Postdoc overwhelmed by incomplete work

179

46

I take on more than I can handle and everything is left incomplete. Constant reminders from my previous supervisor, my current advisor, and colleagues, increases my anxiety level and sometimes I end up entirely avoiding work. I haven’t completed a paper as first author in the last two years, although I have two papers ready for submission for the last two months and two more I could complete with a week of uninterrupted work on each paper. These papers have been dragged so much that now I am losing interest in making any more changes. I will appreciate any suggestion for dealing with anxiety regarding works that I should have completed more than a year ago.

SpatialP

Posted 2018-01-29T05:49:47.740

Reputation: 706

7This sounds very familiar. But here's an important question. Are you working on these papers all by yourself? Because that clearly makes things much more difficult. – Faheem Mitha – 2018-01-29T20:09:18.357

15I hope you find a great solution. This isn't just an Academia problem, this is a personal demon that you, and millions of others (myself included,) face on a daily basis. Many will say "just buckle down and do it" but that isn't how the brain works. You're doing the right thing, though - admitting you need help and seeking it! With a good support network you'll get through this =) – corsiKa – 2018-01-30T16:09:53.817

I am worried because this anonymous person who posted this s question hasn’t interacted in anyway ever since. I can only hope all is fine and things clearing out. – Scientist – 2018-02-02T13:44:07.083

Maybe you are too perfectionist. You don't want to release stuff which you arent 100% satisfied with. The problem is stuff can almost always be improved no matter how awesome they get... – mathreadler – 2018-02-03T23:13:15.660

Answers

116

This is a well known problem - and depending on your personal situation you should consider getting professional help by a psychologist. It's not a shame and it might prevent further harm. They could assist as well in creating a step-by-step program.

If you are willing to handle the situation by yourself, you'll have to do "a few" things (which are a lot to do!):

  1. Learn to say "no" to specific tasks. Do not accept any new assignments unless your papers are done.
  2. Figure out, why you are procrastinating - your mind has a reason for it and you should figure out what it is.
  3. If the overall workload is too high, cancel some things forever. Eg. decide not to submit one of the "old" papers. How does this thought feel? Better or worse then the actual situation?
  4. Go on step-by-step. Focus on finishing one of the old papers. Submit it. Take a break! Choose the next step of work.
  5. If needed, be disruptive.
    • Take a longer break (e.g. 4 weeks of vacation)
    • Move your whole inbox to a subfolder "old" and never ever look at it - important mails will be re-sent.
    • ...
  6. If you are having a good relation with your supervisor(s), involve them in the process.

OBu

Posted 2018-01-29T05:49:47.740

Reputation: 3 433

22I think Point 3 is a very important one - I used to think it seemed obvious but only recently realised that (a) I wasn't following that point (b) by following it, some things actually improved – Yemon Choi – 2018-01-29T11:30:38.670

1Good advice. Learning to say no and establishing priorities is a valuable learned skill. – Rui F Ribeiro – 2018-01-30T12:55:28.187

1professional psychologist: $$$ For that, you need a decent job with benefits. – Kaz – 2018-01-30T19:33:09.063

7@Kaz - depends on your health insurance system - e.g. in Germany, it is covered by the common health insurance (at least to a certain extend). But of course a coach could do, too (but may be even more expensive). But a burn out or lifelong depression: $$$$$$$ – OBu – 2018-01-30T19:48:28.790

1@Kaz many schools in the United States have counseling departments for exactly this reason. It would be a good idea to visit one of these if one is present – bendl – 2018-01-30T20:57:49.783

1>5 move your whole inbox to a subfolder "old" is definitely good advice. Personally I compulsively answer my emails immediately if I am free when I see them (probably not such a great thing), but an old colleague of mine had over 30,000 unread emails. Getting that crap out of your inbox, I can imagine, could be huge relief. And as you mentioned, if it was important, it will be resent.< – Chris Cirefice – 2018-01-31T17:35:30.687

