Acts of self-sabotage

I have been pondering the issue of self-sabotage lately in relation to various parts of my life. I have been wondering, mainly, why I do this, and trying to spot the signs so I can try to head myself off at the pass. Lovely husband and I then started talking about all the parts of our personal and professional lives we can affect with acts of self-sabotage, especially writing and the PhD.

As you may know if you read my last post (which was a while ago), I am writing a book. At this stage the qualifier ‘trying to write’ should replace ‘writing’. I am doing this in fits and starts in between pieces of other work, some of it essential work of the paid variety needed to pay bills, some of it of the essential unpaid variety, such as supervision and blogging, and some of it of the not very essential type at all. Obviously, I cannot stop doing the essential work, but I can rethink some of the non-essential work; I can also rethink how I do the essential work, and where my writing fits into my time.

superhero-emojiI wrote a post a while back about how you make, rather than find, time to write. I am clearly not very good at taking my own advice (not at the moment anyway). I left the writing retreat I was on when I posted my most recent post with a resolution that, at least 5 days a week, I would start my work day with two pomodoros (which roughly translates into 50 minutes of focused writing). Before 9am, I would have written part of my book for almost one hour, and then I could move on with the rest of my working day. I did this for about a week, every morning. I felt like a freaking superhero. My back had a red mark on it from being patted so much. And then, and then… I stopped making this time to write. I got busy with managing journals, and writing reviews, and responding to emails and reorganising folders on my desktop, and my pomodoros fell away. And now, having done no writing for over a week, the book has become Annie Dillard’s feral creature**, and I am rightly afraid to go into its room, without or without the chair.

What I have been doing is sabotaging myself. I have been doing all the Other Things before writing, thereby devaluing, and scuppering my writing time. Maybe some of those things are important, but I could do them after 9am. Maybe some of those things are actually not all that important at all, today, and I can just not do them and write instead. I am, rather actively, standing in my own way. The question is, if I want to stop doing it quite so effectively: WHY? Why, when I am actually really excited about this book, and believe it should be out there in the academic world, am I so seemingly intent on making sure I never actually write it? Why, by the same token, do PhD students who really want a PhD scupper their progress by taking on extra work, procrastinating to the point of craziness, hiding from their supervisors and so on? Why do we self-sabotage?

I have one theory, maybe two. The first theory is that we do this because actually finishing the book or the PhD means we have to show it to people. People will read it. It will be published, either by an actual publisher or in your university’s repository. It will appear in Google Scholar searches, people will be able to obtain it, read it, dislike it, critique it. That is pretty bloody scary, no matter how much we believe in what we are writing about. I imagine it must be even scarier if you are unsure of what you are writing about, or writing about something you are not passionate about. It is impossible to separate your writing and thinking work from your self. My writing is so much a part of me. I cannot but take it personally if you don’t like what I have written, or criticise my argument. And that can hurt. So, perhaps, we self-sabotage to avoid that potential hurt. It’s a protective instinct, possibly.


Credit: Allie Brosh

The other theory is connected. When you do put your work out there, and it is critiqued and commented on (by PhD supervisors, critical friends, examiners, book reviewers and so on) (and it certainly will be) (and even if they are all very nice to you) you will have more work to do. You will have to do more reading, more head scratching, more sighing, more scribbling, more thinking, more writing. And, while most of us who choose an academic life are more or less okay with that, it is a lot of work. Life is full, and busy, especially when you are a working parent and student and person. Often, I just want to be done with work. Revisions are hard, and they take time, and I don’t always want to do them. I therefore think I self-sabotage to head off the inevitable additional work I will have to do further down the line – the really difficult thinking work that will certainly make my writing better, but will be tiring and challenging and just plain hard to do.

The thing I am trying to do now is talk myself off that distant ledge: I am not there. No one has read my work yet, or been able to dislike it (or like it); I don’t have to anticipate all the negatives here. They may come, they may not. Past experience of peer review has shown me that as much as critique hurts, it is almost always helpful, and I have been far prouder of the revised papers than I would have been of the first versions I wrote. I have to get out of my own way long enough to be brave, write the thing, and send it to people who are willing and keen to read it and offer me input and advice.


