Getting my mojo back

We’re firmly marching towards my birthday [pauses to receive birthday wishes]. It is utterly alarming because June 1st means we’re half way through 2022. How can that be, already? As last year’s birthday was a bit of a post-surgery-recovery-write-off, I’m going to claim I’m 40 this year. Again.

It has been a mucky year up to this point but I feel like the last week has turned a corner. Let’s brush over the muck (brush off the muck? Hmmm, I think I’m mixing my metaphors because I’m out of blogging practice) and focus on the positives. Like the fact that the house is more or less complete now, following our move and renovations, so life is much calmer. Or that I’m regularly getting 6+ hours sleep now we’ve invested in one of those fancy, adjustable beds. Yes, we’re totally down with the kids.

In the last week, I’ve also refound my PhD stride. I’m back with my chums on PhD Forum (link) more often, when meetings allow. Also, I’ve gone back to old school methods and reinstated my bullet journal. It’s a really simple but effective way of organising the noise in my head, particularly when I’m juggling multiple things. Essentially, there are official rules you can check out online (link) but my system is simple:

  • a square bullet is a task
  • a circular bullet is a meeting or appointment
  • a dot means I’ve started
  • shading means it’s completed
  • an arrow means I’ve moved it to another day or week
  • a cross means it was cancelled

In addition to this, I lay out pages differently to organise work and diaries and the month ahead and plans and notes. I love how it gives me a sense of completion and that it helps me to break larger chunks of work into manageable actions. I am predisposed to spend far, far too much time making my bullet journals look pretty – but as I recognise that’s actually an act of procrastination, I’m avoiding it this time and keeping things plain.

Also this week, I’m on the final part of my data analysis and I’m so close to returning to the actual writing. I’ve also got to grips with the overall thesis structure. It’s a little like a jigsaw puzzle at the moment: I’m still scrabbling around for some pieces which are missing; I’ve done all the corners and most of the edges; there are a few wonky pieces where I tried to force them into the wrong spots; a few random patches of completed puzzle are dotted all over the table but I’m not yet sure where they fit in the final picture. But, still, it all feels like progress and I’m looking forward to discussing plans with my supervisors this week.

Over the last few months, I’ve had the privilege of working as a research assistant on a project within my department ( I’ve landed myself in a brilliant team: knowledgeable, patient, creative and collegiate. The PI has a great approach in making us all feel equally valued. This week has been a period of firsts… Not only is this my first role in a project, but I’ve also had the chance to co-write my first conference abstract – fingers crossed we’re successful. Also, for the first time, I was involved in a presentation that isn’t focused on my own MA or PhD research. I’m loving every minute of it because the research is so important and it’s beginning to take on a life of its own.

A small but mighty win for the week is my desk set up. This must be my third or fourth work from home blog post but, in my defence, we have moved house. The details are dull – so I will be brief – but essentially I’ve managed to sort out my second monitor to a more reasonable height. In turn, this means I’ve been able to lower my desk chair. All of which has meant that my left hip has stopped raging in protest and I feel significantly younger. Although, it will still be a little achy if my wife asks about any chores or DIY!

Just masking my my teammate’s face as I didn’t ask permission to use the photo.

I know I need to tidy my desk but how’s that for a high-impact-low-cost solution? Took off the monitor’s fixed stand and I’ve rested it on a book stand I already had.

Anyway, the tiny cynic I carry in my head is cautioning that celebrating recent wins will mean I’ll tempt some sort of catastrophe. I’ve told her to shut up. But in an unpublishable fashion.

Insomnia: a one act play to be performed at least 5 nights a week

In bed, window open, no lights. Approximately 1 a.m.

Brain: This is nice. Let’s nod off, Jo, and dream of happy times to come.

Jo: Sounds great (takes a relaxing, deep breath and slowly exhales).

Bladder: Um. Sorry to be that guy but I need a trip to the bathroom.

Brain: Oh, come off it. You went an hour ago.

Bladder: Yeah but now you’re thinking about it, Brain, aren’t you?

Brain: (Mutters something inaudible).

