I felt my throat constricting as I read the email from my thesis supervisor.
I know I should have felt honored, but all I could feel was the anxiety building up in my body.
I had just finished a series of experiments and my thesis committee meeting was in a week.
I thought that there was no way that I could finish the data analysis in time.
Now, my thesis supervisor asked me to present my data to our industry sponsors in front of an audience of 100 people in just 2 weeks (gulp).
I could not reschedule my thesis committee meeting…it took me months to find this one time-slot when everyone was available.
I also knew I had to make the best impression possible on our industry sponsors (or else our funding might be at risk).
There was only one way to get this all done: work all weekend.
It was Friday afternoon and I made a detailed plan of Saturday and Sunday, outlining all the data analysis I would do to.
I walked home deep in thought about my upcoming presentations, when I suddenly felt a big fluffy dog jump on me begging to be pet.
“Wendy!” I exclaimed, feeling startled and confused at the same time.
Then I saw the familiar silver van parked in front of my dorm and my boyfriend and his parents waving at me.
“Hey,” my boyfriend said. “My parents are going to Sturbridge this weekend. Do you want to go? ”
“I have so much work,” I replied. “I was just asked to do another presentation in 2 weeks.”
“You know the foliage is really nice this time of year, and it would be good for you to take a break.” he replied.
I thought there was no way I could go. If I missed this weekend I would be even more behind than before.
“I heard that they finished renovating Publick House,” my boyfriend’s Mom said with excitement. “We are going there for dessert after dinner.”
Did someone say “dessert at Publick House”?
The bakery there was unlike any other.
I could already smell the scent of freshly baked tarts and pies, and my mind started racing through all the dessert options I could choose from…
Twenty minutes later I was in the silver van going to Sturbridge for the entire weekend.
I am only human after all (especially when it comes to dessert).
I was a bit anxious during the drive – how will I get all of my work done if I miss Saturday and Sunday?
Fortunately, the trip to Sturbridge solved this problem, even though I didn’t even touch a computer or my phone all weekend.
3 Surprisingly Easy Ways to Clear Up Thesis Overwhelm
1. Purge the junk from your life
By junk, I don’t mean junk food (although that’s always a good thing to get rid of).
I am referring to all the things we do that actually don’t help us to make any progress.
Just pause for a minute: if you were to observe yourself going through your day, is there anything that is just a time sink?
Do you spend time with people who drain your energy, or check your email/text messages maybe a little too frequently?
Being in Sturbridge for 2 whole days (I know that’s a long vacation when you’re in grad school) gave me a new perspective on my time.
I had been so buried in my work for the previous 6 months, that I didn’t realize that I was constantly playing catch-up between experiments, data analysis, and writing progress progress.
I was fighting an uphill battle of trying to defeat a never-ending to-do list.
It was a habit (an addiction, actually), and I felt like I always had to keep myself busy.
But, when I paused and reflected on the work I had been doing, I realized that so much of what I had been doing was just busy-work.
I was reacting to the demands of others, responding to emails and other requests as quickly as possible.
Sometimes it was already noon and I hadn’t made any progress!
I also felt an urge to generate data quickly, and I repeated experiments without evaluating whether it was necessary.
What if I had started my days doing what was really important, such as evaluating my data before running a new experiment?
Was it really necessary to respond to emails quickly, and to help everyone who interrupted me during the day?
I had always felt pressured to help out others, but it wasn’t getting me anywhere – in fact, it was holding me back from completing my own work.
Is there anything that you can eliminate that would save you 15 minutes a day?
Or perhaps even a few hours a week?
If you can eliminate just a few time-sinks, you will feel liberated and ready to eliminate thesis overwhelm.
2. Make Peace with Boredom
If you are thinking “I wish that boredom was my biggest problem” recall the last time you checked your email or logged into social media just out of curiosity.
Was that the highest priority?
For some reason our culture puts value on being “busy.”
Did you ever catch up with an old friend, and when you asked how they were doing in their job they said something like: “I’ve been really busy, but I really like it.”
Don’t get me wrong…having a job that you enjoy is fantastic.
But, why do so many people start conversation by saying how “busy” they have been instead of what they like about their job?
The idea that “busy” is a good thing, implies that if you are not always “busy” you are slacking off.
Do you ever have 5 free minutes, and feel compelled to fill it up with social media or reading the news just to pass the time?
When you develop a habit of always being busy (and you may not even notice this unless you keep track of your time), you end up filling up your time with activities that drain your energy and focus.
This habit can lead to constantly feeling overwhelmed and too tired to prioritize the actions that are really important.
Next time you have 5 minutes, move away from the computer.
Stand up, breathe, and get a drink.
If you have a pet, play with him or her.
Animals are experts at enjoying the present moment.
Make peace with being bored for a few minutes every day – it will save you hours on the long run.
3. Get super-clear on your highest priority
Being away from my work for 2 days forced me to reprioritize my schedule.
Initially I felt like I lost 2 work days because I took off the whole weekend, but in reality this mini-vacation put my priority list into a new perspective.
My committee meeting was in 1 week, and prior to my trip I had been focusing on cramming as much data as possible into my presentation so my committee would be impressed.
But, after gaining some distance from my work, I realized that the amount of data was not the highest priority.
In fact, when I had presented a lot of data in previous meetings my thesis committee members got confused and we didn’t resolve anything.
When I got back to my office on Monday I put my focus on the major questions that my committee members had asked in the past.
This slight shift in my priorities felt incredibly relieving.
I no longer felt overwhelmed, feeling like there was no way to analyze all the data that I had.
I simplified my presentation and addressed all the issues my committee members had.
(I did have some backup slides with “extra credit” data analysis, just in case they asked, but they didn’t – they just wanted to have their concerns addressed)
Once I had the framework for my committee meeting, the presentation to our industry sponsors didn’t seem as intimidating either.
The content was different from my committee meeting presentation, but I used the same workflow to put it together.
I put myself in the shoes of our sponsors and thought about what questions they had asked at previous meetings.
There were certain aspects of our research that the sponsors had put a lot of emphasis on, and I collected the relevant data to put into the slides.
I realized that whenever I had felt overwhelmed in the past, it was the result of over-complicating my work.
Putting more hours into your work is usually not the solution to eliminate the overwhelm (especially if you are already working to the point of exhaustion).
When you get super-clear on your highest priority, eliminate time-sinks that drain your energy, and simplify your workflow, you will not only feel liberated, but you will also improve the quality of your work, and your life.
For more tips to help you get your thesis DONE and be more productive in graduate school, click here to get on the waiting list for the “Finish Your Thesis Program” and you will receive a free copy of Dora’s guide “Finish Your Thesis Faster”