Category Archives: Guilt

Bad Habits

In the months of November and December, I did more panicking about my dissertation than working. Witness the lack of insightful blog posts. Even after all this time, my bad writing habits still take over occasionally.

I will say that I did a better job working while traveling than I ever have, and I think this last bout of depression and anxiety was a) based partly on real-world worry & grieving, not just self-torturing for no reason, and b) still more short-lived than many other bouts of depression and anxiety that I have experienced over the past eight years. Also, c) I did do *some* work. In this dry spell, it at least drizzled once or twice a week.

I’m beginning the new decade in a spirit of self-forgiveness. I don’t have A+ or even A – writing habits yet, and I’m close enough to the end of this process to realize that I’m not going to attain–or, more accurately, I’m not going to maintain great habits in the time that’s left before graduating.Instead of saying, why haven’t I learned anything? Why do I still make the same mistakes? I will celebrate the fact that I can recognize my mistakes more quickly.

During the months of November and December, I knew I wasn’t writing because I was scared. And I had strategies to deal with it: I forced myself to go to the library, where there were no distractions, when visiting Chicago. I spent long periods of each work session reading over the parts of the diss that were finished–which made starting much less daunting, and continuing where I’d left off easier. When I was really paralyzed with the FEAR, I read from my reading list until I got a new idea for something to add to my dissertation, and, more importantly, remembered that I have ideas. A particular background photo on my laptop dissuaded me for opening computer games because it reminded me, in a very gut-punching way, that life is short. (That particular strategy didn’t stay powerful for very long, because that life-is-short sensation is fleeting. But I milked it while it lasted.) I worked from bed a couple of times because I was dreading my desk and somehow it seemed less taxing that working in an upright position.

I also knew, in light of the real-world worries, that I couldn’t demand of myself to be as productive and focused as I wanted to be. And I also knew, after two weeks of not exercising, that I needed to help myself get happier. And I also knew that I couldn’t just snap right back into my exercise-addict routines after such a big break, so I eased myself in with 15 minute walks every day to help my body and mind get excited about physical activity again. Along the same lines, during those first few days of being “back” in dissertation mode, I let myself work for short periods of time and then get huge rewards (watching movies in the middle of the day).

After all, if it was easy to do what we know is best, if humans could live in uncomplicated states of contentment and productivity–there wouldn’t be anything to write dissertations about in the first place.


Errands and Non-Urgent Projects

I read a book called Organizing From the Inside Out by Julie Morgenstern that was recommended to me by a professional organizer. This book was helpful in a lot of ways, but my previous post got me to thinking about one strategy I’ve used with great success.

I have a file folder in my filing cabinet labeled “errands.” In it, I stuff things to be filed, envelopes with addresses I need to put in my address book, insurance forms that need to be filled out, etc. I used to let that stuff pile up on my desk, assuming that I would do it right away. And sometimes I did. But when I procrastinated, the pile would grow, eventually becoming a source of stress.

Now that I can stuff paper like this into the file folder, my life is much easier. Anything urgent goes on my 5 Things list, the rest is left alone until there’s nothing else urgent to do. I haven’t looked at it much, I’ll admit. So nothing much has changed except that I don’t have the stress. (So, a lot has changed.)

I also dedicated a shelf in my closet to “non urgent projects”–which consists of piles of things to sell or give away, clippings of recipes I’d like to add to my recipe binder, and hardware for a lighting project I’d like to do someday in my apartment. Having a place to put this kind of thing makes my home more organized and aesthetically pleasing. But the “non-urgent” label is also helpful. I don’t open my closet and view the pile with concern. I know that nothing in there is time-sensitive. One day, I will wake up on Saturday morning and really want to improve the lighting in the living room. Until that days comes, I’m not worrying about it.

If you’re a grad student who, like me, has a fair amount of guilt over what’s been left undone, try slapping a “non-urgent” label on something. Not every item on your to-do list is equally important or time-sensitive. If you can’t avoid guilt, at least feel guilty about something that matters.


Long ago, I stopped piling books I ought to read on my desk. The stack of books, looming always in my peripheral vision, was vaguely depressing.