Psych Central Blogs

The thing that gets theses and books and papers and blogposts written is writing them. I have to be better at taking my own advice, make time for those promised pomodoros, and protect my writing from all the other work I use to sabotage it. I need to just focus on now, and what I need to write today, and tomorrow and this week, and then next, and stop trying to see so far into the future. Perhaps that will mitigate the fear of critique and more work that seems to be freezing me up now. I just have to write, and I will. Simba, here me roar!



“A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fastened a halter, but which now you cannot catch. It is a lion you cage in your study. As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, “Simba!”
Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

On writing when the words want to be somewhere else

I am writing this from a writing retreat in the beautiful Devon Valley near Stellenbosch. I am hugely lucky to be starting my writing year here, away from the pressures and activities of everyday mum-and-wife life, where all I have to actually do all day is put words onto a page and make them make some kind of sense. However, I am finding the actual doing of the writing hard work this week.



I am writing a book. A whole one, on my own. I have been thinking and scribbling about this book for a long time. It has been like circling a huge obelisk, going round and round looking for a door or a way in, and finding none. Or circling a block of marble, trying to see the statue inside it so that you know where and how to start chipping away at it. But there is no door, and the statue is a fuzzy blur, so round and round I have been going, not quite writing, but not quite doing nothing either. It is just too big. How do I start? What do I write first? How do I get this right?

The first thing I have told myself, firmly but in a kind tone of voice, is that I must actually stop being such a faff and write something, anything. Just start, and try not to edit, and some words will come. They probably will not be right, but they don’t have to be right now. They just have to be written, and once I start, like a tap being turned on, the ideas will start to come from the swirly depths of my mind where they have been percolating and find their way out, and slowly be formed into a logical story. So, this is what I have done, yesterday and today so far. I have just made myself write, for 20 minute slots at a time. Freewriting, as it were. It’s slow, and difficult and frustrating, but I am slowly starting to see the statue. It’s just a finger, or an eyeball, at this point. But it’s there.


Interior with reading woman by Carl Vilhelm Holsøe

This brings me to the second thing I am counselling myself about, in a slightly more exasperated tone of voice. When I started conceptualising this book, and talking to one of my advisors about it, I had these romantic visions of me and my book, up late at night, lamplight burning in my office, typing away while the words and ideas flowed. We were going to be so productive, and clever, and it was all going to be so enjoyable, and intellectually stimulating. The reality is … less romantic. My office is such a mess I can’t even see my desk. I am so tired by 8pm there is no chance of coherent thoughts beyond that hour. And the words, they are not flowing. They are trickling, at best. So my romantic vision is pretty much shot to pieces, and this disappoints me. Which then leads to more circling of the obelisk, and less actual chipping away at the door or statue. Don’t get me wrong here: I expected much drafting and revisions and rewriting, but I just didn’t expect to not enjoy it. I hope I will enjoy it eventually, but right now I am not having much fun.

The final thing I am advising myself on comes from a friend and mentor: I have to be prepared to write rubbish that I will eventually delete or chop out in order to get going. This is a tough one. I know, of course, that with every paper and chapter and so on that I write, there are parts that are written and then later binned because they no longer fit, or strike the wrong tone, or just are wrong. I write rubbish, for sure. But writing a page or two of rubbish for a journal article feels like a lot less potential time wasting than writing pages and pages of rubbish for an 80,000 word book. I think this is what I am struggling with: I have a deadline, and other things to do as well as writing this book, so I kind of want to start writing and have it be the actual book, and not all the drafting and writing around that will eventually start becoming the book through cutting, deleting, selecting and more writing.

I remember feeling this way at the beginning of my PhD – staring up at this obelisk and wondering how on earth I would actually make it into something other than a lump of rock. Then, I had a supervisor to chivvy me on, and wonder where my drafts were and give me feedback. Now, I feel I just have me to hold myself accountable, and I am not always very good at that.

stone-dressing-tools-1-1-800x800So, I am trying to stop being romantic about this, I am trying to stop expecting all the words to be good, and perfect and erudite. I am trying to just write what I can now, and trust that the rest will come if I put in the time, slog through the difficulty and slow writing days, and do the work that I know needs to be done. That’s not a sexy, super-slick and easy plan. (Sorry about that.) But it’s a plan I can work with, that will break me out of the circling, put the chisel in my hand and start the chipping process. And that’s enough, for now.

