Keep Calm and Soldier Forth

One of the hardest things about the Dissertating process so far has been acceptance. Specifically accepting that there will be things that happen in and around my life which have a direct impact upon my ability to work on a given day, but over which I have no control.

One of the many issues that plague us grad students is the constant drive to keep working. Because we are masters of our own time, and because there is ALWAYS something more you could be doing, it’s very easy to live with the constant guilt that you could be working right now. Weekends, evenings, much-needed sanity breaks; it doesn’t matter. There will always be that feeling that you could be doing something “more productive” than whatever it is you are currently doing. Even worse, since most of us work from home offices, there’s no sense of “leaving work at work”; my work is always with me just a click away.

What this means is that when life gets in the way, you feel doubly guilty. When you have to spend an hour or two taking your car to get fixed, or you need to go to a doctor’s appointment, or any number of acceptable semi-urgent life situations that just need to be taken care of during “regular business hours” and could throw a giant monkey wrench in your work day, you can feel pretty terrible about it.

For instance: right now, they are doing some major construction on my apartment complex. It’s disruptive, noisy, and means that there are generally workmen staring me in the eye through my office window even though I’m on the second floor. At some point during the next several weeks, there will be workmen in my apartment who I will be required to accommodate by essentially disassembling my office so they can get done what they need to get done. I also will not have access to my own home for at least two days during work hours since they will be in it.

This is not an ideal situation. It keeps me from being as productive as I could be (or “should” be). But I have almost no control over it. I can’t stop it, I can’t make it better, all I can do is work around it as best I can.

It would be easy to throw my hands up and say “I can’t work today because of this thing I have no control over.” The much more difficult path, and the one that I have to take if I hope to ever complete this monster project, is to cope.

Dealing with writing a dissertation is stressful and overwhelming. Dealing with the academic job market is stressful and overwhelming. But this doesn’t mean that the world is going to stop around me; if I want to finish (and oh man do I want to finish), I have to find a way to work through the outside distractions and inconveniences. Adaptability is my friend; finding ways to vary up my routine that won’t prevent me from getting things done just needs to be a way of life.

It’s not easy; but if I wanted “easy” I wouldn’t have gone for a PhD. It’s definitely not convenient. But it is what it is; and I just have to soldier through to reach my goals. Nobody ever said that walking to Mordor would be a tiptoe through the tulips.

Work Habits

As August stretches out before me, I begin to hone in on the methods which create the best study environment for myself.

This is, of course, assisted by the magical early arrival of autumn here in New England.  I can definitely say that my work habits are much healthier when I can comfortably sit at my desk all day as opposed to having to find alternate places to work due to the heat.  My office is wonderful and sunny with lots of windows… though these qualities also make it the hottest room in the house (lots of windows = greenhouse effect and essentially bakes me out of the entire area as soon as the temperate spikes much above 75°).

I’ve come to carefully and jealously guard my weekdays.  While technically I can work anytime anywhere, I find that I am much less inclined to work on the weekends.  I have no qualms about working late, but if there is anyone else in the apartment I become distracted; I mean, really, who wouldn’t prefer to watch episodes of Supernatural with housemates than read about Weimar Classicism?  So, despite the HUGE amounts of temptation* to go do other things during the week, I am extremely careful to keep my work hours to work hours.

I’ve found that a pile-system works well.  When I move into a new unit, I order somewhere

....just my supplies for a normal trip to campus.

….just my supplies for a normal trip to campus.

between 20 and 40 books from the library.  When I get those books home, I pile them on my desk in thematic piles.  I can generally go through between four and five volumes in a day, so I try to pile them in approximate daily-dosage.  When I go to work in the morning, I pull a pile and see, visually, how much work I have to get through in a day.  It’s a good way to track how much I have accomplished in a time period (be that time period a morning, a week, etc.) and a good way to track how much more I have left to cover before I can move on.  Since I’m a kinesthetic learner, this is HUGE in terms of facilitating my study plan.

As I (not so slowly) reach burnout point, I’ve also learned to prioritize information.  I will look at everything on my desk, but the amount of time I devote to a volume will depend on that volume’s readability, the ease with which I know I will digest the information in that volume, and my ability to connect the volume to something else I know.  Learning is facilitated by connections.  As I fill in the edges of the theatre history map, it is much easier to move outward from territory I have some passing familiarity with than to plonk myself in a strange land where I know nothing and try to figure out the local culture.  Sometimes, I will have (and have had) to start from scratch (let me tell you how much I knew about the Spanish Golden Age before I started this process… there we go, that’s about all I knew), but by and large I can relate most things to something either historical or theatrical that I already have in my arsenal.  As such, if I find something that’s difficult to digest, completely unrelated to anything I already know, and written in impenetrable academicese, I tend to set it down and move on.  The time I would devote to decoding this piece of information is valuable and could better be used finding a book which will explain it to me in a way I can readily understand.

I do find ways to give myself little rewards and motivational things for reaching the next hundred pages, the end of the next book, etc.  Often times these thing consist of “okay, we will send that e-mail AFTER we get to page 150” or “you can check in on facebook/twitter once you finish x more chapters”.  This way, I’m not distracted by the completely natural urges to participate in the rest of the world for longer than I can afford, and I’m motivated to get through my workload.

side-note: I also taught myself to embroider this summer.  This is my first piece (mostly done, I may add some highlighting to the roses).

side-note: I also taught myself to embroider this summer. This is my first piece (mostly done, I may add some highlighting to the roses).

Speaking of distractions, I know that I work better if I can silence my phone and leave it in another room.  No matter how well intentioned, mid-day texting completely breaks my concentration and instantaneously takes me out of whatever it is I’m doing.  Chatting while working seems to be a phenomenon that desk-job people can accommodate (I know when I worked a desk job, I had an IM window open all day every day).  Because of the nature of my work (deep thought, deep research, uninterrupted brainwaves yield the best results), I simply can’t do it anymore.  Even when I’m in the deepest portion of research mode, the smallest thing can jar me back to reality and, often, I find it twice as hard to recover whatever it is I was doing before someone decided to ask me some menial question or send me a selfie.  Solution: silence the cell phone and put it face down on the desk.  Unfortunately, this is a do as I say not as I do item as my self-control tends to only go so far with this rule.  But!  We are all in a process of bettering ourselves as individuals and if this is what I need to work on as a human being, I’ll add it to the list right under “being careful of caffeine overconsumption”.

Obviously everyone is different so what works for me may not work for you.  My point is that astute self-observation will lead you to the path of righteousness and productivity.  Sleep well, study hard, and get ready because autumn is coming.

*By “HUGE amounts of temptation” I’m talking huge… like the knowledge that my entire family is having a get-together in New York because my scattered-across-the-country siblings all happen to be free on one weekend and are flying home and so I should totally join them two weeks before my test.  Let me tell you how painful that was to turn down, especially when a certain family member who shall remain nameless simply won’t stop pushing the issue no matter how many times I say “no, mom, I can’t come down to New York two weeks before my exam”.