As I frantically start writing this, it’s not because I’m late in creating the blog, it’s because it’s late afternoon, and I have about nine minutes before chaos arrives home from the childminder. If there’s one thing that having a small person around does, it’s magically disappear your time. What little you do have is quickly lost in a seemingly ever-growing mountain of washing, cooking and hunting for the tea towels someone likes to use as blankets… So, when I started my PhD, the first thing I did was create clear weekly and daily timetables. I have a fixed time to do my study whilst my daughter is in childcare, so every minute must count.
The last year has brought unprecedented circumstances and it is more important than ever to understand how to manage the requirements of looking after children whilst also managing PhD work. Everyone will have their own situation and preferences so do what works for you. One thing you should definitely do, is keep your supervisors up to date as your situation changes; mine were very understanding, especially since most of them were in exactly the same situation! In the blog that follows, I’m just sharing some of the things that help me.
For my husband and I, we split the day; he works mornings and I work afternoons. In the morning, I do low capacity tasks which can be easily left half-finished. This includes things such as emails, on demand courses, most meetings where possible, easy-going papers and light writing. If you’ve ever tried to focus on a difficult paper while a toddler is tearing around the house trying to hit the cat with a stick, you get where I’m at. My daughter is my priority in this time, so I don’t set any goals or expectations of myself. If I get something done, it’s a bonus, not a requirement. In the afternoon, it’s time to knuckle down. Every minute counts and it’s when I do the things that require intense concentration and that work better when you’re ‘in the flow.’ It’s here that my goals come into their own; I need to know what I’m doing and when. It’s not spending 30 minutes flitting from task to task until I settle on something I fancy. Plus, how much better do you feel when you have achieved 4 hours of 100% focussed, super productive work, compared to 8 hours of 50% ‘so what did I actually do today’ work? I’d feel more stressed and guilty in the latter situation than the first, whilst achieving the same actual outcome.
To help with this, and this applies for PhDs in general, I’ve found a good thing to teach yourself, is to be able to switch your brain on and off or between family and work. I am so much less stressed when I can focus on the task at hand; work is done in work time and play in play time. This said, it doesn’t always work. Lying in bed at 2am in the morning is obviously the perfect time to think about your detailed research questions. I’ve heard other advice that doing a little bit everyday helps keep the momentum going, and whilst that works for some people, it’s not for me. I don’t want to actively engage with my work brain when I need to be thinking about family-related things. It’s almost like having two brain channels – a background channel that I can record and listen to on demand and the one I’m actively engaging with that gets the tasks I need to get done in that moment. It really helps with procrastination too.
To switch between brain modes, it helps if I can find something that delineates between my work and family time allowing my brain to focus, or re-focus if need be. To find these, I look towards my values. For example, when I’m working from home, I really value taking the time to appreciate the process of making myself a coffee first thing in the morning. Whilst giving yourself rewards is not always recommended, for this it’s also appreciating the process and creation of the reward. It’s something that enables me to switch off for five to ten minutes. During PhD breaks I’ll take the time to water and nurture my plants, a value that I’ve found to be really important as it links with nurturing as a mother plus fulfilling my ‘access to green space’ value. When I’m on campus, the same applies of buying myself a coffee or going for a walk around the Cruickshank Botanic Gardens with my camera. These are things that work to my values so they still feel important to me and not a waste of work time. Sometimes I’ll also use this time to create a plant/soil science-related social media post.
The thing I find hardest though is finding time to yourself. To that effect, in the evenings and at the weekend, I force myself to take a break from doing study, which makes for a much better work-life balance overall. I do the occasional bit of work after my daughter’s bedtime in the evenings but that’s only if I want to and it’s 99% personal projects, like this one, rather than the typical PhD requirements. Statistics after 5pm? Nope. Don’t even go there. 7am? It’ll take me a fraction of the time, especially after that coffee….
The biggest thing I’ve learnt, is when to know you’re pushing it too much. I think we often start our studies in this really exuberant and excited state – a bit like the proverbial child (?) in a tea shop – and it’s not long before we get burnt out or confused about what we are actually doing. Although now is an exception I’m very aware that morning is my most productive time of day where I plan in the tasks which require most brain activity. I like to keep a mental list of things to do when my brain just won’t focus, including days when I don’t feel great. I’ve also accepted that some days or weeks, just aren’t productive and there’s no point even trying to force myself. With the times we are in at the moment, that time may be feeling overly excessive, but remember to listen to yourself and find what you value and use these to help guide you to your goals. Plus, it’s useful to connect with others who are also in your situation – for example the University of Aberdeen’s Parents Network which I’ve been a member of since I was expecting. It’s open to staff and PhD students.
I’d be lying if I said the journey thus far was easy…and I’m only just starting.
Anyway, now I have to leave you to clean the orange pen off my desk that my daughter has kindly left me whilst I’ve been writing…
Such a beautiful piece. More like I was reading a Novel! You've got a great writing skill Annette. I had better start sending some of my writings to you for proof reading . Hahaha.
I have a little one too and to be honest, I've had to ask my severally how time manages to fly by so fast!
Wishing you the best of luck with finishing your PhD!
So much wisdom, thank you Annette for taking the time to share. Just to rectify, the Parents and Carers Network (look us up on Teams - through the search box - and Facebook!) is open to all students, not just PhD students. And just to further validate your points, the coach from The Mindful Return (back to work after baby) concurs that 'multitasking' is overrated and that it's much better for everyone to focus 100% on where you are now - work, family or me-time. Working with your energy and within your boundaries is massively important, too, as is reaching out to other parents (isolation can be a risk) and connecting to yourself and your needs. These aren't things to tick on an already huge to-do list, they are ways of nourishing yourself during some of the most challenging years of your life (and rewarding in equal measure, but not in a way that takes away the challenges!).