Overwhelm in Graduate School is Not Caused by Having Too Much To Do
Do you know that feeling of overwhelm in graduate school that you are feeling crushed by the thought of it?
I used to feel so much overwhelm in graduate school…and I searched everywhere for magic formulas and productivity tools that help me feel like everything was under control.
Perhaps you know what I mean, and maybe you can also also relate to what happened next:
The harder I tried to get rid of the overwhelm, the more I worked, and the more books I read about it, the more overwhelmed I felt.
What was going on? Why did I have so much to do?
I felt frustrated that no matter how hard I worked, my to-do list and expectations from other people just kept piling up.
Then it hit me:
The more efficient I became the more I had to do.
When I became efficient, I expected more of myself and others expected more of me too.
It’s one of those ironies in life, when you feel like you get punished for doing a good job.
(In another article I talk about about how to manage expectations from others…for now let’s just focus on how to manage your own expectations)
In my case, an injury forced me to Stop. Doing. Everything.
A chronic dull ache in my arms turned into elbows swollen to the size of tennis balls overnight.
No joke, my elbows were really that big
I was diagnosed “tennis elbow”, caused by the repetitive motion of typing too much.
My injury was so severe that for 2 whole weeks I had to stop doing everything.
I spent my days sitting on my couch, too weak to hold a book to read, and contemplating how in the world I would finish my thesis.
Little did I know that during my recovery (which was a few years, not a few months) my hours would be really cut back.
Sometimes I could work for 4 hours, sometimes 1 hour, and other times the pain came back after just 15 minutes…on those days I wondered whether I was just taking up space in my office.
I felt overwhelmed, but working more hours was not an option.
The irony was that just a few months before I had wished that I could work less, but when I was forced to work less I felt frustrated.
What if I fall behind so much that I never finish grad school?
Will ever be able to live “normally” (let alone work “normally”) again with this injury?
I took a serious leap of faith, and decided I didn’t want to quit graduate school.
Since I had to “do less”, I decided to do less of the “non-essential stuff”.
I spent more time than I want to admit on emails…could I cut emails down to just 30 minutes a day?
This one surprised me, because the fewer people I emailed, and the shorter my emails were, the less emails I received.
I used email just to send thesis drafts to my advisors, and I picked up the good old phone (or went out to lunch in person!) to catch up with my friends.
In my last semester of grad school I spent 3-5 minutes a day on email, and no one seemed to mind.
I must admit that at first I felt guilty for not checking emails 3-5-10 times a day.
But gradually, I started to feel some of the overwhelm lift off when I checked email just once a day and responded to thesis-only emails.
As I cut out email, I started to let go of other internet-related distractions.
Eventually, the few hours I spent at work (and sometimes it was just 1 hour), had to move my thesis forward.
My work routine became a “lean machine” producing small, slow, but steady progress on my thesis.
It wasn’t that I had less to do.
In fact, I had lots of catching up to do, because I lost months of work!
But, I actually felt less overwhelm in graduate school because I was doing “less stuff”.
I realized that so much of the “stuff” I was doing seemed really important, but it was not helping my thesis, or my personal life.
This came as a surprise to me too, so no worries if you need to take a second to process this epiphany.
To be completely honest, sometimes I still overwhelmed by how much “stuff” I get sucked into that does not make a difference to me or my work.
But letting go of “doing stuff” is also liberating – especially when you can see the light at the end of the tunnel in grad school so let’s move onto:
3 Steps to Let Go of Overwhelm in Graduate School by the End of this Article (Seriously)
Let’s say that you are writing a chapter of your thesis.
If you are focused on all the things that still need to be done to get the chapter you will feel overwhelmed.
Because let’s face it, you have other things to do as well.
You need to take care of your home, your finances etc on top of writing this thesis chapter!
That’s quite a lot!
So let’s tweak the script, shall we?
Step #1:Focus on what you have already accomplished
Perhaps you are thinking, “Dora I am a mess. I have written nothing, I have not exercised/showered/shaved etc and now you are asking me to list what I accomplished? Well, that would be a big fat nothing!”
Ok, let’s slow down.
I completely get how you feel, when you think all you accomplished is a big fat nothing – or something similar, whichever your vocabulary is.
So, let’s check this out.
Let’s say that you have written nothing of your thesis, although most students have done more and know more about their thesis topic than they realize.
It’s really tough to give yourself credit for having accomplished something that’s not perfect when you are in an ultra-competitive environment like academia.
It seems like you are raising your standards by not being happy with what you have.
But, beating yourself up for not being “enough” and not doing “enough” are actually slowing you down.
If you feel like you are not smart “enough”, not hard-working “enough”, how likely are you to finish writing and then submit something to your supervisor that you feel confident about?
Not very likely….