Indeed, item #5B on email is huge. I just cleared mine out yesterday for the first time in 1.5 years, and yes, it was a huge relief! (Not exactly that technique, but I wrote it down in case I fall behind in the future.) – Daniel R. Collins – 2018-02-02T15:42:03.430

I have a pending folder. When I have emails sitting on my inbox for too long I just move them to pending. The oldest one I have there to "take care of maybe later this week" is from 2015. – Daniel – 2018-02-03T00:23:03.747

49

I am trying to overcome the exact same situation. I am a 3rd timer postdoc. I believe the major cause behind postdocs quitting science relates with exactly what you describe. I am adding my general recommendations below, based on what I have been doing.

The root of the issue is at not being able to publish results between starting new projects. This is surely due to taking on more projects that one can handle, but I see this as also not getting enough support from collaborators. Thus I suggest you to concentrate on these two main problems. My advice as below:

  • Stop acquiring new data. I am sure you're are right worrying about some exciting new idea and results that could be scooped at just any minute by your peers. That you're itching to look into the details of something apparently groundbreaking you came across a few weeks ago. That you have 'supervisors' (people you grew to call 'bosses') trying to squeeze out more data and analyses out of your expertise. Just don't.

  • Take your time to list your unfinished projects, organise your files accordingly, backup all the raw data, and get notes in order in your computer. Back everything up as if you're ready to hand all of it to someone else to finish. This will help you line things up in your head and establish priorities.

  • Do not overwork yourself, and that is mainly mentally. Take at least one day completely off work, every week. Take vacations. During rest you must not think about any of this (have fun, hobbies, relationships). You must be able to forget in order to return to a task in any productive way.

  • Commit to a routine of exercise, stretching, meditation. Fulfilling tasks depend on good health, and a sane body. Understand you're making yourself sick. Whenever you feel heavy, go for a jog, take 30-60mins in some empty room for intense stretching, go trekking, swimming, whatever makes you feel empty again. This will help you sleep and heal.

  • Cold showers and waking up very early will wire your instincts back to physical awareness and make you feel stronger. This is too physiological to explain logically: just do it as if you're camping, and within few days you'll feel a big difference.

  • Focus on self-improvement and (implicitly and politely, but only if possible) tell your peers to bloody sod off. Too many professors nowadays will suck postdocs and PhD students dry, while sitting comfortably on a fixed income, pretending to be busy around empty/ghost meetings, random signatures, staring at some computer screen. They are just waiting. They are vultures waiting over you to offer papers and data for them to claim as their own. Do not dance for them. Almost any parasitic professor and collaborator is actually deadly scared of losing hosts, so as soon as you seem like dropping out, they'll give you space.

ONLY AFTER ALL OF THE ABOVE (should take few months):

  • Think of your savings, family situation, and alternative careers you could take up with your skills to decide on what to do next. Are you really sure you want to finish any of the projects you listed? Why do you want to finish them, objectively? Make a career choice here. My main advice at this point: make yourself ready to quit anytime. Having nothing to lose makes you ruthless.

(a) You want to finish some project(s). Focus on that one while following a strategy to finish it. Be selfish. Take your time, work only on this until it's finished. Do one single small step at a time, do not stop to look at the whole picture. This project must be personal, not for pleasing anyone or showing off. Contact your peers and demand help. If they are your co-authors they must help you with something according with your strategy. Should they refuse do get angry make it clear they are not legitimate partners on this. If you feel no-one is really helping and you're just dragging, kill this project and move on to the next one, or (b).

(b) You decided there is a better life for you elsewhere. Contact other postdocs and ask what they have in mind. Contact your friends and enlarge your interests network. Read a lot of books. Take a look into transitioning to other careers with your expertise, e.g. Industry, Coaching, Private Consulting, Teaching, Start-ups. Tell your peers you're moving out, and start negotiating whether they are interested in finishing projects using the data you organised. Wish them good luck.

