We're a little crazy, about science!

When the exhaustion hits

Woke up this morning feeling less than stellar. This happens pretty regularly when I push myself for long periods of time. It’s not ideal, since I still have a bunch of stuff to do, but thankfully after living with my limits for so long I have a few back up strategies to help me get through it all. Ideally the school would offer accommodations to people like me, but to get them there is a lot of hoop jumping, enough that it doesn’t make it worth the effort. I suspect that’s the point.

Welcome to another peak into the life of a PhD candidate. If you’re new, this is where I do my little intro. Everyday I blog about the odds and ends of PhD’ing as I’m going through the process (I’m in year three now!). Mostly I talk about the day to day stuff, exhaustion, the COVID pandemic, sometimes politics, a lot of mental health stuff, and of course my research (when I can talk about it anyway). You’ll also find a lot of good information (I hope) about stuff, like my “know your spinal cord” series, which is by far the most popular series of posts I’ve written and my latest “in statistics” series. Lots of topics for sure, but when you blog daily for the past (almost) two years now you have a lot of time to cover stuff.

Today we’re talking about what I like to do when I hit a wall. Now normally when that happens I prefer using that day to recover and when I get back to work fresh the next day, I find that I can get more done. The increase in productivity the next day more than makes up for a half hearted attempt to power through and getting barely anything done, then feeling even worse the next day. Unfortunately more often than not I don’t get to take that option. I mean, I do and have in the past, but frankly when I hit a wall like this it’s usually because I don’t have any extra time to get a break in.

This week I have my weekly main-PI work due tomorrow (more on that hell here). I was tasked to do an analysis I had never done before, with code I don’t already have written (again, never done this type of analysis before!) so it’s been a struggle. I won’t make it, but I have a good framework for what I was asked to do and hopefully that’s enough for my main-PI to be satisfied with, we’ll see tomorrow I guess.

I also have yet another homework assignment due this week for my statistics class. I have never taken a class with this much work. Not even in my undergraduate days. I once took a course that promised 8 hours of homework a week minimum, and they did it. This course is brutal, especially for what they are asking us to do. I feel like it’s less about statistics and more about learning how to use Rstudio. I somewhat regret taking the course, but I keep trying to remind myself that I am actually learning useful statistics stuff, it’s just 90% Rstudio 10% statistics and I wish it were the other way around.

So the trick is what to do to help deal with feeling exhausted when I don’t have time to take a full day off. The answer is something I’ve talked about in the past, but it’s worth reviewing again. When I can’t take a full day I try to take small breaks in between of multiple tasks. I have two big projects due, one tomorrow and one on Saturday, so the goal will be to bounce between the two, spending 30-60 minutes on one, take a 60-90 minute break, then switch over to the other one. Now if I get into a groove I’ll keep going. Conversely if I find myself staring at the screen wishing the answer would appear, it’s time to walk away regardless of how far into my 30-60 minutes of work I have. In which case, we take a 30-60 minute break and try again either with the same task or jumping into the other task.

It sounds like a lot of breaks for very little work, but the point is that if I just sit in front of a computer forcing myself to work and not actually accomplishing anything, I am literally making zero progress. And let’s be honest with ourselves here, how many times have you sat down in front of a computer to get work done only to find a few hours later that you’re stuck on social media, watching YouTube videos, or otherwise not getting a single thing done that you need to do? I have a feeling it’s more than just me.

So the idea is to work smarter, not harder. I want to maximize the amount of work I do within small windows of time so I make more progress overall than I would if I spent the full day trying to force myself to work. I don’t know anyone who can operate like that, but I do know plenty of people who attempt to do it. The point being simply this, you can’t force yourself to be productive, so if you absolutely must get something done, find a system that works best for you to do it. Your system may not look anything like my system and that’s okay. The idea isn’t to copy how I do things, it’s to find strategies to help you cope with the impending deadlines and the work you need to do.

In the meantime, I should probably get some work done. Or maybe take a quick break…


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