Taking a holiday from your research

My brain is tired. I am sure your brains are all tired too. It has been one hell of a year, in global terms. I am sure many of us are really ready for 2016 to be over already. And, given that the festive season is almost upon us, many of us will be seeing out this year with a well-earned holiday. Leave from our day jobs, kids on holiday so less frantic mornings, and time to catch up on sleep, novels, movies and whatever else you do when you are on holiday. It’s also, for researchers, an opportunity to take a break from your reading, writing, thinking and data crunching.

I am a firm advocate of having a holiday from your research. I know, though, that many postgraduate students who are also working while studying see their end-of-year leave from work as a big chance to crack on with the writing and research without the usual disruptions of work. However, as a lovely friend who is coming to the end stages of her PhD said recently, ‘why am I assuming that I will be able to crack on, when I am pretty much on empty now?’ I, too, have been assuming that, once I go on holiday, all the energy I don’t have now will suddenly and miraculously appear and I’ll be zipping around doing crafts and making cookies and finding my desk under the piles of rubbish that it is buried under. I will more than likely be horizontal, with a book, in my pyjamas, bribing my husband and kids to bring me tea and snacks so I don’t have to move.

Copyright image Belle Kim, Zachary Elgar, and A Prolific Source, 2015.

Copyright image Belle Kim, Zachary Elgar, and A Prolific Source, 2015.

I have much writing waiting to be done – primarily for a book project I am way behind on. But there is just no way I am going to be able to do any of it now. And anything I did write now would most likely have to be deleted and rewritten in January anyway. I am, quite simply, on empty. I need to see this for what it is: not as some kind of inability to Get The Things Done, but as a sign that I have actually done many of The Things this year, and now my body and my mind need to rest. Too often, on the hamster-wheel of academia, we don’t appreciate the need for rest, and down-time, and we put so much pressure on ourselves to just keep going. But if we do, we risk damaging our health, both mental and physical. I know I am guilty of bullying myself into keeping going, telling myself that I don’t need down time; I need to be productive.

There is a balance to be struck here. Down time is necessary and useful – it can recharge your creativity, productivity and work mojo. But too much down time can be counter-productive, as it can be really tough to get going again if you have too much time off. I don’t think this is necessarily the case with a regular job, but I have certainly found it to be the case with research, and a PhD. I never really got the balance right during my PhD – I either took too long a break or not enough of one, and I pretty much bunny hopped my way through my PhD in fits and starts of progress and productivity. I always found it difficult to get back into my PhD after each of the end-of-year breaks, largely because I was starting up my writing centre again, with all the attendant busy-work that entailed, and my PhD kept being relegated to ‘tomorrow’ or ‘next week’. I don’t have that excuse anymore, but starting up again, especially on a project for which you are making the deadlines, and that requires intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, motivation and drive, can be a challenge.

I do not, sadly, have the magic solution to finding this balance. I do, however, have the advice I give myself. Rather than telling myself I am not allowed to think about my research, I tell myself I don’t have to. I can read, and potter around, and read, and bake and swim and lie in the sun, and not feel guilty about any of it. And I can do that until my kids go back to school. This gives me about 3 weeks off. But, what usually happens while I am pottering and baking and lying in the sun, is that my mind-at-rest will still be percolating away about the book I am working on, or this blog, or the paper I want to write before March, and I will be inspired or have a useful idea that I need to jot down. So, I do. I scribble it into my research journal, or voice-note it on my phone, and then I put it down and go back to the holiday. That way, all the ‘work’ I might do is a bonus, and it doesn’t come with the usual anxiety and stress because I am not expecting myself to do it. This way, I keep things ticking over just enough to be able to pick up the pace when the holiday is over, but not so much that I don’t allow myself the rest I need.

holiday-mode-activated

I wish you all a very happy, safe and festive holiday whatever your chosen celebration, and hope your down time with family, friends and yourself is properly relaxing and rejuvenating. The blog will be back in January with fresh ideas and posts, and hopefully even more! Thank you all for your support this year. 😀

Grappling with complexity in a world gone mad

I’m not sure how to write this post. I have not posted on the blog for a while. I don’t really want to write any more ‘I’m so tired I can’t write posts’, but I need to write something, if only for my own sanity.

The past two months have been a weird, crazy, anxious and difficult time in South Africa, and globally. Here, apart from the ongoing awful behaviour of our president, we have seen violent, angry protests by students in our universities. At the heart of these protests have been calls for higher education to be free for students, especially poor, academically deserving students and middle class students whose family income is less than R600,000 a year (about $42000). There have also been calls for changes to the curriculum – mostly expressed as ‘decolonising’ or ‘Africanising’ the curriculum, and for changes to the ways in which teaching and assessment are constructed and effected. Too many students are disadvantaged by a system that has for too long gone unchanged and unreflected upon. Many universities have had to shut to keep their students safe, and have struggled to finish the academic year. People have been hurt, buildings vandalised, ugly things have been said in the name of progress and change, and many of us who work in education are feeling disheartened and sad. Where do we go from here?