You must keep in mind that you live for yourself. You do what you want. As a PhD you have skills which are highly sought for. The best way out of inertia and depression is through bold action. Do not worry about being gentle: take what you want and screw the rest.

You might appreciate reading this: http://www.benchfly.com/blog/lessons-from-a-recovering-postdoc/

Scientist

Posted 2018-01-29T05:49:47.740

Reputation: 1 458

6+1 for "make yourself ready to quit anytime. Having nothing to lose makes you ruthless." The importance of this is often underestimated in various endeavors. – cr0 – 2018-01-29T14:47:36.007

1I've seen "commit to a routine" suggested in a few answers and I wonder if other post-docs have experienced this: If I relax my productivity grinds to a halt. If I become regimented I can actually get work done (barely, and not healthily) but then I can't relax and stress out family/friends, particularly if normal life events disrupt my perfect schedule. So I opt for the latter because at least it means I'll be productive. I am also offered very few days for vacations so it's mostly out of the question. The rest of your points are spot on and very helpful. – syntonicC – 2018-01-29T16:32:20.513

"but I see this as also not getting enough support from collaborators". No kidding. But would "not enough" perhaps translate to "almost none"? – Faheem Mitha – 2018-01-29T20:10:42.147

1@syntonicC With me the exercise and breaks routine works well. Because it means I will be fresh when I’m back to work. Sometimes I get really locked ‘in the productivity zone’ for long hours, and get a lot done but also feel like crap after and unwilling to work the next day. One could flip from the backlash. I think sustaining doing less for longer will get you to the end of project, instead of the end of willpower. – Scientist – 2018-01-30T01:03:30.323

@FaheemMitha That's hard to infer from this case. Sometimes collaborators are helping or willing to help (i.e. technically) but the first author won't ask or accept it, or is just psychologically stuck. Still, asking for more help won't hurt them -- what are co-authors for? If they are really not helping, be ruthless and tell in their face they are out of this project. – Scientist – 2018-01-30T05:30:53.627

2@Scientist: "If they are really not helping, be ruthless and tell in their face they are out of this project". I like that idea in theory. In practice, implementation might be difficult. – Faheem Mitha – 2018-01-30T10:27:09.987

2And my limited experience with "collaborators" is that they want to do as little as possible. It's possible I have not had the best collaborators, though. – Faheem Mitha – 2018-01-30T10:35:21.640

2@FaheemMitha It is only hard to implement when you're still trying to save it. Once you decide you're ready to quit, it's easier. 'Collaborators' are nobodies, unheard of out of the academia. And trust me: being bold creates silent allies & fans. Most people quit problems without making ruthless moves: that's leaving like a loser. A 1st step for reaching the best collaborators is getting rid of the bad ones. I for instance wouldn't want to collaborate with someone who has been publishing with scumbags -- you see? And in the end we know who are the scumbags. Do it and you'll feel great at least – Scientist – 2018-01-30T11:27:19.010

2Quick question, "Do not overwork yourself, and that is mainly mentally. Take at least one day completely off work, every week.", I am wondering if this means not doing cognitive demanding tasks or not doing tasks related to your work? For example, in my spare time I like to learn or relearn mathematics. Is it best to stay away from that on the "day off" in order to perform optimally on the other six days? – Thomas King – 2018-02-02T15:48:24.633

2@ThomasKing Hi, I am no specialist on this but from my experience the time-off period restores your focus by distracting your mind to other tasks, and by releasing endorphins which keep stress at bay. So I believe that will depend on how much effort and endorphins you take in studying maths. For most people exercise, contact with nature and intimate relationships are the most intensely de-stressing activities -- if you can somehow couple maths into those I believe you'd hit the best results. – Scientist – 2018-02-03T07:57:59.480

16

Get help. Speak to a psychologist, it will never get better on its own. I have ADHD and Asperger's and I identify with your problem. I get the usual rush that you get starting something new or trying a new sport or activity as your body responds to the new and exciting activity but my body just does not generate the same response that other people have after the rush period is over and the satisfaction response starts.

