“The more you praise and celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate.” – Oprah Winfrey
Why did I have to reduce my work hours to finish my thesis?
I cut down on the number of hours I worked in the beginning of my sixth (and last) year of graduate school.
I had piles of data, but no cohesive story.
I was burned-out from long hours at work, and there was little hope I could finish my thesis by the end of the school year.
It was actually not a deliberate decision.
I had to cut down on my work hours per my doctor’s orders.
In my fourth year of graduate school I developed excruciating pain in my elbows from excessive typing and labwork.
For two years I was able to manage my condition through physical therapy and pain relievers.
So, I could still put in the 10-12 hours days which I thought were necessary to finish a doctoral thesis.
Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise, but by the beginning of my sixth year my condition worsened to the point that just 15 minutes of typing flared up the pain.
Simple tasks such as writing a check (not many, just one) or holding a book led to sharp aches in my arms and wrists.
Managing my pain through Western and alternative therapies nearly became a full-time job, which consumed most of my time and graduate student stipend.
I had to make a change – whether or not I was going to finish my doctoral thesis, I had to do something differently so I could regain my health.
After speaking with my doctor, I realized that in order to recover, I had to cut back on my work – a LOT.
First, I had to take two weeks off completely with no computer use at all! I actually asked my husband to read and reply to my emails for me.
That’s when I learned that in 15 minutes a day I could get most of my emailing done.
When I went back to work, I started with just 15 minutes of typing at a time and then I took a 1-2 hour break.
The goal was to prevent the pain before it started.
I slowly increased the number of hours I worked by reducing the length of my breaks (5-15 minutes instead of 1-2 hours), but I continued to only type for only 15 minutes at a time for the remainder of the school year.
It took a HUGE leap of faith to believe that I could finish my thesis (which was in bits and pieces) at this pace in the next few months.
How did fewer work hours speed up my progress?
As I reduced the time I spent in front of my computer, something interesting happened.
First, I spent more time outdoors.
As I began my recovery I walked for 1-2 hour along the Charles River every day, and as I increased my work hours I took 5-10 minute strolls on the MIT Campus.
Walking can have an amazing effect on your mind, especially when you are trying to piece together inconclusive data and design a new experimental setup.
After every walk I had a new insight – perhaps a new reference paper to look up or a different way of plotting my data.
In fact, whenever I was confused by my data or hit a roadblock, I decided to just let it go for the moment and let my creative mind take care of it during my next walk.
And most of the time, my new perspective during my walks did point me in the right direction.
Ever so slowly, I started making progress in developing a new experimental setup that would “save” my thesis and lead to an exciting publication.
By January of my sixth year, I had optimized my method (champagne please!) and was ready to collect the real data that I needed to wrap up my thesis.
Besides spending more time outdoors, I spent more time reading the literature, thinking about new strategies for my research, and optimizing my time-management.
I realized that I had wasted so much time previously (working 12 hours days) by running experiments or analyzing data without digging into the literature or having the big picture view of how my research contributed to my field.
In other words, my injury forced me to stop and REALLY think about my research.
And, that made all the difference in developing a novel method that helped us to gain a better understanding of the cells we were working with and an exciting publication.
What can you do to reduce your work hours and still be productive?
The most important step for me in finishing my thesis despite my reduced work hours was letting go of the belief that working longer hours means more progress.
I thought the more experiments I crammed into the day and the more hours I put into data analysis, the faster I would finish my thesis.
Clearly, this strategy did not work as by the beginning of my sixth year I had little to show for all my efforts.
At the same time, I knew some classmates who finished their theses in four years.
Some of my peers had challenging topics or difficult advisors, yet they still managed to get a doctoral thesis done in four years.
While I did not know how they did it, at least I knew it was possible.
Once you let go of the belief that more hours lead to more progress, you can actually begin to implement habits that will help you to make the most out of the hours that you do work.
For me the key elements in making tangible progress daily were:
- Spend time outdoors – Take a 20 minute walk if you can, or even a 5-10 minute breather during lunch hour. I heard a funny saying once: “Only smokers get fresh air during the day.” While I do not encourage smoking at all, one lesson I learned from coworkers who were smokers was that they always found a way to take several 10 minute breaks during the day – and they were still productive and published papers!
- Take frequent breaks from work. Alternating 45 minutes of work with 15 minutes of rest is ideal. Your creative mind works best when you are away from your desk. Ever wonder why you get your best ideas while working out or in the shower?
- Daily exercise – If a 20 minute walk is all you can fit in, then stick with that. If you can do any other exercise (taking the stairs instead of the levator, a quick jog in your lunch hour, 20 minutes of yoga in the morning), it can do wonders for your physical and mental health. You will find that the endorphins that your body releases during and after exercise make you happier and more focused.
