In 2015 I had Serotonin Syndrome. Overnight I went from someone who had never experienced any physical anxiety symptoms - to major panic attacks, agoraphobia, and constant general anxiety. I no longer had the capacity to do my PhD and took temporary withdrawal for a year where I had to learn how to function as a human being again. Upon returning to my PhD, a major achievement in itself, I realised the stress of even half an hour’s worth of work rendered me not only incapable of functioning for the rest of the day, but the day after too. If I was to complete my PhD, I needed to figure out how to work a stress-free day. Over the course of a couple of years I learnt and refined a routine that helped me to achieve this. I still struggle a lot of the time, I fall out of the routine and take shortcuts. I am human after all. But I sit here with a finished thesis and time to spare. The following documents a single day of the routine. This is how I did my PhD.
The day starts with the night before. I have found sleep to be the most influential factor in how stressed I am the next day. Have you ever noticed how you can feel extremely agitated and stressed in the evening and the next day as fresh as a daisy? Sleep. I have yet to discover a process anywhere near as beneficial for an anxious, stressed mind.
I try to be in bed by around 8 – 9pm with the aim to get up from 6am-7am. A couple of hours before I will clip on my special blue-light filter lenses (I realised a blue light filter on your phone is useless if you spend your entire evening bathed in artificial lights!). Just before I get into bed, I write my plan of tomorrows tasks to achieve, both work and socially. Then I write/reflect in my diary of all the things that happened today. Both these things help to dispel worry from my mind. Clearing it so I can be relaxed enough to get to sleep.
I have a fan next to my bed, which goes on most of the night to keep me cool enough to get to sleep; Earplugs to block out the noise of the fan. I may also play soothing music with a sleep timer loud enough to get past the earplugs to help drift off to sleep. I have blackout curtains and a plug-in air freshener on a timed schedule throughout the evening and night. All these things are in place to associate the process of sleeping and getting to sleep as a relaxing experience. To obtain the highest quality sleep possible.
I have an app on my phone which tracks my sleep rhythms using a smart watch (measures heart rate and movement). The app is also connected to a smart bulb. In the morning, when the app detects a light phase of sleep in the time period I wish to wake up, the intensity of the bulb will slowly turn on, simulating a sunrise. A much more pleasant way to wake up to than a blaring alarm during an inappropriate sleep phase. I have never slept through it (even so, there is a back-up alarm just in case) and I rarely have groggy mornings anymore.
The first thing I do once up is have a shower, then breakfast, then meditation. I think meditation is one of the most underrated skill sets to possess. And yet very few people practice it. I shall mention it quite a lot. Meditation is an incredibly flexible skill. How I use my morning meditation depends entirely on how I am feeling. For the most part it allows me to mentally prepare for the day, set out what I am going to do. It wakes up my cognitive mind as well as calming myself down for the journey into work. If a gym day, I will do 30-45 mins of weight lifting, just to drive the endorphins up. Then off to work.
I have a half-hour bus in the morning. Public transport can be quite stressful, you have nothing to do, trapped with a bunch of stressed students. During this time, I meditate again (sitting up – everyone else will simply think I am sleeping, quite nifty!). This time I use it as an escape, from an environment I do not currently want to be in. I usually listen to an audiobook while meditating, bringing it more to life on a bus ride (which also makes the experience more enjoyable than if I was listening consciously).
Once on campus, I walk a specific route to my office. It is a little longer, but much quieter. Doing so avoids the mass rush off the bus by stressed students and faculty – I separate myself out from their body language. I amble peacefully into my office and settle down for the day’s work. I fill up two water bottles, write out my tasks, eat snacks for energy and begin.
I generally split my day into three components. Morning/Afternoon/Evening. And I assign a task for each. I DO NOT assign times to these tasks. I have found this only adds stress, as research rarely works to a schedule. Instead I use a Pomodoro system with 25 min work sessions. I plan 5 of these sessions in total - to be assigned to three time periods: morning, afternoon and evening. Even if I arrive at 2pm I will still start with Morning, but may only assign one Pomodoro session to it. Therefore, I never feel like I am behind and need to skip tasks. I use a special timer to start each session, which I specially programmed to log me out of my computer when 25 mins is finished. This helps the case of working too long on nearly finished tasks.
After each session I meditate again. I do so underneath my desk with a pillow as there is nowhere really within the physics building to lie down and meditate. These are rest meditations; I meditate as long as it takes to recover from the previous stressful session. It also helps for ideas or coming up with solutions for problems. The vast majority of my ideas or solutions have come from meditation. It also means that by the time 5pm comes around, instead of being mentally exhausted, only a slight drop off has occurred (It is indeed a grossly underrated skill set!). From someone who relies heavily on it nowadays, I have no idea how anyone else gets through life without it!
With the workday finished, I take the bus home (meditating by escape again). Then, if I have free time in the evening (other than socially) I work on a personal project, or talk. After dinner and lunch prep for the next day we arrive back at sleep preparation.
The routine I mention is for the perfect day. Life throws different things at you at different times. I wish to emphasise It is quite rare that I achieve everything I have mentioned on a given day. Some days I will be exhausted and watch some T.V. like everyone else. On bad days/weeks I do none of the above. I even collapse sometimes due to the stress still. It is the fallability that comes with being human. However, on average I am happier and far more productive with my broken brain than I was with my healthy one – because of this routine.