I bet, though, that you want to hand in something and feel like your thesis is going somewhere, right?
The best way to gain the confidence that your thesis is moving forward is to recognize how far along you have already come.
Step #2: Say No to Your #1 Enemy
Did you ever have one of those days when you feel like you will get a lot done, but at the end of the day you wonder where all the time went?
I certainly had my share of days where I wished I had a time machine to give me just a few hours back.
What happened to all that time?
Most likely: distractions.
Distractions are one of the most common reasons for feeling overwhelm in graduate school.
Whether they are external (emails, people interrupting you) or internal ( self-doubt, your thoughts racing faster than the speed of light), distractions are expensive!
An email check may only “seem” like 5 minutes.
And maybe it is only 5 minutes.
But how long do the thoughts about the emails linger in your head?
I know that after an email check I involuntarily start thinking about how I will re-arrange my schedule to do what someone asked me to do, or I have to process emotions from either good or not so good news.
Thinking about emails is not going to lessen your work-load: it will only add to your overwhelm.
But emails are just one type of distraction that lead to overwhelm in graduate school.
Other distractions include conversations, chores that seem “urgent”, social media (I could write a whole article on that, but I won’t let myself get distracted) and our own self-talk.
The tricky thing about distractions is that many of them are actually important.
You need to talk to people, you need to take care of chores, and social media may be an important part of how you keep in touch with friends.
But here is the key question: How many of these chores are urgent?
Can they wait until you finished part of your work?
It took me a while to distinguish “important” from “urgent”, but once I did, I felt like a million pounds just fell off my shoulders.
“Urgent” things came up rarely, especially in graduate school.
(There was a lot more “urgency” when I was working in industry and parenting my children – but let’s stay focused on your thesis)
Sure, there was some “urgency” to get a presentation ready in time, collect data, and write up a chapter to send my supervisor.
But not the kind of urgency when something could not wait 15 minutes, or even a hour, so I could get my work done.
You don’t want to live the kind of life when your days consists of doing one “urgent” thing after another.
I’ve been there, and I can tell you it’s no fun.
If you’re reading this, I have a feeling you’ve been there too, and you don’t want to go back.
Urgent things will come up – either at work, or in your family – and you will know that they are urgent.
If you’re not sure that it’s urgent, it’s probably not, and it is a distraction from doing the work that is important.
Step #3: Treat yourself to something that makes you feel great
Did you ever have that experience when you felt really overwhelmed by something and or that life seemed really difficult, but you went to sleep or went out with friends and all of a sudden the situation did not seem so dire?
What this illustrates, is that it is our feelings about a situation, not the situation itself that causes overwhelm.
If you feel great in general, those feelings will carry over to the time you spend on your work.
Even if parts of the work are frustrating, you can handle the frustrations much better after a satisfying workout than a disappointing meeting with your supervisor.
Just like focusing on what you have already accomplished can seem uncomfortable first (see step #1 above), so can treating yourself to something that makes you feel great.
Overwhelm in graduate school doesn’t is a result of what you have to do, but a result of your feelings about what you have to do.
It can be tough to treat yourself to something that makes you feel great if you…
- Don’t have enough money
- Don’t have time
- Are not in the mood to treat yourself to something
- Wonder whether you deserve to be treated to something
- Don’t know what would make you feel great (because you can’t remember the last time that you felt great)
Treating yourself to something that makes you feel good does not need to be expensive, time-consuming or complex.
How about a 5-15 minute walk?
A refreshing glass of your favorite beverage?
A healthy meal? (you need to eat anyway, right?)
I could list a lot more options ranging from going to an exercise class, to going out to dinner with friends, to a whole weekend off.
The point is not how much time you take off, or how much money you spend.
The point is how it makes you feel.
After weeks of fast-food and free pizza, one healthy meal can make you feel like you have just been reborn (and in some ways you have).
It is not enough, though, to treat yourself to something just once in a while.
You need to treat yourself to basic human needs like rest, nutrition, and a social life on a regular basis.
I know that many people (academics included), survive “just fine” without rest, nutrition or a social life.
But you don’t want to just survive.
And you don’t want to live a life where overwhelm is the norm.
Constant feeling overwhelm in graduate school does not have to be the norm.
You didn’t come to graduate school to just “survive”.
You came to graduate school to create a better life for yourself.
So, start today, to create a life for yourself where you feel good, and as a result you can provide for the people you love.
Give yourself that extra few minutes to eat a healthy meal, get an extra glass of water or just some fresh air.
And, if you want to go the extra mile, call someone who has been there for you and ask how they have been doing.
Giving someone else the gift of your time and taking off some of their “overwhelm”, will make you feel a lot lighter too.
What’s the #1 reason that you feel overwhelm in graduate school?
Please leave a comment below and Dora will respond to you directly.