Category Archives: PhD Life

Read about how we deal with our time problems, how we manage to stay somehow healthy (We are all mad here, just trust the Hatter), what we do to relax, how we manage to be social withput cutting sleep short – how we manage to stay alive in this crazy big world called Academia.

Book Review: So good they can’t ignore you

When I first read the title of this book, I rejected it immediately. Only after I had become a fan of Cal Newport’s having read his Digital Minimalism and Deep Work, I went back for it. I loved it immediately. It really isn’t what the title makes you expect at all. Rather than a quick fix “you can do it” narrative, Newport stresses how some pretty unspectacular things, like hard work and skill, will make you successful.

This review sums up some of the main arguements and tips while trying to adapt them for the academic field. Because this book, unlike the later works of Cal Newport doesn’t contain frequent references to Academia and it’s not always obvious how an Academic can implement those very ‘market-oriented’ tips.

The craftsman mindset

The most important concept of the book is the ‘craftsman mindset’, a mindset opposed to the ‘passion hypothesis’. That is the idea that you should go for a job you are passionate about. If only you bring the passion and motivation, you will succeed. The most imporant point of Newport’s is probably, that this is the most stupid idea ever. Because, contrary to this optimistic new-age rhetoric, motivation alone will get you nowhere without skill.

Newport systematically investigated what approaches successful people had to their success and work, and also interviewed some believers in the ‘passion hypothesis’ who failed. In all his examples, those who had fallen for the passion hypothesis went on to make some truly horrible business decisions. Like start a freelance yoga business after a four week crash course to become a yoga teacher. And ended up out of work not much later.

Newport’s argument is that this happened because the ‘passion hypothesis’ just doesn’t work and you won’t get anywhere on happy thoughts alone. I think this is an essential thing to realize in Academia as well. People will hire you because you contribute rare skill and a hard-working mindset. Not because you have fascinating dreams. Academia rewards results, not effort or motivation. Nobody cares if you’re more motivated than your competitors unless this motivation is a driver for more actual results.

Newport shows examples of hugely successful people who approach their job like a craft. They show up for hours and hours of practice. They do ‘deliberate practice’, that is to say strategically look for imperfections and eliminate them. Like, say, a professional musician would approach daily practice. This is what he means by “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

 

Control traps

Newport then mentions something he calls ‘control traps’, that means things which can go wrong when you want to take more control over your life. Like mentioned before, you need skills before you can make big steps. So before making a bid for control, acquire career capital. No bold, premature bids for freedom. People from the ‘Lifestyle designer’ community often go for freedom without skill and thus, fail. When interviewing all the ‘overnight successes’, it mostly turns out that many years of skill honing actually led up to this ‘sudden success’, so it really wasn’t all that sudden after all.

But once you have the skills, your boss will naturally try to hold you back from independence because you will have become too valuable. What makes your life better no longer benefits your boss, so they will hold you back. In Academia this might mean that a boss will give you lots of nice projects because they know you will do the job well. But none of those projects are probably high value enough to really advance or kick-start your career. To do this, you would have to move away, apply for a high-profile job or something. Once you don’t need your boss anymore, you’re ready and valuable, so there will be resistance when you try to leave for a new opportunity. Once you have enough skills, finding clients, or in our case, job opportunities, should be no problem.

Law of financial viability

Newport also brings up the ‘law of financial viability’. That is to mean that you should do what people are willing to pay for. Don’t switch to a new occupation full time unless you are sure you can live from it. So in this case, money would be used as an indicator of value and he suggests yout test the ‘finanical viability’ of an idea using “little bets”. That means that you try your idea on a small scale and see if it works.

Translated to Academia, this could mean that you try out a new project in a poster presentation or something else with a low entrance boundary. You don’t spend huge amounts of time on it and seek feedback early on in the process. If people like it, you can decide to investigate further. But also, in Academia you need to be careful not to blurt out great project ideas or somebody might ‘steal them’. So maybe, if you new idea is a new method, try it out on your own old data and remain silent about which corpus it could be applied to according to you. Before you go all-in on an idea, make sure to test if there’s a ‘market’ for it with small-scale, small investment but quick feedback ‘small bets’.

 

You find your mission in the ‘adjacent possible’

Newport thinks that we can find great new ideas in the ‘adjacent possible’; so right beside the current cutting edge. In order to find those new ideas, you need a good overview of the current cutting edge. Then, by recombining what’s there, you might find the new hot combination. Getting to te cutting edge requires, yet again, that you become ‘so good they can’t ignore you’ in your subject area. He recounts a few scientists’ life stories who found opened new fields by combining multiple exisiting ones in a creative way.

 

The law of remarkability

In addition to the ‘craftsman mindset’, Newport suggests you also adopt the ‘mindset of the marketer’. So when you have an idea, it needs to be something people will remark about because it stands out (like Milka’s purple cows). Your venture needs to favour word-of-mouth marketing like this. Participating in a poster or science slam with a fun contribution might do the trick here.

 

Summary

Newport’s book may be summed up in a five step process:

  1. Build career capital, i.e. rare and valuable skills, using the craftsman mindset.
  2. Cash it in for independence and mission.
  3. Mission ideas can be found in the adjacent possible beside the current cutting edge. Finding them, however, requires expertise.
  4. Once you think you might have found something, follow up with systematic exploration using ‘little bets’ before you go all-in on your idea.
  5. Then, once you’re settled on an idea, you need a marketer mindset to generate ‘remarkability’.

Most experiences can be career capital later. So go for tons of experiences and explore. However, acquisition of career capital happens mostly via deliberate practice and deep work (book review to come!).

Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. (Victor Hugo)

Systematically practise for improvement. Explicitly note down results from deliberate practice. Measure your progress. Income or success generation require for you to have something to trade in return. Thus: Be so good they can’t ignore you.

And the book is a definite recommendation – I loved it and thought it was something real, for once, in a jungle of self help bullshit. It all comes down to the fact that people become happy with their jobs who have the skills required. Those who just blindly pursue their supposed ‘passion’ will end up miserable. So maybe, when deciding what job you want to do,  first look where your skills are.  


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Book Review: Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning

Today, I wanted to give you another book review. This time, it’s quite a short review and the book is: Joshua Waitzkin, The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance, NY 2007.

Not a lot of practical takeaways

I thought this would be a relevant book from all of us in the ‘learning industry’. The title ‘The Art of Learning’ kind of suggests a book with practical tips. Also, from the never-ending praise Tim Ferriss has for the book, I would have expected a more practical approach. That’s how I came to read this book now (or rather listen to the audiobook on my way to my research stay up north). But, as it turns out, TFs 4h Chef actually is way more practical with tips on how to approach learning than Waitzkin.

Mostly an autobiography

Waitzkin’s book really is mostly an autobiography. It recounts his journey and successes as chess genius and then as a martial arts champion. Some of it was kind of interesting, but for me who is neither a chess nor martial arts fan, it was kind of boring because of the lengthy recounting of matches. I was almost thinking about not finishing the book.

One takeaway after all

I ended up finishing it after all and one concept stuck with me that I wanted to share today. It is a simple concept and Waitzkin doesn’t really offer a solution but it was an important pattern for me to notice in my own life.

It is the destabilizing impact small failures can have. Waitzkin recounted endless matches where he went into downward spirals after a little insecurity and opponents who actively played to destabilize him. He realized that he lacked in the area of bouncing back from failure. He then trained to basically ignore failure and continue as though nothing had happened and ended up even more successful, now able to handle much stronger opponents.

The destabilizing impact of small failures

I realized that I am very fragile when it comes to little failures. I am a control freak sometimes and this is, essentially, due to the fact not that I were afraid of failure itself, but rather afraid that I might not be able to get back on track after a failure. So I try to maintain a rigorous productive routine and am taken aback when a week of conferencing throws me off track. Often, this ends up a self-fulfilling prophecy because I really find myself unable to get back on track. I think this is because of all of the pressure I put on myself in these situations (which could be completely normal situations, after all).

The tiny failures end up making you fail in earnest

Had you just gone back to normal after being thrown off track, it would hardly have had any impact. A little failure, a moment’s inattention. They are not that big of a deal. But when you end up getting scared instead of staying calm;  when you react to the failure, you begin to fail in earnest.

So in this respect, Waitzkin’s book has made me aware of an insecurity I have and that I need to find ways of strengthening myself faced with failure. Maybe, as he suggests, meditation would help. And failing a lot, fast. Of course.

So namaste until later,

S.

 

 

Sexism in Academia II: Specific Issues in Academia

In the last post, I gave some thoughts on sexism in Academia which I have come up with during the last few years experiencing Academia.

My conclusions were that only breaking the silence will make things better in the long term. This means persistently speaking up, even and espeically, about minor incidents because they give a good picture of what’s really going on, they make perpetrators lose their anonymity and they are relatively easy to talk about for the victims. Speaking up and owning your story often results in victim blaming, de-validation of your experiences or down-playing (in German, we have the very fitting word of “verharmlosen”, meaning pretend as though no harm had been done). Regular compulsory educational workshops for bosses and strict company policies are promising initiatives to counter this systematized phenomenon that is discrimination based on gender. Because this discrimination often happens in so-called “non events”. So, it can be difficult to complain about it because, essentially, “nothing happened”. 

Today, I wanted to expand on this and also talk about some points even more specific to Academia. So let’s begin:

 

Why did I give the incentive for this workshop? My own experiences leading up to this activism

First, I want to take a few paragraphs to illustrate some of the things which have happened to me. This is by no means a complete collection but these incidents mostly suffice to surprise people about how many things like this happen to a womxn on a regular basis.

Disbelief that a womxen can be more successul or qualified than a man: How do you mean you are about to grade a Bachelor’s thesis?

Not so long ago it happened to me that I was asked repeatedly “Which bachelor’s thesis? Your bachelor’s thesis?” after I had stated I had to turn in early because I had some BA thesis corrections to do. The person in question (a man, however not from Academia) really couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that I was advising a bachelor’s thesis and he didn’t even have a degree. By which I don’t mean to say that it’s bad to not have a degree. But it also indicates a strong reluctance to believe that a womxn is able to accomplish something, and most importantly, to be more accomplished than a man.

Groping during a panel at a conference

I had my worst instance of sexism in Academia at DH-Budapest in 2018. It was an extremely hot day in a small room. Seats were very close together. It was my first “bigger” conference I had specifically travelled abroad to. My poster presentation had already gone well, people were nice, all was good. It was my last day at the conference, during a panel focusing on Classics, so probably the one which was most relevant to me. We went in talking as group of people who got on really well but had only met eachother at this conference. I sat beside this guy who was weird. But I have I bias that all weird people must be really nice because people thought I was really weird at school and ever since I have a – probably stronger than healthy – understanding for the exclusion and stereotypes these people have to live with on a daily basis. 

This time, however, it would probably have been better to react with more distance since the guy got really close to my during the panel. He sat in weird ways but I explained this with his general awkwardness and the fact that it really was extremely warm and packed in the room. There really was hardly any room to move. So I tried not to interpret anything into the fact that he casually started to touch my leg at some point. I honestly wanted to believe that it was just so cramped in the room that no other sitting position was possible for him. And since he was an extremely awkward guy, I though he might not even have realized. I still tried to shift around in my seat to avoid his touch. After he changed positions multiple times and subsequently shifted away multiple times, at an increasingly fast rate, I started to suspect something. There weren’t any more positions for me to sit without touching him that I hadn’t tried yet.

I silently gesticulated to him that he should not touch me. He wrote “Sorry” on his phone and showed me, so I thought it would be ok now. But after a few minutes, the touching restarted and more aggressively than before. In the end, he ended up touching my ass and I told him to stop again. Then he finally stopped. I avoided him afterwards but he actually had the insolence to want to share his contact info with me. 

When I recounted this story to friends, they asked why I hadn’t reacted quicker and more vigorously. I really don’t know. I think I didn’t want people to know. I didn’t want to believe this was happening. I didn’t want to make a fuss. But since the seats and rows were cramped so tightly together, I wouldn’t have been able to leave without making quite a fuss. Maybe I should have done. Maybe I should have screamed. But I didn’t. I was angry at myself for a long time for not reacting faster and more vigorously. 

But I also didn’t want to miss the panel because of the guy. I don’t know if nobody noticed what had happened, but I am quite sure that the people around us must have realized I was shifting around in my seat like a freak. Should the bystanders have said something? I don’t know. 

All I know is that I have never felt fully safe at conferences ever since. And for good reason, because things like these kept happening. Many were just casual hints to follow someone up their room, but phrased in ways which were hardly clear. So had you complained, they would say that you had misunderstood them. Things like these happen quite frequently. Mostly, they are deliberatly circling ‘grey areas’, in my opinion, deliberately phrasing what they want ambiguously. So you have to spend nights wondering whether this was a sexist moment or whether you’d just made it all up. This is also victim blaming, in a way, making the victim so confused about where the boundaries are and making it hard to identify if they were crossed so that the victim seems like they are not in their right mind.

