Spoiler alert: this is rambly and may initially seem to have no substance – just like a soap opera. Which is coincidental because it is, in part, about a soap opera. If you don’t care at all about a TV show with no studio lighting, ridiculous love triangles/hexagons, and the drippiest background music ever (but how could you not?) then skip to the middle where there’s something you might actually use.
When I did my PhD – wait, when I say that I’m aware it sounds like I’m flexing (like the young kids say these days), but believe me I’m not. I don’t really consider the PhD one of my better decisions and because I realised halfway through that I didn’t want to be an academic, it’s added very little to my life. Although that’s not quite true – it’s resulted in Air NZ always seating me in the exit row with a bunch of guys who look like All Blacks, and it took some time to realise that Air NZ thought I was a different kind of doctor. In a real crisis I’d be no good at all, besides offering psychological first aid for panic attacks, and moral support as people launched themselves onto the emergency slide: “you’ve got this! We’re all behind you! Literally, RIGHT behind you, move it buddy! And as an aside, you’re not supposed to take your bag!”. (I don’t use that title when I book flights now.)
Anyway, when I did my PhD there were so many times in the last year – the writing-up year – that I wanted to throw it all in, change my name and start a new life making cocktails on a tropical island, perpetually cursing the person who signed me up for the whole sorry ordeal (which was…..me). Any original interest I’d had in the topic had long ago disappeared like a tiny little Apple TV remote down the side of the couch. I was trying to write up while doing two jobs, and one of my main supervisors had gone overseas and appeared to be missing in action (turned out there was good reason for this but if I told you I’d then have to use one of those ‘Men in Black’ memory extinguishers on you). There were three things which kept me going:
- The 15 minute trick, which I’ve written about here – which allowed me to fool myself into doing small chunks of work often enough that eventually there was something resembling a thesis.
- The fact that my dad was Chancellor of the university at that stage and his term was coming to an end, so I had to pull out all the stops to get it finished in time for him to be the one to cap me – apparently the first time that had happened with a PhD in NZ.
- Days of Our Lives. Yes, the daytime soap. I don’t watch a lot of TV but when I do, I make sure it’s pointless, mindless, zone-out material (the possible demise of Bravo TV could send me into a deep depression). For those of you too young/cultured to know what DooL was (does it still exist? I will not google this as it would be unhelpful to know), it was a dimly-shot series set in the US Midwest town of Salem where everyone turned out to be related to everyone else (mysteriously not knowing until they were married) and people’s hair was so large that even 1990s Rachel Hunter looked inadequate. Watching that at lunchtime on writing days gave a form of structure that nothing else did, in a seemingly endless round of drafting and submitting and editing and resubmitting for feedback and not hearing back and tearing out my own non-bouncy hair. (But hey, don’t let me in any way put you off doing a PhD, what do I know? I guarantee no two PhD experiences are ever the same. You do you.)
Daytime TV gave my postgrad student friends and I something to talk about beyond the quagmire of research that didn’t seem to be going anywhere. We could raise our heads out of our cesspits of despair and turn our attention to something that really mattered. Exactly what kind of doctor was Marlena Evans (would she give meaningful assistance during an inflight emergency? Yes, I do believe she would) and exactly how many times could someone die in a suspicious hospital fire which killed them alone, only to return as their evil twin who no one else had heard of? If someone unwittingly procreated with their own biological half-sibling, why were their offspring born without the congenital health problems modern medicine tells us are inevitable? And how could it be that we could NOT watch for the entire summer holiday yet pick it up again in February and in Salem time it was now apparently a week before we’d last seen it in November? Quality programming, without a doubt.
Which brings me to the (hopefully) useful bit. If there’s one thing this experience taught me, it’s that undertaking AND COMPLETING a big project is so much easier with some tricks up your sleeve for managing your time and holding onto your sanity. Having had such a struggle with my own PhD, I now feel it’s one of my purposes in life to help everyone else get their thesis or book written/degree finished/career pivot established/business off the ground as efficiently and painlessly as possible.
A few months back a client contacted me and asked if a Dynamite coaching session would be appropriate for helping her get her PhD in hand, while she juggled other important, can’t-be-ignored-or-dropped roles. My exact words to her were “Absolutely! We’ll show that thesis who’s boss!”. Every coaching session – and the process with each client – takes its own unique path. As we talked she came up with a concept which frankly I think is genius and might be useful to other people too. She very kindly agreed to me sharing this – in fact, it’s helped her so much that she wanted me to – and I’m grateful to her for allowing me to bring it to you. If you’re someone who has many, many things on your plate and can’t get as much traction as you’d like, maybe you’d like to consider this very clever client’s concept of the Days of Our Lives (I named it that, not her! I have no doubt her viewing habits are far more discerning than mine).
Sophie was teaching and travelling and doing voluntary work. And she was in the midst of her PhD. There’s a long long time, in a project like a thesis, where it can feel like you’re smack-bang in the centre of a traffic jam in a tunnel – there’s no option to go back, no matter how much you might want to; you’re desperate to go forward, but there’s SO much in your way. You need a strategy. Sophie realised that one of her obstacles was that some days there were many, many other things on her plate and it seemed impossible to focus on the thesis. She felt like she was never giving it enough time to make progress. But then – lightbulb moment – she decided to conceptualise her time differently, and it was a game-changer. She began to categorise her days – which meant that she didn’t have to rally against, and feel frustrated with, a day full of other commitments (meaning no space for thesis work) and this also brought some humour and creativity to her situation. Because she didn’t classify them in any old way – she loves birds, so she classified her days like different types of birds.
She came up with this system:
Penguin days (preferably Fiordland or Snares crested for maximum comedy eyebrows) – days when she had to go to work. She’d be leaving the nest and heading out foraging, only returning around dusk. Not trying to do anything other than the essentials, and feeling fine about this (penguins don’t give the impression of being guilt-stricken creatures!).
Kākāpō days – when she had to juggle a variety of things; some time for work, some time for PhD, in and out of town. Kākāpō are busy birds that forage around and make loads of noise, so allowing for bits and pieces of many different things on some days makes sense.
Albatross (or toroa) days – when she had the whole day free to do PhD work and could fix her wings into place like the birds do and as she said, “soar over the work, as though the seas and horizons are endless and beautiful”. (I suspect the examiners have a treat ahead when they read her thesis!)
Chatham Island black robin days – when there are personal challenges to tend to. These days are rare, just like the birds, so they’re valuable reminders that it’s important to take good care of oneself – if we don’t, nothing else is going to happen.
There are many other possibilities – these are just a few. I came up with one of my own – I told her that a clinical psychology day to me seems like a kererū day – lots of sitting around, observing and listening carefully but when I do flap my (metaphorical) wings or say something, it’s hopefully very purposeful. She wrote back that I would need a lot of snacks as kererū take snacking very seriously. I almost choked with laughter as I read her email, because I was eating bliss balls at the time.
If you too want to be kinder to yourself with the way your multiple roles and responsibilities affect how much you can do on different days, try creating your own system. You could use anything that works for you – dog breeds, types of food, tractors (I once received what was essentially a very lengthy TED talk from a toddler about the crucial differences between types of tractors – who knew?), whatever floats your boat. See where it takes you.
AND…if the classification system doesn’t work for you, get committed to some kind of mindless escapism (not a lot, just a little). It hit the jackpot for me. When I went to submit my PhD, I was turned away first time as I’d apparently gone under what was then the minimum timeframe. See? Time management – it’s not all post-it notes and to-do lists.