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Yes, well, I know I am technically procrastinating now. But after my brief spell of depressive feelings on Saturday and a lot of dark contemplation on Sunday, I woke up this morning feeling hopeful that I could take concrete steps to make my work routine ‘work’ for me. I can’t work in my shared office any more so I block-booked computer bays for March and April to do my thesis editing. Right now I’m working in a disused shared office on the other side of the labs. I’m alone and it’s silent except for the tap-tap-tapping of my fingers in the keyboard.

I like it when it’s silent like this. I feel focused, and free to work productively without the worry of disturbing others or, as is more often the case, being disturbed by them. People coming and going incessantly throughout the day. Chit-chatting amongst themselves. Making phone calls. Having meetings. Asking me inane questions.

They’re fine. But I just want to work in silence. I want to walk into a silent room each day and work in silence all day and then go home and sit in more silence.

Anyway, I’ve sorted things out now and I’ll have a silent place to work most of the time. Today I’ve resolved to begin typing Chapter 6. I’ll get a good 5 hours’ work done today, because I’m feeling productive and motivated. This is rare, so it’s a good day. I’m feeling good today.

I like feeling good.

No, really.

I’m due for a meeting with my supervisor this afternoon. I don’t know how it’s going to go, because I think this meeting is going to be a lot different from any other we’ve had over the last 3 years. Usually, we’re very focused, and can tick our way through a list of items on the agenda without getting too immersed in anything. We can do that because usually, my progress is brilliant and everything’s fine. We’re usually done in less than 2 hours and we get through everything we planned to talk about. There’s a lot of “Well done!” and “You’re doing fine!” and other compliments that give me a spring in my step for the day.

But today is different!

Today I’m going to walk into my supervisor’s office, sit down, and tell her I’m stuck. I’m going to tell her I’ve arrived at a point where I’ve just about finished my final analysis, have half my thesis written in draft, and am less than 6 months away from submitting, and yet my mind is completely blank and I am utterly confused as to what I’m supposed to be doing.

I’m going to say that I’m good at running stats on the computer and reviewing the literature, but I cannot for the life of me make sense of the results or even understand what it is I’m looking for or want to find out.

I’m going to confess I haven’t the slightest idea what’s going on, that I haven’t done anything even bordering on productive in the last 3 or 4 days, and that even last week and the week before all I did was some data clean-up and some analyses I don’t understand.

Basically, I’m going to declare I am a useless, hopeless failure and will never stand a chance of finishing my thesis, surviving my viva, or getting my PhD.

At this point my supervisor will probably butt in (as much as I love her to bits she does have this little irritating habit) and insist this is completely untrue and that I can, and in fact must, finish this project, because I have a long and fruitful career ahead of me during which I will become a professor by 30, publish 500 papers, attract billions of pounds of research funding, accumulate a lab full of postdocs the size of a small army, and generally be a critically acclaimed academic celebrity internationally recognised for my profound and unquestionable expertise in a tiny, obscure patch of research that nobody, not even the big cheeses in my topic area, has ever heard of, nor would have even the slightest inclination to be interested in finding out more about.

Blah blah blah.

This is all great.

The fact is that none of this is going to happen until and unless I write my thesis. Conceded, it isn’t going to happen anyway, but if I want to at least upgrade my chances from impossible to implausible, I’ve got to get myself back into a disciplined work routine that will put me on track to finishing. This prospect is extremely daunting when I think about the fact that the two main things I have left to do before I finish – interpreting and writing – are the ones that make me the most nervous in the research process. I find interpreting data terrifying. I have to interpret not just the meaning of my own results, but link that with the results other people have obtained, and I become acutely aware that I risk misinterpreting my results, or, worse, misinterpreting other people’s results, which puts me in the uncomfortable position of being criticised my them for failing to understand their work properly. Following interpretation, I get to writing it all up, which is tedious and frustrating. Just when you think you’ve written it all out clearly, you re-read it only to find your text unclear, long-winded, or unable to convey your key message concisely enough. Once you’ve fixed all that, then up come the typos, the grammar errors, the formatting imperfections, and hey presto, it’s the perfect wall for any perfectionist to bang their head against.

An immediate example of this occurring is the fact that my first thought upon finishing that last sentence was “you can’t finish a sentence with a preposition!”