Verbal harrassement when traveling to conferences

It happens to me a lot to get sexist comments when I travel from and to conferences by public means of transport, like trains. Often, these comments come from elderly people who don’t seem to realize their ‘compliments’ are uncomfortable and not really compliments. All sorts of weird things have been said to me on the train (“A reservation in your heart is not as cheap has this 1€ train seat reservation, right?”). I will also not go into detail too much here because the post is already so long.

Non-events

Since this post is already getting really long again, I will just point you to this brilliant and important article on non-events for now:

 

Liisa Husu, Recognize hidden roadblocks

In researching women in science and academia, I have found that it is not only the things that happen to women — such as recruitment discrimination or belittling remarks — that affect them in pursuing a career in science or that slow their career development. It is also the things that do not happen: what I call ‘non-events’ (L. Husu Adv. Gender Res. 9, 161–199; 2005).

Non-events are about not being seen, heard, supported, encouraged, taken into account, validated, invited, included, welcomed, greeted or simply asked along. They are a powerful way to subtly discourage, sideline or exclude women from science. A single non-event — for example, failing to cite a relevant report from a female colleague — might seem almost harmless. But the accumulation of such slights over time can have a deep impact.

Non-events can be manifold. Superiors or colleagues might ignore or bypass women’s research and performance; fail to invite or welcome them to important informal and formal networks; bypass them for awards, prizes or invitations; fail to give them merit-advancing tasks such as representing the research group in public forums; not ask them to design or participate in scientific meetings, conferences, panels or as keynote speakers; or simply stay silent when it comes to career support, advice and mentoring. Even supposedly small non-events can send a powerful message, such as when a female postdoc publishes a high-profile article that generates no reaction from senior local colleagues, while her male counterpart’s parallel article is celebrated with high-fives all round.

Non-events are challenging to recognize and often difficult to respond to. Nothing happened, so why the fuss? Often, non-events are perceived only in hindsight or when comparing experiences with peers. Learning to recognize various non-events would help women scientists to respond to them, individually or collectively, with confidence and without embarrassment. Anonymous pooling of non-event experiences would be an eye-opener and a good start to understanding how non-events work in various scientific settings.

All scientists — leaders, gatekeepers, rank and file — need to be aware of how they might inadvertently exclude women from crucial collegiality. Monitoring the practices of support, encouragement, inclusion and exclusion in research groups, projects, networks, conferences and science institutions from a gender perspective would be a first step forward. Addressing this issue in management and supervisor training and early-career coaching is key.

 

A postive example?

Once during a after work event, my boss sat beside me. He then asked me whether I could change places with a male doctoral student because it’s less weird if their legs touch accidentally than ours. While this is a very heteronormative view of matters, I think it was weird, but also quite thoughtful of him. I am his doctoral student and I appreciate that he was so ‘proactive’ since there are many small situations where you’re not sure “Is this sexism or am I making this up?”. By stating this good intent, he made it all clear. It was still a little bit weird and also, a form of rejection of a student of the opposite gender compared to the acceptance of the own gender.

We discussed this particular situation during the workshop and like me, most others also can’t decide whether this was a brilliant or an extremely awkward  and over-the-top thing to do. In the end, I am grateful. This behaviour would probably be weird between boss and ‘normal’ colleague. But the PhD phase is a very vulnerable one. The advisor has a lot of power over the advisee, even though this might not be visible so much at all times. I appreciate the fact that he keeps some personal distance during this qualification period.

It’s protecting me. It’s a nice change in a world where I ask myself so many times whether someone is just generally a touchy person or whether they just ‘accidentally’ touch me more often than other people. But it’s also a case which shows some of the potentially strange consequences this process of banning sexism might have. Like one participant said at our workshop, this newly won ‘safe space’ might cost us some of the “more natural” way of going about social life.

 

Why I think a lot of womxn feel sympathetic to a workshop like this but don’t actually sign up for it because they feel it doesn’t concern them

When talking to womxn about sexism, I am sure that all of them have had their sexist moments. I can’t believe there are actually womxn out there who have never experienced sexism. Yet so many say that they feel sympathetic but they won’t come to a workshop because it just “doesn’t really concern them”. Why is that, I wonder?

Maybe you are not dominant enough to be perceived as a threat. Maybe you are too early in your career and people just don’t take you seriously. Which is not a judgement about you but rather, about the society you live in. It is highly likely that they don’t trust you to ever accomplish anything at all. You are just a nice girl who knows her place and has no ambitions (no matter whether that’s the case or not). But once you step out in the limelight, once you want to be respected and treated in the same way as you male peer, I think it very unlikely you’ll still feel that sexism in Academia doesn’t concern you.

 

Manthologies and Manels

Terms to know in the context of academic sexism are ‘manthology’ and ‘manel’, that is to say an anthology or a panel which only consists of male contributions. This is a problem because it causes men to even more be perceived as overly competent, whereas it makes women seem like the don’t contribute or aren’t as important.

An easy #heforshe thing to do for all those wanting to be allies: Don’t participate in such all-male displays of competence.

If they “really couldn’t find a female contributer even though they looked very hard” they must be a pretty shitty organizational team anyway, right? Research is only good when as many perspectives as possible have been taken into account.

So let’s not accept shitty excuses anymore.

Also, if you’re interested, a brilliant article about the subject is the following: Mara Benjamin, On the Uses of Academic Privilege (@theTable: “Manthologies”), in: Feminist Studies in Religion, May 27, 2019. Let me cite her definition of the ‘manthology’:

man·thol·o·gy · noun · /manˈTHäləjē/: 1. A collection of writings by different authors, the vast majority of whom are men. 2. a popular form of scholarly production, produced by an intellectually myopic volume editor, an insufficiently critical publishing house editor, and the passive complicity of contributors.

This is her advice:

First, to would-be editors of volumes and publishing houses: you’re on notice. We are watching the choices you make.  We are uninterested in hearing I asked many women but they all declined.  If your volumes aren’t representative, they are not worth publishing.  Women and other underrepresented minorities don’t want to be tokens; we want to do our work.  You can support us by reading it, publishing it, and engaging in serious and constructive conversation with it.  Your failure to acknowledge and engage our work is a methodological error on your part that is now being called out publicly in more and more subfields of Jewish studies.

Second, to senior scholars:  Share the spotlight.  Lift up the work of scholars who are in more precarious positions.  Call out editors.  Ask your friends and colleagues who organize conferences about how they came up with the list of invitees or contributors.  If you’re at an R1, reflect on how you admit graduate students. To what extent are your decisions guided by the implicit aim of replicating yourself?  How can you bring underrepresented voices and topics into the scholarly conversation?  Make your position on these issues known to junior and contingent colleagues who may want to call on you for support. 

 

What we learned during the workshop

The workshop was held by Mag. Dr.in Lisa Kristina Horvath (Dr. Lisa Horvath. Universitäts- und Organisationsberatung) and Mag. (FH) Stefan Pawlata (Verein für Männer- und Geschlechterthemen Steiermark). As a guest speaker, Seunghyn Song presented her work with the EGERA.eu project.

As one of my biggest takeaways, Seunghyn Song pointed out:
It’s not just about you being a womxn, it’s also about how you are a womxn. And (that’s what I want to add): It’s about how you claim your space as well.
 
 
But let’s start from the beginning.
 

What counts as sexualized harrassement?

Basically anthing from cat-calling to comments on when you are planning to have your children or overhearing informal talk that womxn XY is probably not a good fit for a job because you can’t believe she will be able to handle authority while caring for two small children. Or mean comments that a womxn has gained weight with age or stress. Which actually, most man do. In my personal opinion even more so than womxn because they are less societally required to look good. And most people do not have magazine cover ready bodies. Yet when you are a womxn, there is the implicit expectation that you should. That you should look permanently fuckable, an expectation which dehumanizes and objectifies you. Which takes the focus away from your (academic and other) strenghts to your superficial appearances.

So basically in sexualised harrassment, there is non-verbal (staring, gesturing, unwanted presents, etc.), verbal (cat-calling, remarks, annoying and inappropriate questions, unwanted invitations) and physical (unwanted closeness or touch, sexual assault). This term stands as a broader form to ‘sexual harrassment’ which really only covers the ‘extreme stuff’, yet fails to encompass the far more common daily problems with sexism. Not taking into account the small stuff which leads to the big stuff is a mistake, I think.

Sexualized harrassment can also be on the base of sexual orientation. And it is by no means reduced to womxn only. But since our workshop was a pilot workshop and we wanted to reduce complexity, this time the focus was only on womxn.

 

Silence, victim-blaming and rewarding the prepetrators

As I said in the last post, they need your silence. Song brought this topic up in her talk as well: If you’re not silent, they will try to silence you by punishing you (if only implicitly) for speaking up. 

Prepetrators actually get implictly rewarded for sexist behaviours: It is the victims who will be blamed and/or shamed (victim-blaming, victim-shaming). It is the victims who get asked to just avoid the prepetrator or who just don’t get invited to events anymore, whereas the perpetrator still gets invited. They subsequently profit from the absence of the victims who could be competition for them. They alone are there at events to profit from networking, recommendations, introductions and the like.

This is not pure conjecture either, this has been proven in a study examining this problem Europe-wide. Because sexism causes Academia to lose so many talented people and because sexism seems to be so deeply ingrained to the Academia field that the EU thought they had to address the issue.

Sexism and promised rewards

With sexism in Academia, we learned, often come promised rewards or threats of negative consequences. Prepetrators in a position of power over the victim abuse this power for getting closer than the victim likes.

This could be the abuse of an exam situation to make inappropriate comments, only allowing to discuss a dissertation in uncomfortable narrow or private places (such as at your advisor’s place). Forcing employees in precarious situations to share a hotel room “to save costs” without asking them first or without really asking them (i.e. giving the opportunity to decline without offending anyone). And of course nagging questions about relationship status, etc. But always accompanied with the threat of negative consequences should you decline. Sometimes you are even offered help that you really need – like the introduction to a famous person – but only in return for sexual favours.

 

Spotting and handling those sexist moments

Often, you will not know rightaway you ended up in a sexist moment. It often happens so fast. People actively use grey areas to make you unsure of what’s going on, to blur lines which they are about to cross, etc. But mostly, you will feel that something’s off.

Get a sense of what is normal by asking simple questions

In order to find out what you really feel, use some psychological methods like: asking “How do I feel right now?”, “What would I like to say right now?”, “Would they be saying this to a man? Would it sound ridiculous to say this to a man?”.

Start documenting as soon as possible

If something happens and you’re not sure whether you’re making this up, start a diary. Always write down exactly what happened and how you felt, what lead up to the situation, etc. Since our memory plays tricks on you, people might not believe you that you experienced what you did if you only speak up years later. Our memories are susceptible to manipulation. But if you have written accounts of how you felt that day, right after it happened, this will be much more believeable should you decide to sue one day.

Also, if you were raped, definitely go get a forensic checkup to secure the evidence. In many places, there will be the possibility to do these tests and they will save the evidence and results for you until you are ready to act. So even if you are sure that you don’t want to file a complaint right now, secure the evidence! 

Make a fuss if you can

Other ways of handling sexist situations include: making as much noise and fuss as possible. Prepetrators only continute to harrass people because it’s easy (most of the time). Speaking up, getting them into embarassing uncomfortable  situations is exactly what they need to stop. But also of course you need to be careful if you’re in a precarious job situation. The one day workshop wasn’t really enough to work all this out. 

 

So, this is it for now. The problem is in no way solved or talked through completely. But hey, it’s a start.

Best,
S

Resources

https://www.egera.eu/workpackages/no-3.html

https://www.itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2013/01/a-comprehensive-list-of-lgbtq-term-definitions/

 

Platforms on the internet

I just wanted to quickly mention a sexism support network on Twitter (and Facebook?) #wiasn: womxn in academia support network.

If you follow some of the hashtags like this one, it can be depressing, I know. But hearing about other’s experiences can also be a big relief that you’re not “making this up”, like people often urge you to believe. So think about it.

Typical tips you will get on how to deal with sexism include those: Find likeminded people. Get a support network. So if you can’t find anyone in your analog life, try #wiasn (women in academia support network)

 

 

 

Sexism in Academia, Part I: Breaking the Silence

This was supposed to be a blog post recounting our experiences at the “Sexism in Academia” workshop we initiated and that finally took place around two weeks ago. But since it got really long, it will come as a two-part piece now. And it’s not only what we learned during the workshop but also, kind of in a condensed way, all the opinions I have come to collect on this topic over the last years. I’m afraid that even two blog posts can’t really do this huge thing justice. But well, at least it’s something.

 

Intro

We often think that in our generation, sexism is not an issue anymore. I think we couldn’t be more wrong. Of course, some progress has been made. But we haven’t achieved equality yet at all. Just look at the gender pay gap and tell me you really think that’s ok?

Just think about the number of times you as a womxn have experienced some sort of weird situation because of your gender. Then look how many times it has happened in the work place. If you can’t come up with anything – I am a quite firm believer that you will have experienced sexism in Academia already, even if nothing comes to mind at first. Not because I want to make you paranoid. But because I see more and more in womxen around me that certain sexist behaviours are so normal for us that we don’t even get offened anymore. But we should.

