Week in review: Learning to work edition


Last week I did 1 hour of yoga, spent 64 minutes sitting on an exercise ball instead of my office chair, and spent 0 minutes meditating.

I demonstrated for 3 hours in a statistics practical, had a meeting about budgeting and finances, and attended a workshop called “Personal Impact – how to present yourself effectively.”

I observed Thanksgiving, which was very important for my work/life balancing act – it is my favourite holiday, and as an American in Britain I feel fortunate to have celebrated it.

Learning to Work Edition

Over the past few weeks I have been taking an online MOOC called “How to Survive your PhD” on EdX (found through this awesome blog post). One of the main organisers is Dr Inger Mewburn of Thesis Whisperer fame, and it has been a fantastic course so far. One of the resources Inger mentions in the course is the essay “Learning to Work” by Virginia Valian.

I would highly recommend reading it – I’ve read it twice already, and plan to read it again. In the essay, Valian describes her struggles with working, specifically while writing up her thesis. Her description of her “work problem” was imminently relatable. I found myself thinking “me too!” at every turn, though I had never articulated my feelings towards work so clearly.

Her main realisation is the desire to enjoy work for its own sake, to relish the process of work and gain satisfaction simply from the act of doing work. That idea struck me as very insightful and one that I would like to apply to my own experience life.

I have always felt a lot of stress around work, and that has got worse now that I’ve started independent research. But I’ve never understood why, because the truth is that I like my subject, I like reading and learning about new things and making connections – and that’s what a PhD is really about! So where is all the stress coming from?

After reading Valian, I realise that all my stress comes from external sources – will the committee approve of my project, will people see the value of my work, can I keep up with all of my commitments this week, am I getting enough exercise, is the house clean enough? All these worries jostle around in my mind, demanding attention and action immediately and simultaneously. Because of this, no matter what I’m doing, I have the feeling I should be doing something else, and never give anything my full attention or focus.

No wonder I’m not enjoying my work as much as I thought I would! I’m not really paying attention to it enough to enjoy it, or anything at all for that matter.

Since reading “Learning to Work” I have decided on several strategies of my own to start taking more enjoyment in the act of working. First, I will take up meditation. This is something I have been meaning to do for years now, but I can’t put it off any longer. The clamour in my head needs to be calmed. Second, I will actively try to compartmentalise, to allow myself to focus on one thing at a time. If the thought of another activity that I “should be doing” pops into my head, I will write it down in a specific place, and allow myself to forget about it for the moment. Then, after I have finished what I was doing, I will look at that list and either address each point or allocate a specific time to address it. I don’t expect this to work overnight, and hopefully as I go along I will develop more strategies to deal with my own work problem.

Do you have a work problem too? What is yours like? Do you have any strategies for dealing with it?

Photo credit: John Althouse Cohen / Foter.com / CC BY-ND


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