It’s time to be brutally honest. Things have been pretty bad in PhDland for a while. (“Fddland” is how I say it in my head, which makes it sound a little bit Kiwi and a little bit Nordic.) When I started this post I hadn’t read more than a couple of journal articles or written anything for weeks. Weeks and weeks. Probably months and months if I could bring myself to look in my diary at the last time I’d crossed anything out.
This is something I have struggled with for a while. I wrote about it in November, and January and February, and from the comments, it’s something many of you struggle with too. When people tell me that I must be smart to be doing a PhD, I reply with, “no, you don’t have to be smart, you just need to be ok with spending a lot of time by yourself for at least three years”.
In my experience – being halfway through, and fucking hell, that’s a scary thought – doing a doctorate means you cook a lot, do loads and loads of washing, read things unrelated to your topic, and play a lot of solitaire and freecell on the computer. Sure, you do some work, but it’s never as much as you imagined you’d need to do. And there’s always the feeling that you’ll get it done in time, because you always do. Or maybe that’s just me? After all, three tertiary qualifications, years as a journalist and years as a freelancer have shown me that I can always pull decent-to-very-good work out of my arse when it’s needed.
When I started this doctorate, I expected to feel like I was a one-conversation pony who bored my friends, reasonably stressed, and overwhelmed by how much work I had to do. But what I wasn’t expecting to feel was guilt. Guilt at being able to spend whole days doing very little. Guilt at knowing that friends have done PhDs while looking after very small children. Guilt at knowing that friends have done PhDs while working full-time. Guilt at knowing that ManFriend is bringing home most of the bacon. Guilt at being in this incredibly privileged position and wasting it. And it seems that nothing I’ve tried so far has been able to get me to work for any meaningful length of time. For someone who loves reading and learning and thinking and has signed up for a doctorate, this is not a good place to be. People tell you that you’ll learn a lot about yourself doing a doctorate. What they don’t tell you is that you won’t like what you find.
A couple of weeks ago, I read two blog posts on the same topic: Jen Dziura’s Productivity Tips for People With Short Attention Spans, and The Thesis Whisperer’s Another way to write 1000 words a day?, about the Pomodoro Technique. I took this to be a giant neon flashing sign that hit me in the face like a wet fish and caused me to mix my metaphors.
It sounds a bit fancy-pants, but the Pomodoro Technique is using a timer to work for 25 minutes and then take a five minute break. Then you do it again. It’s ridiculously simple. So I downloaded a timer. You can put it anywhere on your screen and it looks like this:
The timer that is restoring my sanity
Before I clicked the start button for the first time, well, let’s just say apprehensive was an understatement. Like Virginia Valian (1113KB pdf) who felt overwhelmed by the thought of spending five minutes on her thesis, 25 minutes seemed like a really long time. I knew I’d keep looking at the timer in the vain hope that I could will my punishment to be over.
I took a deep breath, clicked start, and looked down at my journal article. Then I looked back up at the timer and was shocked to discover that I only had three minutes and 20 seconds to go.
Sure, not all of my breaks are just five minutes, but seeing the timer there, waiting for me to reset it, makes me focus back on my doctorate in a way that no amount of telling myself “today I am going to get lots done” ever could.
Sometimes I even go over the 25 minutes because I’m engrossed in what I’m reading or writing. I didn’t expect that. According to the book you can download (500KB pdf), you’re not supposed to do this, but frankly, being on a roll happens so rarely that I’m unwilling to stop it.
Strangely, that simple little timer is more compelling than leechblock and freedom. Perhaps because the doctorate seems so big and looming. Whereas leechblock and freedom say “ok, the internet is blocked, now do some work”, all the little timer says is “hey, you only have to do 25 minutes, you can manage that”.
Last week I pomodoro-ed. This week I’ve pomodoro-ed. Today I’ve done two so far. Wish me luck. Or come around and kick my arse because that might work as well.