It starts with the assumption that girls just aren’t good at math but rather prefer languages and typical Humanities subjects. Or that men are the ones to whom computer capabilities are constantly attributed. When someone asks “Who is the technician in your project?” in German they usually would give a male pronoun. Or people who ask whether you know a ‘good man for the job’. Or the 500 times you have not protested non-inclusive language or inappropriate comments on your looks. This post will examine the situation and give some first suggestions for how things could get better.

Throughout this article, I will use the term ‘womxn’ as an inclusive form which includes trans, lgbtq+, all sorts of womxn imaginable, in short. The focus in womxn is not meant to exclude men or de-validate their struggles, but because as a womxn myself, I am most familiar with this perspective and also, to reduce complexity (a little bit at least) in this incredibly complex topic.

 

It’s not about sex, it’s about the struggle for compentence and power

Like they say with sexual harrassment in general, it’s mostly not about sex. It’s about power. And in Academia, competence is power. You become vulnerable to sexism in Academia especially once you try to climb the stage and are confident enough to claim your space. To claim the authority you should have. To get the respect your competence deserves. To make your competence visible and to get the acknowledgement for your achievements and compensations for your efforts.

Sadly, so far womxn often don’t just get these, while man do. As a womxn, it often happens that you get overlooked. That you don’t get that praise you deserve. That a man just states all sorts of skills in their CVs with confidence when you know that they barely passed the class in which they would have been supposed to acquire this skill – that is coincidentally your principal skill, yet you as a womxen don’t actually feel confident enough claiming to possess this skill in your CV.

Because as womxn, we have been raised to not stand out. To not make anyone feel bad. Most man really couldn’t care less how their presence makes others feel. As a womxn, you often feel insolent even for asking to take part in this workshop which will be an important formation to advance your specialty skills. Insolent to ask for what you want because you think you have no right. Or you are afraid to ask for help when you need it because you are afraid it will make you look weak.

 

So, no. It’s not about sex. It’s about competence. And with competence comes power in Academia. Yet competence mostly is something which needs to be acknowledged by other people in order for it to be valid. It’s not enough that you have a skill. Other people need to know about it, need to praise you publicly for it and acknowledge that you have it. How many times do womxn have to prove they actually possess certain skills when those same skills are never questioned in a man? Like the ability to lead, for example. And how often does it actually help to prove you have a skill?  If they don’t want to believe you, they just don’t.

It’s happened to me many times that I had proven to have some skill and I was just ignored. People pretended like it hadn’t happened and still treated me as though as I didn’t have the skill. Even though I was objectively better, more advanced, had a (provable) greater level of mastery of the skill than the men present who were acknowledged to actually have the skill.

 

 

The importance of not remaining silent

I have learnt in many conversations that men who I think should be allies often lack understanding for my experiences or, mostly, general comments about how womxen often suffer from sexism. Sometimes I was quite surprised with these comments coming from lgptq+ friends very much into inclusive language and so on. Then I realized that men often really don’t have much of a clue about some of the blatant sexism womxn encounter quite regularly, maybe even on a daily basis. Some of these things are so common that they don’t even stand out for womxn anymore. At the same time, such situations are completely unknown to men.

Also things like the hearfelt advice to “just put on whatever you want – your outfit doesn’t matter”. For a long time I tried to believe this. But it’s just not true. As a womxn, if you’re not dressed in a certain way, this reflects much stronger on as how competent you are perceived. (If I’m not mistaken, there even was a study which proved this objectively – you see, as a women you often need to offer proof for your everyday statements if you want to be taken seriously. Sometimes people just plainly refuse to believe me even when I cite a resource proving my statements…) If a male programmer just shows up unwashed,  people often still respect them on the sole base of their extraordinary skill. But if you did that as a womxn, it just wouldn’t work. When has anybody ever based their judgement on you as a womxen on skill alone? Do you remember one single time?

Men can’t understand when we complain about these incidents because they just don’t happen to them. This is because a lot of sexism is silent and invisible. And so ingrained into our culture that it takes extra attention to become aware of it and notice it again.

So speak up whenever something happens to you (and you feel up to it), especially when it’s “just a small thing”. These things are good practice for not being shut up by non-believers. Start talking about small, less hurtful instances of sexism and work yourself up to bigger things or at least up to what you’re comfortable with. Apart from being good practice, they help raise awareness of common sexism. With womxen, a problem is that we often don’t report or even recount the small stuff because we think it’s just normal or not such a big deal. Then, when somebody comes out with a big complaint, nobody believes them.

People will say that something like this doesn’t come out of nowhere. And it doesn’t. That’s why you should speak up early, if you can. It only becomes more difficult, the stronger the harrassment gets.

Don’t think about how people will make fun of you or call you a ‘feminazi’ if you speak up. Yes, of course I have received my share of stupid comments. Heck, a friend even gave me a door sign along the lines of “It’s so difficult to be a woman” to mock me. It’s not worth avoiding to speak up just to avoid these little nuisances. You have to be stronger than that. But also, if you feel actively endangered, be careful and stay silent if you feel like you need that to protect yourself. You know your own situation and when to take what I write with a grain of salt, I assume.

 

Special problems with sexism in Academia

Speaking out without wrecking havoc

In Academia, a big problem is that you often can’t speak out without hurting a big ego. And one who is in a position of power over you, whom you need or whatever. So even a bystander’s comment which puts attention on the misbehaviour can be detrimental to your career. Thus, we need try to find ways of handeling situations in a non-offensive way. Even though I really don’t like it, but I have to advise you to react in ways which do not cause the perpetrator to lose their face in front of other people. Though I think they should. But we’re probably not there yet. But hey, nothing’s more powerful than an idea whose time has come. So maybe we be able to do that some time so.

In order to protect yourself from a horrible situation, you might have to extract yourself from it. Often, this means that victims will leave Academia while the perpetrators stay. Do things to heal the trauma. Dare to ask for help (professional and friends / family). 

 

The power (and necessity) of “saying something”

If you are a bystander, you should definitely do something. Often just acknowledging in a clearly audible voice that you do not agree or don’t share this opinion can throw perpetrators off and helps victims feel validated.

We need to give perpetrators devalidating responses to their behaviour and opinions. A study, which I sadly can’t find anymore, has shown that rapists think that everybody thinks like them and that their behaviour is normal. This is why sexist jokes are not actually harmless, like it is often stated by people who do have valid moral judgement. Everybody knows it’s just a joke, right?

No, it’s not ok and it’s not funny, because in fact, a rapist does not know it’s just a joke. Rapists often tell rape jokes in their circles of friends. Most people brush it off saying that the person is awkward. So they laugh along and forget about it. But to the rapist, this means validation. To them, it’s not a joke. They feel validated in their opinions. So this is a call to people experiencing a situation like this. Everybody has this one creep in their circle of friends. Educate everyone why sexist jokes are not fun. Even if they are not rape jokes, they still serve to socialize people subconsciously with long outdated concepts of womxenhood. They still cement patriarchal, misogynistic thinking into subconscious thinking and thus, perpetuate it to another generation.

 

Silence reinforces the stigma, obscures the size of the problem and makes people “becomes accomplices”

Many womxn also become accomplices in sexism rather than being allies for the victims because they are afraid it will affect their own standing if they say something. This is even more hurtful because it reinforces the silencing. Also, it’s often the same with the ‘good guys’ who officially are on your side but also “become accomplices” when they are afraid to speak up because of potential risks for their careers. This  reinforces the system and makes me more and more determined that silence really is the key problem. If we can break this silence and education against sexism is all around, something will have to change for the better at some point.

Often, I also wonder whether people who don’t say anything “because they fear consequences” would actually suffer consequenes for their behaviour. Or whether it’s just a lazy excuse. Pretending to be an ally has become fashionable in our time. But I think that you really need to prove yourself if you want me to believe you. Pretending to care is a way of preserving the status quo too. The only thing which really makes a difference is action.

And you can only call someone a real friend and ally if they stand up to you despite the consequences. Standing up when it doesn’t hurt you is not an act of courage.

 

Getting over it is unavoidable. But how to repair the (pluridimensional) damage to your career?

Many instances of sexism are hurtful, but you can get over them with the right psycho hygiene regimen. Meditate, release your anger, workout (and no, not so you look good in a bikini because that’s what’s expected of womxn). Also, it’s not like you had another choice than to get over them. As long as it’s not sexual violence (and even then), you probably have no choice but to get over it anyway. You can improve your psycho hygiene and help the movement once you decide to speak up: Join an initiative, go to womxn’s marches. Let it all out and help with the activism.

But there is one other problem in Academia: Like it’s not about sex in sexual violence, but about power, in Academia it’s largely about competence. Because (acknowledged) competence is power in Academia. So when someone makes a sexist comment or you suffer from a non-event (not) happening to you, this will be a dent in your perceived and acknowledged competence.

The assholes-are-part-of-life part of sexism I can live with. Or, at least, I have to. But in Academia – which is the field where I am trying to have a career – I really can’t have the fact that sexism hurts my chances in the job market.

Many instances of sexism and non-events are, largely, “not that bad”, like everybody around you is going to assure you. But they are. Because they add up to what is going to be perceived as the difference in competence which will cause your male colleague to get the job. Unless there is a womxn quota. Then, of course, you only got the job because of that quota and not because of your genuine superior competence.

Step 1 is acknowledging the damage done on a daily basis by sexism

I think, the first step to solving this, is to acknowledge that there are non-events happening and that sexist structures hurt the perceived competence as well as the credibility of womxn. Here, the perpretrators may be a large anonymous mass. It’s not really anybody’s fault. You can’t point a finger at one single responsible person. But in the end, this disease which befalls all of us womxn, feeds on silence.

The more we speak up, the more we take away it’s fuel. So let’s speak up. Be open about what sexism has happened to you if you feel up to it. Don’t ever be ashamed of something that was done to you. It’s always the perpetrator’s fault, never the victim’s. No, you didn’t “ask for it” by being the way you are or wearning certain items of clothing.

Like somebody said in our workshop, it’s still sexism if you walk around naked. Not even being naked is an invitation for sexual advances or sexism, unless the naked subject clearly states their wish and consent to engage in sexual behaviours or to receive sexual comments. And no, this does not mean “you can’t do anything anymore nowadays.” It just means you can’t be a sexist asshole without having me pointing it out publicly.

 

Step 2: Don’t remain silent

I hereby vow to never be silent again. Not only for myself but because I know that many cannot speak up for themselves due to trauma or because they don’t dare to. This workshop, in fact, was created because experiencing sexism made me aware of the fact that probably this happens to a lot of people who are less outspoken and angry and impolite than me. Who speaks up for them?

So if you are not sure whether or not to speak up, but you do feel up to it mentally – do. If not for yourself, then to support others and join the fight. It doesn’t take much but our united voices will have some effect. Don’t feel like your case was not “dramatic” enough. Or that it “doesn’t really count” as sexism. Everything counts if it made you feel uncomfortable or threatened.

Sharing the small stuff with likeminded people can be an extremely helpful and validating experience for someone who has experienced sexism but kept it a secret. For people who had this weird situation that bothers them but they are not sure whether it was, in fact, sexism they experienced or whether their feeling is valid. 

 

Step 3: Biannual compulsory educational workshops for bosses

Our guest speaker at the workshop, Seunghyn Song, said that it is already practice at many universities to have binannul compulsory educational workshops for bosses. While those bosses often sit in these workshops behind their laptops without paying attention, I believe that it will help the message to trickle down. It shows the bosses that, even if they don’t care about the topic themselves, it is important to their institution for which they are representatives. At some point, this gentle but frequent form of education will do something

These workshops should concern sexism as well as other forms of discrimination, like non-events. Bosses should be educated so they know that these seemingly inconscipuous actions already constitute sexism, learn how to spot them and how to react. This will at least raise awareness and help womxen who want to speak up: If bosses have already heard about it from some authority, they are more likely to believe a womxn who claims to have suffered from sexism in their institution.

So this is it for this time. Stay tuned for the rest of the post with more concrete info on the actual contents of the workshop.

Best,

S

 

And for the PS a little quote from an article on gender bias and perceived incompetence in womxn:

One assumption is that women are first assumed incompetent until proven otherwise. It’s the opposite for men.  So right from the start women are not perceived as leaders. If a woman is successful it’s because she’s a hard worker […}, or was lucky; if she fails it’s because she’s incompetent. If a male succeeds, it’s because he’s competent; if he fails it’s because of bad luck or a scandal […].

Consequently, cultural biases consistently overrate men and underrate women. Self-assessment studies show that men and women do the same to themselves. Women tend to evaluate themselves two points lower than reality, while men will evaluate themselves two points higher.

Assumed incompetence puts women on the defensive and their struggle to prove themselves keeps them on a never-ending treadmill. So if you as a woman have felt held to a higher standard, it’s not your imagination, you have been. It’s the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers syndrome: Ginger has to do everything Fred does, except in high heels and backwards.

