June 15, 2015

I Can't Stress This Enough

Five Steps to Dealing with Stress as a Graduate Student or Postdoc
by Liz Haswell

Those who know me well may find this post ironic, as I am definitely prone to attacks of anxiety. My humble hope is that the fact that I am not a relaxed person by nature actually makes me a good resource for this discussion. At any rate, below are my current ideas about dealing with and reducing stress. I hope they are useful to you!

Step One: Take care of your biology before your Biology.

A friend from my years at Caltech coined this phrase to remind herself to take the time to pee during long experiments. She was right: to do good science you need to get enough sleep, exercise, and eat well. Of course there are times when you can’t get 8 hours, and I’m not saying that eating the food pyramid will always be possible. I personally find it hard to sleep well at any time, much less when I’m feeling stressed. Just do your best and remember that you will eventually run out of gas if you don’t fuel up. Also make sure you feed and rest your brain by taking time for socializing, vacationing, and/or time to yourself. If it helps, schedule your time out so that it feels completely legitimate. One of my all-time favorite blog posts on this topic, by Harvard professor Radhika Nagpal, is here.

Step Two: Empty your head.

Do this however you like—on paper or a Word file or whatever. But get your ideas, to-do lists, tasks, concerns, etc. out of your head and into a reliable system for later retrieval. I get a lot of relief just from writing down what needs to be done. Also, find a way to put tasks into future files, in a way that won’t get lost, so that you can put them out of your mind. I use Outlook or my daily planner. In June, I don’t want to be worrying about a grant that isn’t due until September. So I put a reminder to start working on this grant on Aug 1 in my calendar, and I try not to think about it again until then. The classic book Getting Things Done covers the idea of “brain dumps” and “tickler files” in abundant detail.

Step Three: Prioritize by month, week and day.

This is a key step after the brain-dump. It’s deliberately choosing the one to three (but no more than three) things that you really want to accomplish during a given period of time, and making them your serious and solid focus. This is a way to make sure that the big, important stuff that might be hard or uncomfortable to do gets done instead of the trivial, easy stuff; otherwise you may find yourself doing what’s easy rather than what’s important. There are planners that help with this on a daily basis, like the Emergent Task Planner or Day Designer, but obviously any piece of paper or computer file can do the same. I find it useful to decide what’s important to focus on for the upcoming month on the first day of the month, for the upcoming week on Sunday nights, and for the next day at the end of the day. This strategy can really reduce stress by helping you identify what’s important to focus on and let go of the things that are not.

Step Four: Set goals of quality as well as completion.

Would you rather be doing a lot of mediocre work, or be doing a few things really well? I personally value quality over quantity in many areas of life (wine, graduate students, husbands, etc.). No matter how smart and competent you are, it is not possible to do an excellent and compelling job at everything that comes across your path. So you have to choose. First you must decide what you DO want to accomplish well (give a great talk, make substantial progress on an experiment, make industry connections). Then, you simplify your life and reduce stress by a) “satisficing” or b) jettisoning the rest.

  1. Satisficing. My colleague and friend Bethany Zolman taught me the word satisfice. It is a very useful word for a perfectionist. I use it to mean that for many tasks, you only need to produce work that is satisfactory (e.g., not crappy) and that will suffice (e.g., just good enough). Obviously many things can’t or shouldn’t be treated this way, but it is useful to know when to stop “polishing the turd”.
  2. Jettisoning. It is critical (but reallly hard) to learn when and how to say no to commitments, obligations, and activities that don’t line up with the goals you’ve set for yourself. This doesn’t mean that you should never attend seminars outside of your research area, or that you should skip contributing to the lab blog. But you should weigh each activity against what you’ve decided is important, or what you want to develop in yourself, or what you want to be known for. See a great LifeHacker post on saying no here

Step Five: Review what you’ve accomplished.

The point of all this is to be productive while staying sane. But it can seem like a never-ending treadmill if you don’t pause to evaluate (and celebrate!) every now and then. A review at the end of the month can be pretty enlightening—maybe you got way off track and are surprised to even be reminded of some of your goals, or maybe you accomplished far more than you thought you would. A regular review can also make it clear if there are important things you are regularly choosing not to do—and you can make a deliberate decision to make them top priority. No matter what, it will reduce anxiety to see how things are going and then adjust for the following month (or week or day).

How do you manage stress? What do you think of the ideas above? Leave a comment or send me your ideas through Twitter!

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