Final year, pottering, and the valley of sh*t | Kate Allberry
As I embark on my final year push, I am experiencing some all-too familiar difficulties. I wanted to share these experiences in case it helped others who might be finding themselves in a bit of a hole or struggling with work. Below, I talk through some of the challenges I often face, and share some activities that are helping me navigate through the fog.
Throughout my year of field and lab work abroad, I functioned most days on adrenaline. This constant energy expenditure got me through this challenging time, but it wasn’t sustainable in the long term. I realised that analysis and writing required a different kind of drive and energy. Here are three key things that have helped me with motivation recently:
1. Before your first coffee or tea, start the day with yoga or a short walk or run. I try to either do my go-to 20-minute morning yoga routine, or go for a walk in the woods nearby and take in a few deep breaths, smells and sounds. Leave your headphones and phone at home. This clears away the cobwebs and helps you relax and focus.
2. If you don’t want to do #1 on a particular day, that is quite alright. Enjoy that extra time in bed and start the day slowly with your coffee or tea (also preferably in bed). Allow yourself these mornings. They help to manage stress and anxiety and can even help with your project and idea formulation (mulling time).
3. When working from home, put on actual clothes in the morning and maintain your usual going-to-work routine. Pyjamas are comfy, but putting on jeans made my brain think I was about to go somewhere to start work. It oddly made a big difference.
During a motivational dip in my third year, I came across ‘17 Simple Strategies to Survive Your PhD’ - a fantastic resource by Julio Peironcely, founder of Next Scientist. The guide provides advice and practical tips but, most importantly, it resonates with the emotional and psychological difficulties you might encounter during a PhD, and explains the process people commonly go through. I particularly identified with the ‘valley of shit’ when I was in my dip, and (thankfully) the stage of informed optimism which followed, when I finally started to see my progress, and recognise that perfection is neither realistic nor needed. You can find the guide here.
Whilst in the valley of shit (and on numerous other PhD occasions), my confidence took a hit. But I’ve come to realise (mainly from lovely fellow PhDs telling me time and time again) that every single achievement counts - no matter how small it might seem. An idea, realisation or sentence is progress - especially when in a dip. Do not beat yourself up about the mistakes you made and what you should have done. Be careful with the ‘shoulds’. They are not healthy nor needed. A fellow PhD chum recently caught me saying ‘I should really try to do some work this afternoon but I’m exhausted.’ He replied ‘Or maybe you will do work if you want to. If not, that’s ok.’ Redefining your intentions and control over what you will do and want to do, rather than what you should do is a big difference, so give yourself permission to have some time out.
I find structure and discipline are constantly tested during the PhD. What worked in your first year might not work in your final year, so one must frequently find different ways of working. I recently started attending ‘Shut up and Write’ workshops, which are free, online two-hour sessions through the University of Kent Researcher Development Programme. These offer structured writing sessions with a dedicated advisor and other postgraduate colleagues, and aim to help with motivation and focus, whilst support is on hand as a collective. I have found this super helpful; it enables you to schedule time to complete a specific piece of work - writing a paragraph or abstract, or completing chapter edits which have been lingering annoyingly on a to-do list, for example. The session follows the Pomodore technique, which allows 25-minute writing blocks, each separated by 5-minute breaks. This instils focus and a sense of urgency to get something finished within each 25-minute segment, whilst making sure you take proper breaks. It is an excellent way of getting focused and making progress with your writing. Give it a go, or check out similar workshops that may be on offer through your DTP.
On the topic of structure, I was recently introduced to a typical day in the life of Charles Darwin. This highlighted why I might be struggling: the more hours I sat trying to work, the less productive I was. The key things I noticed from Darwin’s day were:
1. He got a decent night’s sleep. If you’re feeling restless or have anxiety, I’d recommend trying herbal remedies such as Kalms (check with your doctor first if you’re taking other medication) or Puka Sleepy tea.
2. He took three walks a day.
3. He had solitary time without interruption.
4. He took time to do nothing.
5. He had just three hours of actual work time during the day, plus two hours in bed thinking and solving problems (mulling.)
Source: Charles Darwin from "Creative Routines".
The key lesson I took from this was that quality, productive work happens in small chunks, and it is important to make time in the day for non-work activities, which your focus and critical thought will greatly benefit from.
The single most important tip I would like to share is the value of pottering. Pottering is simply carrying out pointless tasks or activities, without urgency, pressure or obligation, whilst giving yourself a complete mental break. It embodies the art of doing nothing (just like Darwin.) It does not entail chores or other, non-PhD jobs which need doing, or loose ends which need tying up. An article in The Guardian here gives a great overview. I have mentioned pottering because I find it critical - not only to my sense of wellbeing and happiness, but it gives me a genuine break from PhD stress. When I potter, I organise things, or sit with my cat, or make a list, or tidy, or rummage in a box, to give a few examples. I also started using my 5-minute break from writing to potter.
I recently shared my frustrations with a helpful professor, and he gave me the single biggest piece of reassurance I have had during my PhD: he told me to remember that a PhD is a big pile of mistakes you make and learn from. This gave me encouragement, simply because it highlighted the human element to doing a PhD: it is a tough journey but it shapes your resilience and ability to adapt to a number of challenging circumstances. But most importantly, you are never alone in experiencing these well-known struggles which we all have at some point - even professors, supervisors and the experts we look up to.