It’s not just men assuming women are incompetent; women also fall prey to assuming incompetence in women. A woman may feel that she’s competent but she won’t assume that of other women. In one global experiment called the “Goldberg paradigm,”  […]

Some women use the negative gender schemas against them to their advantage. These women play along as if they don’t know what’s going on, when in reality they are five steps ahead of the guys. As Mae West put it, “Brains are an asset, if you hide them.”

Being under-estimated can work to women’s advantage when she is covertly outsmarting him, but that’s a short-term benefit. In the end, feigning ignorance only helps perpetuate a misperception. […]

So let’s be conscious of this unconscious assumption. If your comments are overlooked, don’t assume you have nothing to contribute or are not a leader. Rather assume an unconscious assumption has kicked in. If you agree with what a woman might be offering to the discussion, don’t tell her at the water cooler. Speak up and stand beside her and giving her credit.  If someone takes your idea and claims it as their own, do as one woman scientist who did research on cancer told me. Tell that person, “Thanks, I’m so glad you love my idea!” (Birute Regine, Forbes)

Resources

 

 

https://www.itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2013/01/a-comprehensive-list-of-lgbtq-term-definitions/

 

Gender Bias Sways How We Perceive Competence in Faces, https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/releases/gender-competence-faces.html

 

 

Networking as a “Humanities youngster”

Okay, the term “Humanities youngster” is not from me, it was used from a professor to describe what I am – young, early career stage, PhD candidate, devoted to Humanities. Well, actually, he called me first a Classics youngster, but then admitted that there are some things that are correct for all Humanities people – not just us classicists.

We sat down, had a cup of decent coffee (I am sorry, Great Britain, coffee is not your strength – I love tea, yes, but sometimes, it has to be coffee)… Okay, the coffee was decent enough, actually, the best to find near campus and the conference location. We talked about – yes, the bad coffee, but hey, the Congress Ale was great – and the talks we have heard so far and what we found interesting and what was rather awkward or really bad, because of the poor speaker’s nervosity. There are really bad talks out there, so, don’t you worry, dear Conference-Newbies (if you want, check my post on Conferencing!), a lot of people don’t like to talk in front of a group.

But this is not our topic here – we are going to talk about networking. Actually, what I just described – the professor, the coffee, the talking – is considered as one form of networking. When you are going to conferences, and you give a paper or a talk, you will get questions in a discussion round, some of your listeners will even want to chat with you in the coffee break (no matter how horrible the so-called coffee is, it is always called coffee break… a mystery).

So, you see, some networking things are just easy going. But, You know of course that at the same conference there are really famous scholars of your very own field. And yes, you will certainly go to their talks and just experience them live on stage. Next step: Talk to them. Sure, you can do that.

If not in discussion, try to ask one question in the coffee break. You have a lot of them, am I right? And believe me, people at conferences are used to the fact that a lot of people just come by and talk to them, asking them questions of their current as well as on published research. Conferences are an enormously important part in research. Research and new ideas function with the element of talking about it: the problems, the possible solutions, the results.

I know that it is not easy to just go to a very famous researcher and just start to talk. How to do it right? We had this question in one of our seminars for early career researchers: How to start smalltalk at a conference?

And… suprisingly, our coach came up with this meme:

via MEME

This one has actually gone viral, but – the 4-step-process is quite clear. (By the way, if you do not know the movie or the book, shame on you, go watch and/or read it, it is awesome! And yes, there is a book!)

So, let’s imagine a situation with your absolute idol in your field of study.

Coffee break, a lot of people.

You: Excuse me, you are Mr./Ms./Prof./Dr. Famous?  –> polite greeting

F(amous): Yes, I am. Nice to meet you, Mr./Ms. …?

You: My name is Archaeogirl, I am working/studying at the University of Pure Awesomeness. –> name

F: Oh, I have never been there, but they say it is a lovely city.

You: It is, indeed. (Never forget to smile!) I have read your recent book “Famous stuff”/article “How to find famous stuff with a very famous method/theory”. I am working on “the other famous method” for my PhD thesis and I am wondering if you will answer me some questions? –> personal link and manage expectations

F: Oh, that is very interesting. I certainly will. Let’s grab a cup of coffee… Or maybe a glass of water, the coffee is not drinkable at all.

You: I have found a coffee shop near campus where they actually serve decent coffee. (And now you have certainly made a new friend!)

As with all the things you do the first time, you will be nervous as hell. It will get better with the times you tried, I promise. And if you knew some people and you are maybe attending always the same conferences as they are, they will remember you, introduce you to their colleagues etc. That is how the network starts.

But also your colleagues back home who started with you, are an important network. These people you have studied with, maybe be friends with, will be your first peers, e.g. for proof-reading your thesis or articles. You see, a network has different stages and positions, all of them are important and you have to cultivate them. Trust me, people who are going only for the big fish will make themselves very unpopular with their other colleagues and once in a while this will come back to them. Karma is a bitch – in academia too.

Conferences or wokshops are like a market place for us early career researchers of “Humanities youngsters”. We can win our first academic spurs, we can present our research, we can meet new and interesting people.

Your network will grow in time. Some people are very closely linked to you, others not that closely, and some are dealing even with different things from a nearby research area, but nontheless they are part of your network – and one day they will need you to introduce them to another famous scholar. Or they will need your own experience for a new interdisciplinary project. Who knows?!

So, gather all your strength, stay calm and where is this nice academic fighting spirit? Go out there to start and cultivate your network!

All the best –

Astrid 🙂

Conferencing – Nightmare vs. Highlight

You have maybe seen it on our social media profiles – Sarah and I are really big in conferencing right now. You know, just see a Call for Papers on the Internet or getting it by a mailing list service, from your professors, … and writing an abstract or a poster proposal, get accepted, prepare your presentation, paper, talk or poster and just get there. Sounds like a very easy thing, right?

So, why do some academics have the one and only big nightmare: presenting their work in a room full of people eagerly listening to their words? You got attention for your work, you will get asked fabulous questions, you can proove the worth of your research – yeah, but talking in a full room, in front of people, all of them eagerly listening, some of them very professionel and skilled in my area, knowing at least everything about my topic, so, no, thank you, I like to remain unknown and never ever want to give a talk.

Afraid of people listening? Do you want to get them to use and read your research? Yes? Well… You have to tell them. And yes, they want to hear it from you. That is why they are here. 🙂 It is that simple. (all the images by Pixabay)

If you want to stay in academia, YOU. HAVE. TO. PRESENT. YOUR. OWN. RESEARCH. Now, head for the mirror, give yourself a big smile and say these words over and over again! Until you believe them with your very heart! Go, now!

But I cannot talk that good.
You can learn it. Do you think, we just got this mighty skill of conference talking mode by sheer dumb luck? This is no sudden and frightening exam you had no idea was going to happen, this is a task you can prepare. You are allowed to prepare the best topic, in your own way, you know the amount of time you have to speak. You just have to prepare it well.

But I have nothing to present.
You are writing on a thesis, right? So, you are really devoted to one topic or field? You think that it is probably the most important field you have ever done research in? You have something to present.

But what if I cannot answer a question?
You are no know-it-all genius, you are a human being, so, it is perfectly allright to tell people that you have right now no good answer, but of course you will look it up – just ask the persons asking for their contact, if you want, and write them an e-mail. You know, research works with asking questions.

Yes, by presenting your research, you set yourself to a very vulnerable position, but if you are well prepared, nothing can happen to you at all. Just stay friendly and listen to your audience. You have not to know everything.

But what if someone just tears my research (and me) apart?
Okay, tough one. But, if you are well prepared, you can resist this attack. By the way, you know that there are two different ways of being critical and the destructive way will serve to your best – because the evil critic will be judged by his or her way of criticism and you will have the sympathy of your audience. Especially as a student – you have to think it the other way: Even the people in the audience had at one point in their academic career their very first paper to present. We all started that way.

So, how to practice or prepare?
Ask your peers – talk to your friends, your teachers, your colleagues. Ask them about their conference routine. Remember yourself why you started with your current research. And yes, I know, I am citing now Marie Kondo: Does it spark joy? Of course it does. So, let that joy be visible for your audience.

But I am so nervous!
Practice. Practice your talk. Write the text, read it aloud. Read it while standing in front of a mirror. Read it in front of the mirror with the clothes you are going to wear right on. Get the feeling. Imagine the situation. Who will be there? Focus on the people you may know. When presenting you can look at them in the audience or focus on at least one person to the right, the middle and the left in your audience, always rotating with your eyes – speak to your audience, not to the floor, the ceiling or the paper in front of you.

The use of attending conferences?
Networking. I know, this strange academic habit we have all heard of a lot. But yes. Big conferences are like a marketplace for us youngsters in academia. You can meet important people of your field in a relaxed atmosphere, because after presenting, everybody gets a coffee and the talking, discussing and researching goes on. In fact, networking is quite a big topic, so we will present you one blogpost about it next week.

During conferences you are able to contact important people for your field or for your research. Coffe breaks or conference dinners are a great way to socialize and to discuss your research.

Next to networking, you have the possibility to get all the news in your field and this is important too. You have to stay  up to date, right?

And, last but not least, attending conferences is a very important part of your acadmic CV and it looks good to have some big events in it. You have to start somewhere, so maybe there is the possibility in your department or maybe in your graduate school to attend smaller conferences or workshops. Just take the chance to do so. You always have to remember that talks and presentations are some kind of publicity for yourself and for your research. You have to sell yourself – at least a bit. You have something interesting to say, so say it. You will be heard. You will be seen.

So, stay tuned – I shout out to you, brave warriors of academia. Whereever you are, have a good start in your hopefully relaxed summer and keep on reading our blog for new posts!

We would be happy, if you share your conference experiences with us! So, leave a comment! 🙂

All the best,

Astrid

Book Review: Essentialism

This time, I wanted to share with you another book from my quest to regain some work-life-balance: Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, NY 2011. McKeown mainly challenges one quite fundamental assumption about our time: the illusion that we could just do it all.

 

Have you ever found yourself struggling with information overload? Have you ever felt both overworked and underutilised? Do you ever feel busy but not productive?

Priorities

The word priority used to be singular only. Which makes sense because actually, it is not possible for two things to be “the most important thing” at the same time. It is this introduction of a plural for priorities which shows how we use language to lie to ourselves.  It means not acknowledgeing the fundamental truth that you just can’t have it all. This is especially revelevant for myself because I am really bad at accepting this. When asked to choose something, I always decide to do both. But this is not ‘being super-human’. This is acutally being stupid and naive.

We perceive countless things around us. Yet our greatest power is the power to focus, which means of making the choice to ignore most of the noise in order to get to the message. This is what ‘essentialism’ is about. To not ‘do more’, but to do ‘less but better’. To ignore most things in order to value the important things.

 

Trade-Offs

We often think that we’re just not good at saying no. But saying yes to something always means saying no to something else. So ultimately, we are constantly saying no by saying yes. We might as well choose which thing to say no to directly. Because you just can’t have it all.  Yet, it is understandable why people have difficulty saying no in a society which encourages you to say yes. Saying no is not the nice thing to do. It is uncomfortable. Saying yes is what is praised in the moment. People who say yes seem productive, seem like they ‘have it all’ and ultimately, most bosses do actually expect you to say yes to everything. Even if this massively hurts your overall productivity. 

Another hallmark of the subconscious unability to say no is the act of constantly cramming in “just one more thing”. Like I do. McKeown even makes the example of this one annoying colleague who foolishly doesn’t accept they just can’t have it all and thus ends up answering “just one more” email before they leave for a meeting they would already have been late to before they even started writing that last email. Let me introduce you to this colleague. It is me.

Essentialism is the deliberate pursuit of ‘less but better’.

Delusional thinking

Like I said, McKeown brings the example of people who know they have 10 minutes left to get somewhere, it takes 10 minutes to get there and yet they still sit down to answer an email before they go – thinking they could just “fit it all in”. The result is that they are guaranteed to be late and thus, still miss one of the two things. Or, at worst, both. All because they are afraid to make conscious decisions to reject something. If you don’t know this from personal experience, you have just gotten to know me. This is who I am. I am not proud, but that’s the way it is. If you don’t make this choice (of what to do with the time you have), somebody else will make it for you. This is kind of like with digital addiction.

We are ever only aware of the decisions we actively make. That these imply that we also automatically (and perhaps unwillingly) say no to other things, we often don’t want to see. At least I don’t. Before saying yes, we should ask ‘What would I give up to do this?’ rather than ‘Can I fit it in?’ which is what societal pressure tells us we should do. McKeown introduces the concept of trade-offs, i.e. the fact that when you decide to do something, you simultanesouly also reject something else. Because you just can’t have it all. When you meet person A, you secretly have rejected spending your time with person B. Only that you are not aware of this fact. Essentialism means becoming aware and accepting of this reality of trade-offs.

 

The unimportance of practically everything

Essentialism is about the unimportance of practically everything. By that, McKeown means that not all actions are useful or effective. Many are a complete waste of time compared to others. He brings the example that bosses feel one really good employee doesn’t create results twice as good as another but 10.000x as good. McKeown learnt in his own childhood that delivering papers was a poor use of his time. He had to trade one hour of his time against one pound. Being able to afford something nice would be a gigantic pursuit with countless hours of toil. He then realized that washing cars on Saturdays would be able to get him a six pound per hour return and thus, was a incomparably more effective use of his time. This is the sort of thinking he suggests we should do when he tells us to do ‘less but better’.

