The thesis and the stew

Those who know me know how much I love food and cooking. So, it won’t come as a surprise that I would use a food analogy for doing a PhD.

There’s fast food, and slow food. Fast food is great for getting the job done and some fast food can be pretty good. But, it doesn’t compare to the depth of flavour of slow food — food that takes time and care to prepare. Doing a PhD is like making a slow-cooked stew. But, I was trying to rapidly cook mine in the microwave.

Getting shit done

It comes down to how I’m used to working. For most of my career, I’ve worked in high paced, pressure cooker environments where the suffix –er was a favourite … bigger, greater, faster, sooner. Given my work environment, my moto was “get shit done”. There was never a moment to spare given my daily goal was to check as much as possible off my ever-growing to-do list. I would check emails at 6am to get a little bit ahead, then I would get through a dozen more on the bus into work. At work, I scheduled back-to-back meetings, ate lunch at my desk (if I even ate at all) and had ‘walk-with-me’ conversations with teammates because there wasn’t enough time to sit and have a proper discussion. At night, sitting on the couch, I could smash out a report, budget or presentation for the next morning and get through just a few more emails. Every single second of every day went towards being more productive. My life was a fast food drive-through. (Likely this scenario is a ‘day-in-the-life’ of most, if not all, of you — am I right?)

When it came to my PhD, I saw it as just another job with a massive to-do list. I filled the walls of my uni office with calendars, Gantt charts and schedules. I planned everything to the nth degree. It was, of course, all about being productive and getting shit done. My supervisor admired my organisational skills but often told me that in research things take as long as they take and that I shouldn’t be so focused on deadlines and schedules. I heard what she said but I didn’t quite sink in.

The valley of shit

A few months ago, I started writing the first chapter of my thesis. I had read tons of literature, had taken heaps of notes and collected lots of bits of writing, but I couldn’t pull all the ideas together. I had all the ingredients, but I couldn't get them to come together. I was stuck. My self-imposed deadline was looming, and I had nothing. Every minute counted, so I would sit in front of the computer for hours each day, forcing myself to write, but produced nothing good. The harder I pushed myself to get it done, the more frustrated I became. I felt like I was falling behind and failing. I was deflated. I was wading in what the Thesis Whisperer calls “The Valley of Shit … that period of your PhD, however brief, when you lose perspective and therefore confidence and belief in yourself”. Instead of conquering the shit (as I always had), I was swimming in it.

This went on for about six weeks until one day I gave up and put it all aside to focus my attention on other more pressing matters. Incredibly, a couple weeks after putting the writing aside, things started to crystallise in my head. Slowly the ingredients came together into a tasty stew — I just needed to let them simmer and bubble away in the background for a while. More importantly, I started to get creative with the content forming my own original ideas; like adding in my own spice mix to the pot. What I finally produced was described by my supervisor as ‘perfection’! It felt amazing — I was out of the valley of shit and basking in the sunshine.

Default 'brilliance' mode

It turns out, our brains need space and time to make sense of things. In 2015, Manoush Zomordi, host of the ‘Note to Self’ podcast, started a project called ‘Bored and Brilliant’ where she challenged tens of thousands of listeners to reduce their phone use. In the absence of being constantly busy — checking inbox, social media and news feeds — people found they could let their minds wander, which triggered their brains to go into what neuroscientists and psychologists call “default mode”. In one of Manoush’s interviews, researcher Dr Sandi Mann said that “once you start daydreaming and allow your mind to really wander, you start thinking a little bit beyond the conscious, a little bit into the subconscious, which allows sort of different connections to take place”. It is in the default mode that “we connect disparate ideas, [and] solve some of our most nagging problems”1.

Similarly, Nicolas Carr who writes on technology, business, and culture, says that “there needs to be time for efficient data collection and time for inefficient contemplation, time to operate the machine and time to sit idly in the garden"2. In referencing Carr’s work, Arianna Huffington, (co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post) says that taking the time to think is key to creativity, but our fast-paced, technology-dependent, content-fuelled culture is affecting our ability to think deeply and creatively 3.

Twelve months ago, I would have rolled my eyes at this idea and thought “well yes, in an ideal world taking time to think sounds great, but the practical reality is there is no time”. For the most part, life is a fast food drive-through. That’s just reality. But I’m now learning to embrace the idea that some things — things that require deep higher order thinking such as analysis, evaluation, synthesis and creation — can’t be rushed or forced. My supervisor had told me, but I had to learn it for myself.

Old habits die hard. I think I’ll always be a ‘get shit done’ kind of worker — which is fine. But I realise that sometimes, taking the time to let things simmer in the background is the only way to actually get shit done.

1 Zomorodi, Manoush (2017). How boredom can lead to your most brilliant ideas. TED2017. April 2017, Vancouver, BC.

2 Carr, Nicholas (2011). The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains. New York: W.W. Norton.

3 Huffington, Arianna Stassinopoulos. Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-being, Wisdom, and Wonder. First edition. Harmony Books, 2014.

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