Hello, Yes I’m Still Alive

The last time I posted on this blog I explained that I had a lot on my plate, and that blogging would be taking a backseat over the summer. That was almost a year ago.

The remainder of 2019 was busy, really busy, and it wasn’t feasible for me to do anything at all other than what was on my to do list. Then just as I started to get a handle on things, the rug was pulled from under us and my Mum got ill. The adrenaline of needing to be strong kept me going for a little while, but soon after I felt myself crash. I am exhausted to a level that I’ve never felt before, and I’ve been off work for the last few weeks while I try to get myself back to a more functional place. Previously I felt like my brain was going to be permanently broken and I was genuinely a bit unsure about what the future looked like. I wasn’t being productive at work, I had no passion for anything, and I just wanted to sleep all the time. I had convinced myself that I wasn’t going to be able to keep doing my job as a researcher and was spending far too many hours googling part time jobs that would allow me to work in pressure-free environments (spoiler alert – I’m pretty sure nothing is pressure-free). I’m glad that I decided to take a step back. Things are ok now, and I feel like my brain will be ok after a proper break. I know I’ll get back to research in a few weeks, and I know I’ll be alright doing it long-term.

While I’ve been off work I’ve been taking things really easy, saying no to just about everything, and spending lots of time not doing work. I’ve started my first embroidery kit, I’ve done some doodling, and I’ve been going for lots of walks because at the end of January we got a dog! This is a Huge Deal.

We adopted Barney from Dogs Trust in Glasgow, and I LOVE HIM.
He was a stray in Ireland before he ended up at Dogs Trust, so we don’t know much about him. We think he’s about 3 years old, and he’s some sort of terrier cross – possibly a bit of Lakeland and/or Welsh terrier in there. He came home and we were warned that he could be quite anxious, but he’s really grown in confidence. He’s missing his two front teeth and he has no idea how to play fetch, but apart from that he’s doing well!

Barney the terrier on his first day at home after being adopted from Dogs Trust.

So what now? Well, as I’m sure you’re aware, the world is currently on fire. The coronavirus pandemic is terrifying, and like lots of people I’ve been feeling more anxious over the past week or so. It all feels a bit like we’re living in a (really terrible) film, so I’ve been reading books and watching YouTube as a means of escapism. One YouTube video I watched was from Lauren and the Books, I’ll link it here and embed it below so you can watch it if you want to.

One of the things on Lauren’s list of things to do when you’re stuck at home was writing, so here we are. This little blog is back up and running, and I’ll be using it to share nice things with minimal pressure. I’m resisting a schedule so that this little corner of the internet remains pressure-free for me, so I’ll be back at some point with some chilled writing 🙂

In the meantime, stay safe, wash your hands, look out for your friends and neighbours, and for fuck’s sake, stop hoarding toilet roll.

Some Things I Learned From Taking a #DigitalDetox

Helloooooo internet! It’s weird being back after that little break I had. After a really hectic week back at work it almost feels like I never took the break at all, but I have kept up some of the habits I developed over the course of the week and I’ve felt much more able to deal with my workload. I figured it might be helpful to share those with you.
For anyone that is super stressed out, feeling a bit anxious or unmotivated (Katie’s most recent post is what triggered me to write this one..), these tips are really simple and should hopefully help.

Disclaimer: Some of these tips are embarrassingly simple, so much so that I’m shocked that I didn’t implement them earlier on in this PhD process. Still, if I wasn’t doing them before then I’d guess that lots of other PhD students aren’t doing them now.

1. Turn your notifications off

Before last week just about every app on my phone had notifications switched on; WhatsApp, Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Goodreads, WordPress, Etsy, the news, even when Podcasts updated each week. I (naively) didn’t think that these notifications had much of an impact on me, but switching them off has cleared out a tonne of background noise that I didn’t even realise was there. Previously, there were always notifications waiting for me on my phone, always something to think about, catch up on, acknowledge. Now, there’s nothing. Obviously I get texts and calls like normal, but notifications from apps are strictly off. I check apps when I have time to deal with the stuff that they contain, rather than constantly being aware of what I need to deal with later on in the day. Terrifyingly simple, shockingly effective.

2. Stop checking your email all the time

As with notifications, my emails are on my iPhone (seriously, iPhones are the best and worst things ever), so with one quick click and swipe I’d have checked emails from my personal account, my work account, and the account I have that’s based with one of my freelance clients. It was pretty rare that there were no emails in any of those 3 accounts; now let’s be clear, I’m not saying I’m super popular or important, 80% of those emails were likely from mailing lists or companies trying to get me to buy stuff, but still. Not checking emails was the thing I found most difficult last week – I’m a big fan of getting, and staying, at inbox zero, and I knew in the back of my mind that when I went back that would not be the case. I stuck with it though, and I check them much less often now – I’m not important enough for the world to implode if someone needs to wait an extra hour or two to get a reply from me, and it clears up head space and helps me to stay focussed on what I’m actually doing.

