Alex discusses how they struggled with overworking and stress while doing their PhD work. They explain how they started meditating between 25-minute work sessions, which helped them to focus better and catch mistakes. He also talks about how they switched from task-oriented scheduling to theme-oriented scheduling, which allowed for more flexibility. They used a large whiteboard and created a crude week layout, which included headings like “Before Work,” “Morning,” “Afternoon,” and “Evening,” and a column for each day of the week. Alex assigned themes like “PhD Work,” “Personal,” “Gym,” “Admin,” and “Cleaning,” and then assigned associated tasks to each theme. This approach allowed them to structure their day, while also providing flexibility to move things around as needed.

I realised quite quickly on returning to my PhD that it was immensely difficult to pull myself away from work when I was in the middle of trying to do a task or solve a problem. The “I can’t leave the problem until it is solved” feeling. As time went on, it would feel like I was getting closer to a solution, that I had laser focus, but in reality, I had tunnel vision. As time went on I became more and more stressed meaning my ability to solve the problem worsened. Further, if I went past the 25-minute mark, my stress levels would rise almost exponentially. It would potentially wipe me out for the day, or for a particularly frustrating problem, two. During which I would be limited to very simple tasks which would still feel quite painful to do. Meditating as a break in between 25 minute work sessions seemed to allow me to work for the full day.

To ensure I stuck to my meditation schedule, I wrote a program, that when activated, would start a 25 minute timer in the background (looking at the timer made me stress about how much time I had left in the session). Once the time was up, the program automatically locked me out of my computer. Because I was forced out of a work session automatically, it felt a lot easier to take a break from work and meditate, no matter how close I was to finishing a task.

Because of meditation, my work efficiency went through the roof. It needed to be as I was very likely ranked bottom of academics in the university for the number of hours worked per week. Before my serotonin syndrome around 70 percent of the work I produced in my PhD could be thrown straight in the bin. I would seek comfort in tasks I was accomplished at or liked doing, not necessarily tasks that needed to be done. For example, coding an improvement in the simulation software that would not help obtain better results or analysis. I would spend a lot of time going down the wrong “path”. Focused on problems that didn’t need to be solved or were even problems. It would take me a long time to notice mistakes, or realising that the work I was doing was leading to a “dead end”. i.e. an unclear analysis or result.

After my serotonin syndrome, only around 10-15 percent was not useful. The persistent reflection meditation provided during my work breaks helped me catch mistakes as well as provide a much clearer global picture of where my work was heading. I started to think about tasks months down the line. At the start of each month, I would use a page in my lab book to plot out, in mind map style, the general things I wanted to do for that month. This long range planning meant that I could plan and adjust more easily when, as usual, I would underestimate how long a task would take. That has never changed with me!

I changed how I scheduled my week almost entirely. I realised that my brain could not really work in any sort of allocated time or hour slots for each day. The complexities of life would always mess up a rigid schedule. My condition would deteriorate unexpectedly, a meeting would overrun, the bus I was on became stuck in traffic, the list goes on. In the early days of returning to my PhD I was thinking more about how to rearrange the rest of the week rather than the actual work I was supposed to do. This unfortunately meant that my plan of using task managing apps became a completely useless one. All of them seemed to require rigid time scheduling of any task e.g. 3.15pm-4.15pm and it was usually a faff to move them around.

I needed a way to construct a weekly schedule that was flexible enough to move things around, but rigid enough to provide structure to my days. I didn’t really have the time nor energy to write my own app, so I decided to go the old-fashioned route. I put up my old and rather large whiteboard, hung it up on a spare patch of wall in my bedroom. I drew a crude week layout, with the headings of Monday to Sunday for the columns. In the rows, I started with the heading: “Before Work” followed by “Morning”, “afternoon” and “evening”, finishing with “After Work” (for the weekend I would not use the before work or after work slots).  For a work day the Morning, Afternoon and Evening slots were around 2 hours starting from 8am or so and finishing around 3pm to 6pm.

The generic timings helped to remove time pressures while still providing a structure to what I wanted to achieve during the day. I changed from a task oriented model to a theme oriented one. The main and most prevalent theme was “PhD Work”, which included anything from analysis, writing, coding, grunt work etc. The rest of the themes would be named something like Personal, Gym, Admin, cleaning, etc. My work days had at least two PhD work themes, interspersed with other ones.

I did quite a bit of work outside my job as a PhD student, which is what the Personal theme was for. Most of it was writing articles or giving talks on mental health. Gym was for weight training, Admin was usually for writing and sending emails, along with organising my life in general and cleaning was mainly house work. Depending on where I was in the PhD and in life the themes would change along with it. Each of the themes had a list of tasks associated with them, which I would keep on a task management app. The themes stopped me from jumping back and forth between unrelated tasks and also had the advantage of not giving any time limit for any specific task, only the theme containing them. 

To keep the schedule flexible, I bought magnetic dry-wipe strips, about 10cm in length and 5cm in width. For each strip I would write on it a theme and place it in one of the whiteboard time slots (I would routinely have multiple instances of theme dry-wipe strips) I felt worked best for that particular week. For the weekly events with a rigid time slot, like a meeting or booked time on the microscope for instance, I would write it directly onto the white board in the most suitable generic time slot with a time next to it. Adjacent to the weekly schedule on the white board was a column named “Completed” and below it was a column I named “Priority”. At the end of the day, I would pick up and put the themes I completed in the relevant column, and the ones I didn’t I would either put it in the priority column or reschedule it later in the week putting the replaced theme strip into the priority column. At the end of the week, for me this was a Sunday evening, I would plan the week ahead by putting the strips from both columns back into the now empty white board weekly schedule, starting with the priority theme strips.

This white board moveable theme strip method gave me the flexibility my crippled brain needed, while ensuring the things that had to be fixed in time (meetings etc.) were clear to me. Using a priority column removed the idea of failing to complete something. I never failed at doing something, I simply made it a priority. By literally moving themes to a completed column, it made me feel better than simply ticking a box in an app and made it much clearer how much I had done during the week.  

I sorted the tasks I wanted to do for the upcoming week within the PhD theme into three categories: Primary, Secondary and Lastly. Primary tasks were ones that needed to be completed soon, or were necessary to complete my PhD. For example, this could be a conference abstract or analysis of a dataset. Secondary tasks were ones which were potentially useful for successful completion of my PhD but not necessary, e.g. Literature reading. Lastly was a category for things I enjoyed doing that could potentially enhance my PhD e.g. coding something new for the simulation software I was using. For each PhD theme time allocation, I chose one task from each category and allocated three 20-minute work sessions for the primary task, two for the secondary and one for the Lastly. I worked in the priority order. 

I set a period of time – half an hour – at the end of the day to go on to social media and reply to emails etc. Otherwise, I restricted my phone use to the bare minimum by putting an assortment of lock apps on my phone. I understood very quickly the tremendous pull of devices. I tried everything I could think of to be able to restrict my phone usage without locking it down. But I couldn’t do it. The dopamine hits are so strong, it was impossible. Fortunately, I realised that once the phone was out of sight the temptation to go on social media reduced dramatically. I found the good feelings more difficult to manage than the bad ones.

The schedule allowed me to be extremely efficient with my time. Efficiency is all about getting a space outside of society and the environment. Whether this is through counselling or meditation, this space allowed me to see with much more clarity of what to work on and how to work on it. It doesn’t have to be counselling or meditation – though I found them to be the most effective, it could be going for a walk, taking five minutes to sit outside (assuming it’s sunny) while eating a snack. I believe that the idea of efficient working is not to run the fastest down a path, it is to find the shortest one.