There are significant problems in my country and globally that need to be addressed, and change must happen, but moving from that realisation to making the change stick will take time. And time is a tricky thing in a situation like this, where some students are claiming they will work to keep universities closed until their demands for change are met. This is, I believe, because we live in a world where things happen so fast that slow research, slow thinking, slow changes are less tolerated, or even seen as resistant or lazy. Academics who are under pressure to publish know this well, as do PhD students who take longer than 3 or 4 years to produce a thesis. We should all be able to teach and research and churn out papers, and present at conferences and tweet and blog and Facebook and still make it home on time for dinner. This is obviously a somewhat cheeky comment, but I know many people who feel overwhelmed by the growing pace that seems to surround our work. Reports about mental health issues on the rise among academics and graduate students are becoming more common, as are calls for a recognition of the value of slower thinking, and research, and deeper engagement with complex issues.

I recently facilitated a workshop with lecturers who were trying to work out a set of priorities for their curriculum, as part of a review process. What did they really want their teaching and learning to achieve, for themselves and their students, and their disciplines? What was striking was that one of the most important issues that came out was a desire to have students become more able to grapple with complexity. To not be so stuck on trying to find one single answer to a question, but to see and grapple with multiple perspectives, and learn to build considered arguments. This is a huge challenge for undergraduate teaching, because the average undergrad degree is so short – 3 or 4 years only – and this is a big thing to learn, especially when you consider that many students have spent 12 years in a schooling system that teaches them to learn the answers, rather than to appreciate the nature of working with problems.  I’m wondering how much of what we have been seeing in recent weeks in #feesmustfall protests here, in Brexit and its aftermath in the UK, in the election of Donald Trump and that polarising, ugly election campaign in the US, is many people’s inability or unwillingness to see, and grapple with, complexity in the issues we are confronted with. Climate change, globalisation, immigration, different versions of neo-liberal capitalism, state funding for social change – these are such big issues, and they connect into other complexities around race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and all of these issues are just overwhelming.

Grappling with this much complexity is a full-time job, and it’s exhausting. And if you don’t have an educational or home background that has encouraged or taught you to stop, and think, and listen and try to consider or empathise with perspectives other than your own, it is commonsense to try and find one answer that feels okay for you, and stick with that. Inviting other people’s reasoning and opinions to challenge your own seems like too much to deal with, so you shut that out and find opinions and ideas that shore up rather than challenge your own. And you mistrust ‘intellectuals’ like your lecturers who would ask you to read books you don’t like, or think about ideas that make you uncomfortable, or engage with theory that threatens to unseat your beliefs. All of this makes it far less likely that we will learn to listen to and talk to one another with compassion and kindness, which we so desperately need to do if these issues are going to be addressed constructively.

I have been struggling to think and write and concentrate in the midst of all of this, as I am sure has been the case for many of you. Globally we seem to be floundering on the edge of something, and we don’t know which way this pendulum will swing us. My research feels silly in the face of all of this. Why even bother? But, then I think about the argument I have tentatively made here, and I think about my kids and my students, and I think ‘No. Stop’. There is value in slower thinking, in deep engagement, and in research that genuinely seeks to build knowledge, and create space for change. Your research matters, and so does mine. Words and ideas that can inspire change matter. We must continue to work on grappling with complexities, and finding answers and ways forward that don’t oversimplify and divide, but create richer understandings of difficult issues from multiple perspectives. There is much to be done, and I think perhaps it is time to get back to work. Who’s with me?

‘Writer down, I repeat: we have a writer down!’*

I’m sick. I have been for a week, and it’s actually starting to get me down now because I am finding it really hard to get any work done. When you’ve been really busy, it’s actually quite nice to have a good excuse for not getting out of bed and watching lots of random things on YouTube for a few days (apart from the feeling sick part). But after a few days you start to feel well enough to get up and go out and see people, and there is no longer such a good excuse for not getting on with your writing, or email, or work more generally. And yet, in my case, I am finding myself paralysed over small writing tasks I have to be getting on with.

