Tonight I’m taking a break and indulging in some R&R, basking in the satisfaction of having turned in my approved dissertation prospectus and edits on an article. But just yesterday I was in a stressful, ugly place with my writing and with myself. It’s lead me to think about how I approach my to-do lists and my writing process.
I have had a pretty stressful string of weeks. I’ve been sick for weeks on end and the deadlines piled up. It’s not exactly a newsflash that grad school is stressful. And when it comes to writing on a deadline, this isn’t exactly my first rodeo. The difference this time was that the level of stress and the sickness put me in a tricky head space. I’m normally self-critical, but I was so in my head that I got myself stuck. Way, way stuck on an essay I was revising. The changes I needed to make were significant, but, because the essay was already pretty polished, it shouldn’t have taken me a month to do them. But it did. Over the last two weeks I spent a lot of time revising my dissertation prospectus and cover letter, which are now turned in, but when I wasn’t doing that I was mostly starring at my computer screen trying to make writing happen or sleeping off the aforementioned illness. Last weekend I pulled a pointless all-nighter trying, and failing, to finish the essay. At 5:00 a.m. I had a to take a step back and think about what I was doing. Because of the stress I wasn’t taking care of myself, which lead to the pressure building up, which added to my stuck-ness on the essay. But why?
I did some soul searching and some writing to try to work my way out of my writer’s block. Here are some of the strategies I came up with.
Manage the Pressure
Aside from fatigue, the biggest problem was me. I put a lot of pressure on myself on top of the routine pressure of grad school. In my conversations with other women in graduate programs, that seems pretty normal. It’s so easy, however, for the narrative that goes along with that pressure to run away with itself. In my head, I was turning the revision process into a do-or-die scenario, as though these changes to these essays would make or break my career. It sounds so stupid as I type it out, but in the moment when the deadlines were looming and I was struggling to piece things together, the pressure felt real. Learning to manage the voices of self-doubt, catastrophizing, competitiveness, and worry is terribly difficult but important.
In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron suggests writing three stream-of-consciousness “morning pages” to help move beyond the voices of our internal critics and help us focus our creative energy first thing each day, tuning out the thoughts that cause us to get blocked by self-doubt, worry, or other obstacles. That is a practice I’ve tried and failed to take up for a while and I think as I move into my dissertation I am going to seriously commit to making it part of my day.
Make Self-Care a Priority
I think a big part of why the pressure built up is that I neglected self-care. Because I’ve been feeling sick and fatigued, I skipped my workouts. Because I felt pressed for time, I didn’t call friends. I hardly talked to my partner. I didn’t go to church or my barre class. Even my long-suffering dog missed a game of fetch or two. (Seriously, this toy kept her pretty entertained and helped cut down on my guilt.) I just sat at my desk from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. for weeks, not getting enough done to justify the process.
Self-care is a way of expressing love for yourself. It sounds very huggy-feely, but if you’re the kind of person who might be overly self-critical, finding ways to take care of yourself is one way of working to manage the negative feedback loop in your head and keep it from getting in your way.
Find a System that Works
When I feel like I have too much to do, it becomes hard for me to focus. The adrenaline rush makes it easy to complete smaller tasks and hard to focus on bigger ones. The problem is exacerbated when I have multiple tasks that demand creative or intellectual attention. I end up stuck between the part of me that thrives on a divide-and-conquer method of planning, breaking the task down into manageable parts, and the part of me that doesn’t easily jump from writing one essay to another. This was the case as I tried to move from making edits to my prospectus and edits to the essay while also doing things like lesson planning and working on smaller projects.
In that 5:00 am heart-to-heart with myself, I found two different organization methods on Pinterest (I know…) that I think can help with coping with a to-do list better than what I have been doing. One method Spring Clean Your Mind involves cleaning the internal clutter by creating a series of to-do lists divided by importance and duration. That way you know which items must be done, which you can do if you have just a bit of time between things, and which require more long-term planning or energy. Having that Urgent List and the 10 Minute Task List has already helped me control my urge to get up and clean the sink when I get stuck on a more pressing but more intellectual task. I will look forward to not staying up all night for a while, I hope. The other method is cool for academics, I think. Intended for people with adult ADD, creating a two column to-do list with a to-do and an I-did column can help keep the never, ever, ever ending list of academic life in perspective.
My dissertation committee was really, really helpful as I wrote my prospectus. In the last couple of days when I was scrambling to get signatures and was deep in the throws of over-thinking things, it was also helpful to hear positive feedback from people I could trust. Sometimes you need to hear someone else tell you a piece of writing is “done,” especially if it’s a piece that is important to you. I also think it’s important to have a chance to get feedback from someone in a situation that isn’t evaluative. Our faculty can be incredibly helpful, but ultimately they also evaluate our work, write us letters, and are sort of the bosses. I have a weekly writing group with a good friend in my program and it’s been a great experience because I get helpful feedback from a peer who knows my work. Sometimes, because of competition or egos or other factors, grad school can be isolating, but finding a space in which you can get low-stakes feedback on your work can help you improve and keep things in perspective.
It took until late Thursday night, but I finally got everything turned in so I can get some rest before I start working on the next batch of deadlines.
What are your writing, revising, or organization strategies? How do you cope with writer’s block?