Self-care as a habit

As readers of this blog may know, I use Habitica to keep track of habits, such as writing, exercise, eating healthy – the possibilities are endless. Habitica allows you to track what you do in three ways: habits you could do multiple times a day, dailies which you do every day (or every Monday, etc) and todos. For the writing example, a habit could be writing 500 words, a daily could be writing for 30 minutes first thing in the morning, and a todo could be writing a specific section of your paper. Completing any of these gives you experience, gold, items – all ways in which you could associate the habit with a reward.

Habitica also has a fourth category you can use for motivate yourself – rewards. Some rewards are defined by Habitica, such as items you can buy with gold collected from your habits. But you can also define real-life rewards, like going to your favorite restaurant, which you can buy with gold (you do still have to pay the restaurant, though!). I have not talked about this category much before, and in this blog post I explain why.

Habitica has examples of rewards you could define for yourself here. Here are a few examples that I am uncomfortable with:

  • Leisure reading
  • Call friend/relative
  • Long hot bath
  • Time alone with favorite music
  • Take a walk

For me, these are habits, not rewards. I am perfectly capable of just doing the productive things that need to be done, and not taking time for a bath or leisure reading. Not very healthy!

So instead, I intentionally add habits that are enjoyable for me to do, do not have negative effects (other than “wasting” time and perhaps a little money), but do not necessarily HAVE to be done. Next to reading and baths, here are a few other options:

  • Listening to a podcast episode. I learn a lot from various podcasts I listen, including how to be more productive, so perhaps this isn’t even such a “time waster”
  • Trying out a new recipe
  • Going out to dinner or movies. I tend to stay in a lot so it’s a nice change of pace.
  • Organizing things around the house. I realize this is a chore for many but I find it relaxing.
  • Dressing up or doing something special with my nails or make-up
  • Having friends over
  • Playing with the cats
  • Looking at photographs or notes from your “be kind portfolio

To be honest, I had a bit of trouble coming up with a few of the things above and they were not on my list. Most things I thought of straight away, were “too productive”, which just goes to show how necessary it is to pay attention to these things. Then I remembered a thread I saw on Twitter about mental health and doing things that make you happy, which had many other ideas I could borrow them.

There is one suggestion from this thread struck me the most and I will definitely be adding it to my list: “Having a day with nothing to do”

Ups and downs of habits

I recently read the book Superhuman by Habit – a quick read that I definitely recommend. The book got me thinking about what I’ve been doing with regards to habits the last two years or so, and especially what I have not been doing.

I started with the whole habit thing while struggling with anxiety and depression. I started organizing things – from my todo list to my house – as an attempt to reduce overwhelm.  Keeping track of habits was a natural next step. Being able to check things of a list gave me a feeling of accomplishment. One of the habits was blogging, which helped me a lot with starting to feel like I had a purpose.

I have a tendency to overdo things if I put my mind to it. For example, when I was 18 or so I decided to had to lose weight. I didn’t actually need to, but I thought I’d be more confident and people would like me better. So I started counting calories. I got really good at it and would never miss a day. I even started to decline events where I wasn’t in control of what I would get to eat – kind of counterintuitive if the end goal was to have more friends.

A similar thing was starting to happen to habits – I got stressed about doing them, and feeling like a failure if I wasn’t able to keep them up. Not great if the original goal was to feel better. I definitely was not feeling like a superhuman.

Thankfully I now have people in my life who say things like “be kind to yourself”. I thought that was good advice and let a few things go, and was enjoying this new “freedom”. A morning where I would just have breakfast and then play a computer game, but not exercise, meditate etc. suddenly felt like a luxury.

But, reading the book, I realized I’ve let go of too many things. A lot of them were really good for health, and I shouldn’t let those benefits disappear. So I’m giving habits another try – but hopefully allowing myself more space to NOT do them when I need to. This hopefully also means more blog posts again – please help me stay accountable 🙂

Reader Q&A – What I do next to research and blogging

In this post I answer another question from a reader of this blog – what I do next to research and blogging.

I think this is an interesting question because I have to put a lot effort into deciding how I spend my time.