Making friends with your PhD (or at least being on speaking terms)

I thought a good post to start the new year off would be one about getting onto the right side of your PhD – making friends with it, or at least working out how to get along in a civil and amicable way. Being BFs with your PhD is a lofty ideal many do not achieve, but some people really do love their PhDs, and manage to have very firm and happy relationships with them, in spite of bad patches. But how do they do it? And how can those  on the outs with the PhD turn the relationship around?

Starting out

If you think about doing a PhD being like conducting a relationship – bear with me here – you can think about it in stages. The first stage is falling in love, right? Heady, consuming, whirly – you can’t really think about anything else, but it’s exciting and scary and pretty cool. You may feel like you have stumbled onto It – or an It of some kind – and this makes other things in the world brighter and more sensible. Finding a PhD research topic that excites and interests you can be a bit like this – it’s exciting, and it can be scary because of the all the work involved, but it’s pretty cool. Finding a research topic or question that you ‘click’ with and that makes you want to go out and find the answer and do the work is kind of like finding It, and it’s a good feeling.

But, not all relationships start out this way. Not everyone gets into a relationship in a heady whirl of passion and excitement. Some people rationalise their way into relationships, and they stick it out even when it doesn’t quite feel right or exciting or heady, and they do so for many different reasons. If you have talked yourself into doing your PhD, and you don’t like your research topic, or don’t feel particularly stimulated by or interested in the project, it can be really difficult to be friends with it, or love it. And if it starts out with you talking yourself into rather than being swept up by it, staying the course can be tough. Love can grow, though, but that does take time.

The middle bits (where sh*t gets real)


If your relationship has started out well, that initial chemistry and compatibility that drew you together can be transformed into a bond that can sustain you through inevitable struggles and challenges. The middle bits of any relationship are full of ups and downs and real life stuff, and it really helps if you like each other underneath everything else, and can maintain a solid friendship that can hold you on the bad days.

In the case of a PhD, that initial interest in your research topic, and strong desire to find the answer to your questions and make a contribution to your field can indeed sustain you during inevitable rough patches, where research participants drop out, or you can’t get hold of a key paper you have to read, or your supervisor sends tough feedback that takes you back to the ‘drawing board’ for revisions. That initial feeling of excitement at doing this PhD at this point in your life can be transformed into a feeling of being ‘friends’ with your PhD, liking it even when you kind of hate it.

But if you started out talking yourself into a relationship you’re not sure you want to or should be in, and you are still talking yourself into it every day, it’s so much harder to weather the hard days, because they may actually confirm that you’re not in the right place, rather than simply being a bump in a generally good road that needs to be navigated and worked through. Thus with the PhD: if you are doing it because you feel you should, or if you are working on a topic you don’t like, or that someone else chose for you or talked you into, or that you talked yourself into because it would be practical, or easier, but that doesn’t really feel right, it can be really difficult to be friends with your PhD. How do you make yourself sit down and work on something that makes you feel bad about yourself, or that makes you feel like less of a researcher, rather than more? How do you create a civil and even amicable relationship with a project you have to keep convincing yourself to do, even when you are not sure you even want to be doing it?

The end(?)

Unlike good relationships that start out well and weather the tough bits successfully, PhDs do have to end. But, if you choose the right research topic for you and can be friends with your PhD, it can open doors to ongoing, related and eventually new research that you build a career out of. In this way, while the discrete PhD project ends, the research plan it becomes part of keeps evolving. If you have started with a solid platform with the PhD, you know what kinds of research you like and want to do, and what interests you, and you can create or connect with research projects that help you to keep working in these ways. You can learn much from a friendly PhD relationship that can stand you in good stead for ongoing research and writing work in the future. If you have enjoyed your PhD, you may well be sad to see it go, and struggle with the loss, at least initially.