As a result I start loads of things but never finish as my motivation goes. My average life of a hobby is just under 6 months and my attic is full of gear from abandoned sports and games.

After getting help I now have a rigid structure that allows me to complete my tasks. My personal structure is a half hour work period, 10 minute break and another half hour on a different project. The switching helps me to avoid boredom and finish tasks. I also have rigid planning and defined goals to stop me meandering off topic.

This is tailored to me, you will need to find out what works for you but you WILL find something that works with the help of an expert.

See an expert now and things will improve.

AndyW

Posted 2018-01-29T05:49:47.740

Reputation: 261

16

Thanks for posting this question. I'm a postdoc who ended up in a very similar situation as you have. At some point, it caught up to me, I had a mini breakdown, ended up with a short hospitalisation followed by anxiety that was intense enough that some days I was afraid to leave the house. I'll tell you what helped me, both in terms of changes in my personal and professional life.

  • Find support. You hopefully have friends, family, or coworkers in your life with whom you can share what you are going through. You might feel embarrassed or awkward about sharing this very personal part of your life. This is normal, but try your best to proceed anyway. I once found myself so tense I didn't know what to do with myself. I reached out to a friend despite my every inclination telling me to just deal with it. The feeling of relief that came just from making the decision to talk to someone was so intense I cried for 10 minutes and then slept for an hour.
  • Find professional support. This is step 2 because it's harder than step 1, and can be hard to find someone with whom you work well. For myself, the key was finding more body/mindfulness-based therapy, but traditional talk therapy can be great to. Depends on you and your therapist.

  • Make time for yourself. For me, I found taking 5-60 minutes per day (busy academic schedule, eh? what can I say, it's the effort that counts) to be calm and quiet worked wonders. I found some resources for incorporating yoga and breath meditation into anxiety treatment, and these were very effective more me. For others, more physical exercise does it. Be open minded, willing to experiment, and find what works for you. Making sleep a priority was also key.

  • If it helps you, take a break (short or long). But don't force it. I found a longer break when I wasn't ready made it worse. I suddenly had no structure, and that just made me more anxious. But a day off to go the mountains when things got to be too much was perfect medicine.

  • At work, take things a step at a time. Don't worry about the paper you have to write. Focus on the paragraph you have to write. On the one analysis you are going to do before lunch. One the small and concrete steps that get you where you need to be. The big picture will come together. If things don't proceed as fast as you like, be kind to yourself, and let go of the expectation that it should have been faster. As others have noted, take regular breaks. I work for 30, then walk for 5.

  • Seek affection (if you are someone who is comforted by this). If you are lucky enough to have someone (human, animal, whatever) in your life who gives hugs on request, take advantage of it. It sounds corny, but seriously, it's helps a lot more than we give it credit.

  • Finally, accept that it's just a job. Whether you know it or not, you have other options, and even if the career train you are on doesn't work out, you will be ok. Your life and your mental health are more important than the career.

Take care of yourself, and I wish you luck on your journey.

z_dood

Posted 2018-01-29T05:49:47.740

Reputation: 674

7

I can very much relate to your problem. However, I have learned to handle this problem (although it took me some time), and I believe that you can learn that too. Now, I don't know how much you avoid the work. I took it to the extreme, and avoided work for long periods of time. So my advice/comments focus a lot on that.

  • I saw a psychologist once a week, which really did help.

  • For me, the most important part was to learn how to accept the presence of anxiety and not respond to it by avoiding whatever it is was that made my anxiety levels rise. Anxiety is a feeling, but avoiding something is an action, i.e. they belong to two completely different categories. It is possible to learn to immediately respond to increasing anxiety levels by acting and confronting rather than avoiding. The old way of responding for me was to try and distract myself by doing or thinking about something else. My new way of responding is to ask myself: What will happen to my anxiety levels if I sit down and work for four hours with a ten minute break each hour? Then I "experiment" by doing just that, and I always write down the results (that is, what actually did happen to my anxiety levels). Sometimes the anxiety persists, but often I forget about it once an hour or so has passed.

