Sabotaging stress

I thought I might turn this on its head and as a way of thinking differently about the problem of stress and doing a PhD. James Hayton of 3 month thesis has been posting about stress and doing a PhD. He makes pointed observations about the way that many people wear excessive stress like a badge of honour and maintain the fiction that doing a PhD is inherently stressful. The PhD is often described in language that compares it with initiatory torture or ordeals, a baptism of fire into the world of academia. Hayton asserts that doing a PhD is difficult, and rightly so, but that this does not mean that it must also painful.

I recognise this insidious idea that you have to be suffering in order for your work to be worthwhile and that if you’re not suffering then you’re not working hard enough. Terribly Puritan. Work should not be enjoyed and if it’s not making you suffer then you’re not working hard enough. It’s actually not what I aspire to as a work ethic, but I find myself caught into it. Sometimes it’s my own thoughts and sometimes it’s triggered by innocuous comments from others. I definitely get waves of impostor syndrome, worries about failing, fretting that my work won’t be original enough or academic enough or brilliant enough to pass. I notice many of the things he lists as stress warning signs popping up when I think about my PhD work. Implied messages around me about how hard I should be working and how much progress I should be making and how much I should be suffering are pretty prevalent too.

Production line work is efficient at training you into feeling like you must look busy or you will be judged for slacking off. As Hayton points out, productivity work and creativity work have different requirements. Requirements for creative work potentially look like slacking off in comparison with requirements for productive work, but that doesn’t mean it’s not work or time well used. This is a category mistake. All work is not the same and it is not helpful to expect that the same conditions will be equally effective for different kinds of work. My work is not measured by number of items made, or clients seen, or documents completed per week. I will not be judged for being lazy if I park in one of the bean bags in our office and read, occasionally staring out the window as I sift through ideas. The only judging that is going on at the moment is by me using hangovers from other work contexts.

It’s been a long time since I subscribed to the notion of ‘just work harder’, at least rationally. More time and more effort don’t always produce more results. The post on the differences between productivity and creativity rang a lot of bells. One of the things I hated in my previous work was that the pressure to produce overwhelmed any opportunities to be creative. Creativity takes time, playfulness and all the things that can so easily get squashed when you’re feeling pressured. I’m getting better at noticing when I fall into the stress traps and picking myself out again sooner. I feel my best and do my best work when I am not stressed out and can be creative. Creativity is one of my strengths and it needs space to breathe. Focus is the friend of creativity. Pressure, deadlines, stress – whatever you want to call it – are its poison.

For something to be poisonous and destructive is a matter of dose rather than the substance itself – even water can be poison given a sufficient dose. There needs to be some stress for body movement and for thinking. Too much stress, and things start shutting down. Hayton argues that creativity is the first casualty when stress starts reaching poisonous levels. Productivity would be the next casualty as you head into becoming overwhelmed and burning out. Many people will talk about working more when they are under stress, however Hayton poses a legitimate challenge whether this is actually the conditions for doing your best work.

Now, I don’t like deadlines. In fact, I despise them. They are not a motivator for me – I end up feel more pressured and then like a failure if or when I miss them. I’m happy to talk about goals, targets and all sorts of other markers of achievement. Just don’t call it a deadline. I realise that some of this may seem like semantics however these are powerful metaphors. A goal or target? Something to aim for, a potential achievement that you can feel good about. A deadline? Even putting aside terminality implied in the first syllable, the responses this conjures are significantly more tinged with fear and risk of failure. The metaphors are more powerful than we may give them credit and “deadline” is almost guaranteed to increase my sense of unhelpful stress.

I think it’s time to ditch the ‘1% inspiration, 99% perspiration’ adage. It isn’t 99% perspiration because more effort won’t create the conditions for the creativity needed. Why not burst some of the illusory bubbles and assumptions about what supports creative work in the academic context? Scientists have a reputation for spending more time tinkering with their equipment than running ‘actual’ experiments. Humanities and social scientists may spend time people-watching, “day-dreaming” and playing with drawings, bits of paper and ideas. All of us need to spend time talking with people, about research and about ‘stuff.’ It isn’t constant, furious writing, churning out papers and presentations. That way lies frustration and burn-out, at least for most of us. “Work harder” isn’t the solution for this kind of work. “Work smarter” may be, and it will look different from the types of smarter that are good for productive work. A substantial component of this is redefining what counts as ‘work’.

Now, ways to keep reminding myself of this …

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