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The juggling act of a PhD Research Retold - Gemma Bridge

The Juggling Act of a PhD Student

Hello and we hope you’re all having a nice summer!

We took a vacation break and are now back in the office with renewed energy and fresh ideas.

To get us out of the summer blues and to kick off the blog posts again, we sat down with Gemma Bridge, PhD student in Public Health Communication at Leeds Beckett University, to discuss the juggling act of PhD life.

Our conversation at Fika North in Leeds came off the back of a presentation Gemma did which we found insightful and worth sharing with our community.

We’ve previously written about maintaining a work-personal life balance for academics, but in this post, we’ll focus on PhD life.

We hope you enjoy this article and get some helpful tips about managing your own PhD commitments.

 

The juggling act of a PhD student: Five strategies for your wellbeing

Most PhD students have a life beyond academia. Personally, I balance a number of commitments whilst ensuring I meet PhD deadlines. Trying to manage everything can feel overwhelming and without a plan in place, stress is almost inevitable.

The effects of stress on the body are numerous leading to negative symptoms such as difficulty concentrating, anxiety and fatigue. Stress amongst academics is rife and can lead to mental health problems and lost productivity (1,2).

Over time I have discovered strategies that help me to balance numerous plates. In this blog we cover five such strategies which may help you to maintain a work-life balance in academia.

Strategy 1: Schedule your time

Being constantly concerned about how to juggle everything, and how to remember what you have to do and when can be stressful. Remembering that you cannot do everything all at once is a good first step. Then you must learn to prioritise tasks.

The Eisenhower matrix is a useful way of aiding the prioritisation process (3). The matrix, named after the highly productive President Eisenhower, can help you decide which tasks to do now and which can wait. It also encourages delegation of tasks which is a useful lesson to learn in academia and in life.

Example of an Eisenhower matrix for juggling work and life commitments

 

Urgent

Not urgent

Important

Do:

  • Write abstract for publication
  • Training

Plan:

  • Meeting agenda
  • Read recent articles
  • Apply to jobs

Not Important

Delegate:

  • Vacuum the house
  • Cook dinner
  • Search references for upcoming presentation

Drop:

  • Go through junk emails
  • Scroll through Facebook

 

A schedule can help you keep on top of your tasks, both those that need to be done now and those which can wait. Take some time at the start of each month to set a schedule, with time limits. Revisit the schedule regularly and be prepared for change. An agenda can be a handy reminder of deadlines.

I like to use my phone but there are other helpful agenda software options including Google Agenda and Trello.

If you like Trello, you can also read about using Trello to communicate research.

 

Strategy 2: Set SMART goals

SMART goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely. They help to pinpoint what you want to achieve, give you the motivation to move forward, encourage you to develop a method to assess completion, and give you a date to achieve the goal by.

We previously talked about SMART goals when designing a research communication plan.

You can use this method to set short-, medium- and long-term goals which will not only help you to keep on top of your various tasks but will also boost your confidence that you can complete everything.

Break large tasks into smaller, more easily achievable tasks that take less time to complete. You can then cross off those tasks off, giving you that much needed sense of accomplishment.

The juggling act of a PhD Research Retold - SMART goals

 

Strategy 3: Reduce distractions

Distractions affect productivity. To minimise distractions first consider what it is that actually distracts you: TV, internet, mobile phone, family, pets.

If your phone distracts you, turn it off, put it on silent or turn off notifications. If you have something on your mind that is distracting you, take a break, go for a walk or change your task. Distractions are personal, find yours.

The juggling act of a PhD Research Retold - Distractions

Strategy 4: Consider procrastination

We all procrastinate (4). It is not to be scorned but instead can be a positive thing. Procrastination can help to improve creativity and give the brain a break.

Instead of fighting it, make time for it by setting procrastination breaks. Make the most of those breaks by moving around to help get oxygen flowing and your mind ready for work.

“Budget for human nature instead of trying to conquer it.”

Tim Ferris, Author of the 4 Hour Workweek

 

Strategy 5: Take time to do nothing

It may sound counter-intuitive but taking time to do nothing is beneficial to help you juggle everything. It allows you to gather your thoughts, gain perspective and relieve stress (5).

Doing nothing means switching off from the world, and just taking a moment to yourself. You may have to say no to other things. Perhaps you have social ‘obligations’ that you don’t enjoy. Learn to say no to them. Take that time to do nothing instead.

“When the mind feels stressed and clogged with thoughts, the effects on the body can be adverse. Taking time out to do nothing can have wondrous health benefits. One very important aspect of mental health and well-being is simply allowing the mind time to do nothing. It is in this process of not being busy that one is free to contemplate, meditate, recharge and generally appreciate the world around them. A world which they are usually too busy to notice.”

Dr Neel Burton, Psychiatrist

 

Take-Home Messages to maintain a work-life balance as a PhD student

Finding a perfect work-life balance in academia is near impossible. However, managing work and life commitments so that you feel happy about both and are able to maintain wellbeing is possible.

Incorporating some of the above strategies into your life can help you to take back control of your time. There are also apps and services that can help you out.

Above all, remember to be compassionate to yourself. Take a break now and then to recharge. You don’t have to do it all.

The juggling act of a PhD Research Retold - Work life balance

Flick through Gemma’s presentation:The juggling act of a PhD Research Retold - Gemma Bridge presentation

 

References

  1. Colligan T, Higgins EM. (2006) Workplace Stress, Journal of Workplace Behavioural Health, 21(2), pp.89–97.
  2. Dwyer AL, Cummings AL (2001) Stress, Self-Efficacy, Social Support, and Coping Strategies in University Students, Canadian Journal of Psychotherapy, 35(3).
  3. Kwiatkowski A (2017) The Eisenhower Matrix: Introduction & 3-Minute Video Tutorial, Eisenhower.
  4. Jaffe E (2013) Why Wait? The Science Behind Procrastination, APS Obs, 26(4).
  5. Dunham J (2019) Health Benefits of Doing Nothing, Happiness Matters.

 

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