  • I noticed that things started to change when I started to open up to people. For me, avoiding work made me feel ashamed of myself. And unfortunately, I had a person in my life who told me that I was avoiding work because I was lazy, which made me feel even more ashamed, and I didn't trust that there could be people in my life that would understand and support me. But eventually I did open up to my parents and to my supervisor, and they were very supportive. Not everyone will be, but some people will be, and those are the people you should talk and listen to.

  • Take the evenings off. Because I was worried that I was in fact simply a lazy and worthless person, I didn't think I deserved evenings off. I was behind on my schedule, and it seemed strange to me to allow myself to relax in the evenings while that was the case. But I know now that if I want to function normally, I must take care of myself.

  • This point is related to the previous point. I don't know about you, but I had a tendency to think that I had to "catch up" with the time I had waisted on avoiding work. So I would make plans that were impossible for me to follow and finish. The thing is, if you haven't been able to work 8 hour days lately, you won't suddenly be able to work 13 hour days starting tomorrow.

  • Write a list (or several) of what needs to be done. Don't give yourself deadlines, instead give yourself hours that you should be working. Start at the top of the list, and move on to the next point once the previous has been completed. Giving yourself a deadline puts pressure on you, but I don't think that more pressure is what you need. Sometimes you might feel the need to move on to the next point on the list even though you aren't finished with the previous one. Sometimes, that is necessary and justified, other times you are just avoiding something that gives you anxiety, or are simply too unfocused to stay with the task that you've given yourself. You need to be honest with yourself: Why do I want to move on to the next point despite not having completed the point I am currently on? If the reason is anxiety, then fight that urge.

Lastly, good luck. It might seem impossible right now, but these things can change quickly. Once you have managed to complete some of the work that is currently incomplete, you will already notice a big change in motivation and how you approach your work.

Frank

Posted 2018-01-29T05:49:47.740

Reputation: 71

Very insightful advice! – henning – 2018-01-30T07:16:26.753

1In most lines of non-menial work no-one can realistically take advantage of the full 8 work hours; you will be happier once you realize that is normal. – Rui F Ribeiro – 2018-01-30T12:59:02.987

5

There are many great answers above, mine is just an addition and not an alternative answer.

I face similar problems and what helps sometimes is to classify work to:

----------------------------------------------------------
|            |     Important     |     Not Important     |
----------------------------------------------------------
|   Urgent   |         A         |           B           |
----------------------------------------------------------
| Not Urgent |         C         |           D           |
----------------------------------------------------------

Classify your tasks into A,B,C, and D.

Priority is given to tasks under A, there are no disputes about this.

But then actually we are often tempted to look into the tasks under B. But what you want to do after you are done with A tasks, is to focus on the tasks under C before they find their way to A.

For example, conference deadlines fall under B, while a PhD dissertation falls under C.

Mohamed Khamis

Posted 2018-01-29T05:49:47.740

Reputation: 1 983

If you don't work on C most of the time, everything will become A at some point. Thus, priority should actually be on C. – henning – 2018-01-31T12:35:44.157

1@henning eh? There are two points to this approach: the first is to recognise that Cs become As, the second is that if you don't work on Bs or Ds, they eventually go away without anything particularly bad happening. (This is often called the Eisenhower method, by the way, after a quote attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower: "I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.") – arboviral – 2018-02-05T08:51:57.403

Given that OP says they are a postdoc, I think their PhD dissertation definitely falls under "A" by now :) – arboviral – 2018-02-05T08:53:06.743

@arboviral I meant it as an example. For a post doc, it could be a professorship application, a grant, etc..