If, however, your whole relationship has been difficult and fraught with uncertainty and bumps, the end often comes as a relief. And you may well have learned different kinds of lessons – like what kinds of people and relationships you don’t want to be involved with in future. You may be left with a kind of bitter feeling about having wasted some of your life in the wrong place, when you could have been giving your self and time to other things. Even if you struggle through and manage to finish the PhD, a difficult and unfriendly relationship with your doctorate can still leave you, at the end, Dr You, but with a bittersweet sense of having lost as well as gained. You may have a PhD, but no desire to continue researching in this field. You may have struggled so much that you become disillusioned with academia, and an academic career. Or, you may not even finish, and choose to end things before it goes any further.

phd-survivorThere are no easy answers here. I hope that you can all find a way to befriend your research projects – MA or PhD – or at least find a way to feel interested in them enough to keep going. If you are struggling, strength to you. It may help to take a small break, or tweak the direction of a part of your research if you can, to find a way towards a more amicable working relationship. If neither of those are possible, and you just can’t quit, then try a mantra: ‘I will finish this, and I will have gained, even if I have lost too. This will be worth it in the end’. Or, to quote a small blue fish: try to ‘just keep swimming’ and hope the current takes you up and onwards.


On celebrating achievements and marking milestones

It was this blog’s 3rd birthday on Monday. I planned to put up this post then, but the day got away from me, and then my son became ill and yesterday was a write-off. So, I am trying to get this out today. All this busy-ness, and missing this milestone has had me thinking about why and when and how we should mark milestones during a PhD or similar process, and celebrate our achievements, both big and small.


There are a few particular milestones during a PhD (or MA) that should be celebrated. There is getting into the programme of your choice – big box tick there. There is having your proposal approved – definitely cause for champagne or a celebratory beverage of choice. Or cake :-). Then there is the uber-milestone of handing in the first full draft and then the copy for examination and then the final meisterwerk to be lodged in the library ahead of graduation.

But there are also smaller milestones along the way that may not be celebrated, or seen as cause for celebration in quite so obvious a way. Here, I am thinking of completing chapter drafts, even before your supervisor tells you this draft is finished for now and you can move on to the next step. I am thinking of writing 500 words in a week where you have a thousand other things to do and time is at a premium and your brain is tired. I am thinking of getting a lovely comment of praise on your writing from a supervisor, or even a critical friend. These are, I would argue, also milestones or significant steps forward in your research journey or process, and thus deserve a form of recognition and celebration as well.

Rewards (and punishment)

When you make time to recognise these steps forward, even if they seem small in comparison to big leaps like proposal approval and finishing a full draft or final thesis, you are saying that you have done something of value. You have written 500 words you are happy with, or you have battled through a difficult patch of life and work and still created a draft of a chapter that you are proud of. Whether or not external recognition from supervisors is forthcoming, you need to be able to see, and reward, your progress. 

greatjobRewards can be big or small, but they need to be meaningful to you. They need to create the impetus for you to push forward to the next reward. My rewards were things like giving myself a weekend off and buying a new book to read, or going out for a coffee and a slice of cake, or giving myself permission to binge on a favourite show for a weekend. These things were small, but they made me feel supported and encouraged. They were my way of saying ‘well done!’ to myself.

I didn’t reward myself during my PhD as much as I think I could have, though. I think, far more, I berated myself for not making enough progress, or writing an even more amazing chapter or 500 words. Instead of consciously rewarding myself, I tended towards punishment. As in ‘you haven’t written enough this week, so no weekend for you!’ This was, as you might imagine, counter-productive, as the more I punished myself, the worse I felt about my PhD and the more I felt resentful of its intrusion into my down time.

So, to celebrate…

I thus want to argue, here, that you need to be celebrating yourself, your writing and your achievements, big and small, throughout your PhD. You need to be your own biggest cheerleader, recognising what to others may seem like a very little step – ONLY 500 words? – as a pretty big step in a slow week full of meetings and sick kids and school events and so on. You need to be celebrating these small but significant milestones (or yardstones if you prefer), rather than punishing yourself for not doing more. If you are a part-time student with a full-time life, the small steps are big, and they keep you pressing on (as long as they are close enough together to create momentum and motivation. minions-celebrating

I now reward myself regularly for what I regard as my writing achievements. But, I have to make the reward the same size as the achievement. If I have finished a paper and sent it to a journal, I can have several episodes of favourite show and cake. If I wrote the introduction of the paper, I can have an evening off and time with my novel. If I make the reward too big, especially if it includes time away from writing and reading, then I tend to struggle to get back into it, and the reward works against me continuing on with the momentum. So, you need to be realistic, and measured, and have your eye on your goals, your timeframes and your levels of energy and motivation as you plan your down time, your rewards and your celebrations. But, celebrate yourself you must! To steal a line from L’Oreal: ‘You’re worth it!’ 