 

Philosophy and practice

The book is splitted in a more ‘theoretical’ part explaining the ‘philosophy’ behind essentialism and some more practical parts. These contain tips not unlike those time management tips from all of the other books I looked at so far, be it in the Digital Detox experiment oder Rest.

  1. Part two (“Explore”) suggests you ‘escape’ and save time by being unavailable (ruthlessly avoid going to useless meetings, etc.); you see what really matters, make time for (serious) play, get enough sleep and select what you spend your time with using ‘extreme criteria’. 
  2. Part III (“Eliminate”) suggests you clarify decision making, dare to say no and learn how to do it gracefully without offending people, uncommit from non-essentials and gain freedom by setting boundaries for carefully ‘edited’ amount of meaningful activities.
  3. Part IV (“Execute”) praises using a “time buffer” between commitments, removing things which hurt your effectiveness most rather than starting some new quick fix technique on top of everything, progressing with small wins, using routine to get in the flow, focusing and being in the moment by asking (“What’s important now?”).

 

So that’s it from me today and from Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. And remember: You can’t just “have it all”. Do less, but better.

Best and until next time,

yours,
Sarah

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Rest

As you might remember from the last book reviews, I am on the quest for a better life in a digital age. I have tried reducing exposure to screens, but in Make Time, I came across more than just the allure of ‘infinity pools’ like the Internet. I was introduced to the concept of the ‘busy bandwagon’. The fact that your success is measured in how ‘busy’ you are or appear to be. The more I think about it, the more disgusted I am by it. I am sick of all the people around me being proud of their business – because obviously, how busy you are shows how successful you are, right? – and I could throw up at myself for answering ‘busy’ to every innocent ‘How are you?’. Since when has the standard answer to ‘How are you?’ changed from ‘good’ to ‘busy’?

 

Jumping off the busy bandwagon

Anyways, in my quest for a better life, I now try to find a way of jumping off the ‘busy bandwagon’. In Make Time, a few simple steps are already mentioned. Things like not answering email straightaway but rather in batches, not being constantly available, making time for family and so on. But there is more to it than just ‘changing how we work’. Because, after all, working constantly is what I am trying to avoid. So thinking about how to work more efficiently is not the right way to do it.

This is why today, I wanted to give a review of another book I recently came across. Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, NY 2016. Also check out the website: http://www.deliberate.rest/

Overwork is the new normal. Rest is something to do when the important things are done – but they are never done. 

 

Introducing ‘deliberate rest’

Rest isn’t primarily a book about productivity, that would be contradictory. It is a book which argues that (deliberate) rest is not just a by-product of being human, a necessary obligation to be reduced to a minimum. No, it is an enabler of creativity which is, after all, what we really want to achieve. Being ‘productive’ doing ‘superficial’ work does not create value. (Yes, I remember I still owe you the Deep Work review). What we really mean when we say we strive for productivity is: unique creative and valubable output.

I began to wonder if our productivity had as much to do with the pace of our lives as the place we lived. I started to think that maybe our familiar ways of working and living, and our unquestioned assumptions about our need to stay always connected […] to treat weekends as a time to catch up on work […] don’t work as well as we think. […] Today’s leaders treat stress and overwork as a badge of honour, brag about how little they sleep and how few vacation days they take and have their reputations as workaholics carefully tended by [PR. …] They remind us that the working lives of even the most powerful people unfold in an environment saturated with unquestioned assumptions about the virtue and inescapable necessity of constant work. Whether we embrace the idea that overwork is essential for productivity and creativity or reject it, we all are defined by it.

In the last few years, there has been a growing interest in the habits of successful people. They have mostly been analyzed to see how those people work, how they are productive. Rest does the same. This particular book, however, notes how it is striking that all those creative geniuses mostly didn’t do more than 4 hours per day of what we would consider their most important work. Often, this had previously been judged as ‘Oh, they are so capable that they succeeded despite all their off-time’. Rest asks whether this might not have been the other way around: They weren’t successful despite the copious amounts of rest, but because of it.

I have come to see our respect for overwork as […] intellectually lazy. Measuring time is litterally the easiest way to assess someone’s dedication and productivity. It’s also very unreliable.

Rest is more than just the mere absence of work. It is not an inconvenience. Leisure nowadays is seen as a luxury to be consumed and shared publicly on Instagram, at best, and at worst, the negation of all our values surrounding success (willingness ‘to go the extra mile’, etc.) With workaholics, it can easily happen that we don’t even really exist outside of work. I think many people who are considererd ‘successful’ in Academia do not have a life or even a self outside of work.

 

8 ways to work better using ‘deliberate rest’

As we become ‘more productive’, we work longer hours. […] You cannot work well without resting well.

  1. You are capable of no more than (max.) 4 hours of ‘real’ creative work per day. This is also the generally accepted amount from the 10.000h rule study and the ‘deliberate practice’ and ‘deep work’ movements. Of course, you’ll need to do some low value work which takes up a lot of the time every once in a while. But think about this the next time you’re about to work overtime. Do you really think this is going to yield quality output or could you do that night’s work in half an hour when well rested in the morning?
  2. Add walks or naps to recharge. A short walk will heighten your ability for creative work for multiple hours afterwards. So it’s not necessary to walk while thinking. But walking and creative thought are related.
  3. Have a morning routine where you get the most important task done for 1-2h. Regularity generates creative output. Routine is also a necessary step to protect rest from the invading work demands.
  4. Sleep enough.
  5. Take regular breaks.
  6. Stop work in a good moment when you still have energy left. Many know this rule as ‘leave one in the bar’. Stop before you’re tired. And, if possible, in a good place to continue for the next day.
  7. Exercise, deep play, sabbaticals. Hobbies, like playing music, allow you to detach emotionally from work. The way we spend our off-time determines how effective we are when at work. Rest even cites a long-term study on which academic careers succeed and which ones don’t. Most of the exceptionally successful scientists intensively engaged in sports and active rest, some even did climbing 😉 While according to a study, low achievers tried to get better at work by doing more work, the ones who really ended up successful were busy with “deep play”.
  8. Not taking time off creates exhaustion (emotional and physical) and has long term health risks. Take vacations. I actually don’t get how anyone can get along with 5 weeks of holiday per year. If I’m honest and wanted optimal productivty for myself, I would need at least two weeks off at least every three months. Not that it’s possible. But when I secluded myself in the south of France last Christmas for two weeks, that was one of the most productive and mind-clearing experiences I’ve had in a long time. People in Academia should be allowed to go on “writing escapes” to get their writing done. Maybe (hopefully) my upcoming fellowship this summer will have the same effect.

Vacations are like sleep. They need to be taken regularly to be effective.

The book isn’t super long. The audiobook lasts only 7 hours. Many of the tips don’t go deeper than what’s included in the summary here, except for lots of examples. But it mentions climbing as an activity for active rest. So yay for that. And examples might be helpful to you. If you feel that overwork and not resting enough is an issue for you, the book will definitely be interesting to you.

Best,

Sarah

The Digital Minimalism Experiment: Conclusion

We’re all distracted by our digital devices. I wanted to see if I could adopt some ideas from Digital Minimalism and Make Time and I kept you up to date, too. Now, I wanted to sum it all up because the experiment is over. In a good way: I stuck with my new reduced digital life and am better off for it. It’s time for me to move on to another project. This post sums up the biggest takeaways.

Auto-unplug the internet in the evenings using a timer plug

If you want to get unstuck fast: Get a timer plug for your router. Make it switch off the internet early in the morning, so you don’t check it as the first thing you do after waking up and all evening.

Reduce TV / streaming to a minimum to free up time lost

The internet plug trick made it easy for me to stick with my new rule of max. 2 episodes of a series / 1 film per week. Since there is no internet after 19:00, I spent my evenings doing something else. This transition was super easy, I don’t miss anything and I wouldn’t go back. I have had a lot more time for reading, exercise, (cooking and) eating well, and getting a good night’s sleep. As a nice side effect, not being able to access digital devices in the evenings made me lose the habit of constantly checking something and I subsequently found it easier to reduce my phone checking in the daytime.

Get a dumb phone 

If you’re ready to give it your all: get a dumb phone. But switching off mobile data by default and only switching it back on when you really need it already helped me reduce compulsive phone checking.

Reduce social media and don’t scroll

Check social media as little as possible (as little as once per day or per week). Don’t use social media on the mobile device you carry around but rather on a computer which is less instantly-accessible. Don’t scroll so you don’t fall victim to the “infinity pools” of constantly refreshing distraction.

You don’t have to completely give up on anything if you don’t want to

To sum it all up: I had to give up on none of my digital habits. I just changed the default to “not using XY” compared to “constantly using XY” from before.

Have replacement activities

But in order for this to work, you need to have things to do instead at the ready. Like for me, I mostly go climbing now, read a book or go to bed early. This works surprisingly well.

Plan for analogue quality social interaction

Make sure to set up an analogue social life so you don’t suffer from some sort of social media withdrawal symptoms. Focus on planning quality time with people who are really worth your time.

Conclusion

As a conclusion, I thought of something last week: This experiment was great and I prefer my ‘new life’. But at the same time, better digital habits are not a cure-all. On their own, they will not make you happy nor will they take care of your overcommitment-induced stress. This is another issue you need to tackle and it might well be the next focus for me.

I’ll keep you posted.

Best,

Sarah

How to… do selfcare as a PhD candidate – Part II: Why do physical exercise?

You might have guessed it already by seeing our blog subtitle the first time, but yes: We both are really into bouldering and climbing. 😉 Well, we are beginners and not so skilled, but it is fun and we love it. Every Monday for a couple of weeks now we are meeting at our favourite climbing hall and we try for an hour and a half to let go of all the work, the stress, the frustration.

Welcome to our second part on How to … do selfcare as a PhD candidate. (For part I you may click here!)

You might be in grad school, working on your PhD, your master’s or bachelor’s degree, basically it is always the same – your workload is amazing, you wish that you are actually in possession of one of Hermione Granger’s timeturners just to get a full night’s sleep and some kind of private life.

We all know, how good it feels to stay on your couch in the evening after work. BUT: There are those nasty backpain issues, there is the wish to do something with your body just to cope with the 8 to 10 hours a day you spent sitting around, writing, reading, studying.

The truth is, you must train your body to be ready to take these sitting hours. Your back, your butt, your arms, your neck and your legs will thank your for considering this. So, the best way is physical exercise. You have not to run a marathon, but hey, every two to three days a slow 5 km run, why not? Every two days an hour of yoga, maybe the gym, maybe you are taking your bike to get to work. Everything helps, just keep moving your body.

We both try to do some type of sports up to three times a week, which is not easy, when you have a 30h project job, which technically includes no PhD writing – and oh, there is your family as well, friends, partners. Social life, too, is a very important part of selfcare! In fact, it is that important, I will write a whole blogpost on it. And yes, you must eat, drink and sleep. However, sometimes I wish my days would have up to 36 hours, just to cope with my life outside university.

But let’s get back to our sporty theme for this post: Just exercise. Take a walk every evening. Call your friends and ask them, if they are into doing any type of sport – it is always much more fun together, but please, never forget, you should get enough alone-time for yourself. You may need this. I have often heard that it is one hour a day, where there should be just time for you, you alone. I see the smiles, yes, it sounds rather ridiculous. In our huge world of academic work, there is no space for these kinds of thoughts. Well, just be the first to think them.

Take a run, just you alone, with your favourite music or in silence. Breathe. If possible, try to run in a park – nature helps. Concentrate on how you run, on how your feet touch the ground. After half an hour you will fell calm, relaxed – and ready for some hours of work again.

The same magic happens to me while climbing. Of course, I am not alone in my climbing hall, but I concentrate on my grip, my hands, my feet and I enjoy myself when testing new routes.

The best thing to calm myself down, to get rid of my working day in my thoughts, is actually some yoga practice. I took several courses, yes, but there exists a huge number of videos and apps too, so, just try it! It is important to focus on yourself and your needs.

I will describe a little evening routine to you – I do it while already lying in bed in the evening. Just lay down, close your eyes and breathe in deeply. Feel your body. How does it feel? Is there any pain? Are there lots of thoughts wandering around your head? It’s okay, just let it be. Don’t blame yourself for overthinking too much. Just accept it. The thoughts are there, the pain in your back is there, you feel tired – everything normal, so far. Just remember, we are all human beings. How do your feet feel? Your hands? Your legs, your arms? Your stomach? Your neck? Your head? Your back? Just wander over your body, over each part, look after it – how does it feel, what is there? Note it and then accept it.