Writing paralysis is an odd thing. I like writing, but it just feels like too much work. And yet, the two immediate projects are not a lot of work at all, so I should actually be able to do this. I am a competent person, right? I have two papers that need revising, and one is due back to the journal within the week. My two co-authors have already revised the paper, and I just have to do the final round of tidying, checking, and writing up the response to the reviewers. This is not that much work, but I am paralysed about it. The files have been opened and minimised onto my desktop, so they are there and ready. I open and minimise them a couple of times a day, read a few paragraphs, and then check for new Facebook updates. Why am I so paralysed when I really want to get this paper finished so I can move on to the next one that need to be revised and sent back? Never mind start the new writing projects that are waiting in the wings.

I think my current paralysis goes beyond being a bit tired at the end of the semester that has just finished, and being ill. I think it has something to do, subconsciously, with all the bigger projects lying behind these small ones. Picking away at smaller pieces of work and emails and so on keeps the days full, but the bigger projects loom, and if I finish all the small ones then I’ll have to get on with the big projects. I’ll have to start actually writing the book I have planned, and the conference papers I have committed to, and finish the fieldnotes and transcription of two years of data I am pretending does not exist. And because this all feels like WAY too much work, I am paralysed now, putting off even the tiny projects so that I just don’t have to do anything.

The problem with this, of course, is that I am not actually doing anything, and none of the work is miraculously vanishing as a result. It’s just there, waiting and piling up and leering at me. Big projects we can break into smaller pieces, like an MA or PhD thesis, or a paper or book(chapter), can lead to writer paralysis like this. You have to do the smaller pieces as you go to get onto perhaps bigger pieces and larger projects. You have to read in order to write, and when you write you have to get feedback, and when you get feedback you have to read it, engage with it and make revisions, and when you have made revisions (especially in a thesis) there will be more reading, and more feedback and more revisions and so on. Being paralysed actually seems like a reasonable defense mechanism in the face of all of that, doesn’t it?

If you are, like me, in the middle of a project or series of projects that just seems too much, and you are paralysed as a result, try not to fret too much. The key, I think, is to allow yourself down time, but keep chipping away. Open the file, read a few paragraphs (if the whole paper is too much in one go) and make changes and revisions. Make some notes about thoughts for the rest of the revisions. Read a paper or chapter you need to read, and make notes. During my PhD I learned that this was a manageable way to keep going, even when I was down. It didn’t always work for me – there were stretches where I just couldn’t chip away – but trying to work like this kept me from being writer down for too long. To paraphrase Dory: Find your most realistic way to just keep swimming!

*Snaps to those of you who spotted the 90s film reference 🙂

On being down (and not quite being ready to get back up)

There are different ways to be down during a PhD, Masters, or postdoctoral fellowship. You can be down in terms of writing time, just struggling to get words onto a page; you can be down in terms of your mood, feeling low and tired and unable to carry on. You can also be down on your luck, if data gets lost, supervisors change institutions, or funding applications fall through.

Pinterest.com

Pinterest.com

I am currently down. I have two blog posts half-written that I cannot seem to finish. I have two papers that have come back from reviewers with mainly positive comments, and suggestions for fairly minor and quite manageable revisions. I have odds and ends that need doing. But even though all of this is actually quite manageable in size and scope, I just cannot seem to do anything. All I really want to do is lie on the couch and watch back-to-back episodes of ‘Bones’, and maybe check my email from time to time and send a response or two.

I am worried about this down-turn in my desire to be productive and energetic about my research. Because, while I have all these little manageable things to do, there are much bigger things waiting: a book that needs to now be written, an edited to book to finish putting together and finalising, a mountain (no I exaggerate not) of raw data that needs to be catalogued, organised, coded and fed back to research participants before year-end. I am worried that if I keep lying on the couch, I will not only lose the will to do the small things, but the bigger things will stall as well.

I remember feeling like this during my PhD, especially towards the end of each of the three years, as I took time off over Christmas and then struggled to get going again in the new year. I am trying, now, to remember how I got myself up then, because I am battling with feeling unable to really get up now, and also wondering if I want to get up. The work waiting is SO much. I am not finding it easy to take my own advice, and just get up and going again.

What do you do when you have lost your work mojo? I tell myself: just do it. Just sit down and do the revisions. Just sit down and finish the blog posts. Just sit down and work. But then I open my email, and fritter away my mornings sans children with silly things that are not getting my work done. Interestingly, I don’t feel as ashamed of this down-turn and what can only be described as laziness as I have in the past. Perhaps I am finally getting better at being kind to myself? Maybe. Perhaps I really am just tired, and my body and brain are recognising that I do need a rest, and they’re taking it. Either way, the mojo is on hold, and while I am not terribly shamed by my non-productivity of late, I am still worried that if I don’t un-funk myself soon, I will get stuck for longer than I can afford to get stuck.