Slogging away, slouching and sailing: developing a research work ethic

Recently I read a post on one of my favourite blogs written by Susan Carter on managing emotion in doctoral supervision, and in doctoral writing. What stood out for me were her comments on managing emotions around producing written work for comment and feedback. She comments that she no longer gets emotional about her writing; as an experienced academic she knows it is part of her job, and something she just has to do (and likes doing). She comments that students and academics would be helped by having a ‘workerly’ approach to writing, and also by learning to manage emotions that can lead to writing blocks or paralysis.

This notion of a ‘workerly’ approach to academic writing has been floating around in my head since I read her post a few months ago. I think I have developed a more workerly approach to writing in the last two years especially; I have chosen an academic career and I do know that producing publishable writing is something I need to do as part of this career. I like writing, and while I don’t enjoy all the kinds of writing and reading I have to do, on the whole I derive pleasure from these scholarly activities.

But I still get emotional about my own writing; I still get stuck, and down, and worry about whether and how I will get up again. I do, however, get up. This being down and getting up and carrying on has to do with being resilient, and part of this is developing and maintaining a work ethic about research and writing. By this, I specifically mean working more consciously on what Susan Carter speaks about in her post: learning to manage emotions so that they do not block your progress, and being a little more ‘workerly’ about your writing.

Waiting for the mojo (can leave you waiting a long time)

I, like many writers, have what I think of as my ‘writing mojo’. I am sure many of you have experienced the mojo when it is strong – the ideas flow and the words come and the sentences hang together, and you sail through a morning’s writing that leaves you with a pretty brilliant piece of work to send to a supervisor, or build on tomorrow. These mornings are what keep me going, sometimes – knowing that on the days when the mojo seems weaker, days of sunny sailing through writing are still possible, and will come again.

The reality is that most mornings or days of writing are not necessarily like this. They see me slogging away at a measly 100 words, slouched over my computer, getting up every ten minutes because I can’t concentrate for longer, or find the right word, or figure out what I want to say. I agonise over synonyms, and wonder if I have used ‘like’ too many times. I edit, more than I create. It is hard, painful work. It makes me feel frustrated, and inadequate, and slow.

This is me when I am working on my writing, metaphorical quill in hand, completely idealistic task list mocking me gently

These emotions are difficult to manage. But manage them I must, otherwise the mojo may not return. I am learning that all that slogging is necessary for the brief bright mornings of sailing through my writing to be possible. If I spent all my writing time waiting for the mojo to be strong, and the ideas to flow, I might be waiting a very long time, and I’m not sure I’d get much writing done at all. This, then, is when I need to be workerly in my approach to my writing.

Planning and pragmatism

Being workerly, to me, means being pragmatic, and planning my time as carefully and realistically as I can. It means instead of messing around on email, I need to make myself sit down for two or three pomodoros to read two or three relevant papers and make notes. It means setting myself one task for a morning or a day: writing an introduction, or coding a small set of data, and holding myself to that task until it is done. This, for me, is slogging. It is the work of being an academic writer that is often boring, and tedious (especially coding and transcribing data), and it feels like trudging through treacle because I’m not actually producing something tangible to show for my time spent at my desk (yet).

Yet, in the midst of this slogging is where my work ethic is formed and strengthened. The ability to push through the tedium, boredom, frustration and anxiety and continue to do the small tasks that make the mojo stronger and make sailing through the writing possible is part of what it is to be an academic writer. It requires fortitude; sometimes it probably feels like you are being unkind to yourself when you have to make yourself work on part of your paper or PhD on a Saturday morning when the week has been long, and you are tired. But all those little tasks, especially the difficult ones, build your work ethic and your researcher resilience, and they move you forward.

mojo giftThere are no easy answers to building and strengthening a work ethic, especially when you are a part-time student with many other demands on your time and headspace. But it helps me to remember that the mojo isn’t magic: it’s created over time through many small, seemingly unconnected tasks that all add up to a finished project if I sit up straight and slog away.