Immaginary ambluances and the true value of time

Something funny happened to me last week. I was going through my old WhatsApp chats with my girlfriend (because you know, procrastination…) and found a conversation we were having almost exactly one year ago. I was telling her how frustrated I was at my PhD for not getting good results at all. Back then I really could not see a satisfying conclusion for my research and what significant contribution I could make to science. In some moments, I even thought it might have been worth quitting. And yet, a year later, I am now rushing to write down my thesis, with all the nice results I got, and I am on the way to close this intense chapter of my life.

It’s not the first time this has happened. Even in the most stagnating period of my PhD, or with deadlines approaching, it was often comforting to look back at how many things I was able to accomplish in the previous year. When deadlines approach, time seems to shrink. For some reason, one year or one month become “only one year” or “only one month”. It is happening now, with my thesis writing. I have now “only two months” to finish it. If I think about it, I must confess, it’s quite unsettling. So, in one of those unsettling moments, I looked back again. I checked how much of my thesis I wrote in the month of November. Well, turned out I wrote more than half of it only in “only one month”.

I see this as a psychological Doppler effect. When we look ahead of us, time seems much shorter. Approaching deadlines are faster, like the higher-pitch noise of an approaching ambulance. It’s only when the deadline is passed, that we can look back and see the true value of time. We can do so much in just one week. Of course, sometimes we get stuck and spend weeks making very small steps. But those steps are often necessary and just as valuable. And let’s be clear: a week of holiday is necessary and valuable too!

Therefore, dear stressed PhD student, try this small trick. Think right now at yourself one year ago. What were your worst concerns? What were you most stuck on? And even if everything was fine, think how many things you managed to accomplish in the last year. You should do this regularly, especially if you are in a “one year is not enough for all my deadlines” situation. For me, it often worked for one month as well, sometimes even for a week.

And if someone is thinking that what they accomplished in one year is still not a lot, there are good chances you are terrible at evaluating your own good results. But there’s a topic for another post…

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