PhD tips: Self-care during your PhD

By James Hayton,
December 11, 2019
James Hayton is a former physicist, PhD coach and author of "PhD: An uncommon guide"
Since 2010, he's coached hundreds of individual PhD students and now offers
group support and online courses

Sometimes, it can seem like there's so much to do there's no way you can handle it all.

When this happens, it's easy to neglect your own self-care. How can you find the time to exercise, to eat and sleep well, to spend time with friends, or to just relax for a moment when there are a million other things to do?

But if you neglect yourself for too long, how can you expect to perform at the level you need to cope with these demands? How can you solve difficult problems and produce good work if you're exhausted, unhealthy and unhappy?

It's when you feel like you don't have the time that it's most important to look after yourself.

Some suggestions for self-care

Don't feel like you have to do all of these. It's best to pick one to start with, then you can start to add more.

Sleep

Sleep is fundamental to every aspect of health. If you think you can function on 4 hours sleep, I highly recommend reading Matthew Walker's "Why we sleep" (or listen to this interview)

To help improve your sleep, try avoiding coffee in the afternoons and alcohol. Also turning off all screens at least 30 minutes before you go to sleep (don't check emails in bed!)

Meditate

One of the reasons why we get stressed is the way we think about the situation we're in and the meaning we give it. The same situation can be seen and interpreted in different ways and what we think or feel in the current moment is not necessarily accurate or useful.

Meditation is a way of training yourself to notice - and start to take control of - the patterns of thought that dominate your experience. Even 10 minutes per day can make a significant difference.

There are many guided meditation apps and YouTube videos, but I'd personally recommend either Sam Harris's "Waking Up" course or Headspace.

Eat well

When you're stressed, you're much more likely to choose the quick, easy, junk food option. Taking the time, even just once a week, to cook yourself a healthy and tasty meal isn't just about physical nutrition, but also about reinforcing the belief that you're worth looking after.

If you don't want to do it for yourself, cook for someone else and have some company!

Check out Lazy Cat Kitchen for some excellent recipes.

Exercise

Exercise doesn't have to be strenuous to have a significant benefit. In fact, it's often better to exercise gently to get the body moving and the blood flowing.

Most people make the mistake of over-training, going to the point of failure in whatever exercise they do. Instead, most of your exercise should be easy, only occasionally pushing to the limit occasionally.

Try jogging slowly (at "conversation pace") or doing 20 minutes easy stretching.

If you're already in good shape and exercise regularly, try reducing the intensity. Take it really easy and see how it feels.

Call somebody

Think of someone you haven't spoken to for a while. Call them!

Turn everything off

Through your phone, tablet or computer, you have access to almost all of the world's information. This means that companies have started competing for your attention, deliberately designing platforms to keep you anxious so you keep checking them.

Give yourself a break. Turn everything off for an hour and just be.

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