Resources for staying well during your PhD (Tseen Khoo)

Photo by Nsey Benajah |

Writing this during Lockdown 2.0 that has moved into Stage 4 in Melbourne, it's very clear that the extended stress and uncertainty of our COVID lives is affecting everyone. From chats with buddies and participants in the sessions I'm running, I'm hearing a lot of shakiness due to people feeling overwhelmed and stalled.

The additional pandemic anxieties sit on top of already busy, time-stretched lives that are filled with individual pressures, family issues, and health concerns. As we've seen, what's happening now exacerbates the fissures in our society and its structural inequalities. There are many things out of our control, and this can have a significant impact on our sense of wellbeing.

This is why RED invited Hugh Kearns in on 23 July to present 'Staying well during your PhD' to our graduate researchers to support conversations and reflections in this area. As always, the workshop was full of practical strategies and insight into how we think through unconstructive patterns of behaviour in our lives. For this instance, these strategies were applied to researchers and their projects, of course, but the insight I gained was relevant across other contexts.

For me, right now, one of the main reasons for compromised wellbeing is stress about workload and feeling unproductive. I'm privileged to have a job that I can do from home, and to be in isolation with those I care about and whose company I enjoy. Others will have different circumstances and demands in their lives.

I'm finding that I work harder to get an average workload done, and still feel that I'm falling behind. And because most of us are working from home these days, job and research worries can't be left at the office, laboratory, or campus. They're right here beside us, all the time. My main take-aways for approaching my work more effectively (and, therefore, feeling better about it) were:
  • Don't wait for inspiration to strike. Otherwise, you're not going to get much done. 
  • Maximise focus by minimising distractions. If you can get 2 real, focused hours of work done a day, that's really good.
  • Make a start, no matter how small, to get the momentum going. It's easy to feel overwhelmed, and it's good to break projects down to smaller (micro or even nano!) steps. 
Hugh's Thinkwell website has a collection of tools and templates for the staying well strategies he shares.

During the session, we also discussed looking after ourselves and those around us at this time. A few of us tweeted from the session and these were captured in the workshop's Wakelet. I realised why we can sometimes be our own worst enemies when it comes to negative self-talk, and I came away promising to be a better friend to myself.

One thing we definitely need to remember right now is this:
We are not working from home...We are at home, trying to work under difficult conditions. This is not normal.
---  Hugh Kearns (qtd. in Jacinta Humphrey's tweet)
Our wonderful participants contributed tips and links to the chatbox during the workshop and we've gathered them below to serve as a resource for those of you who are keen to explore ideas and options for yourself. Many thanks to my colleagues Vincent and Jamie for their work on this listing!

Links and resources (shared in the chatbox)

Practices for staying well that work for our colleagues (shared in the chatbox): 

Dealing with technology/distractions:
  • Closing Outlook, turning the Wi-Fi off on phone, keeping phone on silent during working hours, working offline by downloading files beforehand, closing tabs, putting phone in another room, switching tv, radio and news feeds off, unfollowing news pages, putting social media and news sites in a subfolder on phone, deleting email aps off phone.
Enhancing productivity, and marking the difference between ‘home’ and ‘work’:  
  • Adapt the pomodoro technique, study beats playlist on Spotify, turning on background ‘cafe’ or ‘soundtrack’ music, jotting down the first thing I want to do tomorrow, closing the laptop and leaving the room, shoes – “I wear real shoes during the day and slippers at night”, “trying to develop 5 mins writing ‘what I’ve learnt today’ and then stop working”
Ensuring wellbeing:
  • Set up a routine and structure, walking and playing with pets, exercise at the start and end of each day, engaging in hobbies (such as music, hiking, tennis, home workout, cooking, attending art classes, crosswords, sudoku), doing mindfulness meditation 10 minutes every day, stopping at 5pm every day, smiling before bedtime.
Key takeaways from the workshop:
  • Make realistic deadlines, Control the Controllable(s), Don't get isolated, Importance of work day structure, realistic steps, motivation fairy, the steps of Action-Motivation-Action.
If you have strategies for staying well, please feel free to share them in the comments! 


You may also be interested in this recent post on 10 Time Management Strategies post.

If you need additional support, these La Trobe pages may also be helpful at this time: 

Dr Tseen Khoo is a Senior Lecturer in the RED team. You can find her on Twitter at @tseenster.