I like the quote. Ideally we would never allow ourselves to have A tasks i.e., we get done with them while they are still in C, before they move to A. – Mohamed Khamis – 2018-02-05T13:18:08.323

The second comment was meant in jest, of course. Although technically I didn't submit my thesis until four months after I started my 'postdoc' - they paid me as a research assistant until the viva then backdated the pay difference, which was nice. – arboviral – 2018-02-05T14:30:56.577

4

I've had the same problem all my professional life. The only solution that worked for me thus far was to make a list of the stuff to do, and start doing the most urgent research task, while putting off everything else.

Right now, I have to worry about a project starting, an ongoing one and a grant I plan to apply for. I also have a paper to finish. I decided to put the paper at the top of my list and 80% of my efforts every day go into completing that paper. I don't do any other serious work right now, and I reject any other task until that paper is done.

I removed from my work environment anything reminding me of the other research stuff unrelated to the paper. I blocked SE on my computer at work and everything else that could distract me from the writing. When I'll finish with the paper, or get seriously stuck, I will go to the next research task in my list.

Magicsowon

Posted 2018-01-29T05:49:47.740

Reputation: 4 634

3

A few comments on the the fly, hoping they help. Hope and help are key words, indeed.

  • Take care of yourself: by the way, try make a conscious, but not stubborn, effort of defining to your mind who the 'yourself' needing care is;
  • For many organizational problems, a commutative rule applies: the order in which you solve them does not matter. It doesn't matter if you publish the second paper first, or the third paper second, and so forth. Go for the most ready or inviting ones: low-hanging fruits first. These tips break the analysis-paralysis situation;
  • You are already asking for help in this forum. I see valid and compassionate answers here. You are already being helped out, it's on you to weight those reactions and proceed (at your own risk, naturally, but in no solitude);
  • Pause, revise, reverse where needed. You are already able to describe your distress, which is key. You did pause. If you don't know whether the bottle is half-empty or half-full, turn the question into what you should do with that bottle: staring at it, filling it, drinking it, emptying it, throwing it away, changing focus of attention altogether, collect more bottles, ...
  • Be accepting of your weakness. Strength is most frequently developed in steps and through training (at least, leaning on what physical exercise teaches us). You might have been lazy on the first signs, map back what happened this far. The tale of Little Thumb is profound there: he's smart because he keeps tracks of his path into the dark wood using breadcrumbs (a term now also used with the most confusing of experiences: Internet surfing);
  • Unless it is organization what you deeply hate and hurts your true self, consider evaluating your intents according to the SMART criteria (many others may be a better fit to your personal situations).

freely shareable from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hop-o'-My-Thumb#/media/File:Poucet5.jpg

XavierStuvw

Posted 2018-01-29T05:49:47.740

Reputation: 403

2

I suggest using Scrum and Agile techniques to plan and organize your work before actually tackling it. If you can setup a kanban board of tasks for each project, and try to break down tasks into something you can accomplish in less than a day, then it will visually show you progress toward your goal. For me visual progress is one of the keys to motivation.

Joseph Tindal

Posted 2018-01-29T05:49:47.740

Reputation: 47

1

Although a psychologist should help you with the emotional part of the problem, I think you should get a coach to help you create a plan and stick to it until you objectives are accomplished. It is a more pragmatic way to solve the productivity part of the problem.

prmottajr

Posted 2018-01-29T05:49:47.740

Reputation: 213

1

I have two papers ready for submission for the last two months and two more I could complete with a week of uninterrupted work on each paper.

Pareto rule: The last 20 percent take 80 percent of the time. Leave some work for the reviewers! If you can't let go, you can still polish and edit after you've submitted your draft. It will be a draft, because there is no such thing as "finished" in academic writing. In the words of Tara Gray:

Kick it out the door and make them say "No"

Feel the relief. Then move on to the next project. Only look back once you've gotten the reviews; then work them into the draft and submit to the next journal.

At this point, you don't have to target A+ venues. A finished B publication is better than a non-finished A publication.

henning

Posted 2018-01-29T05:49:47.740

Reputation: 13 598