In fact, I have a beautiful wall of books. The Future Mister Doctor Jones and I built 70 feet of bookshelves. We paid about $250 for materials and spent several days working on it. I would not have known how to do this on my own. However, now that I have it, I know it is worth that much money and a lot more.

I remember the books I ought to read by consulting a spreadsheet on my computer. I rate each text from 1 to 5—5 being the most exciting and pertinent to my research. I forced myself to make each numbered group about the same size. Working your way through ten urgent texts is not as overwhelming as trying to pick out your next book from a list of 300.

Tonight, I cleaned up my computer desktop, too. For some reason I thought it was okay to save all the .pdfs I want to read in a line, to glare out at me every time I’m on my computer (which I use for work and pleasure). I double-checked that all the articles were on my spreadsheet, and then I put them into a sub-folder in my dissertation folder.

Writing a note to yourself, or placing an object in a prominent place, works well as a reminder only if you’re going to act on it within a day or two. And you’re not going to read ten books in a day or two, I promise you.

It takes work to set up an organizational scheme for research materials—my reading list takes me a couple of days to re-work every year or so. But once you have a place to put these items, it only takes five minutes to put them away after things get crazy. It’s very much worth it to improve your focus while writing.


I recently attended a professionalization workshop and someone did my least favorite thing: they told us graduate students that we should “start last week” on completing a major project.

Sometimes our colleagues seems to use feelings of inadequacy as a crutch–limping toward productive work as they’re chased by demons of what should be done.

The Future Dr. Anderson mentioned this to the Future Dr. Gale (who just defended her dissertation!) about a month ago. She said that people seem to feel that it is expected to freak out and hem and haw about what they should be doing to prepare for a dissertation defense. But isn’t is possible that what one feels like doing while waiting for the defense (nothing) is actually good preparation? Here the Future Dr. Gale was with a near 300-page dissertation, feeling that she actually needed to be packing more potential sources into her head on the off-chance that someone would bring one of them up. (And if memory serves, the Future Dr. Gale got exactly zero questions about literary criticism outside of her own.)

There should be moments in our career where we feel accomplished, on top of things, like we are doing exactly what we should be doing.

It’s a Human Thing

Ever wonder why you don’t have self-control?

They Didn’t Mean It Like That, or Recovering From Visits Back Home

If you’re like me, you’re one of the few people in your family who ever aspired to be a doctor. And, when you’re around the family, often they ask you that dreaded question, “So, when are you going to be done?!”

Reactions to this question probably depend on the state of your work and how much eggnog you’ve consumed. Possible responses include:

  1. What’s it to you, *******?
  2. Why don’t you try writing it and see how fast you finish, buddy.
  3. I’ll get done when I get done, alright? Geez.
  4. This is never going to end. Ever.
  5. I’m still planning on graduating in 2011, how many times do I have to tell you?
  6. It it totally normal to take this long, okay?

It’s natural to get frustrated at the question, which can seem invasive and judgmental. You agonize daily over your tiny bits of incremental progress, and here’s some jerk insinuating that you should have been done years ago.

Your relatives think they’re making harmless small talk. Some of them hated school and are amazed that you can survive it. Others probably wish that they had gone to grad school. Some are impressed at the amount of work you’re doing. Some of them are older, and the years are blurring together for them–they can’t remember if this is your third year in school or your seventh.

So smile and thank them for asking. Or watch them flounder when you ask how long until they retire. But keep your shirt on. They really and truly did not mean it like that.

Time Sheets for Graduate Students: Assets and Liabilities

At different times in my graduate school career, I have kept a record of how many hours I’ve worked. The record looks something like this, penciled into a calendar box:

Thursday, October 18
Spanish—1 hour
Typing Notes (on 2 articles)—1 hour
Grading—3 hours

Last week, I was despairing over my inability to work. Then, this week, it occurred to me to count up the total hours I’d logged: 27. I compared it with my total hours two weeks ago: 27.5. What a relief—I didn’t stop working, even though I wasn’t feeling emotionally tough.

My friend The Future Doctor Gale got herself into trouble with time sheets. She made herself sign in and out of her office, and tried to force herself to work eight hours a day. This led to a lot of anxiety and guilt over “missed” work. Her acupuncturist advised her to let herself work a maximum five hours per day instead, and that system is working wonders for her quality of life and productivity level.