Do it as long as you want to do it. I always sleep in while thinking… In the beginning it was very hard, because I thought that yoga and meditating is about being one with the universe or whatever – well: yes and no. You come first. Nobody can ever be a better you, so just watch yourself, train it. It will get easier and better and suddenly – you might be calmed and relaxed. Is there any better thing after a hard day’s work? Right. There isn’t. And you certainly know this yoga-wisdom: We do yoga because we are all nuts. 😉

I really need to do something with my body during the week; you may not believe this, but once I started I could not stop it. I get angry and moody without exercise. My back is hurting – which stops every time after some kind of workout I do, may it be running or yoga or cimbing.

So, if you are looking for a healthy hobby and somthing that is really good for your body and your mindset – try exercising. Start very small, build up a routine and let the magic happen. Always remember, you have the time to watch Netflix or to hang out on your couch, you can spare half an hour of that time and take a walk, right?

All the best, you heros of everyday PhD (or academic) life, and keep on moving!

Astrid

 

 

Book Review: Make Time

As promised, I wanted to follow up my digital minimalsim series with a review of Make Time. It is definitely influenced by Cal Newports ideas of Deep Work and Digital Minimalism, but a bit more on the productivity / personal development side of the spectrum. But actually, I found the most valuable part to be the underlying philosophy. But see for yourselves.

An average American spends 4h watching TV and 4h scrolling their phones every day. Thus, the authors of Make Time conclude that “distraction is a full-time job”.

The Theory

They identify two big destructive tendencies of today’s world: The “busy bandwagon” and “infinity pools”. Like I already mentioned in the post on my fight with the screens:

“In Make Time. How to Focus on What Matters Every Day, Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky argue that there are two destructive tendencies of our time, traps we ought to avoid at all costs. And that is on the one hand, “the busy bandwagon”, i.e. our culture of constant business and “infinity pools”, i.e. scolling dashboards which refresh themselves for all eternity, providing an endless amount of distraction. In the introduction to Make Time, the authors write:

“Nobody ever looked at an empty calendar and said, “The best way to spend this time is by cramming it full of meetings!” or got to work in the morning and thought, “Today I’ll spend hours on Facebook!” Yet that’s exactly what we do. Why?”

Change your defaults to make time for what matters

By saying “We can’t do the 57 things bloggers tell us we should do before 5a.m.”, the authors stress that this book is not meant for perfect people. It doesn’t require a will of steel. It stresses that you can make changes without crazy amounts of willpower if you just change the defaults which lead you to make bad choices. It’s not about doing more. It’s about making time for what matters. To you. The authors stress multiple times that the techniques were not written for super-humans.

Most of the techniques suggested in the book are probably already known to those who are into productivity tools and techniques. But, in my opinion, the most important thought they proliferate is that a lot of things which are non-optimal about our lives are based on the fact that we use the default option rather than actively making a choice for what we want.

The most important thing about Make Time is the philosophy behind it, according to me anyway. Since “most of our time is spent by default”, changing the default to a new default isn’t such a big deal.  But it makes a huge beneficial difference. And yet, it mostly requires that you make the mental shift: You need to come to the conclusion that you don’t want to live the default life.

 

The techniques

The main tips are based on the four steps from the authors’ previous Sprint, which shaped the popular technique of ‘design sprints’.

Highlight

The highlight is your main activity for the day. The goal, the thing you look forward to, the thing you will remember about your day. It can be something urgent. It can mean batching administrative tasks so you don’t get distracted by them at other times. Or just something very important to you or something that you will enjoy. It can be playing with your kids or writing a few pages ofyour PhD thesis. It takes around 60-90 minutes and you block time for it as if it were an important appointment. Be focused and don’t allow distractions. You will feel accomplished and up your life quality. Write down what it will be in advance, best in the morning (in one word reminder, on a post-it). All of the other to-dos go on a “might-do list”. That way, you don’t let the spirit of the ‘busy bandwagon’ and the feeling that you have to work as much as possible and be as “productive” as possible ruin what’s important to you. Try doing this highlight early in the morning or late at night. Any other time theoretically works too, but the authors have found one of these two options to most likely work for you in a reliable way.

Laser: Get rid of distraction

This can include switching off the internet, leaving your phone at home, getting a dumb phone or just un-installing the browser, the email app and social media apps on your smartphone. Without them, you disable this “swiss-army knife of distraction”. Get rid of the TV too. (Or just get the no-internet-plug, like I did, to switch it off between 19:00-08:00). 

Create as much of intentional inconvenience (logging out of all apps after each use), friction and barriers as possible (stashing the phone / TV away, unsubscribing from Netflix, unsubscribe from newsletters, delete apps, have empty tabs and an empty home screen without quicklinks to your favourite distractions; disable notifications). In short, make it as hard as possible for you to succumb to your old defaults.

One Thing to rule them all, One Thing to find them,
And in the darkness bind them.

(Tolkien on your smartphone)

JK and JZ exemplify this on “the distraction-free phone”. Maybe go back to wearing a wrist-watch. Don’t check your digital life first thing in the morning nor last thing at night. In order to get many of those benefits in one simple action which requires no willpower whatsoever, I have installed a timer plug on my wifi: it’s only available between 08:00-18:00. That way, I have gotten rid of most screen-induced losses of time and energy, am encouraged to read a book instead and still don’t miss out on any of the benefits.

And it was easy. Really no self-control involved. This is, I think, the strongest point of the book. Most books rely on super-high willpower you probably don’t have, especially in very stressful times when we’re at our most vulnerable.

Also, I found that disabeling “mobile data” on my phone really did the trick for me. I still check it when I have wifi. I can switch it back on if ever I get lost. That way, I can save my time until my light (dumb) phone comes in July. And also, you don’t get tracked as much if you’re not constanly online.

Check digital stuff only once per day, if possible. Check news once per week: How many ‘breaking news’ actually influence decisions you make daily? Hardly any, depending on your job. Also, to make sure you digital life (which you are not required to give up on completely) doesn’t eat up your real life, save it for the end of the work day. If you need email and social media for work, just do it in the late afternoon when you wouldn’t be productive anymore anyway. Also, wanting to get home will probably cause you to be less overly motivated to write 5 pages long emails and thus, help you streamline.

Also, if you are slow to respond, you reset expectations. As a detox, try to not respond to email straightaway. I have successfully made Wednesday my administration day where I batch administrative time-wasting and time-consuming tasks. It feels good to get it all done that day, but it also makes sure the urgent but not all that important stuff doesn’t ruin your focus capacities for everything else.

You will realize that once something else is “easier” and wasting time becomes an inconvenience, you won’t do it so much anymore. But of course, like we also saw in my last two posts on the topic (Fighting the screens and Digital Minimalism), tech companies spend a lot of time and energy to make their tools as alluring, conveniant and easy as possible, tapping into all of our psychological weaknesses.

But, like they write, perfection is another distraction. It’s okay to fall off the wagon some days.

 

Energize

Like the popular saying from strength training “leave one in the bar” suggests, even leaving work half an hour early, just before you get tired, can have tremendous effects on your productivity for the days after.

Exercise every day. Take 45 minutes for that. It is agreed that this will really boost your energy and reduce stress. However, don’t let this become yet another source of stress. If you’re too busy, squeeze in a super short workout. Just do something. And then again, you might have heard about this meditation quote:

You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.

Most of the Energize part is made up of sound, but well-known advice like “reduce sugar”, “take naps”, “drink green tea”, “don’t have caffeine first thing in the morning” (get light, movement and water first), swipe sweets for dark chocolate and nuts as a default, etc.

It ends with the important point often announced in airplanes: Put on your own oxygen mask first. By that, they mean that you can’t help others and be a good person before you have taken care of yourself (see Astrid’s post on that). So be egoistic, so you have the energy needed for altruism.

Reflect

Which means that you should test out a new tactic every day and write down what has worked and what hasn’t. Then use this data to learn from it and fine-tune. Journaling or a simple notebook can serve for that. Keep notes of what you find out. You might not remember it next year but it can be beneficial to have some data on what works for you in the future. Even if you decide to discontinue something now, maybe you’d like to go back to it next year and would be happy to have a record of what has worked for you in the past. Also, journaling has been proven to have tons of benefits aside from that.

Conclusion

Overall, the book is not all that long (despite being almost 300 pages). The words are not dense on the pages, there are a lot of visualizations, etc. I listened to the Audiobook anyway. I found the book to be very valuable and packed with interesting thoughts, despite it being rather short and even though the tips by themselves are not all very innovative. Combined with the more ‘philosophical’ ideas it brings up (our culture as “busy bandwagon”, digital tools as “infinity pools”, living on defaults which means its easier to change the default than bring up willpower, etc.), all these tips can be seen in a different light as in other books. That’s why I liked it. Definitely worth it, but – even while you’ll miss out on the cool illustrations, maybe rather listen to the audio book, if you’re into that.

 

Best,

Sarah

 

Resources

Jake Knapp & John Zeratsky, Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day, NY 2018. https://maketime.blog/

A lot of articles are available for free on: https://maketime.blog/articles/

The fight against the screens: Getting my Life back

As you might know, I recently read Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism and decided I had to make some changes for the better. And I had already done back then. Now I wanted to keep you posted on first experiences of my experiment and also stress some aspects I left out last time because they didn’t fit nicely in the line of argument: The last blog was, after all, a book review and I didn’t want to inject too much of my own practical applications. This post now is full of them.

Some more theoretical inputs

The attention economy uses psychological tricks to maximize screen time. Rebel against this enslavement by only taking what you need and finding ways to ignore the other bids for attention (notifications, always being available via your phone, etc.). Maybe get a second phone if you want to keep the apps, but leave the one with all the apps at home. Bring only the indispensable with you every day and read a book instead of mindless scrolling. How much more there is to life when our time isn’t drained from us by social media and binge watching series.

How much more time would you have for activities you actually care about without being glued to a screen? Passive recreation robs you of time and leaves you more drained than before. In any case, Newport lists a lot of real life examples from people who adopted this lifestyle, so you might want to adopt what has worked for them.

 

Turning FOMO (fear of missing out) into JOMO (joy of missing out)

Newports TED talk offers 3 arguments for quitting social media are actually retorts to common objections to his message that we should quit social media:

  1. You won’t end up a hermit without these “fundamental technologies”. Social media is like a slotmachine, a tool which will make you addicted and a good source of money for the attention economy. They sell your screen time and data.
  2. Your work networking won’t be harmed, you will not be invisible in the economy. Since, per his last book Deep Work (review to come), we know that the economy wants high value produced from deep work, not superficial outcomes like networking.
  3. It’s not harmless. It causes anxiety and robs you of time. It ruins your capacity for concentration. Nobody can focus with a slotmachine in their pocket. Don’t let your fear of missing out cause you to inadvertently suffer from these negative impacts.

 

Actions Taken

Realization 1: The smartphone is not your friend, so get rid of it

Like Astrid wrote in her Selfcare Part I post, you have to plan your free time. If you don’t, somebody else will plan your day for you but it will contain none of the items which are important to you. Is that what you want?

She also suggested using the Pomodoro technique or setting your phone to flight mode. Flight mode is actually a good thing. Or just put the phone in another room. You will probably be too lazy to get up and get it just because of a little habitual urge to check your phone. I sometimes find it hard to ignore the phone but when I’m on holiday and don’t have wifi, I don’t need it any more after a few days. The point here is that you need to find a balance between being available at work and unavailable in your free time. But these spaces intersect so much. I use my phone for social stuff too. This, of course, I want to do at home. But then I go on to check my (work) email as well. Then I get distracted by social stuff at work.

But I really don’t want any of those things. The idea of being ‘available’ while at work might work out for an office worker. But not for someone required to do ‘deep work’, like writing a dissertation. (Deep Work is another book of Newport’s which I will review and discuss as well, because it’s so central to the PhD life.) Being available and instantly responsive will lead you to do superficial work which, by defintion, produces sub-standard results which are in no way unique and thus, basically, will not advance your career.

 

So one of the main things I did, like I indicated in the last post already, was getting a light phone 2. The point is, it won’t come until July (at the earliest) and I really can’t wait. I want things to change for the better now, so I made some changes and have tried to formulate them in a actionable way so you can follow them too, if you like.

 

Realization 2: Screens (streaming and social media) rob me of my time and rest

 

Like Newport stresses, they are in no way as harmless as we often tell ourselves. While Newport’s reasons are helpful and convincing already, I wanted to add one of my own. These apps don’t only steal my time and attention. They steal the time I have to do some things which are incredibly important to me: getting some substantial reading done, planning, language learning, exercise, good eating and keeping my appartment tidy. These things are actually super-important to me and massively contribute to my overall happiness. When I don’t get around to doing them, I feel horrible about myself and stressed. When I do, I am living the life I really want.

Actively paying attention to my digital habits now made me realize that it is exactly these digital habits which stop me from doing those things. The sacrifice I make (mindlessly) using these tools (to no discernible end) is pretty big. Those 2h a day are the two hours I’m missing to be my best self and live the life I want. That’s crazy! How could I let this happen until now? Probably because clutching to those screens and avoiding boredom is the lazy, easy default and it’s facilitated by some psychological factors.

