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PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: First aid when you are feeling overwhelmed

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better – and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!

When you start your PhD trajectory, you may at times feel a bit bored, as you spend the entire day on one single task. But at some point during your PhD, you will find yourself juggling a number of tasks: supervising students, teaching, carrying out your own research, writing abstracts, writing papers, helping your supervisor with smaller tasks, and preparing deliverables for your funding institution.

As the number of tasks that come your way increase, you may feel a mild sense of panic. The number of items on your to do list is growing and growing, and you start to put in more hours. You feel like you are continuously behind on work, and that everybody is waiting for you to do something.

When you feel overwhelmed by the amount of work that you have to chew through, you need to sit down and make a plan before you keep on plodding further forwards. Here’s a quick method of eight steps that you can work through when you feel stressed out by all the requests and demands on your time.

1. Make a list of what you need to do
First you need to know what needs to be done. Do you have an organized to do list? Do you have a list of your tasks?

For this first step, take a sheet of paper or use an app for tasks. Make different categories, for example “writing papers”, “research”, “tasks work”, “service appointment”, “teaching”, … and organize your tasks in each category. Add the deadlines, and, where needed, a range of dates when you should be working on this task to meet the deadline.

2. Prioritize

Once you have an overview of all your tasks, identify which tasks fit where in the urgent-important matrix. Remember that you have four categories for your tasks: urgent-important, not urgent-important, urgent-not important, not urgent-not important. Highlight the urgent-important and not urgent-important tasks in your list of tasks. These tasks are your priorities.

For each task, ask yourself what would happen if you don’t meet a deadline. Does somebody need your input for his/her project? Would you miss the opportunity to present your work at a conference? Do you risk losing your funding? Prioritize your tasks further based on the risk involved with missing a deadline.

3. Plan

Now that you know your priorities, estimate how much time you need to finish each task. When will you be able to work on each task? When do you expect to be ready with each task? Which deadlines can you meet, realistically speaking?

When you plan your activities, never plan more than 75% of your available time – distractions will come along, and if you start to run behind on your planning from the first week, you will feel demotivated.

4. Use a weekly template

If you need to combine a number of tasks, it can be helpful to use a weekly template to see how you will be able to combine all your responsibilities. You can allot different timeslots for different categories of tasks, and plan your tasks of these categories accordingly.

When you develop a weekly template at the beginning of a semester, you also have a better idea of how much hours you have available on a weekly basis for your writing projects and how many hours for your research. If you know in advance how much time you have available, you will be less likely to over commit.

5. Communicate with your collaborators

After scheduling when you will be working on which task, get in touch with your collaborators. If everybody seems to be waiting for input from you, and is perhaps bugging you with reminder emails that increase your stress, send them a short update in which you tell them when they can expect an answer from you.

Communicate your new schedule and your planning with your supervisor, so that he/she knows what you are up to, what you can deliver, and by when you expect to be able to deliver your results.

6. Delegate and enlist students

See if you can delegate tasks, especially from the not urgent-not important and urgent-not important categories. Are there institutions or people in the university that you can rely on to help you out with some administrative and practical tasks? Can the secretary help you a hand with scheduling appointments and meetings? Most often, a lot of administrative work ends up with academics, but if you have support systems, use them as suitable.

If you are a young faculty member and have students working with you, see if you can enlist the help of your students. You can send smaller research tasks to your students, or you can ask them to go pick up some material for you from the library.

7. Focus

Avoid spending long days in the office when you need to get a lot of work done. Instead, see if you can make every minute count during your regular work day. Work in a concentrated way, and stay with your mind on the task at hand. You can use the pomodoro technique if you need an extra push, and track your output in terms of words to stay on track with writing.

If you notice that your attention is drifting away, don’t beat yourself up. See if you can take a break to get some fresh thoughts. If you are running low on energy after lunch or towards the end of the work day, switch to less intensive tasks.

8. Stay healthy

If you want to keep a clear focus, you’ll need to have your brain in good shape. To battle the fog in your brain, stay healthy: get enough sleep, exercise, and eat a nutritious diet. These essential self-care elements should be a no-brainer, but when you are busy, they may be the first things that go out of the window.

Remember that, if you don’t take proper care of yourself, you’ll get sick and exhausted sooner or later – and you won’t be able to do any progress on your projects at all. Avoid this situation by treating your body and your head right.

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