FOCUS! It’s the only way to get things done

As I mentioned in a previous post, at my last supervision meeting in December 2014, I have been told to focus on set small tasks rather than planning the future. Also I need to do one thing at a time, rather than doing everything all at once. The plan was to get three things done by March (I don’t know if I meant beginning or end of March… let’s say middle). One was a good draft of chapter 2 and 3 and also to merge my dataset and create my variable. One supervisor said she would be impressed if I achieved these things as they are all quite big tasks.

So how successful has this been since my last supervision meeting?

Well it has gone quite well.

First of all I designed my own motivational poster to keep me blinkered, can you spot it?:

Phew, I'm glad I tided up before taking this photo.

Phew, I’m glad I tided up before taking this photo.

Secondly I have been focussing only on one chapter and one topic – a historical look at the British education system.  A large part of the time has been spent working out the structure of it which involved quite a few revisions before I got it how I want it. So I have the structure, many of the sections started with some finished. However, it is turning into a big chapter with two parts, so actually I am only really one-third through it now, but that is OK as it is good that I know what is going in it.

Third I met with my one of my supervisors for a data merging training session and have finally created my own variable and merged some data, which is possibly one of the most important parts of the PhD process so far. So a big milestone.

So why is this post about to turn into a self-pitying session?

Well, some very negative behaviour has crept back in. When I am anxious or upset about anything I tend to stay up very late and either stare into space, or watch TV, mainly QVC. I have always done this (not always QVC, there are many other late night things to watch like infomercials for box sets of 1950s music, or one of my favourites, the magic bullet chopper) and think  it is an anxiety thing, not a PhD specific thing.  However, the terrible knock on effect is that either you get up very late the next day, or if you get up early, you are so tired all day that you cannot do as much work, so your anxiety gets worse as mentally you are not helping yourself by being sleep deprived.

I think what happened was that I realised as the deadline was approching, that I was a little overly ambitious about having a nice complete chapter to give to my supervisors by Thursday night, so I subconsciously decided to self-destruct. What I should have done is try to tidy up what I have, summarise for my supervisors what the rest of the chapter will look like and just keep on going. I know they will understand that it is still work in progress, but what I have done is quite big stuff in terms of structure etc.

So this paralysis lasts about 3 days and then I realise what I should do, but by then it is too late and I only have one full day now to tidy up this draft and then I worry that my supervisors will be disappointed in me. I also think it is disrespectful to give them something that is too drafty, so then I worry that they will read it, tutting throughout.

Now my paralysis has worn off, I remember that my friend once told me, that I should write a list of little tasks I can do when these symptoms set in. For example, perhaps tidy up Endnote, read a couple of articles from my reading pile or a chapter of a key book, maybe tidy up some files and so on. She said I should write these down because, as has happened, once one is in a state, one does not think clearly.

So I will do this now and add the list next to my motivational poster.

So tonight I will go to bed before midnight (ooh, that’s now!) and start afresh tomorrow. My motto ‘Focus’ may have to have a sub-motto: ‘It’s never to late to re-focus!’





(As it’s midnight, I wonder what Today’s Special Value is?….oh wow… it’s a Vax Vacumn cleaner…. I really need to watch it……)



  1. I think anxiety paralysis is a major cause of procrastination for me. As a (lowly) undergrad , exam anxiety – fear of poor grades, or failing – builds up a catastrophe scenario in my mind. I associate this in part with my identity as a mature student, and the expectations the university has of me. This can effectively scupper the most determined of revision strategies resulting in days wasted staring into space. With every passing day the anxiety increases, and it becomes a vicious circle. Result, one super stressed day of revision followed by a sleepless night and exhausted arrival at the exam! Your blog always offers useful insight into the mental processes of HE, and the flashes of humour add to it! I like your – ahem – ‘minimalist’ working environment!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Try writing the list of things you can do when you are in the paralysed state. Perhaps a chapter of a brilliant Howard Becker book. Like ‘Tricks of the Trade’. Or perhaps look at an old essay you have written and realise what you can achieve. I think you are right about being mature having an effect, I too am considered ‘mature’ as the average age for PhD student I think is 28, and I am a few years over that. However, I define mature more to do with length outside of the education system. We are out of practice. But you can do it, it is all about positive mental attitude… but when one is paralysed, it disapears doesn’t it… so the visious circle. Perhaps when one is paralysed, the best thing you can do it go for a brisk walk. I think the physical and mental are closely related. Thanks for your comment!


  3. This is a wonderfully honest post, and you’re certainly not alone! I get stuck in ruts that last a few days too, and then kick myself when I come out of them, for not having done anything useful. I find it happens especially if I’ve been away from my PhD for a few days, due to illness or whatever – I get scared that jumping back into it is going to be difficult so I sort of ‘freeze’ rather than do anything about it. Great idea about the list of mini-tasks that can be done when in scary paralysis land. Thanks, and I look forward to reading more of your posts! My blog is also about the wonders (ahem) of PhD life, so feel free to go check it out if you’re interested. This post might be of particular interest: Thanks again! 🙂


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