On an average week I work 40 hours – and I am proud of it. Although this might seem little (especially those working, or at least claiming to work double), I am tired by the time I get home. I think that’s a good sign, because to me that means I’m using my hours effectively.

So once I’m home, I can relax. This is a bit of a complicated word for me. My mind immediately goes to sitting on the couch together with my partner and cat, drinking a glass of wine, and watching an episode of the latest series. I do actually do this quite often, and I’m lucky to have the time to do so.

But, I am not always relaxed. Often my mind is on something I need to do the next day, and I might be mindlessly looking at my phone in an attempt to quiet my mind. But I don’t find it a very worthwhile way to spend my time, which might further increase my anxiety.

Instead I try to do other activities, which are still relaxing, but which require more effort. There’s blogging, but that wasn’t a part of the question. Another one is exercise. I still haven’t been able to trick myself into thinking that running is my hobby, but I’m getting there. I also like organizing things at home, reading, cooking, listening to Headspace, learning languages on Duolingo… Not work activities, but they require more effort than for the Netflix scenario, and help my mind quiet down.

In the weekend I first get things like cleaning and groceries done. (By the way, Evernote and Todoist help a lot with this – I could expand on in a different post, if there is interest!). I also try to get some more exercise in and maybe do a larger DIY project at home.  Then I might meet with friends for dinner and/or drinks, or a trivia quiz. I’m a morning person and get up early even if I don’t have to, so I don’t go to bed very late, even on the weekends 🙂

That’s about it – the glamorous life of an assistant professor, haha! What are your favorite activities? Am I missing out on a really great hobby? Let me know in the comments!

5-minute journal with Evernote and Zapier

5 minute journal with Evernote

All the productivity resources I’ve been consuming over the past year seem to agree that journaling is an essential habit that helps with everything else. See for example this blog post by Tim Ferriss or this podcast by AsianEfficiency (both my favorites).

 

There are lots of journaling apps, such as Five Minute Journal and Day One. They remind you when it’s time to journal and offer prompts on what to write, such as “what are you grateful for?”. However, I didn’t want to add new apps to my list, so I decided to maximize the apps I was already using for this purpose.

 

Evernote

My journal simply lives in a notebook in Evernote. I currently have a single note per day, with the following template, which follows the 5 minute journal prompts:

It is possible to set a reminder in Evernote that will alert you when it’s time to journal, but I have a daily in Habitica that helps me remember.

 

Zapier

That’s great, but doesn’t this mean you have to copy and paste the template each time you want to journal?

No – that’s where Zapier comes in. Here I have a “zap” that automatically creates the note with the template each day, so on the day itself I only have to open it. Zapier takes you through the process of creating the zap, but here are the steps:

  1. Create a trigger using Schedule and set it to every day, or however often you want to journal.
  2. Create an action using Evernote and select the “append to note” action.
  3. Enter the name of the notebook (“Journal”), the name of the note (I use the date, this is provided as one of the defaults)
  4. For the content of the note, copy paste template below* Edit the text, formatting as you prefer.
  5. Test the zap and you are done! Happy journaling!

 

*I have tried to update the code so that it’s only needed to specify the border once, but this removed the formatting – let me know if you have a better/neater solution for this!

[sourcecode language=”plain”]

<table style="border: 1px solid black;">

<tr>
<td style="border: 1px solid black; min-width: 300px;">
<b>Morning</b>
</td>

<td style="border: 1px solid black; min-width: 300px;">
……………………………….
</td>
</tr>

<tr>
<td style="border: 1px solid black ; min-width: 300px;">
I am grateful for
</td>

<td style="border: 1px solid black ; min-width: 300px;">
</td>
</tr>

<tr>
<td style="border: 1px solid black ; min-width: 300px;">
What would make today great?
</td>

<td style="border: 1px solid black ; min-width: 300px;">
</td>
</tr>

<tr>
<td style="border: 1px solid black; width: 300px;">
Affirmation: I am…
</td>

<td style="border: 1px solid black; width: 300px;">
</td>
</tr>

<tr>
<td style="border: 1px solid black; min-width: 300px;">
<b>Evening</b>
</td>

