Fighting for what matters: what I really learned about completing a doctorate whilst raising a family and running a business

So I did want to reflect on what I learned during these past few years because so much of it is Working with ACT-relevant.

But I am wary of writing one of ‘those‘ type of posts, or one of those ‘it was tough but I am so glad I did it!’ things.

Fact is, I am not sure I am glad I did it.  But I’ve done it now, so here’s what I think I learned:

1. Make every session count

If there was one principle that stood out, it was this.  Every time I sat down to work, I focused on taking one step forward.

Sometimes this was impossible, or I even went backwards (the climbing a mountain metaphor helps here – i.e. sometimes you have to go down the mountain to go up again).  However, by accepting the tiniest step as progress, including correcting one typo, I can’t think of a single instance where this didn’t work.

And one day, I woke up and it was done.

2. Create deadlines

There were days when I felt totally overwhelmed and my mind would wander to all the things I wasn’t doing / couldn’t do. If this resonates you need deadlines.  The pomodoro technique is good for this.  So are children.

I would often work during my children’s nap times, which created an exquisite sense of urgency.  Sometimes – agh! – one of them would wake before I’d made any progress.  To my surprise I was still always able to find one thing to do before running off to the bedroom.  It’s amazing how deadlines focus the mind, and a crying child is a very good deadline*.

* My children are for rent on an hourly basis.

3. Intensity beats time

I placed intensity front and centre of my strategy.  This led me to do seemingly strange things, like working for around 60-90 minutes on the Doctorate even when I had more time available and getting involved in kanban, which sounds like is a cult.  I also learned the value of 5-minute runs as a way of breaking things up and thinking things through.

I had ‘TAKE A BREAK’ stuck to my laptop and made it a rule never to stare at my screen defeated.

4. Remember it’s a choice

One especially dismal day I shared my pain on Twitter and got some lovely responses – ‘hang in there’, ‘keep going’ etc, which I was grateful for.

But Mat Rawsthorne said ‘give it up and walk away if you choose’, which felt liberating.

‘Do I choose to do this today?’ was a far more helpful question than ‘Do I feel like doing this today?’, because the answer to the first question was generally yes, and the answer to the second was always no.

5. Ditch social media

Although Twitter etc can be helpful (see above), in general it is DEADLY* to a deep work project such as doctoral research.  I basically had to cut it out altogether.  What’s interesting is I grew to dislike Twitter much more during this time, as I came to see it for what it is.  And if I can’t convince you, let Cal Newport have a go:

* not in the Irish sense

6. I had a lot of help

The fact is I couldn’t have done it without a supportive partner, and I had one who protected my sleep, too.

I literally fantasised about the words of thanks that I would give my family once it was all over, so here they are:

 

So each one of these principles of committed action really made a difference.  But to be honest, they only tell half the story…

Going where you mind says you cannot go

“Where does your mind say we cannot go?”

Steve Hayes, A Liberated Mind

I completed my final write-up in a long, hot London summer with my little children playing in a playground opposite my office.

I can still see them; 2-year-old Orla pretending to be an airplane whilst bouncing on a trampoline.  And tiny Sam, toddling and falling about like a gorgeous, drunken penguin.

Orla
Would you rather eat ice cream with her or do linear regression in a stuffy office?

I have a place in me, perhaps stored in my body more than in words, that remembers the feeling of my own Dad vanishing at about the same age. It’s like a feeling of permanent emptiness where a hug should be.

And so of course that summer it felt like I was doing something similar to my children.  Almost at a cellular level, I had a feeling that I’d been here before somehow, and that this struggle inside my office was not where I should be.

At the time, I wrote:

The brutal truth is, there won’t be another summer where my daughter pretends to be Mo Salah or when my little boy is learning to run and talk.

There won’t be another summer when, at bath time, my babies scream with laughter when I shower their toes.

And there won’t be too many summers when they both shout ‘DAD!’ and jump into my arms when they see me.

In 10 years’ time what will I give to have even one of these moments back?

It’s fair to say I had some low points.

And this led to the final thing I learned.

7. Hard choices need self-compassion

My heroes in life aren’t Buddhist monks who meditate on hilltops or Silicon Valley CEOs whose incredible ‘life hacks’ spare them the need to make difficult choices.

My heroes are the ones who struggle and fight for something, and who live all of their values fiercely and imperfectly.

I care for my children, but I care for evidence-based psychology, too.  To fight for only one of these would be a shallow victory.  Yet to fight for both meant the fight of my life.

So what will I want my children to do when faced with a similar situation? 

The same.

I want them to care for their kids of course, but I want them to struggle and fight for what matters to them too.  Otherwise, what’s the point?

From this perspective – and only from here – I reach a place where I can finally grant myself some compassion.

Because this was the summer where I stared at one of my most powerful demons and didn’t flinch.

And this was the summer my kids saw their Dad doing that.

And maybe this was the summer – who knows? – that their choices expanded a little.

And many summers from now, when the time comes for them to fight for something, maybe they will have a feeling stored in a place beyond words that they have been here before, and that this struggle is where they are meant to be.

2 thoughts on “Fighting for what matters: what I really learned about completing a doctorate whilst raising a family and running a business

  1. What a great post I think this is, in so many ways. Thank you!!!! Brilliant writer, feels open & honest, fun mixed with the serious, helpful and kind. Love it! Hope that you wouldn’t have so tuff choices or sacrifices in the future.

  2. This is very helpful as I face the task of a research proposal today – not doctorate level but daunting for me nonetheless. I don’t feel like it, but I choose to do it because I care about creating a better workplace. Increasingly I realise a lot of my inability to move forward is because I can’t go where my mind doesn’t want me to go. There’s no way I could have done linear regression whilst people I loved played in the sunshine !

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