I know that a maximum would never work for me—I excel at quitting work early. But I don’t set a minimum either.

No matter how you approach the working week, it’s not good to be too rigid with yourself. In the last three weeks, I’ve worked between 2.5 – 9.5 hours per day. But for me, it’s very reassuring to be able to look back and see that mostly I’ve worked between 4-6 hours per day. Then I can’t make up mean lies about what a lazy good-for-nothing I am.

Note: If you can work 8 hours a day, day after day, week after week, you need to write me and explain your process. Because everything I’ve learned about process in graduate school has proved that 5 is a much more sustainable number

Secret Goals

Unrealistic expectations are public enemy #1 for dissertators. What brilliant mind can withstand 6-10 years of daily failure?

In my experience, setting realistic goals cannot happen in a vacuum. The advice of a dissertation support group, adviser, or friend can help the deflated graduate student pat her herself on the back and take a well-deserved bubble bath.

Receiving precious help does no good, however, if you develop secret goals. Last week, I told my Dissertation Support Group member The Future Doctor Gale that I wanted to read one book and write a draft of a grant application, in addition to preparing for a translation exam. She said that I had ambitious goals, and warned me that they might be too much for a single week. I ignored her advice and made extra, secret goals. I planned to type up a towering pile of notes, organize my desk, and clean out my in-box.

Not too surprisingly, I didn’t accomplish my secret goals or my stated goals. Plus, I felt panicked and miserable. I’m all for dreams and imagination and positive thinking. But indulging in secret fantasies about turning out a perfect chapter in one draft that wins a major award and results in universities offering you jobs before you even apply is going to turn you into the sad, miserable failure that you never had to be.

The Joy of the Irrelevant

One of the best things I did this week was stop reading a book that had been on my to-do list for years.

Normally I have a hard time reading a book any way except from start to finish, but this book was just not interesting. I had trouble concentrating on it, and I kept rolling my eyes at the jargon the author was using. It finally dawned on me that it wasn’t interesting to me because it was irrelevant to my project.

My friend The Future Doctor Gale asked me this afternoon as we left a meeting, “Should I go to the talk by the very famous man in my department that everyone else will be going to?” Her gut was telling her that she wouldn’t get much from the talk, but the imagined presence of so many of her colleagues, and the prestige of the speaker, made her doubt herself.

So often in our careers, which run on self-discipline, we get caught up in shoulds and oughts and plans made so long ago they are no longer useful. Today, shove a “should” off your to-do list. Not just for now—this is something that you are never going to do. It feels awesome.

Just Keep Asking the Question If You Don’t Like The Answer

Still dwelling on the hours of work lost due to tonsillitis, I mentioned my frustration to my therapist. She asked me a hard question. “What can you accomplish by thinking about this?”

All my life, I have tried to learn from bad experiences. I ruminated on relationships-gone-wrong until I felt I could be a better, stronger, more confident girlfriend the next time around. I analyzed myself until I could explain any irrational behavior. I examined each hour of Spider Solitaire-playing to try to determine how I could be a more productive writer. And now I was trying in some demented way to figure out how to prevent illnesses.

I thought it was good to try to understand my work habits and become consistent. But the fact is, sometimes I write at a desk of chaos, and sometimes I don’t feel right until everything is in its place. Often staying in a routine keeps me focused, and sometimes I am extra-productive when breaking a routine.

My therapist said something that probably shocked me more than it will shock you. She said, “everyone wastes time.” Now, this statement is obviously true. But I haven’t been working my way towards a Ph.D. as if I knew that everyone wastes time. I’ve been on a quest for infinite efficiency.

I’ve worried so much about how to be more productive that now it’s time to worry about worrying about being productive. (That’s what we do in academia, right?) In order to stop wasting time worrying about wasting time, I have to accept that I will never work with perfect efficiency. Never ever.

I keep fighting the urge to end this post with some hunky-dory message like, “I’ll never be perfect, but I’ll always keep learning how to be better.” No. Maybe I’ll waste less time at age 47 than age 27 or maybe I won’t. I just hope at 47, I’ll do less worrying about worrying about worrying about wasting time, and really enjoy Spider Solitaire, dammit.