Spoiler alert: using tools to re-engage mid-project instead of waiting until the end.
The road to a PhD is long.
For my kind of PhD, the kind involving science in a lab, you spend a lot of years standing near a bench, replicating experiments over and over. During the years of my thesis work, I noticed an unfortunate cycle.
Step One: Brainstorm with my thesis advisor and other lab members about ideas. I worked on serotonin receptors in the brain. So there was a lot of questions about how each receptor functioned in different areas. Then we would ask, How could we test that hypothesis? We would design a series of experiments that could confirm what we believed to be true.
Step one was always very exciting. There was so much to learn, and so many possible outcomes.
Step Two: Months of repeating the same experiments over and over. Once we designed the experiments, we needed a lot of outcomes in order for the statistics to work. I felt trapped doing the same thing. I got bored and restless.
During step two, I found myself coming into the lab later. Wandering around campus in the middle of the day. I spent lots of time doing crossword puzzles. Anything to break up the monotony. As time went on, I completed less and less experiments each week.
Step Three: A deadline approached. I had to present my results at a lab meeting. Or we were writing up a paper that had to be submitted. But I didn’t have enough experiments to present, or submit. So I’d panic, and be in the lab at all hours of the day and night, trying to get enough done by the deadline. Cursing myself the whole time.
Does this pattern sound familiar to you?
I know that a lot of people are highly motivated by deadlines. That the only true kick-in-the-pants to get them to finish a task is to know that it’s due.
That was never me. This period during Step Three was always terrifying. I spend the whole time wondering why on earth I let it get this far. Certain that I was never going to be able to present my best work. And convinced that I would never do it again.
So, after many many years, I learned how to pace myself. How to break the cycle of excitement-slog-panic. It requires a bit of intentional planning. Of being mindful during that middle slog period. To shake off the doldrums. But if you do it, you avoid the panic at the end. You slide into your deadline instead of running towards it screaming like your hair is on fire.
Here are a few of the tools that I now use, and how I could have re-worked that vicious cycle that I created in graduate school.
Focus on the next action
One of the hardest parts of that mid-project slump is that all the steps to get to the end seem to blend together. There is “so much” left, with so much as this vague, undefined quantity. It’s hard to move forward when you are drowning in an ocean of remaining tasks.
In his book Getting Things Done, David Allen believes in the power of the next-action decision. The idea is that you step away from your vision of the long, dark road ahead. Instead, you think about what action you need to take next. And focus on it’s execution.
Instead of seeing weeks or months of the same experiment over and over. I could have concentrated on one week’s worth of experiments. Enough to get to the next data point. One more piece of information. One more solid step. And target on the actions I needed to take to get there. Instead of thinking about all the data at the very end.
From David Allen’s book:
Doing a straightforward, clear-cut task that has a beginning and end balances out the complexity-without-end that often vexes the rest of my life. Sacred simplicity. — Robert Fulghum
Remember something you enjoy about the project
When we are in the middle of Step Two, it’s hard to remember why you even started. What was the point again? That feeling can lead your brain to disengage, and progress to slow.
But finding some level of happiness or enjoyment in the project can help get you back on track and focused.
In their book The Leading Brain: Neuroscience Hacks to Work Smarter, Better Happier, Friederike Fabritius and Hans Hageman note:
The more enjoyable the activity, the less likely it is to be accompanied by a wandering mind.
So one of the best ways to recommit to a project is to find something fun about it. Something that makes you happy. One small thing that you enjoy doing. Or reconnect with the reason you started the project in the first place.
For me during my thesis, I wanted to see the how it all turned out. The “answer” to my question. But instead of waiting for the big reveal at the end, I could have done several interim data analyses. Results that gave me a glimmer of excitement. And reminded me of my original intentions.
Create mindfulness and intention around the area that you enjoy within the project. So you can inch your way forward toward something motivating.
Find an accountability partner
I have written before about the magic and science of accountability.
But accountability will certainly have power in the mid-project slump.
In the middle of my thesis, I didn’t want to bother my advisor every week with what felt like tiny progress. But I could have found an accountability partner. One of the other graduate students or post-docs in my lab.
If I had focused on those smaller, next actions. Then talked them through with an accountability partner weekly. It would have helped me make steady progress. Instead of waiting until the Hail Mary at the end, so close to each deadline.
The punchline from a 267 participant study done by Psychology Professor Dr. Gail Matthews is this:
The positive effect of accountability was supported: those who sent weekly progress reports to their friend accomplished significantly more than those who had unwritten goals, wrote their goals, formulated action commitments or sent those action commitments to a friend.
So many projects take on this cycle of excitement-disengagement-panic to the finish. The key is to get ahead of that panic. To re-engage in the middle.To focus on the next action, remember something you enjoy, and find an accountability partner.
I did not have had all these tools in place back in graduate school 20 years ago. But now I use them on my consulting and writing projects today, and with many of my corporate and individual clients. Not every day is going to be unicorns and rainbows. Almost every project will have an area that is a slog. But if you are mindful and intentional, you can keep moving forward. Until you reach your goal, (mostly) panic-free.