But then again, these companies earn money by holding me back from being my best self and living the way I want. It’s actually disgusting! Yet, it is still hard to resist. I notice when the moments are when I usually would have switched on the tablet to stream a series. It is quite apparent to me now why it works. It’s easy. A nice default to mindlessly “relax”. You don’t have the initial hurdle of turining towards active rest. It all happens on the couch. It’s so easy. And so detrimental.

 

 

Reaction 1: Streaming is limited to 2 episodes OR 1 film per week and only in company. I can’t watch alone anymore. This will hopefully stop binges.

 

TV and series work because it’s an easy default thing to do to relax. In our leisure time we are at our most vulnerable to attention predators, so we end up stealing our own time. Then we’re annoyed we don’t have time left after work. We do have time. We just don’t use it well. Ergo my new rule: No more than 2 episodes of a series per week. Take time to disconnect completely instead.

Eating well, for example, happens when I get around to cooking and taking the time to prepare a nice meal. When I have the default of wanting to watch another episode of a series, I just quickly grab something so I can get back on the couch. But actually, now that I don’t have this opportunity, I remember that I really enjoy taking time to cook and eat well. Like it is said in Make Time, the next book I will review, it’s all about changing your defaults.

Also, not watching series is just that little bit of extra time I need to keep up with language learning (which I am very passionate about but have difficulty finding the time lately) and reading more which is also a goal I only achieve on-off so far. Hopefully this will change with my new habits in place.

 

Reaction 2: I vow not to scroll.

 

Like I hinted in the last post, I thought it might turn out to be problematic for me to delete all social media. Some of them (like Twitter) I had just recently joined to advertise my blogging activities. After some evaluation however, I am pretty sure that I end up spending at least 2h on them daily in mindless scrolling sessions. It’s not so much the constant checking which is the problem (it only sometimes is). It is the infinite scrolling which leads me to stay on the apps longer than I had intended. And it’s so hard to resist once you’ve allowed yourself more than 5min on the app. Mostly, I am quite successful so far trying to only check notifications (not all that often) and then leave the app straightaway. I don’t let myself get on the dashboard anymore at all. As you can imagine, it doesn’t always work. But I think that even now, in this imperfect implementation, I am already saving tons of time.

 

More tips to counter constant distraction which have worked for me

 

Filter email

 

Another smaller measure I took (and had already taken beforehand) is to have email filters in place for my work email. This helps distinguish spam from urgent or important mail already at reception. It helps me with the urge to check my email. So now, when I open the folder, a quick glance is enough to determine whether anything requires an immediate answer. However, I have become pretty selective with that, especially on weekends. Mostly, only my boss gets answers rightaway because he usually only writes when he’s really pressed for the answer. So much for getting distracted by work email.

 

That, I feel I already have under control at this point and I also don’t feel any inclination to relapse. Email is part of the “busy bandwagon” (Make Time review about to come soon…) which I have come to reject. This was a difficult thing to do in terms of mindset but not difficult to maintain once it was done.

 

Batch administrative tasks

 

I do my administrative stuff only on Wednesdays, the day which is already full with meetings anyway. This works out super-well for me and batching administrative tasks and answering email is a widely recommended tactic. Also, I have paired this “admin day” with my “office hours” for social interaction, like detailed in the post on digital minimalism. It’s the same day our PhD lunch takes place which  I hugely look forward to, so it provides me with a highlight to look forward to in the jungle of otherwise annonying office work. I’ve done this for a few months now. I still sometimes answer urgent stuff during the week, but overall it works really well and I wouldn’t want to go back.

 

Delete and Unsubscribe

 

Also, another one-time thing to do: Unsubscribe from “dangerous” newsletters and feeds. Delete problematic apps for good. You can still access most info from your browser. But then, better don’t carry a phone which has a browser. Change the default to an environment with less temptation if you’re really serious about getting your life back.

 

 

The difficult parts: Things to do instead of relapsing

Sleep

 

I often find myself engaging in meaningless (re-)activity, i.e. mindless scrolling or streaming, when I feel “too tired to do anything”. But hey, when we’re “too tired to do anything”, why don’t we just go to bed or take a nap? I mean, that’s what our body wants, right? Our culture’s new default option of on-screen reactive unrest, however, will not make us any more awake. The only thing it really does is pass the time. So unless you want your time gone with no noticable effect having been achieved in the meantime, you’d best skip those kinds of behaviours altogether, right? But then, why don’t we and why is it so hard? Why is it generally seen as laziness to take a nap instead, even though everybody knows that studies have shown that we only do real work approximately 10% of our “work” time and that naps actually make us more productive? In any case, I will try to nap more often or go to bed early instead of engaging in screen-related time-wasting behaviours. Let’s see how this works after the holidays when it’s more difficult to nap due to work responsibilities…

 

Identifying the culprits: Underlying tendencies

 

In Make Time. How to Focus on What Matters Every Day, Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky argue that there are two destructive tendencies of our time, traps we ought to avoid at all costs. And that is on the one hand, “the busy bandwagon”, i.e. our culture of constant business and “infinity pools”, i.e. scolling dashboards which refresh themselves for all eternity, providing an endless amount of distraction. In the introduction to Make Time, the authors write:

 

“Nobody ever looked at an empty calendar and said, “The best way to spend this time is by cramming it full of meetings!” or got to work in the morning and thought, “Today I’ll spend hours on Facebook!” Yet that’s exactly what we do. Why?”

 

On-screen passive leisure activities are engineered to make you spend more time than you intended. Pre-bedtime blue light ruins your sleep. For me, it doesn’t seem to directly ruin my sleep but screens still screw with my natural daily rhythm somehow. The possibility of infinite scrolling or the ever self-starting new episodes of a series will make me go to bed a lot later than I would be tired. Often, they wake me up again at a late hour, so I can’t sleep and continue using those tools. It’s a vicious circle. Then I get up too late the next morning (which is guaranteed to be the start of an unproductive day) and, of course, am awake until late at night where digital attention seekers are already waiting to reap my life time from me.

So I succumb to both destructive tendencies: The “infinity pools” cause me to lose time in the first place. Then, the next morning, I am confronted with the “busy bandwagon” mindset in Academia and get stressed because I’m not productive enough. Living up to my own expections is hard, however, when I didn’t sleep well. Frustration. I allow myself some evening screen-indulgence because the day was so hard. Circle repeats itself.

 

Amping up your high-quality social life to fight Digital Addiction

In this TED talk about how addition really works, it is pointed out that even substance abuse (compared to which habitual addiction to a smartphone is way less severe) doesn’t work the way we think. Addiction has got less to do with the thing we’re addicted to than the environment we live in. In a perfect environment, neither our bodies nor our minds even care about alluring, potentially addictive things. This perfect world has  a lot to do with social life.

“Disconnection is the driver of addiction.”  “We’ve traded floor space for friends, stuff for connections.” – “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.”

In an experiment with rats, it turned out that rats with empty cages were very prone to drug addiction and overdoses, whereas rats in fun cages that had everything they might want (connection to others, toys, etc.), they did not care for the drugs at all. Even though behavioural addictions like our screen addiction are not the same as substance abuse, the same methods might help to overcome them. We engange in addiction-style behaviours when we feel disconnected. Once we connect, there is no more reason for us to cling onto a screen. And I really felt that this is true. I said that I sometimes find it more easy to disconnect on a holiday and we all have probably already found ourselves getting distracted by our phones despite being in a social situation where it’s actually impolite. This TED talk made me realize that I don’t need my phone when with people I find socially stimulating who give me a deep sense of connection whereas, as an introvert at heart, hanging out with loose contacts stresses me rathering than being relaxing. This is why I sometimes cling to the phone in these situations. Like people cling to cigarettes in times of stress. This is also why Newports advice on reforming our social lives together with our digital habits is so crucial. First of all, if we don’t manage to create an engaging social life for us, chances aren’t so good we succeed in our digital endeavours. And also, it helps us stay on track.

Games didn’t work: They’re passive recreation and engineered for addiction all the same

Another approach I have tried is replacing social media scrolling wit playing a (digital) game. Scrolling, I had identified, meant that I just really wanted a break. So wouldn’t playing a game be a better choice than mindless scrolling? At least allowing myself to play a gave was an acknowledgement of the fact that I wanted a break and to celebrate giving myself one. But the problem is, games of today are engineered to be just as addictive as every other on-screen activitiy. Their goal, too, is to maximize your screen time. So games often aren’t playable without constantly waiting by the phone. Like my Harry Potter Mystery game that I really wanted to play because I like Harry Potter. It was quite disappointing to me that I had to stop because it just robbed me of so much of my time and didn’t really leave me more relaxed, if I’m being honest. It got me through a very stressful time and I really needed some diversion. But I am determined that there must be a better way.

Avoid the multi-purpose trap

Newport warns reforming our digital lives using quick “life hacks” from technology journalism. He thinks we should rather think about the bigger issues and underlying psychology. Why did it come this far in the first place? What do a need 122 apps for?

Newport stresses the fact that the biggest culprits in our digital tools are multi-purpose devices. While this seems to be their biggest pro, it is actually the main reason we over-indulge and have a hard time regulating our use. Sure, I can put my phone away to get work done on my laptop. But then, all the bad sites are also accessible from my laptop. Still, try to re-mono-purpose your devices as much as possible.

Switch off the internet if all else fails

I could buy a time-switch plug (10€ on Amazon) to have my internet switched of automatically. But then again, you sometimes really need it. I will get that plug anyway. No internet before 08:00 or after 18:00. I decided not to work evenings anymore anyway. This could leave me with tons of time to do something which is actually meaningful to me.

 

Conclusion

Social media is a source of entertainment which, like a slotmachine, treats you to a few shiny gadgets but really it’s traded against minutes of your time and glances into your personal life – data which can be sold. Social media giants hire “attention engineers” who use techniques from the gambling world to make their products as addictive as possible.

Series make you binge because it’s easier to keep watching than to stop. Scrolling gives you infinite diversion. So refuse to scroll. Avoid your “dashboards” like a deadly enemy. I’m trying hard, but it’s hard to be successful here, especially if you have gotten used to scrolling social media as a diversion when you don’t want to work.

I hope my experiments have inspired you to start a journey of your own. Maybe you can take away some of the tips I learned about for your own (PhD) life. Also, feel free to comment and share your own experiences.

Best,

Sarah

 

 

 

 

 

Digital Minimalism – More than just a book review

I really love Cal Newport’s books. But when Digital Minimalism first came out, I was reluctant to read it. I think I just didn’t want to admit that I really needed to read that one. So, in the pre-Easter stress burst, I did. I got it on Audible and took it all in on my morning bike rides to work. This is what stuck with me, plus some personal thoughts and implementation ideas.

My initial reluctance towards digital minimalism showed how much I felt digital technologies had grown to be part of my identity. Could I be a Digital Minimalist and a Digital Humanist at the same time? Would it mean I had to give up Twitter again after I had just adopted it to promote my blog? Can I be a blogger and still reduce screen time? I wil now treat you to the takeways from the book and also keep you posted on my ongoing experiment in moving towards digital minimalism.

Digital Minimalism is not a manifesto against the digital, but rather one for enhancing your analogue life in a digital world. Thinking back about it now, I would say the most important takeaways for me were questions like “How to have a rich social life despite social media?”

 

Foundations

At the beginning, Newport brings up Henry David Thoreau who is known most widely for being the author of Walden; or, Life in the Woods. His life in the wood, however, was about reflecting upon the good life in the times of industrialization. He saw that people in capitalism never questioned why they should consume. Consumption is seen as a value in and of its own because people only count the value novel things provide. They never thought about their cost, Thoreau realized. He saw that the value in buying new things hardly ever made up for the lifetime lost because people had to work in order to be able to afford their luxuries. They had hardly any time left to really enjoy them.

This is an important thought on its own (especially in terms of work life balance, deliberating whether you are ready to continue doing half of your work for free, etc.). But Newport points out that “clutter is costly”. In the use of digital tools, people mostly look at the benefits they seemingly provide (i.e. exposure to new ideas from Twitter, networking), but they hardly weigh this is in with the time they lose using those tools.

What are good reasons you use social media for? Mostly, the answers are in no way proportional to the amount of time we waste on the internet. Not because we’re lazy and tend to procrastinate, like we so often emphasize. Because the offerings of the internet are engineered to take up as much of our time as possible, distract us and make us addicted. There are several psychological factors at play here which you can read for yourself in the book.

In any case, the point is that Facebook would provide the same value (the reason with which we justify our massive use) without the like buttons which turn it into an addictive gambling machine. Getting likes combines our deeply ingrained desire for acceptance from our tribe with the thrill of the unforeseeable outcome of a gamble. Today, we live in an attention economy. Our attention is worth a lot of money to those who offer digital services. You can still get all the benefit from those servies when using them very selectively. But of course, that’s not what they want.

Newport’s digital minimalism mostly consists of rethinking “which tools we allow into our lives (“a philosophy of technology use”) which will result in using them more deliberately and selectively. He suggests we take back control over the screens coming from our deep-held values rather than making superficial changes which might miss the point.

