Finding Flow in Your Academic Work
I'm putting together some blog posts to help academics work smart through the Covid-19 crisis. Do reach out if you have a topic you'd like me to include. First up is a request from Charlotte via Twitter (hey!) and I think it's a topic we can all relate to - how to maintain continuity with work tasks.
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Step away from the laptop and put that pen down, yes i'm talking to you. Ain't no room for hiding when you're reading my blogs! To prioritise, you need to brain dump everything that is floating in your head right now and get everything on paper or a notes app (as it's on your phone too). Get it all out of your head so you have at least half a chance of sleeping tonight. You see, you need this brain dump. It's the list which includes your professional to-dos, the family stuff, the grocery list, that present you need to buy for your auntie's-cousin's-son's-wife's birthday, and that reminder to buy a lightbulb you need for the car asap.
If any new tasks come in today, they go to the bottom of that brain dump because you my friend have priorities. At the top of your brain dump identify three priorities for today (this part is called your daily to do list)- three must do's that will give you a sense of accomplishment when your head hits the pillow and to keep you out of trouble with your boss. Try if you can to ensure one of those priorities relates to you i.e. something that directly or indirectly moves the needle on your career or from a personal perspective. You can add other things to your daily to do's - but those three priorities are now your non-negotiables. So now you have a shiny new brain dump list, with your daily to-do list and key priorities at the top. That list goes everywhere with you now - everywhere!
Continuity & Flow
You have a life well lived and long may that continue - family, friends, kids, pets and all of that. However, I used to sometimes think that academia was a career designed for not having a life. But over the years I have come know of some amazing academics who have a life too, so i'm taking a leaf out of their book. I'm not going to tell you to avoid your family, friends or kids. Instead i'm going to suggest how you can dip in and out of work and still get your s**t done. It's called finding flow. Flow is a concept termed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi - Google him.
In my view flow is a conditioning thing.
Before you begin to bring some continuity to what you are doing, take the pressure down a couple of notches and stop beating yourself up for everything you haven't done or are yet to do. Now we're going to pick-off one of your priorities, one task at a time. But how do you get the thing done...? First step - tidy space. Your home might not have everything neatly in order but wherever you work try and create at least a little tidy space. Even if it's just having a clear and clean desk (or dining room table - for me) while the rest of the house looks it's imploded on itself. Tidy space = calm mind. Now with your computer I want you to close down all windows that you don't need to complete your priority task. That includes switching off your email - the world is not going to end because you haven't checked outlook for 45 minutes and people are just going to have to wait ok. Open up your task and begin. As soon as you need to jump out to do something else or get distracted scribble down on the document or in your notebook the next little step you need to do - so when you jump back in you don't have to mentally retrace your steps. Try not to jump to another task until you've completed what you need to do or at least reached a natural pause point at which to break away.
Now, if you're not getting down to your big task until the wee hours when the kids are asleep you need to develop a little ritual - a set of steps to signify it's time for work/thinking time. Don't laugh but I used make a cup of tea and paint my nails before I opened MS word to finish my phd. I had the best looking manicures for about 6 years! It took all of about 6 minutes but it became a habit, a work ritual you could say. Some nights I would listen to a music playlist. I'd put on my headphones not because there was noise around me but it helped my mind focus for some reason. I'd listen to 90s trance anthems (don't judge me) to get my head in the zone. There's something about music with no words and a certain beat - do you know what... it worked. So find a little ritual that you repeat to help you get into the right frame of mind. Also have a wind-down ritual so that you have time to decompress for 30 minutes before you go to bed otherwise your mind will be racing. I always have to sit up for a little while after working late into the wee hours to watch a cheesy repeat of a tv show just so my brain could switch out of work mode. Who doesn't like watching an episode of Friends on repeat.
Worries & Concerns
We all have them and more so right now as our lives are thrown up in the air with what is going on. So give yourself a set amount of time to feel your concerns or worries - talk them through with a friend or partner or just write them down. Dedicate that little amount of time to thinking them through then park those worries. You cannot dwell on them all day and all night. Focus on the present - think about what you can control and what small steps you can take to make things a little better, whatever the situation you are facing. Worries wont disappear overnight but they are no longer going to put a cloud over your whole day.
These points might seem simplistic but I know they work. Having done a PhD part-time at evenings and weekends on top of pivoting into academia it was tough, but these little steps make things so much easier now. I hope this post is useful to you as well. Got a post you would like me to cover? Hop over to Twitter and add your request to the list here
Need a little more help?
During the month of April i'm hosting the Dr Sam Mentoring series where you can book a free 30 minute coaching session to help you navigate your academic and research career goals. To find out more and book online simply click here.
Read some more
Here's my post on working from home as an academic here.