<td style="border: 1px solid black; min-width: 300px;">
……………………………….
</td>
</tr>

<tr>
<td style="border: 1px solid black; width: 300px;">
Great thing #1
</td>

<td style="border: 1px solid black; width: 300px;">
</td>
</tr>

<tr>
<td style="border: 1px solid black; width: 300px;">
Great thing #2
</td>

<td style="border: 1px solid black; width: 300px;">
</td>
</tr>

<tr>
<td style="border: 1px solid black; width: 300px;">
Great thing #3
</td>

<td style="border: 1px solid black; width: 300px;">
</td>
</tr>

<tr>
<td style="border: 1px solid black; width: 300px;">
How could today have been even better?
</td>

<td style="border: 1px solid black; width: 300px;">
</td>
</tr>

</table>
[/sourcecode]

 

 

7 things I’m glad I did during my PhD

7 things I'm glad I did during my PhD

After the 7 things I wish I would have done during my PhD, here is an opposite list of PhD advice – of things I’m happy I did, and I would recommend to others. It is also a bit of a “trip down memory lane” of this blog, as I realized I have written about most of these experiences before, but never connected them together. Enjoy!

7 things I'm glad I did during my PhD

 

1. Choose based on people, not on project

I applied to only one lab for my PhD (an earlier post about this). I applied there because I knew I was going to have a great time for four years, and that is largely because of the people in the lab.

Of course I was interested in machine learning, but within machine learning, most topics would have been interesting. The topic of the position I was applying for – “Dissimilarity-based multiple instance learning” – did not tell me much at the time. It was already during my PhD that I got really excited about it, and that is why I have a thesis with the same title now.

I also have to note here that in my experience, if you are in a good place, you will have freedom to pursue your own ideas as well.

 

2. Treat it as a job

Although this seems to be a controversial idea (e.g. professors tweeting that PhD students who don’t put in 80 hours a week “should not be there”), it is entirely possible to treat a PhD as a “normal job”. You know, with things like weekends, sick leave and holidays.

A factor that definitely played a role in my attitude is the system in the Netherlands (and several other countries) where PhD researchers are not students, but employees. It is of course easier to go on vacation or take sick leave, when you don’t have to worry about paying your bills or getting fired.

But perhaps more importantly, I was fortunate not to encounter anybody with the 80 hour mindset. I set myself the same hours as that I saw my supervisors in the lab (roughly 8:30 to 17), and went home after that. I realize now they probably worked at home too, but I never felt the pressure to do so.  See also the point above on choosing for the people, not the project.

More generally, I think it’s good for your mental health to have an identity that is separate from being a researcher, to help deal with failures that will inevitably occur.

 

3. Go to a conference early on

For the first month of my PhD I actually worked on the topic of my MSc thesis, to write a paper for a small conference. It’s not a “big deal” conference, but I cannot stress enough how important this experience was.

First, this meant that I started practicing writing papers (and getting feedback, from supervisors and from reviewers) very early on. Although the topic of my PhD was different and so I couldn’t use the publication for my thesis, the skills I learned still applied.

Second, just a few months into my PhD, I went to a conference where I recognized all the senior people from their badges. And, it being a small conference, several of them talked to me and complimented me on my presentation! This is huge deal if you are, like many PhD students, dealing with some form of imposter syndrome.

Last, I really enjoyed the atmosphere at the conference in general. This motivated me to do a lot of conference paper writing in the following years (such that I was a bit late with realizing I had to also write journal papers, which I do not recommend).

 

4. Do not only do research

Teach, organize a workshop or review papers – something else than your main project. Yes, these things technically “take away time” from your research time, but in my experience they:

  • Give you experience that will be valuable later on (possibly also outside of academia)
  • Give you a productive thing to do when your writing just isn’t progressing
  • Help you stay motivated

In the end, although I spent time on these types of activities, I think I gained time because I could return to my writing with more energy, rather than beating myself up and starting at the screen for hours.

With that being said, also do not do too much – maybe one extra project at a time. If you start doing these things and people realize you are able/happy to do them, you will get more requests, so prepare to say no (something to add to my “should have” list).