- Have a very clear idea at the beginning of the day of what you want to accomplish – Do you come to work knowing what you want to get done, or do you just let your day unfold depending on emails and other people’s agendas? That’s how I started graduate school, but by my sixth year, this strategy did not work. To reduce my pain, I eliminated all recreational computer use, and focused only on the tasks would move my thesis forward. Of course, some recreational computer use if OK (and even necessary to keep up with friends), but make your work a priority. Email and social media will still be there later in the day.
- Celebrate your success at the end of every week. One of the best decision I made as a freshman in college, was that NO MATTER WHAT I would take every Friday evening off and do something FUN: No studying and no time at the computer. Even as a young student fresh out of high school, I knew that celebrating once a week was essential for my health. It was easy to celebrate as an undergraduate – deadlines were short and I received constant feedback on my performance. In graduate school my deadlines were on the order of months, and sometimes weeks went by without any progress. Most of the time in graduate school I did feel like celebrating.
As I was recovering from my injury, I started celebrating every 15 minutes that I worked.
After all, just a few weeks earlier I could not even write a check without debilitating pain.
Start celebrating any small step you take – in fact, I encourage you to blow it out of proportion!
If you write 2 paragraphs of your proposal, give yourself the luxury of a nice dinner instead of Ramen noodles.
Oprah Winfrey’s wonderful quote at the beginning of this article, “The more you praise and celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate,” literally changed my life.
More celebration leads to more confidence, motivation and, most importantly, productivity.
What if there is no way you can reduce your work hours?
I hear this a lot: “I am already spread so thin, with so many classes and responsibilities that there is no way I could work less and make time for myself.”
The reason that I smile when I hear this is that I’ve been there.
I worked for several years in the pharmaceutical industry, had a 1 hour commute in each direction, 2 young children, a household with lots of laundry, and I coached graduate students part-time.
Weekdays were busy with work, and weekends were even busier with grocery shopping, catching up with laundry, and chauffeuring 2 kids to 2 different sets of extracurriculars and birthday parties.
With so many responsibilities, how could I take time for myself?
The reality was that because I had to show up for so many people, I had to take care of my physical and mental health.
Is there a way to create extra time for exercise from thin air?
No, there isn’t, but if you are creative and proactive, you will find a way to take a break for yourself.
If you cannot make time for a formal exercise class or the gym, there are still opportunities to get breathers throughout the day. Here are a few of the things that I did to preserve my sanity:
- Took a walk during my lunch break – some of my coworkers chatted in the lunchroom, others ate their lunch in front of their computers while checking email. Neither option was refreshing for me. I usually ate my lunch in 15 minutes and walked for 15-20 minutes outside, even if it rained or snowed (after all, this is New England). The great thing about walking, was that when I got back to my desk and took a fresh look at my work, I found ways to make my reports or experiments better.
- Kept my gym bag in the car at all times – my company had a gym, and I also belonged to a local gym. Sometimes I took a 20 minute jog during lunch hour before eating. Other times, if a meeting was cancelled and I had the opportunity to leave early, I went to the gym.
- On days that were super-packed with meetings, I still took a 5-10 minute breather before driving home. If I didn’t have the opportunity to do that either (because I had to rush home to pick up my kids), I spent a few minutes on my back porch in silence before going to sleep.
- I planned refreshing activities to do with my kids. Sometimes I had to bring home work for the weekend. On those days, I woke up early to get it out of the way, and then I took my kids to the park or movies. (Yes, I saw kids movies in 3-D!).
- Simplified my life as much as possible to save time – I am very health conscious, and I used to think that I had to prepare home-made foods for dinner every night. Clearly this was not possible given my schedule. In fact, my carefully prepared “healthy” meals were usually not appreciated by my kids, and ended up being my lunch for the rest of the week. So, I simplified the types of foods I prepared, using some pre-made meals, and ordered out once in a while. I also started ordering everything online, including shoes and clothes and it worked out great. So, instead of spending hours at the mall, I had everything mailed to my house, which made it possible for me to have time for exercise on the weekends.
As I wrote earlier, the toughest part about becoming more productive is letting go of the belief that more hours at work means more progress.
Once I let go of this belief, I realized that there were opportunities all around me for recreation and exercise.
And once I took those opportunities, I was able to show up for my family and work with more energy and commitment, and also develop the “Finish Your Thesis Program.”
When it comes to taking time for yourself, what is the #1 challenge that you face? Please leave a comment below and I will respond to you directly 🙂