Research Student-made

PhDiaries: What to do if study tools are just not working for you

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When it comes to ways of working on a PhD, many online and computer-based study tools are thrown our way for various reasons. This could be for productivity, project management and personal accountability, or organising your writing to name a few! However, for some people these may inhibit creativity as well as emphasise personal shame on not completing tasks that you have set yourself. As a neurodivergent student, I have some really helpful tools for multiple purposes, but I have found myself putting pressure on myself to use them in all similar scenarios and feeling down when I have not been as productive as I thought I would have been when using a particular tool.

This blog is a few things that I am continuing to learn during my PhD studies related to study tools.

Mess can be best!

Starting with some structure such as using spreadsheets for literature reviews can be very helpful in forming your ideas and structures for your reports during your PhD as well as a baseline for your area of focus. Similarly, at the end (although I am not yet there myself), having rough lists to check off the sections you plan to include in your final thesis can be very helpful in getting the job done, like any assignment. However, once you have a rough idea of where you are headed, embracing the messiness of research can be so beneficial for creativity in the writing sense and being able to synthesise ideas from the literature. I have personally found an element of trust in myself and noticing when ideas form when reading and writing. I will often remember specific papers or things I have written before and realise that things are coming together more than I thought. So, use tools for structure when and where you need it, but notice when you are feeling constrained or experiencing mental blocks with ideas. Allowing for the mess might just be the best!

Working the old-fashioned way: pen and paper

If this option is available to you, returning to writing with a pen and paper I have found to be helpful for taking myself offline for a break. This could be through making notes, a journal entry each day in a diary, or even full prose of your work.  Taking the time to write ideas out away from the screen can be so rewarding. I have found this really helps to reflect on and consolidate my thought processes as well as the narrative I want to convey to the reader. Of course, supervisor’s ability to comment on your work will need to be considered if this is something you do with them. Though If you do find writing out on paper helpful for longer passages of writing too, there is a lot of in-built dictation software into Word and various phone apps too, meaning you won’t have to spend forever typing up.

Take notice of how you feel with tick lists

Making lists can be helpful when used consistently. However, I feel this technique is often used as a shaming mechanism more often than not…particularly as a neurodivergent student. There is only so much you are going to have time for and unfortunately, constant emailing, administrative processes, reading, writing and the actions around these all scream to compete for your attention. You will get done what you get done. A book I am currently finding helpful for coming to terms with this is Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman. While this book is bleak in parts coming to terms with the time you have, it has been so helpful for me in detaching from internal productivity wars I have through continuous never ending list making.

Productive procrastination

You probably know this experience already, organising your work to the point of avoiding actually doing, writing and reading. It can be helpful to be thorough in some situations, but a lot of the time, it can be very easy to get stuck in a rut trying to stick to using tools for every single process. One thing that has really helped me with this is to notice if there is a reason as to why I am trying to be so focused on keeping to the tool. For example, my common thought that prevents me from writing is that “I do not know enough” to start writing. The feeling that accompanies this is often fear and a sense of lack of safety for being judged that my ideas are invalid. Learning to work in discomfort can be really beneficial in the long-term as looking back, your work is very often than not going to be a lot better than you think! Remember why you are using the tools in the first place.

I would never scrap the online tools I have access to, but I have found it is really important to maintain a healthy relationship with the tools that I use to avoid shaming and blaming thoughts towards myself around my work. As I have mentioned, I personally believe the key is to continue to notice how something is working or not working for you in a particular moment. Let the tools work for you, not you working for the tools.