 

Digital Declutter

Take a break from optional* technologies for 30 days. Explore what you could do instead. Re-introduce worthwhile technologies selectively. You might go through some withdrawal symptoms but afterwards realize you don’t need certain technologies anymore.

* Optional technologies are those you don’t absolutely need in your job. If unsure about which ones to look out for, start with streaming, social media and check your phone and computer. Don’t confuse convenient with critical. Critical is only something which would result in major consequences. Not keeping up with people for a month will probably not hurt. It might even make you see that you don’t want to invest in certain relationships anymore.

 

Practices

Spend Time Alone

We need solitude to order our thoughts. That’s why we often find so much clarity on lonely train rides and the like. But solitude is not total isolation. According to Newport, it means being free from outside input in your mind. The recent anxiety epidemic is caused by permanent connection via digital media. Solitude is also needed for deep work, which Newport discussed in his last book. A concept of utmost importance especially during your PhD! (Do read the book or get the audiobook!) Finding time to be alone with your thoughts, which should be the main activity during this time of your life, ironically has become an exceptional event, incredibly rare and hard to come by these  days. So many distractions and extra responsibilities compete for the PhD student’s attention. It has become hard to keep the main thing the main thing. During the dissertation, your main job is to write that dissertation. Dare to claim back this time free from distractions.

Room of One’s Own

Today, we don’t ever need to be alone or bored anymore. Especially as PhD students who – quite litterally – don’t have a room of their own, room of one’s own is hard to come by. In general. Because people spam you with their own false emergencies and as an early career scholar, you obviously aren’t in a position to call people out for wasting your time. (Even if those same people will probably accuse you of wasting their time when you have a question which is absolutely crucial for you or you need this decision from your boss before you can continue). 

While isolation might be an unattainable goal, Newport suggests solitude really means being alone with your own thoughts. This is what we should strive for: to plan for regular moments where no other’s thought intrudes into our minds (no music, no audiobook, no screens, no talking, etc.). In short, an environment without diversion, so you can focus on yourself and on your own thoughts. Walking has historically been a classic activity to obtain this state of mind. 

When we are permanently diverted, solitude deprivation will actually make us sick. The rise in anxiety disorders of the past years coincides with the generation who grew up with smart phones. The problem is not a distraction every once in a while. Previous technologies offered these occasional diversions. Only since the 2000s, we can banish boredom and solitude completely and be permanently connected and diverted. Being sociable is important for humans as social animals, of course. But not continiously. 

Solitude Depravation

Not so long ago, it would have been a bit weird to constantly wear headphones in public. In the age of walkmans, only very few would actually spend their whole commute wired. People would be forced to have some moments of solitude while walking, waiting, and such activities. It all started with the white iPod headphones of the early 2000s. Nowadays, we can’t stand even a few minutes of boredom queueing at the supermarket. When label this “productivity” because our constant phone usage allows us to get something done on the go. Occasionally. If we were honest to ourselves, these productivity bursts are actually pretty rare events. The gain in productivity is minimal compared to the loss of lifetime we suffer from being sucked into the infinity of our dashboards.

Our digital habits have us at the brink of a mental health crisis. Constant screen exposure robs us of these moments alone where we can process our thoughts and feelings, make plans, or simply give our brains some much needed rest. This is especially relevant for creative workers, like we are as PhD students.

Giving up your phone completely will be an unnecessary struggle and make life more complicated. But there is no problem spending a few hours without it. Newport suggests to leave your phone in the car or give it to someone else to hold. That way, you still have emergency access but aren’t constantly distracted by it. Go on walks, alone, without your phone. Or meditate, as Astrid would probably recommend. Going running kind of fits this requirement as well. Journal to get in touch with yourself and your thoughts. Write a letter to yourself. Writing is productive solitude and helps you make sense of what’s happening.

 

Don’t click “Like”

Use Social Media consciously and intentionally: to network and to arrange meetings with friends more efficiently, not to replace real social interaction. Connection is not the same thing as conversation. You need meaningful quality time with friends, not superficial likes. So don’t click like because it will fool you into thinking you are maintaining a relationship when you really aren’t. Take time to consciously meet up with people. Really listen, don’t ignore them and stare into your screen once they’re there.

 

Set up “office hours”

Astrid, I and our friends have used this technique for ourselves recently (not knowing it was a techique). We decided we would consciously take time for a long Classics PhD student lunch break once a week. Everybody can join. We use an instant messaging group chat to discuss where we are going to eat each week. People will say who can join and who can’t. It has turned out that this lunch break (which can last up to three hours) has become very popular with our whole circle of friends since it allows us to share our common PhD issues. We’re all from the (wide) field of Classics but work at different institutes, so not all of us have like-minded colleagues at our institutions who share our problems. I really can’t express how much I now look forward to this lunch break every week and how disappointed I am when it occasionally doesn’t take place.

 

Taking back control: Don’t hit like, don’t interact, don’t scroll.

Historically, newspapers first were seen as a product in and of their own. Then in 1830, a witty publisher noticed that in reality, the readers were his product which he could resell profitably to those who wanted their attention (read up on this in Tim Wu’s Attention Merchants). So he made it his goal to capture attention instead of trying to deliver a good product.

Imagine you had to pay for services like Facebook. How many minutes would you spend per week? These minutes are essentially what this social network really is worth to you. Everything else is profit for the company specialized in reselling your precious time and attention. Newport suggests we “join the attention resistance” by being more conscious about our screen usage. Extracting your attention is more lucrative for these serives than extracting oil! Are we really ok with being sold out? Like the famous saying hints: If you’re not paying, your not the customer – you’re the product. The attention engineering which ensues strategically exploits our psychological vulnerabilities to maximize screen time and spend far more time than you intended. Your smartphone is a billboard you always carry around with you. 

Set up fixed hours for screen usage (i.e. phone, social media, streaming) maximum 1h per day at [time].  Go back to single-purpose computing. Check social media only on your desktop PC and remove the apps from you phone. This alone will drastically reduce screen  time already (as well as usage of that specific network). Make it as inconvenient as possible to use these apps (i.e. delete them, always log out, etc.). You might realize that you don’t need them as much as you had thought. Lots of people Newport interviewed quit social media altogether after having removed the apps from their phone. They had come to realize that these seemingly indispensable tools were just quick convenient hits of distraction. If you only use it sometimes, you can only use it for some well-chosen, conscious, high-value activities.

 

Fear of missing out

The ubiquity of Facebook, Google and the like put them in the lucky position that they never need to actually convince people of their product. People are weird if you they don’t use them. It is somehow self-evident you will use them. People are pressured into using them. Sometimes with the non-argument that “maybe there is some benefit you might be missing”. Being vague on your purposes makes you an easier victim for the attention economy. But of course, knowing what you want is more work than waiting to be entertained. If we assume average usage time per day is about one hour and compare that to the minutes people would spend per week if they had to pay, they would spend 10-20x less time on these services if they carefully monitored their use. But of course, then these services would not be top-of-the-economy profitable anymore. So they will use everything in their power to trick you to spend more time than you intend. Keeping up with friends and close social circles is important but actually doesn’t require a lot of time. But, of course, that too is a truth these services try hard to make you forget.

Cut out the noise. The dashboards can be surfed endlessly and are designed to take up more and more of your time. Use services intentionally and consciously, so you’re not used by them. Clickbait fragments your focus. Remember that your time is their money. A phone is an interactive billboard. And you give them the ad space for free. Maybe use a dumb phone to re-single-purpose your phone. I actually ordered a light phone 2

We were so eager to get connected that we never asked why we would want to be connected in the first place. New technologies are tools to support your values, not values of themselves. Get comfortable missing out on everything that is not specifically valuable to you.

We should think of all digital services as “blocked by default”, only allowed on specific occasions. Newport suggests we control usage of these tools aggressively. If we managed to resist, we would take the value for free but not let ourselves be exploited. Like the pirate’s motto: Take all you can get and give nothing back. 

 

Conclusion

Now that you got lots of helpful takeaways, I sincerely recommend you to get the book. I have the audiobook which is available from Audible. I found it so engaging and important to myself that I listened to it more than 3 times already. Each time, some other aspect resonates with me. This is an effect I find very typical of Newport’s books. I need to go through them at least 3 times to really get all the value. They are really that full of valuable insights. At least to me. I really like to listen to his books while commuting. That way, I can easily go through them multiple times and really engange with them. Though I probably should enjoy the solitude instead, according to him anyway.

Best,
Sarah

PS: You can also watch Newport in action in his TEDx talk.

Resources

  1. freedom.to “Control distractions. Focus on what matters. Social media, shopping, videos, games…​these apps and websites are scienti­fically engineered to keep you hooked and coming back. The cost to your productivity, ability to focus, and general well-being can be staggering. Freedom gives you control.” However, the tool is not free.
  2. Tim Wu, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our heads. NY 2016.

How to… do selfcare as a PhD candidate – Part I: Plan it!

You are currently writing on your thesis, you have absolutely no time to waste. Am I right?

Lesson nr. 1: You are NOT wasting time by looking after yourself and your health!

So, how do I get to my time slots for selfcare, may it be sports, nail polish, movies, coffee with friends, time with my family or date night with my love? I plan it. Actually, I plan my working hours, which will lead me to my free time slots for selfcare.

Write your goals and your workload down, keep a to do list and plan your day. Focus on your time! It helps you to find time focusing on yourself. (image: Pexels, Pixabay)

I am sure, you are using some kind of planner – Google calendar, a bullet journal, a filofax, whatever, you have some kind of planning tool, because as a grad student or PhD candidate you know that you need help with your appointments and important dates.

And now the bad news: Planning is hard work. Time management means that you are absoutely honest to yourself and you must know your working methods. You have your daily, weekly, monthly workload – those things you absolutely have to do in your job, for your project. You need to eat, drink, rest, sleep. You need time to relax – alone and with your friends/your family/your partner.

How many hours are you really working on your stuff? Nobody just sits 8 hours straight in front of their laptop and writes the perfect dissertation. Split your work in shorttime loads. The pomodoro method is very helpful with that.

I am working 45 min. on my stuff, then there is a 15 min. break. Of course, you can also work 30 min. and take a 10 min. break. It depends on your own style.

Lesson Nr. 2: Taking a break is important!

I enoy lunch with my colleagues und I really need coffee breaks, just to be social and get some fresh air and fresh thoughts. If we are honest to ourselves: working without a break, because you are stressed out, because you are nearly missing important deadlines, does not really work that well. Stressed work is bad work.

Now we are again back at lesson Nr. 1: You are not wasting your time by taking a break, but you have to plan it. Focus on your work and be honest to yourself: How long does it take you to get your shit done? How can you use your time in a good and efficent way? Close all social media sites, set your phone to flight mode, plan your day. You need time for things like checking and answering mails, time for the most important tasks on your list, time for less important tasks and so on. Actually, next to your workload you should also know how to rate your tasks. One of the most used concepts are the so-called SMART-tasks. This method, again, needs you to be honest about your own willingness and motivation and ability to structure your work load. This leeds us to our next lesson:

Lesson Nr. 3: You are human! Be kind to yourself.

We are no machines, and yes, even if you are very good at planning your days, sometimes you just can’t do the things you normally do. Some days are not your days for being very worky, wether you had it coming by staying awake the whole night before and partying very hard, or because it is that special kind of day where nothing works out. But in these cases, be gentle to yourself. If you need a break, take it. I sometimes arrive at my office at 7 am, really destroyed and demotivated. By noon, when still in that phase of mental state, I will leave. Of course, there are always those colleagues asking you “You are leaving? So soon?” but hey, just imaging the next day, when you work 10 hours in a very motivated manner, because you had half a day of resting.

Yes, I know, sometimes you just can’t go home like that, but then you have to look for different tasks. Clean your desk. Swipe through your files, clean your desktop, bring some of the books you already read back to the library etc. There are many ways to help yourself out of a miserable day. And if nothing seems to help at all, call a friend, your mom, your partner, chat for 5 minutes, explain them your bad day… after all, talking about things we feel miserable about helps a lot. And do not be afraid, all of your colleagues experience that kind of bad days. Yes, even those who are always so super organized and never ever make any mistakes.

You must never ever forget: YOU are the one in charge for your work. And sometimes, if motivation is missing, self discipline is all you have left. There are even these days, where you have to pull yourself together and GET. YOUR. SHIT. DONE. I am sorry, but yeah, academic life is that hard.

Good selfcare begins with good structured working days. Be kind to yourself, because we are only human and sometimes, there are bad days. But there will be also good ones. (image: Free-Photos, Pixabay)

I think, you might have gained some insight of how all those things (self-discipline, planning, motivation, working methods) are an important chain – they are all connected and therefore they are all esentially important for your success – and your selfcare.

When you can plan your working tasks, you can plan your selfcare. And nobody does know better what helps you refilling your batteries after a long day’s work, except for you. Is it sport, is it reading a good book, is it just your sofa and the TV? Is it time with friends or your family? You know the answer, you know yourself. Make that knowledge count!

My next selfcare-post will be on sports and the importance of a fit body for a good mental health. So, stay tuned, work on yourself, plan your workload and discover how much time there will be left, if you really want it!