fee?). I'm going to meetings and teaching and applying for grants. I'm not not doing things, so I never even realized I was procrastinating. Do you?

But what I am doing is violating the number one rule of a PhD: Put your research first.

If you're like me, no one told you this rule until you were already behind (or maybe I was the first person to tell you?). I'm not sure why your advisor, your school and everyone you meet on the street doesn't scream those words at you.

No. It's after you've given your soul to committees and your heart to teaching and you're stretched so thin that you feel like you're ready to snap that someone says offhandedly "You know, as a PhD student you have to put your research first. It's your research and no one will ever care about it as much as you do."


I didn't know I could do that. I thought it was my job to be thankful that someone has taken my pathetic butt in and is willing to pay for me. Aren't I supposed to be repaying him with every waking hour and possibly my first born?

It's not my advisor who put that idea into my head either. He's a perfectly nice person who I genuinely believe just wants me to find something I'm passionate about. No, I'm not sure where this idea came from. Maybe other students. Maybe within myself.

Either way, the day someone told me that it is in my ability to make my research my number one priority my whole view changed. I'm not saying I don't sometimes feel like I desperately need to write an email to an old friend in the middle of the day, or organize a social function for my department, but I actively say no to many of these things now.

What's most important each and every day of your PhD life is getting started on your research.

And if your problem isn't procrastination/confusion/lack of knowledge and you're screaming at the computer "I have done it all, but it's not working" - then start figuring out why.

Start pushing your advisor to help you.

Start a list of things you need to do.

Start reading books about writing a successful dissertation.

And also stop.

Stop with the pressure and unrealistic expectations. You know what's worse than something not being perfect? Making yourself miserable with guilt and pressure and producing nothing at all because of it.

So the next time you find yourself overcome with anxiety and guilt over not having done whatever you think you should have done last week - instead of taking your mind off of it with a phone call or a t.v. show or a computer game, just start.

My pick for motivational music: MJ
Michael Jackson - The Essential Michael Jackson - Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'

P.S. Thanks to the people who left me some feedback when I requested it a few days ago. The requests for more tip posts helped kicked me out of my pressure funk and forced me to just spit it out already. If you haven't left me a note telling me what you want more of, please do it now!