[This is the second part of a two-part post. The first part is a list of 10 things that go wrong when you write a thesis. The second part looks at ways of dealing when things go wrong]
First things first: I lied. In the little explanatory bit of the last post I wrote the following: “It’s a list of 10 things that go wrong when you write a thesis, so it’s a bit depressing. But I promise: It gets better.” Obviously, I cannot know this. You might have all of these problems simultaneously for the entirety of your thesis. It’s not likely, but then, winning the lottery or getting thyroid cancer isn’t likely either and yet there are clearly people who do. So, you or I might be the poor buggers who consistently and painfully get, you know, buggered. There is no reason to believe that it gets better. Either there is no God, then there is no one to make it better thus no reason to believe it gets better or there is a God, then, well have you read the book of Job? Actually, this is a massive part of the motivation of my thesis: a longing for the intellectual honesty to admit that if you do not believe in a benevolent, just force that intervenes in the universe, you cannot propagate the old lie “it gets better”. Some clouds have no silver lining. There is no universal law to the distribution of crap. You might do everything “right” and yet have all the wrong things happen to you.
This seems like a depressing aside but it’s crucial to keep this in mind because it means that you don’t have to feel guilty or ashamed when things go wrong.
I sometimes feel like my sense of responsibility and agency actually makes things worse rather than better. At the time of writing, I have a cold. I have been ill a lot lately and it is keeping me from working at my fullest potential. I focus on eating healthily, and sleeping enough, and exercising and yet, I still end up being ill a lot. But even more bothersome than my ill-health is the nagging feeling that I am responsible. I cannot work on my thesis in the way I’d like and I feel that there must be something I can do about it. That I should exercise more, or exercise less or eat a different kind of healthy… and I can feel my brain getting sucked into a an analysis-loop that makes me anxious and prevents me from sleeping and potentially even from being healthy. When other people get ill, they spend a couple of days netflixing in bed and then move on with their lives. I spend the little capacity I have on being anxious rather than either on getting better or on getting things done.
The funny thing is that I like planning because I like to be happy. This works because a lot of the time, good planning prevents things from going wrong. But even with great planning, things sometimes go wrong and then you don’t only have to deal with that but also with feeling like you planned incorrectly – like you could have prevented this; even worse, that you caused it. Maybe this is me becoming zen with old age but, actually, admitting that shit happens and that things get different but not necessarily better can be incredibly liberating.
So how do you deal? When I started this, I thought the answer is always prevention. Now I am not so sure. Great planning cannot always prevent your body from getting ill, your computer from crashing or your relatives from being annoying. Of course, that does not mean that you shouldn’t try to plan well. You should. Preferably your plan should integrate all these things happening. But at the same time It means that you should accept that you cannot fully plan a three-year process.
One of the tricky things about writing a thesis (or being alive, really) is that you have to act as if you were absolutely responsible and at the same time feel as if you have no responsibility whatsoever. You have to do all you can to make things go right but not give in to asking “Why didn’t I?” or beating yourself up over “I should have”. The difficulty is striking the balance between taking control and letting go. This is a difficult balance to strike and it helps to approach it as a row of binary options:
As far as the anxiety that inevitably follows planageddon goes, to me the best thing to do it is not to fight it but to accept it. To recognise it for what it is: Anxiety that is a natural part of the process rather than a weakness or character flaw. This is why wrote this list. To make my own brain realise that there is a relatively contained list of things that can and will go wrong. As anyone who’s read the Bible or Rumpelstiltskin knows (pace Shakespeare), there is magic in a name. There lies a world of difference between an unnamed dread and the realisation that one is merely suffering from anxiety inducing event number 6 and that one has dealt with this before and will deal with this again. Also, it helps having a tree diagram telling one what to do. If your computer dies there is a concrete list of things you can do, if you are ill or have anxiety the potential of action centres around acceptance and calming, rather than running around like a headless chicken trying to fix the unfixable.
Yet, acceptance and regaining calm is also something you can work towards – I do it through running in the woods and yoga (though those two obviously fail when I am ill) and writing this blog, a lot of my Oxford friends do mindfulness meditation. And yes that is another massive time-eater. And part of the process is to not follow the maths that tells you that if instead of spending 30-60 minutes a day meditating or doing yoga or looking at trees, you spent the time actually working on your thesis, you would be much further and wouldn’t need to be anxious in the first place. Trust me when I say, this math is a trap (one that I whole-heartedly step into every other month).
From time to time, life and your thesis will form a crap-throwing cooperation and there might be nothing you could have done to prevent it (though there might be and once you have cleaned yourself up, do spend some time asking whether it could have been prevented). But once shit happens, instead of wallowing in it, deal with it in whatever way it wants to be dealt with.
Things may get better. They might not. The trick is to realise when things are better. And you must realise it because, as anyone who’s ever visited an ape house knows, sooner or later the crap-flinging continues, often without discernible reason. So do as Kurt Vonnegut tells us, take time to smell the flowers of your work, give yourself a slow clap and from time to time exclaim: “If this isn’t nice, what is?”