I can’t be sure, but I suspect you’ve created an ambitious schedule for yourself. Did you include any downtime? If not, please go back and add some free periods. Not only do you need time to recharge, but this also provides contingency. Don’t be tempted to push yourself too hard. A punishing schedule over a sustained period leads only to exhaustion. You might get ahead briefly, but then you’re out of action for weeks. A realistic schedule, pursued consistently is more effective than frantic bursts of activity.
Originally created by cardiologist Dr P. Nixon, the Human Function Curve shows the link between pressure and performance. As pressure increases, so does performance, but only up to the point where the pressure becomes too great. Then performance starts to dip slowly before plummeting.
On the left-hand side, where there is little pressure, performance is correspondingly low. In the context of a PhD supervisory relationship, this might indicate that we lack autonomy or a clear sense of what’s required from us.
Moving across, the next section represents the comfort zone where we understand what needs to done and also possess the resources to pursue those objectives. Within the comfort zone, greater pressure can actually improve performance.
As the pressure increases, we reach the stretch zone. Here, we feel less confident but are motivated by the additional pressure. This is where we often achieve optimum performance, as we’re overcoming challenges and developing our research skills.
If we’re not careful, we slip into the strain zone. This is where the pressure exceeds our ability to cope. The dotted line represents the fantasy that our performance will continue to improve, regardless of the pressure. However, in this strain zone, our performance actually decreases. The typical response is to work even harder in the hope of pushing through the zone into the realms of fantasy. We make mistakes, then have to stay at our desks to fix them. Then even more errors creep in. It’s a vicious cycle.
Working harder often involves sleeping less, avoiding friends and family, and neglecting physical health. This, naturally, further impacts upon our ability to cope with the situation. Once we become distressed, we’re in danger of intermission or actually giving up our PhD altogether.
This curve maps the typical zones, but everyone is different. Someone who is dealing with existing mental health problems is likely to reach the strain zone more quickly.
Please ensure that you maintain a balance between life and work by setting clear boundaries. Creating those startup and shutdown routines can really help. As I explained, making progress is about the quality of the time spent, not the quantity. You might feel as though taking breaks is getting in the way of finishing your PhD, but actually it’s helping you. Unless you’ve given your brain a rest, it’s not going to perform at the required level.
And when you’re relaxing, try to get away from your working environment. Even if watching YouTube videos feels like fun, it’s still sitting in front of a computer. Having a complete change of scene helps you recharge.
Downtime is part of your PhD, not an obstacle to it.