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Happy PhD: Using your Physiology to your Advantage

This week, I have the pleasure of hosting Amber Davis, who is sharing her knowledge on 3 important aspects we need to take care of to facilitate the process of writing the dissertation. Amber is a political scientist and PhD coach, who studied at the London School of Economics and Leiden University, and holds a PhD from the European University Institute in Florence. She teaches stress-management and productivity seminars for PhD students and created the HappyPhD Online Course to help you write your PhD (almost) effortlessly in a couple of hours a day. On her blog, she is giving away the online course twice to celebrate the New Year. Click here to enter the contest.

What if writing a PhD could be easy? Granted, easy may be too much to ask. But easier it can be. That is, if you get yourself in the right zone for doing academic work physiologically, mentally and emotionally. I know it can be done – and you can do it too – but I found out how to do it the hard way. I spent quite some time thinking I would never finish my PhD, when health issues forced me to drop out of the PhD programme and the rest of life for several years. Even after the worst was over, I was left with a fraction of the energy I had had before I fell ill. I decided to finish my PhD anyway. Why not? I had nothing to lose. In the process I discovered that writing a PhD can be easier, and a lot more fulfilling. I also discovered I had to radically changed the way I worked to be able to succeed.

My old working habits – which included a lot of worrying about my PhD instead of working on my PhD, stressing over deadlines, and much time spent in a mental twilight zone in which the PhD was always sitting on my shoulder telling me off for ‘being behind’ – were not exactly conducive to finishing my thesis. Let alone do my best work and finish it with a smile on my face (was writing a PhD with a smile even possible?) There had to be a better way. Against all the odds, I set out to find a more productive and kinder way forward. Long story short: I devoured everything I could find on stress-management and productivity, and set out experimenting. The experiment was a success. I finished my PhD working an average of 2-3 hours a day. I made all my deadlines, and rather astonishingly my PhD was selected the best of its year. Although it wasn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination, it had been easier than I could have envisioned. I now teach PhD students to do the same.

Eva has kindly asked me to write a couple of blog posts to outline how you too can write your PhD more effortlessly. In my search I discovered three levels or aspects of productivity that, when addressed, will significantly improve your focus, output and mood. You can work on them independently, but if you manage to address all three, the rewards will multiply. The first is the level of physiology: or how to create the right physiological conditions to do your best academic work, and keep your mental energy high over time. The second is the level of working habits and structure: or how to organise your day to be most productive. The third level is that of attitude: or how to work from a place of ease and flow instead of forcing yourself forward.

Today’s post will be about level 1: Physiology. When we think of academic work, we mostly think of our minds as somehow independent from our bodies. But our brain, the home of the mind, is an organ. It is physical and has physical needs. If you take care of it well, it will reward you with those three things academics need most: the ability to focus and do challenging mental work, the ability to be creative and come up with new ideas and arguments, and the ability to switch our attention to other things when we choose to do so. With these three in place we can solve complex academic puzzles, using both rational logical analytical thought and creative intuitive insight, and (very important) be able to switch off and do something fun (or useful…if we really have to) once we decide to call it a day.

There are a number of strategies to help your brain function optimally, and the two most basic ones, which I believe should be priorities for every academic, are exercise and meditation. I find it amusing that the activities most beneficial to our mental performance are traditionally thought of as belonging to the physical and the spiritual realm. Going to the gym and sitting on a meditation pillow is for gym bunnies and hippies, not for scholars! Except they are. Very much so. I believe every academic should have a so-called ‘take-care-of-your-brain’ routine in place, consisting of these two activities. Exercise and meditation are the best ways to keep your brain healthy and stress-free. The difference in mental clarity and focus will astound you.

How to do it: To start with exercise: 20 minutes 3x a week is the absolute minimum. It’s important to get your heart rate up for this amount of time. It will help your brain recharge and renew. The activity you choose is up to you, just make sure it’s cardiovascular activity to at least a certain degree. Walking is not intense enough, jogging (elegantly or not) is fine. Or sprint if you want. Do something you enjoy doing. That way you’ll have a better chance of succeeding at all. If you really hate exercise, you can comfort yourself with the thought that 20 minutes really is enough for positive changes to occur, if that’s all you want to do. Turn the music up. Jump around, sing, and dance for a couple of songs and exercise is done.

Meditation is the more difficult habit to learn, mostly because of our beliefs around it. Some people have to get over the ‘spiritual’ nature of meditation first. If that is you, just drop it (I say that in the kindest way). See it as a brain exercise, much like you would see solving an intellectual puzzle. It’s just a different way of exercising the brain. Secondly, we think that meditation is about ‘emptying our mind’. We should be Zen, chilled out and blissed out, which is a very nice idea, until we try to sit still for 5 minutes and find out how difficult it is. Our busy minds won’t shut up. So many things to do today, so many things to worry about, so many distractions! The most important step in meditation is to realise that ‘emptying the mind’ is not something we can strive towards. It is something that just happens, if we create the right conditions for it to occur. And if it doesn’t happen that is also OK. You can’t really force anything. But you can practice just sitting (with a busy mind, if need be). That’s where the beauty lies. If you sit for 10, or 20, or 30 minutes in stillness every day, the mental (and other) rewards will show up. That’s a promise. But they will come unannounced, not when you are willing them into being. The practice of meditation is simple: sit in silence and focus on your breathing (there are many other techniques, but this is the most basic one). Whenever you notice your attention has wandered into thought, bring it back to the breath. Do it for your chosen length of time. That’s all. It’s very simple. Meditation done.

If you are interested in creating your own ‘take-care-of-your-brain’ routine as discussed above, have a look at the HappyPhD Online Course. It will walk you through it step-by-step, day-by-day, for 6 weeks. That is, until it’s a habit and has become a part of your daily routine. To celebrate the New Year (it’s still January after all), I am giving away the course for free twice on my blog.

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This Post Has 3 Comments
  1. This is very good advice, Amber! I discovered some of this for myself a good few years AFTER finishing my thesis. But it is still highly useful when doing office work for a tight deadline.

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