Beating the Long-Term Project Blues
Don't buckle under the strain of your thesis or other large endeavor! Start feeling better now with our tips.
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After grad school I thought the days of sobbing over a paper I couldn’t bring myself to start were behind me. Then, last year I started a continuing education course to improve my skills in an area I had little experience in: video.
With the fun and exhilaration of acquiring new skills came a dark side I had not anticipated: a feeling of inadequacy and extreme stress the likes of which I had not had in a while. The course itself was great, but what brought on these feelings was a semester project: a short video that had to be entirely planned, filmed, and edited completely alone.
Looking back, this project really pushed me. Now that it’s done, I can see that it was a valuable experience. In the middle of it, though, I was often in a very bad mental state. I had a full-on case of “project depression”, or, more accurately, “project blues”.
The project blues are a concept inspired by the “PhD blues” described by Ümit Kennedy on the Thesis Whisperer blog. I feel that these issues are not specific to PhD students but can occur anytime someone is faced with a large project that feels overwhelming.
You might have the project blues if you are struggling with the following:
- The project has become the most important thing in your life. You no longer have any perspective. It has become part of your identity. You feel that if you fail at this project you are a failure as a person.
- Completing normal everyday activities is difficult, and you tell yourself you don’t have time to do them.
- Social isolation. You feel guilty going out and taking time away from your work, so you stay at home alone.
- A vicious cycle of procrastination followed by guilt that makes it even harder to start working.
- You engage in self-soothing behaviors more often (binge-watching Netflix, binge-eating cookie dough ice cream, etc.).
- You find less joy in other activities that you used to really like.
- Anxiety and spiraling thoughts about what might happen if you don't do a good job on your project.
These symptoms can be very similar to symptoms of depression, so especially if you’re working on a longer-term project like a thesis, it may be difficult to know if what you’re dealing with is project-specific or a larger general issue. One way to know is that you should feel better after the project is complete.
You shouldn’t always wait that long, though, so be sure to seek out a mental health professional if you’ve had a string of rough days that don’t seem to get better. Many times, your university will have counselors or psychologists you can talk to, and there’s absolutely no shame in getting assistance. Sadly, mental health issues are all too common in academia; in survey results published in March 2018, 39% of graduate students were found to be moderately to severely depressed.
If you’re “only” dealing with a case of project blues, there are a few things you can try to start feeling better and lessen the feeling of being overwhelmed:
- Perfectionists often seem to experience the worst bouts of project blues. When you’ve set the bar high, the chances of not living up to your own expectations increase. Try to trick yourself by saying that you just want to get a “C” on the paper you’re writing. My trick for my project was to tell myself that I would be happy as long as my video didn't embarrass me in front of my peers.
- Another trick is to give yourself small tasks that are easy to achieve. Tell yourself, I’m only going to write the introduction to this chapter today before class. For my video project, I would say, “I’m just going to edit the opening part of this sequence with these specific clips. I’m not going to think about audio, music, etc.” Then, once you get into the groove, you may end up doing much more than you initially planned.
- Having your materials organized and having a good process in place can help give you the confidence to keep moving forwards towards your goal a little bit at a time. For a thesis or other longer paper, using a tool like Citavi can help you keep everything in one central place so that you don't waste time searching for a study you read three months ago. You can also use the Task Planner to organize tasks relating to your reading and writing.
Tools like spreadsheets, task apps, and calendars can also be useful for both academic and non-academic projects, since they help you maintain an overview of what you need to do when. Just don't get down if you're not meeting your goals at the exact time you wrote in your planning tool. Realize that you'll have to readjust as you go.
- Find people who will give you the kind of support you need. This might not always be a romantic partner or family members who may be baffled as to why you are putting so much pressure on yourself. It can often be more helpful to commiserate with peers who are doing the same type of project. You’ll realize you’re not the only one who struggles with time management and self-doubt and this will help give you some perspective.
- Think of other tough times you’ve gone through in your life. Likely, you’ve already had another difficult experience in which your achievement or skills were tested. Think back to how horrible you felt and realize how little it all matters today, even if you failed at the time. Remember that many things define who you are as a person and that one assignment or one thesis isn’t the sole measure of your worth.
- While you shouldn’t use tasks like cleaning to procrastinate from doing your work, a fragile psyche is not helped by bad hygiene, a sink full of dirty dishes, or piles of unwashed clothes. Sure, in stressful times you may not be able to take care of everything right away, but try to do at least one small daily life activity each day. This will give your mind some needed time to wander and you will hopefully feel a sense of accomplishment from completing something, even if you still have months of thesis writing ahead of you.
- Exercise or go for walks if you can. To be honest, I did not do this, but in hindsight I wish I had. Movement releases tension and can clear your head.
- Be kind to yourself. If a family member or partner were having the same issue, what advice would you give them? Recognize also that the work you are doing is part of the learning process. If it’s the first time you’re writing a longer paper or conducting your own research, it’s likely not going to be perfect, but the experience alone will help you do better in the future.
Also realize that it’s not a weakness to ask for help. Your advisor or professor can assist you with solutions to problems that you might never have thought of on your own.
- Although it may sometimes seem impossible, try to enjoy the process. If you can re-connect to what drew you to your project in the first place, your curiosity and interest might help you counteract some of the negativity. Take a moment to appreciate a paragraph you’ve written particularly well. Tweet a quote you liked that you came across in your reading.
- Some days nothing will help. Rather than feeling even more guilt, give yourself a break and permission to be sad. Let the negative feelings come, and cry if you need to. But then, go to bed, get up the next day, and keep doing what you can.
Please note that these are only my personal tips for dealing with the project blues. In the “For Further Reading” section below, I’ve included a few links to other blog posts I've found helpful.
We’d also love to hear your thoughts! Is there an important strategy we left out? How do you deal with the project blues? Please share your recommendations with us on our Facebook page.
For Further Reading
Hiatt, G. (2005, April 13). The 3 P’s: Perfectionism, Procrastination, and... Paralysis [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://academicladder.com/the-3-ps-perfectionism-procrastination-and-paralysis
Kennedy, Ü. (2017, May 17). PhD Depression (or just the blues?) [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://thesiswhisperer.com/2017/05/17/things-to-do-when-you-have-the-phd-blues/
Parcy, A. (2 014, March 25). Studying a PhD: Don't Suffer in Silence [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/mar/25/studying-phd-dont-suffer-in-silence-seek-support
Schwegman, J., & Golde, C. (2016, May 18). Perfectionist Gridlock: Eight Ways to Get Unstuck [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://gradlogic.org/gridlock/