I have no idea what’s going to happen at the meeting. Right now I feel blank – the same blankness I’ve been feeling, in immediate memory, for at least 2 weeks, and probably the same blankness that I’ve been describing as ‘confusion’ or ‘inspirationlessness’ in the last 6 months or so. It’s just a general loss of mental energy and enthusiasm for my work – something my other supervisor has told me she experienced towards the end of her PhD as well – a mental state in which you walk around, sit at your desk, eat, sleep, and breathe with a relentless “WTF??” spaciness in your head that seems to prevent any kind of intellectually productive or progressive thoughts from entering or being created.

It’s maddening.

Honestly, I’ve never felt so blank, confused, inspirationless, and mad in my life. I’ve come to a standstill in this PhD. I’m standing, thoughtless and speechless, months away from submission, and I have no idea what to do or think about anything related to anything.

It’s just…ok, I’m going to stop typing now.

I’ve all but completed my last round of data collection. Actually, I’d all but completed it yesterday, and today I have just been sitting at my desk, shuffling papers, checking emails, reading the news, pretending I’m working when really I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing.

Actually, that’s wrong. I know what I’m supposed to be doing, I just can’t resist the magnetism of procrastination and so I let my next important goal – writing my thesis – slide while I look busy but essentially bum around doing nothing.

Well, maybe that’s wrong too. I have done a few productive things today. For example:

  • I did a preliminary check of my data. My sample size isn’t as large as I’d hoped it would be – actually just over a quarter of the size I had on a similar project last year – but I’ll take what I can get. I also had a look at the institutional and geographical distribution of the data to get an idea of what the comparison groups are going to be like.
  • Then, I ran an errand for my supervisor. It was a minor errand, but someone had to do it!
  • I also dealt with a series of emails that urgently needed dealing with, mainly because they were from people making enquiries about my data collection, specifically, regarding circulating my study information, which I really need them to do or else I can’t get my data.

Despite doing all these things though, all in all it has been an unproductive day because I just haven’t got as much done as I usually do. It’s my own fault, but it bothers me profoundly and I feel bad for it. I can’t stand it.

This always happens to me when I’ve been working on a long, repetitive part of my project for weeks or months on end – when I finally complete it, I have a dazed period when I come to the office and spend the days wondering what I’m supposed to do next. My mind is blank, and paradoxically in a state of mad, whirling chaos. I can’t go forward because I don’t know which way I’m facing.

And it takes a little while to figure out where to go next – even if you already have a plan. Believe me, when you’re doing a PhD, if you’ve got the slightest bit of brains, you always have a plan. You have a plan for the day, a plan for the week, a plan for the quarter, and a plan for the entire project. You have a Plan B, and a Plan C. And when you’re doing a PhD, believe me, it’s true, your plans are always changing, altering, mutating, going in circles, and falling through altogether. External commitments, emergencies, absurdities come along and throw your plans in the trash. Everything is in a constant process of metamorphosis. So as soon as you get to the end of one confusing period of work, you have to stop a while and get your head together before the next one begins.

Take this for instance: I’ve just finished my prolonged campaign to collect data for my last study, and next, I know, I need to write the remaining chapters of my thesis, edit the existing ones, and get a working draft together for my supervisors. And yet, in an absurd contradiction, I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing.

Really. Not the slightest.

In a break from tradition, today I just want to post about food. Because it’s quarter to twelve in London and I’m hungry.

Not starving. Just hungry.

I can’t stand it when middle class and even relatively well-off working class people in developed Western countries dash panting into the office at 10 o’clock in the morning and lament “I’m starving.” You’re not starving. You’ve woken up at a leisurely hour, left yourself no time to have a decent breakfast at home, rushed out of the house and needlessly spent £2.65 on a questionably sourced caffeine fix from Starbucks, and arrived at work in a sweat only to need to rush back out, this time to the on-campus Starbucks to needlessly spend more money on an overpriced late breakfast.

Bulk up.

Children in Palestine desperately waiting for humanitarian aid to sustain themselves, millions in some of the most deprived and war-ravaged nations in Africa, the homeless even in the rich West who rely on spare change from passers by for their next meal – they’re the ones who are starving. People on self-imposed hunger strikes protesting political injustice and persecution and abuses of human rights. They’re starving.

So, I am hungry.

I came across an interesting blog today. I can’t link to it because they probably wouldn’t like what I’m going to say.