 

5. Have an online presence

Although I regret not using Twiter or blogging more, I did do my best to be findable online. I kept my university page and Google scholar profiles up to date, and uploaded my papers to the university website and ResearchGate.

When submitting papers to journals, I posted them on arXiV. For example, I submitted 3 journal papers in 2013. They were only published in 2015 and 2016 (!), when I was already a postdoc. However, these papers have been gathering citations since 2013 (not many, but I’m very proud/excited about it nonetheless). In 2015 and 2016, as recent papers with already a couple of citations, they might have been seen as “important to cite”, leading to further increases in citations and allowing me to benefit from the preprint citation bump.

If you are thinking “none of this is necessary if you just do great research”, evidence suggests otherwise. For example, you are less likely to be cited if you are a woman in international relations or astronomy.

 

6. Visit another lab

Visit another lab for a few months – most would recommend going to a different country too, but if your situation doesn’t allow that, I think going to a lab in a city close by would also be valuable. Apart from the obvious benefits of learning new things, collaborating on a project, and sharing your research, for me visiting another lab has been essential for finding mentors and becoming a more confident researcher. I wrote about this in the post “A few thoughts on mentors”.

7. Bring your own lunch

Yes, it costs time in the morning or the evening before. But it is healthier and cheaper, and much more rewarding!. Lunch in the Netherlands isn’t that great anyway – the standard is to eat bread with something on it (typically not avocado).

The better alternatives are probably at least EUR 5 – I would estimate 2-3 times more expensive than my (sometimes even containing avocado) lunches. If you do this for 4 years you probably still won’t save enough money for a deposit, but you will gain a habit that will in turn help you adopt other useful habits – writing, perhaps?

***
Do you have any PhD advice you would like to share? Please let me know below or via Twitter!

How I use Habitica to improve my diet

In this post I discuss how I use Habitica for health – specifically, to improve my diet. See also an earlier post how I use Habitica to improve my exercise.

I don’t follow a special diet, but I already eat relatively healthy – an inheritance from some earlier dieting years. But a side effect is that food is often my mind, because I’m always busy with optimizing between satisfying a craving, eating on time (so I don’t get too hungry), eating healthy, not wasting food etc.

Here is a typical example. I decide what I feel like for dinner while coming home from work. Already a bit hungry, I stop by the store, and look through their recipe suggestions or what’s on sale. In my mind I match what I feel like having and what’s available to a recipe that I know. I start collecting the groceries. Then I see something interesting in the store, and consider changing my plan. Or I remember I still have this ingredient at home. During this process, I get hungrier and hungrier… In the end, I might give up and get a pizza instead – and probably feel bad afterwards.

This is all way too much unproductive thinking – therefore perfect for building habits and eliminating decision fatigue! I achieve this by just two habits: meal planning and bringing lunch to work.

Meal plan

I have a daily that repeats only on Saturday, that involves selecting 4 dinner recipes and doing groceries. This seemed like a big change to implement for me, but the benefits were so obvious that I didn’t have to wait long for this to become a habit. The catalyst was probably Evernote – as I was clipping recipes, I realized I finally had ONE place with all my recipe ideas. It was easy to see a recipe and say “oh, I haven’t had this in a while – I should get the ingredients next time I’m at the store!”. Multiply that times 4, and you have a meal plan! Here are some of my favorites:
I move the selected recipes to a different notebook, so it’s easy for me to find them once I’m cooking. I then add all the ingredients I don’t have yet to Todoist. In the store, I actually check off the ingredients I put in my basket as I collect them. Perhaps there are specialized apps that streamline this process (i.e. add the ingredients once you select a recipe), but for me this works because I already use Evernote and Todoist often.

Home-made lunch

This is a daily that repeats on all work days. Since I leave the house pretty early, to achieve this I need to prepare my lunch the day before. To simplify things, I just double the amount I prepare for dinner, and bring it with me the next day. Hooray for microwaves!
Notice that I have 4 dinners, but 5 lunches. This is because from time to time dinners with friends, lunches at work, etc come up.  Some leftovers therefore get postponed to other days.