3. If it takes less than 5 minutes, do it now

Previously, my to do list was clogged up with tiny, tiny things. ‘Book dentist appointment’, ‘sort laundry out’, ‘clear desk’, ‘go to the Post Office’, ‘print handouts for talk’, ‘make Doodle poll for meeting’ etc etc – these things are the easiest wins to make on a to do list, so I would allow them to build up and then do them as a form of ‘productive procrastination’. No longer! Holy cow, last week I got through all these tiny little things and my to do list is about a third of the length it once was – and it’s staying that way. If it takes less than 5 minutes, it gets done there and then. This not only means I’m getting more stuff done, but it removes the clutter from a to do list and enables me to focus on the stuff I actually have to do; i.e. write thesis.

I need this print from Sighh Designs.

4. Empty time is not wasted time

How could any of my time be wasted with this little pup around? (Note – that is the feeling of true joy you see on my face).

At this point I need to get this sentence tattooed on my arm. Or printed across my laptop screen, whatever. I was thinking about what I’d done with my week off, and I couldn’t remember what I’d done on Monday and Tuesday. All I could think was that I’d looked after Milo (excellent puppy that I’ve been borrowing), given myself a pedicure, got a hair cut, read my book and watched Netflix (if you haven’t watched Queer Eye yet then oh my god, it’s the best feel good TV ever, it totally didn’t make me cry, nope not at all). That small list of things was all that I did over 2 days, and it was bloody brilliant. I just had a slow few days, I wasn’t running around like a headless chicken trying to get emails sent or writing done – it was totally relaxed. This week when I came back to work I was able to work way more efficiently so that I could then take some time away at lunch, or finish work and not be glued to my laptop long into the evening.

So yep, that’s it! I’m back and feeling super motivated for the next 10 weeks or so. Yhere is so much happening, but I’m feeling excited for it rather than nervous or anxious, it looks like that little break did exactly what I needed it to do – hoorah!

I’m Taking a Week’s Holiday 11 Weeks Before My Thesis Is Due

As you’re reading this, it’s 11 weeks until I submit my PhD thesis. 11 weeks. A decent amount of time, but it’s becoming more real by the day now. I’m writing this post in advance and scheduling it to be posted – I’m taking a break. From Monday 9th April until Monday 16th April I will be intentionally forgetting about my thesis, turning all notifications off on my phone, and logging out of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

I am taking an entire week to sort my head out. I’ve mentioned before that I have depression, and I really didn’t realise how how much of an impact that writing my thesis would have on my mental health. It’s not that I’ve been particularly ‘depressed’ if you know what I mean, I’ve just been a bit mopey for a few weeks; nothing major, just a bit numb and unmotivated. I’m getting better at recognising when things aren’t feeling so good, and now is one those times when I need a bit of time to myself.

I miss the feeling of being super motivated and excited to sit down and write (honestly, that was a thing a few months ago!), and this week’s holiday has come at the perfect time. I’d booked it off ages ago because I’m going to see Bastille in Edinburgh on Wednesday night (a Christmas present from my boyfriend), and then I’m going to Brussels with my best friend Friday to Monday to see Air Traffic. Initially I’d thought about just taking the days off that I needed to, but the past few weeks have made it really clear that I need to take the full week.  I need some time to sort my head out so that I can finish the PhD with the same feelings of motivation and enthusiasm that I started with. I want my thesis to be the best piece of writing I can possibly produce, and my brain is too mushy to do it justice right now.

This week I’m avoiding the internet, I’m unchaining myself from my desk and I’m going to have an entire week of doing stuff that I enjoy. Catch up with friends, read, go to the cinema, do some yoga, cook food from scratch (I’m an expert in Tesco ready meals at this point), spend time with my partner (this guy genuinely deserves a medal, I have been a true JOY to live with for the past few weeks), and actually make time to find out how my best friend’s first teaching job is going (I have been the worst friend recently, sorry everyone).

Credit: Pauline Kebuck

There will be no more blog posts from me for the next little while – I’ll be back once my head is feeling less like cotton wool and my thesis is feeling more like it will be something that I’m really proud of when it’s done.

The Importance of Having a Creative Outlet

One of the most important things I’ve learned throughout the course of my PhD, is that having a creative outlet is a non-negotiable for me. I enjoy my PhD, so it’s not a rare occurrence for me to get lost in my to do list and even up working in the office during the day, and then from home at night. That isn’t an ideal situation. It’s important to take breaks, to step away from your work and to focus on something entirely unrelated.

