Apparently it is very typical to find yourself at an emotional and psychological low about two-thirds of a way through a project, whether it’s an undergraduate degree you’re working on or a PhD, or anything else. I wish I had known this sooner as it might have helped me throw a couple of things into perspective, as awareness of such trends usually does.
I did learn about this trend, however, and the reason I learnt about it was that I had already decided, somewhere at about the three-quarters of the way mark, that I needed to throw my mindset into hyper-positive drive if I was going to have a good chance of finishing strong with my degree.
Happily coinciding with New Year (always a great time to reevaluate and rejuvenate areas of your life), I set about researching and taking ownership of different strategies used by students and professionals to improve performance, boost confidence, and maintain a positive mindset.
As this blog post suggests, I found what I consider to be a couple of gold mines and, so far, I most of the ideas and strategies I found have been very effective. So here goes.
One of the best ideas I came across, I think, was the idea of treating your degree work like a job. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve run into this one before. And I do treat my degree work like my job. I know I’m accountable should I fail to hand in an assignment on time, to myself if no one else. I haven’t had much of a problem treating my degree as work, in a practical, everyday sense. But here’s something that I hadn’t thought about as a mature student and a freelance writer. There is a difference, at least for me, between treating my degree like a ‘job’ and treating it like my ‘business’. Not that you shouldn’t be entirely focused and productive in your job, but I do think there is a higher level of accountability that comes from being in the driver’s seat of your own business, speaking from experience here. Every time I go to work for someone else, I am determined to do my very best, to give my all, to really work for whatever reward I am getting for the use of my skills and so forth. But I do not control the particulars of what I’m doing and I get paid (in most cases) regardless of whether everyone else involved in the project shows up. Case in point: I was tutoring at a local school this last year and, although I was hired to finish out the term, and there were at least three students signed up to come and work with me after lunch on a Tuesday, not once did they actually turn up. Now, this was disappointing on many levels, not least because I was excited to teach the subject, but the outcome did not affect whether I got paid for my time. Because I still got paid, the experience of not actually having to perform didn’t tie into any serious consequences for me. Rewind to when I primarily worked as a freelance writer or to any instance when I was working with private clients for tutoring, and the outcome was very different. I might not have had to do any work because a client canceled a project or because they didn’t show up for a session, but I was still faced with the problem of having to find a way to maintain my own income for the given period. Usually I had to reorganize to work on another project and have it finished sooner or I would see about taking on another project. The point is that the type and level of accountability was different.
So one of the things I’ve tried to take from my experience as a freelancer is this idea about different types and levels of accountability. I’ve tried to apply it with my degree on the basis that I know what I want to do next. My undergraduate degree at Cambridge has always, to my mind, been a stepping stone into a graduate degree and into a career in academia. Everyone has different goals, of course, but the mood-boosting principle is widely applicable. Instead of focusing on the end result of the degree or project you are working on at the moment, instead of looking at graduation or the end of the project as the finish line, shift your gaze further out and focus on what comes next.
For me, this has had a massive impact on boosting my confidence and my mood. Although I have doubts about how I will perform in Cambridge tripos (the dreaded exams that determine the final outcome of my degree), I actually have very few doubts at the moment about my fitness for graduate work. In fact, this is one of the dilemmas I discussed with my tutor when I reached out for help from my college (in what is perhaps the subject for a later blog, by the way). To me, completing a dissertation and teaching classes, even organizing articles to publish in journals, is a whole different kettle of fish from tripos. To me, these things seem a whole lot easier. Of course, I may change my tune when I am actually embroiled in the work, but I don’t have to worry about that now. Instead, I’ve really found it useful to focus on the bigger picture and use my enthusiasm for the next bit to motivate myself through this last stretch of my undergraduate experience.
Here’s what this means in practical terms: instead of focusing all of my time and energy on tripos and feeling guilty if I am not revising or reading for my upcoming exams, I have scheduled a couple of hours a week for myself to think about the work I want to do for my graduate degree. Incidentally, both of the dissertations I am writing for the final year of my undergraduate degree tie into my graduate work, too, so there is a nice symmetry to this. I’ve also made a point of following a slightly more conventional approach for reframing and refocusing, and I have set five minutes aside very day to visualize my goals and, most importantly, the prospect of achieving them.
