My first experience of academic related stress was at 13 when I was studying for my first high school exams. Unfortunately, I got so stressed that I couldn’t sit my exams at all. Since then, I have developed a pretty substantial toolbox of stress management techniques that I use almost on a daily basis. These were particularly useful for getting through my PhD mostly stress free.
While some of these tools may sounds cliché, they have helped me a lot and hopefully they can help you too.
1) Spend time on time management
A PhD can seem like an insurmountable task, and even individual chapters can feel like a steep slope to climb. One of my main ways to make big tasks feel less overwhelming is making mountains into molehills. One way to do this is to set goals at different scales. Firstly, break your large goals (e.g., complete a PhD) down into what you want to achieve in a year (e.g., collect data for a chapter and publish a nearly complete one). The next step is to break these goals into a set of smaller milestones. For example, plan out when you want to have a finalised plan for data collection, when you expect data collection to be done by, and set a predicted date to have submitted your manuscript to a journal. After this, it is much easier to break down your days and weeks into small tasks that will help you get you to your milestones and ultimately achieve your bigger goals.
I have found that setting these daily and weekly goals really helps me switch off at the end of the day or for the weekend by quieting that nagging back-of-the-mind voice telling me that I should be working.
Note: Ensure that you set realistic goals otherwise you risk increasing stress. Also, life can get in the way sometimes, so don’t be afraid to be flexible and shuffle things around.
A couple of helpful tools that can help you plan out your time:
- Todoist lets you plan your week as well as create to-do lists for different projects
- Google Calendar (or any calendar): Use a calendar to plan out your milestones
- A workflow pipeline (see Fonti’s blog post on research pipelines). Your pipeline should have tasks in each quadrant to prevent a ‘blockage’ so that you have a consistent ‘flow’ of chapters/publications
2) Work out when you work best
One of the benefits of doing a PhD is that you can work whenever works for you. Getting to know when you work best and prioritising that time is so helpful in getting the most out of your day (or night) and prevents you from forcing yourself to work hours that aren’t right for you. For example, I concentrate the best as soon as I wake up. Instead of spending my most productive hours getting ready for the day, I make a coffee and generally do some writing or analysis first thing in the morning. After lunch, my brain slows down, so this time is best for lab work. I enjoy reading in the evenings, so this is often a good time to read papers, proofread some writing, or review manuscripts. As you can see, my day doesn’t fit into standard working hours and is broken up into three segments where I can take breaks in the middle to exercise, cook meals, sit in the sun etc. This timeline won’t work for everyone, but my point is to figure out what works best for you and plan your work around that. This will hopefully prevent those hours sitting at your desk being unproductive and feeling guilty.
3) Find what helps you relax
Everyone needs time in their day to switch off and relax without feeling guilty. Find something that helps you wind down and try to fit that into your daily schedule. This may be doing some cardio to burn off energy, spending time outdoors, watching a trashy TV show, reading a book, having a glass of wine, or mediating etc. This is important for giving yourself a chance to wind-down so you can return to work feeling refreshed.
If you struggle to turn your brain off, try to make your space as relaxing as possible. I find using an oil burner/candle, dim lighting, and attempting to stay away from screens before bed is helpful (staying away from screens is easier said than done but using ‘bedtime’ mode is quite helpful).
These are some apps and youtube channels that you may find helpful:
4) Talk it out
Having a support network is really important for talking through problems and providing a respite from ruminating thoughts. It’s good to have a balance of friends within academia that understand what you are going through as well as friends and/or family outside of academia that can give you a different perspective. Try to make time for these relationships.
If you feel like you want professional help or a completely objective ear, these are some options you could use:
- UNSW counselling service for students
- Benestar UNSW counselling service for staff
- Medicare covers up to 20 free sessions for a majority of psychological practitioners
- PSS may also be an option if you meet the criteria
Just remember that stress is a normal part of life. Figuring out what tools work for you will hopefully make navigating a PhD (and life) a little bit less stressful.