Overwhelmed by your PhD work

#59: Overwhelmed by PhD work? Here’s the way out!

Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by all the tasks you’ve got to tackle for your PhD? Do you feel like there’s simply too much you should be doing right now? No idea where to start? And when you start somewhere you’re unsure if what you’re doing is the right thing to focus on, or if you should do something else? In this blogpost, we will give you essential tips and a free worksheet to help you overcome that overwhelming feeling and get back on top of your PhD.

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Feeling lost, out of control and uncertain about which tasks to work on at all, or which ones to tackle first, is very common among PhD students. You’re not alone! But that does not mean you should comfort yourself with the thought of others having the same problem. Rather, see it as a warning sign that something is wrong with your working pattern and how you organise yourself. You should try and weed it out by the roots and set yourself up with a better system so you can tackle your tasks in a productive way. 

To help you stop feeling overwhelmed by your PhD, we’ve included 4 great tips in this blogpost and added an extra worksheet “Instant help with PhD overwhelm” with practical suggestions to cut through the noise and move yourself into a more productive work pattern. If you want to hear more about good working habits for PhD students, sign up for our free PhD Master Class. 

Increasing workload and complexity

While at the beginning of your PhD, the workload may have seemed manageable, it often increases significantly as you progress with your work and your project. You may have to handle much more complex tasks and requirements than ever before. There is eventually a lot that will go on in parallel during your PhD with varying timelines and completion dates. 

At the same time, you feel the pressure to progress with your study, to deliver results and to live up to the expectations of your boss, PI or supervisor. So you end up feeling that you should be achieving a lot more than you actually do. But who has ever taught you how to organise the multitude of requirements streaming in from all sides, and the complexity of your entire PhD, plus all the side hustles you may be involved in as well? Let us guess – no one! No previous degree programme or professional experience has prepared you adequately for this. 

You lack the tools and a system to organise yourself, your tasks and your time, so you can become more efficient in the time you have available. If you want to hear more about this, sign up for our free PhD Master Class. 

Feeling overwhelmed is stressful –  it leaves you feeling lost and uncertain. You are dissatisfied with what you do and you feel you can’t get your most important work done. Occasionally, you may forget tasks or only realise that there’s something that needs your attention shortly before a deadline (see blog post #8 for how to avoid deadline disaster). 

Your lack of ability to decide what to do or what to start with means you’re not really able to move forward, you are less productive overall, and you‘re losing time. Quite the opposite of how you want to work on your PhD, where time is a scarce resource. Below, we list the underlying reasons for that overwhelming feeling – and then we move right to the steps you can take to move yourself along! 

That overwhelming feeling: the underlying reasons

1. Lack of overview

Feeling overwhelmed is a sign that you have lost the overview. You literally can’t see the forest for the trees. You often work with tiny details in your PhD and you have to dive deep into a particular aspect of your work. It’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, as well as all the elements that will contribute to it. You have no overview of all the tasks you need to accomplish at any given moment. 

2. Lack of clarity about your goals

The fact that you are feeling overwhelmed may also stem from the fact that your strategic goals (i.e. what exactly constitutes your PhD dissertation in the end) are not clear enough. You lack the perspective on which big rocks you have to move to achieve your end goal: the PhD degree. You can’t discern the big rocks from the small ones – so you don’t focus your efforts on the strategically important activities. 

3. Not knowing what is important

You don’t know, or you feel unable to decide, what is important and what is not important. This may be related to the second point. If you have no clarity on your long-term goals, then how should you know what is important? As a consequence, you can’t prioritise your tasks. We often come across PhD students who have that very problem. To them, all tasks seem important, they lack a differentiating factor telling them what to put in the ‘important’ basket and what to leave aside. 

4. Inability to make decisions and move forward

You’re not used to (because so far there was no need for this) making decisions on what to do and what not to do. You may not have been in a situation before where you had much more on your plate than you could handle. The tasks came in, you processed them, and then you tackled the next ones. That strategy fails as soon as you get more tasks than you can handle at one time. Then you have to make a decision on what to do and what not to do. Otherwise you can’t move ahead or you’ll go into overdrive trying to do everything, which proves impossible in the long run. 

How to get out of PhD overwhelm: 4 key tips 

1. Figure out the overview

The first way to move yourself out of the overwhelming feeling is to get an overview of all tasks and activities that you should be working on right now. This includes all tasks for your PhD research, but also preparatory steps, tasks for your graduate programme, courses you take, additional activities you have to perform, conferences, teaching and supervising students, etc. 

2. Clarify your goals

Feeling overwhelmed is often also a sign of ‘not knowing exactly where the journey is going’! In other words: If you have absolute clarity on what you should achieve with your PhD, it is subsequently easier to know what your focus should be and which activities you should work on. This limits the options of what makes sense to do and what does not make sense. If you lack this clarity, you’re not able to re-connect your daily tasks with your overall goals. To get more clarity, chisel out your overall goals and objectives for your PhD project until they are crystal clear. Get our Quick-Guide Planning your PhD project. 

3. Decide what is, and what is not, important

When you have the overview of tasks (from step 1) and with your clarified goals in mind, make a decision on what is important and what is not important for you to work on. The important stuff is everything that will help you achieve your goal – getting the PhD degree. This is the specific research you do to get the degree, the exact results that will be required, the very publications you have to write and any additional course work or tasks you have to accomplish in your PhD graduate programme. 

4. Make a decision and move forward

Now that you’ve got an overview of your tasks and clarity on what is important or not so important, you are in a better position to decide how and when to tackle each task. But now you should also decide what NOT to do, what to say ‘no’ to or, if appropriate, keep for later. Tough decision-making about what NOT to focus on or what NOT to do is one of the keys to freeing-up time and energy for the things that you want to do which have high priority in order to get your PhD completed. 

Download our free worksheet “Instant help with PhD overwhelm” to get out of overwhelm right now! To permanently move yourself into the productive zone, to adopt fruitful and productive working habits and to reduce stress, you should set up a complete system of organising yourself and your time. In our course ‘How to complete your PhD successfully on time’, we teach participants exactly this, with step-by-step easy to follow guidelines and exercises. We’ve got so much more to tell you about how exactly this works. If you want to hear more, tune in to our free PhD Master Class

Let us help you to work on your PhD more happily and productively! 

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