photo by Gabriela Camerotti
Someone dear to me asked me to explain my academic habits, those patterns of behaviour that help me start and then finish academic tasks.
Well, I've got to say that a PhD means that some of the old rules don't apply anymore: IT'S PRISON RULES! But I have decided to give it ago.
This morning, when I first started to think about what works or has worked for me in the past, I realised that many of these practices are tied up with how I manage my state of mind. So I am afraid that this list is bound to be a motley of the outward and inward and may or may not be very transferable.
- Have Pride in Tenacity over Intellect or Talent. I have noticed that many brilliant people in Oxford flounder when faced with the MPhil or DPhil. It seems to me that up until they arrived being the whiz kid in a structured environment worked perfectly for them. At a certain point though, being clever is not enough. So I think having a sense of pride in the ability to complete things without anyone holding your hand or caring if you don't is essential. Start actively admiring tenacity in yourself and in others.
- Create a Reason for Studying. I think it is very important to create a healthy reason for sitting on your fat arse and sending yourself blind and nutty from over-analysis. Studying out of guilt or peer pressure is fine when you're younger than 25, but after that smart people become pretty defiantly lazy without a higher purpose.
- Get Yourself a Mantra. I remind myself daily that I love learning, that I am lucky to be able to think and write (fairly) freely, and that it is a choice, I am choosing to study. In the American sense, I choose to own my choice to study. Actually, whenever anyone asks how one of my American pals here is going, he replies, "I am living the dream." Now I don't think this is appropriate social behaviour, but I think something like this is worth saying to oneself every day.
- Love a List. I have always been a fan of lists. Apart from my annual list of goals, I make a list for the week on a Sunday or Monday, and then I make a list each day. I adjust my list for the week according to how I go with my daily tasks. There is loads of good advice about there on how to make lists functional, in short how to transform goals or desires into specific actions with a specific time frame and a definite criterion for success. I am much better at structuring my list as a bunch of broad goals with a set do-able steps underneath each of them. Get a bit OCD and enjoy making everything regular and bite-sized.
- Get Real. Students are notoriously and perilously optimistic about how little time they need to finish a task. At some point during my undergraduate studies, I worked out roughly how long 3000 word essays took me. I believe it was about 2-3 weeks of preparatory reading (recommended and wider) while doing other Uni work and then I generally needed a day to plan the essay (when I would produce a detailed outline so I knew exactly what was going in each paragraph), a day to write it and a day to edit it. Leaving essays to the last minute is unncessarily anxiety-provoking. It's a form of self-sabotage, really, no matter how studly people who do them in one day think they are (presuming they're not liars). So I would say that blocking out a realistic amount of time in your diary is crucial, as is making sure your diary is talking to your daily/weekly lists so that you're setting the right tasks each day.
- Be Active. Never just read a book or an article. Type or write notes (a full summary or a few important quotes or ideas), draw a spider diagram or whatever. Write in your notebook the name of the source, the date, why the source was useful or not, and how it connects to in the rest of the literature and therefore your burgeoning argument ('cause let's face it, most essays ask for two sides and then your ingenious third way so you may as well read articles with that in mind).
- Get into your Flow. I have worked out which tasks suit me on which days of the week, and in which moods: one day of planning, administration or reading, four days of the week for hideously intense writing and then one day for reflecting, blue skies solutioneering etc.
- Start Being a Bit Freaky. Start cutting up your life into time for work, play, lover/friends/pets, exercise and leisure. Start becoming comfortable with going for a walk every weekday at 4pm, seeing a movie every single Saturday night and turning down parties because you have a book to read. But having said that, if you want to go out and/or you've scheduled in play time, I have found that the worst thing to do is to change your mind. Stick to your decisions. Whenever I opted for staying at home when it was clearly time to play (either because I'd pencilled it in or because I was getting resentful), I would end up in a tracksuit staring at my pile of notes, being rude to loved-ones and watching budget movies. I would then be stuck in regret spiral for at least a day. It's far more productive to go out, flick your hair around, get some attention and love from real people (not Hegel), and then get up and do a few hours work the next day.
I hope this helps.