I am sure I will now, as I have in the past, get up. Downs are certainly part of the journey – any journey – as we seldom travel along flat and easy paths only. A PhD, a paper, a book – these are definitely full of highs and lows and everything in-between. I don’t have any good advice for myself today. I just have kindness, a mental hug, and a commitment to at least open one of the the papers that has to be revised, and make a list of things I have to do to finish it. And hope, hope, hope that the mojo will kick in on Monday.

Finding your way back into your research

I had a long conversation with a dear friend of mine recently about her PhD, with which she is struggling at present. In truth, she has been struggling for a while, and one of the main reasons for this is that she has fallen out of and with it. She is no longer interested in her research topic, and while she has generated rich and interesting data that give her several viable PhD questions to answer, she is battling to find one that will help her find her way back in so that she can press on and complete her doctorate. How can she find her way back in, given that she has been outside of her PhD for a while, and feels an enmity towards it, rather than a feeling of kinship with or interest in it? How can any of us find our way back in to research or projects or papers when we have fallen out with or of them and can’t seem to locate a door or a window to climb back through?

I have, myself, been on the outs with my writing recently. I haven’t posted anything on this blog in a while, not for a lack of ideas, but more because of a kind of ‘Meh’ that has settled over me. I want to be enthusiastic about it, about the paper I have to write before 1 June, about the conference paper due mid-June, about the book proposal I want to write, about the book I am editing with a colleague as we speak, but I am just not. I am on the outs with all of the thinking and writing I have to do. Why, you ask? Well, therein lies the rub: I don’t know exactly. All of these projects are ones I have chosen to take on, and are interesting. They will stimulate and challenge me, and they will all look very impressive on future job applications as well as on the application to renew my postdoc for another year. I not only need to do them, I do want to. In theory. This is a lot like being on the outs with a PhD. My friend, me, you, others – we have chosen to do a PhD, either because we need to or want to or both. But, just because we choose something doesn’t mean that we are always going to be interested in it, or stimulated by it, or excited about doing it.

So, I am asking myself why I have fallen out with all these chosen projects. Am I tired? Perhaps, although given that I no longer have a majorly demanding full-time job which requires me to dress up and leave my house everyday to drive 45 minutes each way, I feel a bit silly being tired. Am I bored? Maybe. I don’t think so. I am still pretty interested in my research, although I could certainly do with some more updated data (all sitting on a flashdrive waiting to be captured and coded). I’m not bored enough to give it all up. Am I just not up to it? No. I am. Really. I think. No, I am. So, what, then? Why am I struggling to find my way back into all of these postdoc projects, just as my friend (and many like her) are struggling to find their way back into their PhDs? Are we tired, bored, not good enough? Have we chosen the wrong project for the right reasons, or the right project for the wrong reasons?

I don’t know the answers to these questions for anyone other than me. But I think finding them and then taking action might be a step towards finding my way back in. If I am tired, then I need to create some space to allow myself a break here and there, so that I do actually feel like I am getting a break from the demands of the writing and thinking. Perhaps, if you are tired, this is something you could do. Not necessarily a physical trip, but maybe more of a mental break, where you can give your brain a rest from obsessing about the PhD or the project you are working on. Mental vacations, where you read slightly (or very) trashy fiction for a week, or pig out on a box set of your favourite series instead of slogging away at your desk every evening, can be just what you need to give your brain a break.

If I am bored, then I need to look at what is boring me and see if I can change or eliminate it. It’s easier to abandon a boring paper than a PhD thesis, but perhaps I could approach it from a new angle, or bring in different data or a slightly modified theoretical framework, or new literature to give the paper new life, and engage my brain differently. Perhaps, if you are bored as my lovely friend is, you could map out as she has done what you have done and what you do know about your topic, and possible trajectories to follow in terms of following all the ideas through. Some may not be as viable as they seem, and some may be much more interesting or possible given your logistical constraints than others. A creative process of elimination and critical reflection with a friend, peer or supervisor (or all three) may be enough to help you work out what you are bored with, and work out how to either make changes or eliminate the boredom from your project so you can get back in and move forward.

If I am not good enough? Well, I don’t know what to do about that. I think I am. I think most people doing a PhD or a postdoc are, but often it’s not enough for others to think this. I have to, you have to, believe it too. Here, I think my solution is to just do the work, small bit by small bit (like this post), telling myself over and over that I am up to it, and that all I have to do is start. As a poster I read recently says: ‘Every accomplishment begins with the decision to try’. So, if you are on the outs with your PhD in whole or part, or with a writing project that is just stuck, ask yourself what it is that is creating the falling out, and see if you can’t at least try to make some changes that will get you moving again in a more positive and productive direction.