Lately I’ve been telling myself that if I could just set aside a big chunk of time – I always arbitrarily think of it as 4 hours – I would be able to focus and get over the hurdle of the chapter I’m trying to write. Even though I know that this is part of my struggle with burnout, especially as I transition back to stationary life after a year of constant travel, I still believe in this myth of focus. I still somehow think that I can’t complete a task because I can’t concentrate on it, I can’t put it foremost in my mind, even when I know that what’s really standing in my way is probably just anxiety.
I’d like to blame this on my kids, but it’s probably not their fault. Yes, having kids takes a lot of time and energy. When I am the only one talking care of them, it is impossible to get any work done. My kids are at an age where I literally can’t let them out of my sight unless they’re sleeping. But when someone else is watching them (and I am very fortunate to have someone watching them full-time), I’m free to go off and do something else. And there’s only so much laundry/mail/returning emails to be done before all that’s left is my actual work. This leads to its own kind of guilt, that when I’m not watching my kids, I have to be working, because otherwise I should be spending time with them or doing something else productive.
I also want to blame my trouble focusing on my lack of established workspace. Because I no longer live near Columbia, I don’t have a dedicated office or library. If I hadn’t left, I would have my own library carrel – not the little study desk cubicle where undergrads go to die inside slowly and silently, carving their names into the wood in a vain attempt to be heard – but a private office with a door on a separate floor of the library that’s only available to grad students. I would also enjoy the incredible library privileges of the combined collections of Columbia, Princeton, and the New York Public Library (third-largest collection in the country), plus Interlibrary Loan and Borrow Direct granting me access to the collections of every other research library in the country, all of it no more than a day removed, available for pickup on campus, to be taken back to the comfort of my home or carrel for up to 3 months before renewal. Instead, I have a month-long library pass to Berkeley’s stacks, which I can only renew twice, with no borrowing privileges. Or I could trek over to Stanford, where I can get normal borrowing privileges, but it’s a 45-minute drive one way without traffic, and let’s be honest, this is California, there’s always traffic. But all told, the resources are there. And when I get home, I have a beautiful little office space, carved out just for me, tucked away in a separate room with a window to the street and a couch and tea nearby. The reality is that if I really wanted to, I could to work at Starbucks every day. What I’ve got is a great setup, and it would be dishonest to complain about it.
No, what’s distracting me is undoubtedly the crushing pressure of my own expectations. A few months ago, I had to decide how long I was going to take to finish my degree. For the past 4 years, I’ve evaded this question by saying “I get 5 years of guaranteed funding, but the average time to degree in my field is 7 1/2”. But now, with a clear image of what it will take for me to finish, I had to decide whether I could reasonably finish this year. In terms of actual work, probably. I have full drafts of three chapters out of five – I could certainly write two chapters, edit, and defend within the next year. But then I would need to have a job lined up for the following September, and knowing what the application process looks like, it would be a real push to finish my dissertation and also secure a job, even a post-doc. But getting another year of funding wouldn’t take that much effort, and then I would have a buffer in case I finish early. All of this sounds great on paper, but when I actually get to it, I’m still faced with a mountain of work, and it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed looking at this massive project in panorama. And now that I’ve told myself I have more time than I need, it’s also hard not to expect it to be easy.
So if I could push these expectations out of my head, and find my quiet four hours alone in my office with my books at hand, what would it look like to focus on my work? Do I just sit and think really hard until a dissertation comes out? My brother R, who has a PhD in math, used to say that his job was mostly thinking, and when he was working he really did just sit back in his chair and think. But that’s not research. Everything he needed was already in his head. Focusing on research is like trying to remember a word you’ve forgotten: thinking harder just pushes it farther away.
When I say I want to focus, what I really need is the freedom to let my mind wander. I need to lay out my work in front of me and see the connections. I need my images of manuscripts or copper-glazed pottery taking up half my screen, my chapter document on the other half, my secondary sources open on the desk next to me, and a browser window with 30 tabs of articles and library searches that I can toggle over to. And then I can look at my object, write down some observations, flip through my books to see if anyone has explained them, skim all my articles to watch the argument about that claim unfold, and then write down why I think everyone else is wrong. That’s how I work. And to do that, I can’t be thinking work faster think harder or what am I going to eat for lunch? or was that a baby crying? Or, at least, I can’t be letting those thoughts distract me.
Focus isn’t actually focus, but flexibility. Like meditating, it’s not clearing my mind, but rather acknowledging the things that don’t matter right now and watching them float by. Focus is being unbothered by what I don’t want to be working on. It’s also having the mental agility to keep the web of conversing documents and sources in my head so I can flip back and forth between them. It’s being able to articulate my thoughts in words, to think in complete sentences. It’s being able to think critically, to move from one statement to another in a logical chain, and notice when a link is missing.
So what I’m having trouble with right now isn’t finding the time or the place, but the freedom, the lightness of spirit, the motivation to find joy in my work. All those other things are window dressing. So what do I do about it? I try to take breaks that are real breaks. I ask myself why I’m having trouble, whether changing one thing would really make it easier. I talk to people honestly about the difficulty I’m having so that I can let go of the guilt. And I push myself to try to work even when I don’t feel like it, and break down my tasks to make them seem more manageable. And eventually, even if I never felt like I could focus, I do. Or at the very least I do the work, and my task is completed. I tell myself that focus is necessary to complete my work, but maybe that’s not true. Maybe work is all that’s necessary.