Dear Story Nurse,
For the past year or so, I’ve been making an effort to develop some good writing habits, progress has been mixed (this is just for framing). But I am now rapidly coming towards the very end stages of my Ph.D. I don’t really want any additional sources of stress right now, and I don’t want to just stop writing for months if I can help it, so I declared writing habit amnesty for myself and gave myself permission to write whatever I want, and take breaks when I need to.
I know this was the right choice for the circumstance, I can pick up my more serious writing goals later, and yet I still feel guilty when I don’t write for a few days or I sit down to write and don’t Focus on my Serious Projects. And that’s after I bludgeon the brainweasels that consider a Thesis a 24/7 project.
Any tips for silencing the jerk-brain?
—Aspiring Slacker (she/her)
Dear Aspiring Slacker,
If you’re feeling guilty and anxious when you don’t write, do write but don’t work on serious projects, or do work on serious projects but not on your thesis, it sounds to me like the anxiety is not about writing but is about you generally being anxious right now. This is totally normal and understandable for someone at this stage of a PhD, as I understand it, so please start by forgiving yourself for being stressed out by a very, very stressful situation.
I know you don’t want to focus on non-thesis-related goals right now, but I suspect that setting aside those goals and the writing habits you’ve worked so hard to develop has left you a little bereft of structure. When you sit down to write, you’re immediately bombarded with all the things you could be doing that aren’t what you intend to be doing—no matter what that is. And since you haven’t made a firm commitment to doing a particular thing with that particular time, the nagging voices won’t leave you be.
Your work toward a writing habit isn’t entirely applicable, because it sounds like that was about writing regularly even if you weren’t really in the mood. What you need now is the opposite: time in which you are allowed to indulge in writing. This is time that creates the opportunity for writing, that invites and welcomes writing. It is time when you decide in advance that those nagging voices are not permitted entry. You’re shutting yourself in a soundproof room where they can’t follow. You promise that you will emerge after a set period of time, and they can take up their nagging again then. But during that set period of time, you are guilt-free.
Do you have to then maximize the use of that limited time? Only in the sense that you should focus on spending it doing things that feel good. You may find that what you want to do is write. You may find that you want to clean out your inbox, or play a phone game, or nap. All these things and more are permitted. This is time for you.
When writing is self-care, when writing is a joyous and satisfying and indulgent thing, you will write—have no fear of that. And if you don’t end up writing in that time, that’s fine too.
Do use those habit-building skills to figure out how often you need this (and can carve out time for it). I recommend at least weekly, maybe two or three times a week, at a regular time and in a regular way. You’re building a very different habit now, which is a self-care habit. It sounds like you could use it.
It is hard to silence the jerk-brain. But you can put it on pause, as long as you make a commitment to listen to it later. Just that simple, respectful negotiation, where you understand that your anxiety might have worthwhile things to say and your anxiety understands that you need times of not feeling anxious, will help set you up for greater calm and happiness. Your inner critic may be in need of some reassurance; make time for that, and it will make time for you to enjoy the good things in life, guilt-free. (If your inner critic is particularly cruel, stronger measures may be in order.)
Keep in mind that this period in your life is temporary and brief and extremely challenging. Do whatever you need to do to get through it. The writing will be patiently waiting for you on the other side.
Happy writing and whatever else makes you happy! And good luck with your thesis and defense.