Result

By batching my decision-making into one day, I have 5 days worth of (relatively) healthy meals, that use ingredients I already have at home, and that save me money. During the week, I still have to cook, but since I often prepare the same dishes, this becomes less demanding. All of this frees up my brain to do more interesting things 🙂

Are you considering trying out a meal plan, or maybe you are already an expert at this and have some advice for others? Leave a comment below!

 

On being an employee vs a student during your PhD

This is probably my most retweeted tweet to date. Since this seemed surprising to many people, I thought I’d explain a bit more about what this means.  [Disclaimer: most numbers are estimates based on my sample size of 1 – if you have more detailed / up to date information, please leave a comment!]

Salary

First of all, being an employee means that you get a salary. As an example, let’s take a look at some PhD vacancies in the Netherlands. Many of these can be found on AcademicTransfer. Here are two positions in the group I’m currently working in.

At the bottom you will see “Gross monthly salaries are in accordance with the Collective Labour Agreement of the Dutch Universities (CAO NU), increasing from € 2191 per month initially, to € 2801 in the fourth year.

You might think the salary is there because it’s a STEM PhD, or because of the PI. Well, here are two positions in different fields and different universities – investigating why Dutch people are so tall and how people communicate positive emotions. Both mention exactly the same numbers! This is because of the labour agreement, which defines the salary, and a number of other benefits (more on this later).

[Note: at the time you are reading this, these exact vacancies might be closed, but you can find other similar positions on AcademicTransfer].

Expenses

Of course, the salary doesn´t say much if you are from a place where the cost of living a different. First, there are taxes. The actual salary you get depends on a number of things, like your savings, whether you rent or own a house (yes, this is possible during your PhD) etc. To give an indication, in 2011 my 1st year PhD after-tax salary was around 1400 EUR, and in 2014 my 4th year PhD salary was around 1900 EUR per month.

The biggest cost is where you live. This varies between the Dutch cities, with Amsterdam being the most expensive one. Delft, where I did my PhD, is a bit on the expensive side as well, but it’s doable. Even if you don’t search too long for a great deal, you could rent a room in a shared apartment for starting at 400-500 EUR or so, or rent your own apartment starting at 800 EUR. As an example, I was first paying 600 EUR (of a 1200 EUR house) and later I was renting a two-bedroom apartment for 750 EUR. You can get an idea of prices and how much space you get in return here.

Other big costs are food (200 EUR), utilities (100 EUR), health insurance (100 EUR), internet/phone (50 EUR), municipality taxes (50 EUR).  You can find much more precise estimates of everything online, such as food. Based on these main expenses, even my past self in 2011, had at least 1400 – (600+200+100+100+50+50) = 300 EUR to save or to spend. Not a “pot of gold”, but definitely enough not to have to budget every expense.

Not part of expenses

Yes, tuition is not on the list of expenses – it does not exist at PhD level. You do follow a couple of courses, but these are paid by the employer.

Also not on the list of expenses are conferences. The general rule of thumb (although this is likely to differ between fields) is that you can go to at least one conference a year, especially if you published a paper there. The registration, travel, hotel, dinner and even the 1-2 glasses of wine you had with dinner are reimbursed.

Paying off student debt is not on my list, either. This is mainly because tuition is low (less than 2K a year) and students (bachelor’s and master’s) used to receive a stipend.  With a part-time job, I didn’t need a loan. This is not the case for everyone, but on average, the debt is 15K, and it’s expected to go up to 21K because the stipend no longer exists. According to the tax office, the average case translates to payments of less than EUR 100 per month.

Benefits

Next to salary, the labour agreement (friendly English language version) takes care of a number of other benefits that make life easier. First, you have 29 vacation days per year if you work full-time (=38 hours per week). That’s more than 5 weeks of vacation. I’ve never gone on vacation for that long, but I do use vacation days here and there for a day trip, or just to relax after a busy period.

If you are ill or if you are having a baby, you don’t need to use your vacation days – you just get your full salary for up to 39 weeks of illness and 16 weeks maternity leave (fathers only get a few days off, though).