Earlier this year I decided that I needed to make time to read – I don’t mean to read more scientific papers (though that was on my radar too); I wanted to find my love of reading for pleasure again. I made a point of buying new books, renewing my library card, and forcing myself to go to bed an extra half an hour earlier each day so that I could read and switch off before I went to sleep. That worked for a while, until it sort of became part of my day – I now read on average 1 book (not related to anything PhD) each week, but because it’s such a routine thing, I don’t find that I’m getting the same relaxation/reward from it. So I’ve started something new.

I started Science On A Postcard a few months ago, and I’m having so much fun with it! I’m giving myself an hour or so each week to doodle and draw, to think up products that I never would have thought of otherwise – and I love it. I’m not aiming to make any money from my little shop, it’s just an outlet to facilitate more creativity; the more products I sell, the more products I can then create.

As well as Science On A Postcard, I’ve started actively seeking out little creative activities that force me out of my comfort zone, or will introduce me to new people and/or new skills. One of the things I’m most excited about over the coming months is Say It Ain’t Sew. Say It Ain’t Sew run free hand sewing classes each week in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stirling, Ellon and Aberdeen. I haven’t been to an Aberdeen event yet but I’m really looking forward to attending one of the Christmas ones – basically, you turn up (the Aberdeen one is based on a Wednesday night in Brewdog), all materials etc are provided for free (such a winner for students!), and you sit and sew a little project with some cool people and a beer. 2 hours on a Wednesday night is not going to de-rail my PhD, and I think it’ll be a really good forced break. Taking a step back from work often means I’m super excited to get back to my desk too – and I’m in a much better place in terms of concentration, focus, and creativity in terms of my academic work.

What do you guys do to force yourself to have a break? Any weird and wonderful creative outlets I should be looking for? Leave a comment and give me some inspiration!

Taking a Break – Regret, Relax & Refresh

Last week I went on holiday; I went to Poland (Wroclaw and Krakow), saw friends get married, relaxed and spent some much needed quality time with my boyfriend. Most importantly, this was the first holiday where I didn’t bring my laptop with me since beginning my undergraduate degree 7 years ago. I still had my iPhone which meant I could access emails – but I didn’t reply to a single work email for the entire week.

The Regret Stage

To begin with, the sudden digital detox was much more of a shock than I thought it would be. At home, I take my laptop everywhere, I always have access to wifi and I am usually on top of my inbox with a digitised to do list. I didn’t have access to that list, any of my documents or PhD-related resources. Over the first few days of the trip I was a bit itchy – I felt like I was wasting time when I was at the airport doing nothing, on the flight doing nothing, or waiting around in the hotel, again, doing nothing. At first I viewed these snippets of time as opportunities where I could have been reading journal articles, abstract screening or writing parts of my literature review. I regretted not taking any work with me at all.

The Relaxation Stage

A few days after the regret stage – say around day 3 of the holiday, I was finally getting out of the habit of checking my work emails every hour or so, and I started to forget about the length of the to do list that would greet me when I got back to the UK. I had a really, really brilliant holiday. I saw my friends get married, made new friends with other guests, tried new foods, explored a new country, slept late (with no alarm!) and didn’t feel the pressure to wear a watch or check the time, because time really didn’t matter. It was bliss.

Sunset boat trip along the river, Wroclaw.

The Refreshment Stage

Towards the end of the holiday – around day 6 and 7, I started to think about work again, but in a totally different way. I started to think of really exciting and creative science communication projects that I could do in the future, I started to think about the structure of my literature review and how the big pile of papers I’ve gathered would fit together; but none of these ideas were forced. I wasn’t trying to think about work, in fact, I was consciously trying not to. I was just getting my motivation and enthusiasm back. We landed back in the UK on Friday morning, and on the drive back to Aberdeen I was reading through my work emails and jotting down things to do. I got home and unpacked, sorted out the mountain of laundry we’d acquired, and watched TV. I was completely relaxed, and looking forward to a weekend of getting back to blogging and scicomm projects, before PhD life kicks back in on Monday.

View from our hotel window, Krakow.

I guess what I’ve learned from the break, is that I wasn’t properly taking holidays before – I was switching my out of office on, and telling people I was going away, but I was sneaking work in the whole time. I’m sure there are lots of other PhD students and researchers that do that too; we’re expected to be on the go all the time and it’s so difficult to switch off. Next time you go on holiday, or have some annual leave left to take, just take a break. Force yourself out of the cycle doing bits of work here and there; you might just find that you come back refreshed and more motivated than before you left.