The blog is about a university student’s daily meals – where and what they eat and how much they pay for it. I happened to come across yesterday’s entry and, fascinated, went back to look at the previous day’s, and then the day’s before that. Every day seemed to be composed of a breakfast of a buttered breadroll and something to drink, a lunch of an energy drink, chips, and donuts, and a dinner of more energy drink and occasionally a packaged meal. Wow, I kept thinking, doesn’t this person ever make an effort to eat properly (and save money at the same time)?

Firstly, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It’s usually the first food you eat after having ‘fasted’ for 8-12 hours overnight and it restores your blood sugar levels and sustains you throughout the morning. The morning hours (8-11am) are the hours when attention and other cognitive processes have the greatest potential, meaning if you’ve had a good breakfast, you’ll be much more likely to work productively. Lunch doesn’t have to be a big effort. If more people kicked their own arses to cook a meal for dinner in the evenings, the leftovers would do just fine for the next day’s lunch. You can cook a meal easily in an hour or so, providing you pick up some simple groceries from the shop.

I always cook, whether I’m living alone or not. Because I like it. I like buying supplies and using them to create different meals and rising to the challenge of achieving it all cheaply and quickly, because I’m a student. I find it bizarre when I have people round to eat or when people ask me in the office and they seem to think it’s such a huge effort to actually go to the shop and buy groceries and come home and cook a meal. That seems like a lot of effort, why don’t you just buy it? they ask. I couldn’t imagine buying three meals a day, seven days a week. I’d be out of pocket but more than that I’d get sick. Really. Many people seem to think it’s healthy and acceptable to consume bottled fruit juices, packaged TV dinners, boxed sandwiches. I get sick if I eat these more than once in a while. I get purple circles under my eyes and I start to feel permanently tired and I get headaches. It’s bad for you, even though it looks healthy. Please don’t eat it.

And you know, much more than being out of pocket and sick, I won’t eat commercially made food because it makes me feel like a slave to irresponsible consumerism. Today we live in a world where many people can’t imagine how they would survive without the convenience of being able to buy a sandwich or a roast dinner from the supermarket. People who don’t have the slightest idea how to make soup, even the simplest kind. People who actually hate cooking meals for themselves, because they think it’s tedious or boring or a waste of time.

Bulk up!

I don’t want to be one of them. I don’t care if the research is coming out of my ears or if I’m up to my neck in teaching. I will spend an hour to cook for myself and I will enjoy it.

Now I will have lunch.

Today has been an unproductive day as far as writing my thesis goes.

Yes.

Some days I feel like I just can’t get going, no matter how hard I try to concentrate on the day’s tasks. Sometimes the full procrastinatory potential of the Internet becomes too much to escape, and a whole morning or afternoon is wasted on checking emails that don’t matter, and perhaps writing something in this blog.

I feel unimaginably irritated at how I can suddenly start typing away here when I have spent the preceding 6 hours of my day in a staring contest with a blank Word document.

My strategy for writing is one I’ve used on smaller-scale projects in the past – I assemble the skeleton first, which consists of the chapter titles and the subsections of each chapter, and then I add the muscles, flesh, etc., which is the content. I’ve found that in a massive document like a thesis, this flesh-on-bones approach stops me from getting lost in the chaos of words, arguments, tables and references that span pages on end. And that’s really important for people who, like me, have good ideas but often can’t express them well because they lose their way waffling or going into insanely minute threads of detail.

I like detail.

For me there has always been a difference between actual and perceived productivity. I have little sense of actual productivity – that’s an evaluation of the actual work I produce in a given time period – and it’s something I get mainly from my supervisors, who generally perceive me to be flying ahead at some supersonically accelerated speed. I’m not so sure. Because although others see me as being amazingly productive, I don’t feel that way – I don’t perceive that I am as productive as I seem – instead I feel like in order to produce that work that impresses others so much I have to toil away fruitlessly for so much longer than I need to. And that’s because I have these spells where I want to write and I can’t, because the whiteness of the blank screen in front of me is blinding.

Today has been a really unproductive day. My thesis is probably about 0.000000000001% closer to being finished than it was yesterday. That’s definitely not statistically significant!

Skeleton. Muscle. Flesh. Etc.

I have to get this done before the madness of the final round of data collection falls on me in September.

This is the moment where something inside me hardens and this strong sense of finality comes over me. I stretch, raise an eyebrow, and sit up straight. I crack my knuckles and look down at the blackness of the keyboard.

It’s time to finish this.

Friend of WikiLeaks

July 2020
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The Final Countdown

Submission of PhD ThesisMay 1st, 2013
The big day is here. Joy to the world!