We're a little crazy, about science!

Mental health and time management

I don’t make the rules. As much as I like to think I’m in charge of my body and that I can will it to do what I want, I’m more of a passenger here. Sure I can make plans, that doesn’t mean my body will agree or that my brain will let me do all the things. It’s a very tense arrangement, I have life stuff to do because I have basic human needs and my body/brain tells me exactly where I can shove all that. Somehow I’ve managed and I figure why not share how I’ve developed work arounds for some of this, maybe it will help someone else in the same boat.

Yep we’re sticking with the mental health theme today, but it’s important. When I started my PhD I figured it would be a long version of my Masters degree. In some ways it is, but you have a lot more responsibilities that have nothing to do with your degree. There’s outreach, mentoring, workshops, lab tours, career building, and networking, just to name a few. Not that you don’t do a lot of that with your Masters, it just get’s turned up on high during your PhD because, why not? It’s a marathon, not a sprint and if you try to cram everything into a sprint, then you’ll burn out for sure. The system is designed in a way that encourages burn out so the thing you need to learn now is to not fall for it. It’s particularly bad if you’re disabled, like me for instance.

Here’s the secret, take a break. You need to learn that now, especially if your just starting out. When I did my Masters, I discovered that I had no schedule. No longer was I confined to classes and rigid homework structures. Suddenly I found myself trying to do a long-form homework assignment with no real solution, or as I like to think of it infinitely many solutions. My Masters is in mechanical engineering and I was tasked with designing a new type of bipedal robot, which I think I did pretty damn well, but there was no path to follow. This was uncharted territory and I could carve out the way to that end goal however I wanted.

And carve I did! I worked from early morning to early in the evening, holidays, weekends, breaks, all meant nothing because I was still in the mindset that it needed to be done today, not tomorrow, not next week, but now. In reality what I should’ve done was set small milestones for myself to help determine how far along the path I was instead of trying to get it all done at once. It was a hard lesson to learn, but it was good that I figured it out (somewhat) before I started my PhD. Time management and goal setting isn’t something you get taught in grad school, but it should be.

Now let’s face it, it’s an abled world out there. If you have a working brain and body then you have an advantage that a lot of us don’t. It’s hard for me for example to plan too far in advance with any degree of certainty. I’m reliable, don’t get me wrong, but somedays I can accomplish more than others. So I need to be extra diligent about my time management. Which makes extra work for me before I even do anything of importance, see where this is going? Then on top of that I have bad days. Sometimes it’s physical issues, sometimes it’s my mental health, but the result is always the same, nothing important gets done.

I deal with this uncertainty by making sure my schedule is ahead of any major due dates. Homework due on a Friday? I plan to get it done by Wednesday. Email needs responding to? I do it as soon as I can, but during what I call my “work hours.” I need to be kind to myself, so I schedule in me time. What that looks like depends on the person, but my “me” time is usually spent with a book. In fact, I’ve read 15 books this year already and adding that into my daily routine has probably been the best thing I’ve ever done for my mental health.

The main point is, this is the system that works for me. I schedule to get all these things done early because I know that 80% of the time that wont happen. That’s because my body wont let me or my mental health ends up in the toilet and I need a day to recover. This means that most of the time I manage to get projects/homework/etc. done roughly on time, sometimes a day early. When I can get things done a few days early, I get a little buffer for the other stuff I need to do. So when I have a particularly bad time and need more than a day, I have it.

It doesn’t always work out so nicely. I mean I have physical things I need to get done and I can’t always commit to doing them, but I spread things out to make sure I have the best chance possible. It’s about working within your limits and knowing what you can and cannot accomplish, or at least learning to chronically overestimate the amount of time something will take.

Again, with anything what works for me, may not work for you. But hopefully this gives you an idea about what a system that works best for you looks like. We don’t all have the luxury of creating such a system. Some people have to work full-time and don’t have any other option. I understand and respect that. I cannot however. It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s just that I literally cannot, but knowing my limits I’ve managed to work around them as best as I can.

Am I as productive as my non-disabled counterparts in the lab? Probably not, okay definitely not. However, I still manage and I’m still doing enough that neither of my two PI’s have said anything about my performance or the work I do. This is probably in part because they both know I’m disabled, but also because I have a routine that works for me so I don’t end up overworked. The trick is to under-promise and deliver what you can, when you can. Notice I didn’t say over-deliver. I think consistently meeting expectations is far better for a career than exceeding a handful of expectations and failing on the rest.

Just something to keep in mind as the term is winding down and a new batch of prospective PhD students gets ready to make the leap in the fall.


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