You also automatically build up pension. I have to admit I’ve never really looked into this, because I didn’t feel like there is a reason to worry. While writing this post, I actually looked at my pension account, and discovered that so far, I’ve built up a pension of 220 EUR per month, and I keep working a full-time job, this will grow to 1900 EUR a month when I retire. This is on top of the basic pension (1000 EUR) from the government.

How you see your PhD

Next to the financial side, I feel like the fact that you are employee affects the way you see your PhD. First of all, you are getting paid for becoming an expert at a topic. This is pretty awesome in itself, but it’s also helpful for your self-esteem, even though it doesn’t erase impostor feelings completely.

You and your PI are both employees of the university, with similar employment conditions. Sure, he or she has more responsibilities and more salary, but you have the same rights in terms of leave. You don’t need to negotiate whether you are “allowed” to stay home when you are ill, or if you need to visit a doctor. Of course you should inform the PI, but there cannot be negative consequences of you taking care of yourself.

After 4 years, your contract ends, and you don’t get paid anymore. As a result, people try to finish their PhD on time, and find their next job. Or, since finishing on time is difficult, just find their next job, and plan to finish the PhD later. But the emphasis is that the PhD is a job and it’s normal to move on afterwards.
 

Life

 All of this helps with what happens outside of your PhD. You just have less things to worry about, so you can concentrate more on the things that are important to you.  You can travel, buy a house, or start a family. Maybe not all at the same time, but the point is, you don’t have to put your life on hold for research.  Hopefully, this translates to a healthier and happier you, and better research as a result.

How I use Habitica to improve my exercise

In this post I discuss how I use Habitica for health – and specifically, to improve my exercise habits!

Procrastination

I am one of many people who find food and exercise important and have goals related to them (often weight loss), but procrastinate too much to achieve those goals. But since I’ve been using this new habit-building approach, I feel that things are starting to change a little bit and it’s not just the goal that motivates me, but the process.

The scenario I sketched with procrastinating on exercise is as follows:

  • Have a vague goal of “exercising more”
  • Be convinced you still need to do something (e.g. buy exercise equipment find the time) to start
  • Delay it until tomorrow, the day after, next week…

Or maybe like this:

  • Have a clear goal of what you want to do (e.g. go running three times a week)
  • Start enthusiastically and push yourself in the beginning to meet the target
  • Quit when you slip up too many times

I’ve had more variations on these in the past but I won’t go through all of them 🙂

First exercise habit

With Habitica and the idea of building habits, I decided to do things differently. I would start with something very simple and concrete, that I could do already, and that I wouldn’t have an excuse not to do: stretching in the morning.

I gave my yoga mat a permanent place in the living room, where I would see it in the morning. Before I have breakfast, I roll it out and do a few yoga-type stretches. The whole process takes about 5 minutes. Then I get a reward: checking off the daily in Habitica and having breakfast. Sometimes I have a lazy morning, but then I usually still stretch later in the day to complete the daily. All in all, I think I have missed less than 5 days since November.

Adding more exercise

Once the stretching became a habit, the yoga mat was joined by a kettlebell. I started with doing 10 kettlebell swings in addition to the stretching, and have now built it up to three different exercises. This was a bit more difficult to adopt, so I created a habit, which I can do as often as I want, and thus get extra rewards.

The last thing on my exercise list is walking. I set my goal to 10K steps a day. I don’t always complete this one, but to motivate me to do as much as possible, I set it up as a checklist where each 2K counts. And on days when I’m doing a lot of walking, I get extra rewards for each additional 2K steps I walk.

This is how all of this looks in Habitica (left are the habits, right are the dailies):

Now walking definitely became a habit. Before, I would sometimes have days where I barely get 1K steps in. But now I feel like I need to get moving, and I’m motivated to go for a walk to make sure I check off at least some steps off the list.

The verdict

None of this is particularly impressive compared to e.g. going running three times a week. But it’s something that I can do consistently, so for me it’s better than a too enthusiastic goal I can’t keep up with. I also really like the process of building up the habits and updating them in Habitica, so perhaps one of these days I will introduce a running habit as well.

I would be happy to hear how all of you are keeping up with exercise – is it something you do routinely, or something that you don’t usually get to? Do you keep track of what you’ve done and your progress over time? Any other tips others should hear about?

 

 

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