There’s a period of PhD study that I have come to call ‘the loopy la-las’: when you become highly capable of doing PhD work, but start to become incompetent at, well – almost everything else.
I remember the day it started to happen to me.
It was 2008 and I was deep in a Foucault book, when a call came through from our lovely research administrator (thanks Jane!). Apparently I had missed some fields on my conference funding application, specifically my name. Could I please check my email and get back to her so she could process the form?
I duly logged on and downloaded the form. Then I just stared at the form for the longest time, trying to understand what it wanted from me.
I thought about the structure of the form and how it forced me to put in two names. This made me think about the processes of colonalism, where surnames were randomly given to people so they would conform with the English way of naming things. I thought about the patriarchy and how my name reflected my father and my husband, more than my mother or myself. Then I started wondering what ‘name’ meant anyway.
This was getting ridiculous! I shook my head and wrote my name. I then looked at my name for a further 3 minutes, wondering if it was spelled correctly. I couldn’t work out if it was ok, so I just saved the form and replied to Jane.
Jane kindly rang me back to point out that I had sent her a return email with no form attached. She started laughing, hard. “You’re all like this Inger!” she said, “I spend half my days chasing people to fill out forms. PhD students are so smart, why can’t they follow simple instructions?!”
Jane’s words resonated with me for a long time. Because I had at least six months of the loopy la-las to go. I regularly struggled to follow simple instructions, but was able to think and write about incredibly complex, abstract ideas all day. Living in this two speed headspace was bizzare and, for a while, I wondered if I was losing it. But now I’ve worked with PhD students for a very long time time and seen it happen so often I think the loopy la-las is actually be a by-product of the thesis writing process. The classic ‘absent minded professor’ trope did not come out of nowhere (this -problematic- article onTV tropes reckons it’s been around since the 1800s).
The loopy la-las are not all bad. I remember the sensation of my brain lighting up with so many ideas and connections about my PhD. It was great! My notebook was overflowing and the writing was pouring out of me. At the same time this out pouring of creativity was DISTRACTING.
I’ve watched the loopy la-las play out in many different ways. A mild case of the loopy la-las might mean you just repeatedly misplace your keys. With more severe cases, you start having trouble with things like shopping lists, kids’ excursion forms, funding applications and turning up to appointments on time. The worst thing about the PhD loopy la-las, for me, was losing track of my commitments to others. I became that unreliable person who doesn’t return calls and emails, forgot peoples’ birthdays and turned up late to work – frequently.
I need not point out that it’s this stage of PhD life that people can let a mild health problem develop into something more serious because of lack of attention. And watch out for those knives in the kitchen! Seriously – we have been running thesis bootcamp for late stage PhD students for many years now and have noticed our bootcampers are much more accident prone than candidates in their early stages.
I experienced similar difficulties doing simple things like filling out forms during the one period of lockdown we had in Canberra. It’s been well over a year since we had any Covid here, so I don’t have a lot of experience of the lockdown loopy la-las, but it seemed quite different. Lockdown has the same end of PhD head-in-a-bucket feeling, but perhaps without the urgency of a project deadline and the thrill of creative connections. The problems with keys and knives, however, were the same.
I’ve noticed the PhD loopy la-las get worse the closer the submission date gets. The tick tock of the PhD clock is always there, but at the end I think it gets louder and starts drowning out other things. The space the PhD project occupies gets bigger and bigger until it’s dominating waking thoughts, pushing out other, pretty important stuff.
So, why do the loopy la-las happen? It might have something to do with cognitive load.
I’m no expert, but from what I’ve read, the brain can only process a limited number information ‘chunks’ in short term memory (four to seven). This is the kind of memory essential for filling out forms. By contrast, our long term memory relies on ‘schemas’ or frameworks of thinking that connect related things together. In other words, we ‘automate’ a lot of our long term memory, which frees up time for short term, on the spot thinking.
This is just me spitballing here, but writing a PhD depends a lot on making connections between ideas, theories, data points: classic long term memory work.
If you’re devoting a lot of processing time to long term memory work, perhaps you get less good at short term processing. Or maybe you have more trouble switching between the two ways of thinking (can someone please do a PhD on this?). Considered in this way, the PhD loopy la-las may be an evitable side effect of all that deep thinking, which is why the loopy la-las need to be embraced and managed, not ‘cured’.
In that spirit, how do you lean into the PhD loopy la-las without annoying everyone else in your life and constantly losing your keys?
Here’s some ideas:
- Try not to let your email inbox get too out of control, this will make the problem of keeping track of commitments worse. Try a program like to-doist, workflowy, Things or (my favourite) Omnifocus. The key here is to move tasks that emerge from email to another system – don’t let your inbox become your default ‘to-do’ list. By putting things on a list, you assist your short term thinking capability.
- Speaking of lists: get yourself a good list program for your shopping and house- management needs. I use Anylist, which has a meal planner if you want to go to that level. You can share your lists with the rest of your household and lighten the organisational load. No one can claim they didn’t know we needed milk!
- Start a bullet journal to keep track of both your work commitments and your creative ideas in one place. The bullet journal was invented by Ryder Caroll, who has ADHD as an assistive tool for cognitive processing. I’m a recent convert to this method, but I’m a fan. I’ve talked about the bullet journal in the ‘On The Reg’ podcast I started with Jason Downs. I should write a post about how I use it sometime, but there’s a great post on Bullet Journaling during your PhD by Tharika Liyanage on the On Circulation blog. Thanks Tharika!
- Make as many of your personal appointments on a repeating basis as you can. When I go to the hair dresser I book my next appointment before I leave. Likewise with my skin check, breast scans and regular blood tests. I started doing this during my PhD because I started to have health problems that spiraled because I wasn’t keeping an eye on them. Self care is vital and your diary is your friend.
- Finally: warn people in your life that you are experiencing the loopy la-las and reach out for help. Heck – send them this blog post so they know that it’s not just you, ok? People may have to ‘nudge’ you more frequently to do things for them – some people will hesitate to do this because they know you are busy and distracted. Make it ok for them to step up and manage you a little more so you lighten the overall cognitive load.
Good luck with your loopy la-las and if you are in lockdown right now, solidarity! There’s some links below. I’ve left the comments off, but feel free to tag me in social media if you want to chat.
Related links on the Whisperer
Links to other resources
Bullet Journaling during your PhD by Tharika Liyanage
ADHD and bullet journalling
Cognitive load in teaching and learning
Book: Project management for the unofficial project manager
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