Now, I’m not someone that tends to buy into every trend out there, but I also feel right now that there is a lot to be said for maintaining a morning and evening routine that are as regimented as possible. At least, I feel it is right for me, and it may be right for someone else who is struggling through the final stretch of a degree or project.
I did a bit of research before the start of the new year and found an app called Routinist and a short morning routine program on Amazon’s Alexa that have been really useful for helping me have a definite plan to start every day. Although I sometimes don’t need to use all of the time I have set aside for each activity, the point is that I have ended up doing them – healthy things like drinking water and herbal tea, taking five minutes to meditate and calm before starting work, stretching to boost my energy. I’ve managed to develop something of a yoga practice following this morning routine and I’ve also, for the last couple of weeks, managed to make progress on two fairly major personal goals – one to learn the piano and another to knit a scarf (yes, it’s each to their own). Not only has this been good in a long-term plan kind of way, but having two mini hobbies (I spend about 10 minutes on each every day), has been a really good way of taking a constructive break from work. I’m not sat in front of the TV or aimlessly lounging.
I am something of an enthusiast for good planners/calendars/to-do lists and I love a good organizer when I find one, so another thing I’ve consciously invested in to help me through the final phase of tripos is planners. And yes, I said planners.
There’s apparently a thing about writing down your goals and tasks versus having them on a computer, so I invested last year in two paper planners. One is a five minutes for busy people 90-day mood booster that asks me to write down a goal each day and an intention, things I’m grateful for, that sort of thing. It’s quick, it’s easy; okay it’s not strictly a ‘planner’ but it kind of is if you think back to that big picture idea.
A bit more practical was the second planner I got, the InnerGuide planner for 2018, which is basically a dated diary on steroids (particularly if you use it alongside the 90-day daily planner, which I intend to shortly). This is not a marketing exercise at all – let me stress that here. I don’t think you need to get any or all of these things and you can certainly find alternatives if you do decide to invest a bit of money in boosting your mood and confidence, but I have genuinely found these things helpful, so I’m mentioning them to at least give an example of what I am talking about.
The best thing about a planner like InnerGuide is actually that it asks you to write down annual, quarterly, and monthly goals, and this also draws you back to looking at the big picture. Having the opportunity to review how your day or week as gone and making that review process part of your daily or weekly routine is also, I think, hugely beneficial for keeping this in perspective. So if you don’t already, I would recommend finding someway to review your day or week and think back on what has gone well, what you want to change.
Lastly, and this is another planner type thing, I realized that when I was mainly working as a freelance writer, I was a fiend about project management. I had apps and programs on my computer at various times for managing different projects and tracking my progress, breaking down tasks, that sort of thing. Yet, I didn’t, until a couple of weeks ago, use the same thing with my degree. Specifically, I didn’t use a gant chart to manage my time, and, looking back, I think this is one of the reasons why I sometimes felt overwhelmed with how much I was trying to do alongside or as part of my degree. I wasn’t being desperately realistic about the hours in the day.
Now, you don’t have to go out and buy SG Project, but that’s what I used way back when and it has the advantage, for me, of being immensely familiar. Using it to organize my calendar every day is also a bonus, so whatever you go for in terms of project management, I think the key thing is to be able to transfer your tasks over to your calendar, to see exactly how many hours you have to spend on each task and see those hours projected on to your working day, week, month, etc.
As I understand it, project management strategies are more commonly touted for graduate students, who, by the sound of it, have a lot more to juggle than undergraduates, but I don’t see why it doesn’t help to get into the habit early and have a practice for realistically tracking your time on essays or extended projects. I’ve also used my project management to layout a revision program, organizing time to go over past exams, do practice essays, and learn quotes. I can’t promise, at this stage, that I will follow it to the letter, but I have done reasonably well so far at at least following its general shape. Most important of all, I’ve actually made progress on the bigger projects I have going on at the moment, and the smaller ones that will become part of the larger revision effort a month or two from now.
So there you have my 50 cent, or perhaps a bit more, on some of the strategies that might help to get you out of an end-of-degree slump or any other kind of slump, for that matter, that involves work. I figure if even one person is helped by this, it’s a win for me as far as paying it forward (and back) to the things and people who have helped me.