Back: Yeah, I’m with Bladder. If we fall asleep in this position, it’s going to mess up Neck.

Neck: Huh? No fair. Come on, Brain… it’s one trip to the loo. If Back screws with me again, I’m sending a migraine your way in the morning, Brain.

Brain: (Exasperatedly) It is the bloody morning. (Resigned) Up you get, Jo, we’re off for a quick wee.

Intestines: Possibly.

Brain: Oh for pity’s sake.

Jo heads to the bathroom in the dark and performs a wee. She hangs around for a minute or two to establish that Intestine is, in fact, being an attention seeker. Jo heads back out of the bathroom and enters the kitchen because Victorian houses have strange layouts.

Cat: (Screams).

Jo: (Turns on light).

Brain: Great, now you’ve done it. (Bitterly) I’m awake again.

Cat: (Screams continuously).

Jo: (Fetches cat bowl and empties cat food into it, getting some on the side and on her hands).

Brain: That’ll do, Jo – straight back to bed.

Conscience: (Outraged) No, no, no. Clean up the kitchen sides and wash your hands. Really!

Jo: (Cleans sides and washes hands. She notices the sink isn’t looking sparkly, so cleans that and puts on a load of washing).

Conscience: (Impressed) Nice one, Jo.

Brain: (Stroppily) Can we get back to bed now?

Jo: Sure. (Turns off lights and sets off for the bedroom).

Foot: (Yelling) WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?!

Brain: (Sighing) One of Jo’s shoes. She left it there earlier, remember?

Foot: No. (Sulkily) That’s your job.

Conscience: Perhaps Jo should put it away –

Brain: (Interrupting) NO! Not now. Bed!

Jo heads back to bed and spends at least 30 minutes trying to make sure Back and Neck are happy.

Jo: Are we all set?

Bladder: Yeah, cheers for that.

Back: Sure.

Neck: Yup.

Brain: Well, actually, now you mention it, I’d like to run through the plans for tomorrow. And what do you want to eat? What time is the puppy going to daycare and have you figured out when we need to leave and when you should wake up? Remind me, why are you doing a PhD? Did you text your friend to see how she’s doing? Whose birthdays are coming up? Are you smart enough to do a PhD? When is the dog’s next vet appointment? Oh, did you put the ointment on the dog’s tail earlier? Actually, doesn’t the puppy need a worming tablet this week? What’s your PhD even about? I don’t think you’ve charged your phone but you shouldn’t check because the light will wake me up even more. Did you see that article about blue light and the impact on brains? I wonder if we should get Eyes some of those light filtering glasses. Or maybe they’re just a scam? Talking of purchases, have you got a Hermes tracking number for the Hoover yet? Well, we should say vacuum cleaner because Hoover is the brand. Like Sellotape. And Post-Its. Ah, stationery – you need to order new fountain pen cartridges, you’re running out. And the printer said its black cartridge is low. Was it the black? I’m sure it was. We can check. There’s a button on the printer or you can use the software on the laptop. Might need to run laptop updates this week before it gives up completely. What will you do for work if you complete the PhD? Ah, have you backed up all your recent analysis? And password protected the folders? Because, if you –

Netflix: (Interrupting) I’ve got at least two new releases that would shut Brain up for a while.

Brain: How rude.

Jo: (Relieved, grabs phone) Yes, please! (Checks phone) Oh, only 8% battery.

Brain: (Smugly) Told you.

Jo: (Scrabbling around in the dark) There’s no charger, I’ll grab one from downstairs.

Brain, Bladder, Back and Neck: (In unison) Do we have to?

Jo: It won’t take long.

Downstairs, in the dark, Jo goes to the dining room and locates a charger. She turns to head back up the stairs.

Cat: (Screams, continuously and louder than before.)

Jo: You’ve just eaten.

Brain: You know she won’t stop until you feed her again.

Jo: She might.

Cat: (Screams and jumps on kitchen side).

Brain: Told you. Again.

Jo: (Prepares more cat food and this time, doesn’t spill any. Turns to head back up the stairs).

Conscience: Excuse me? You need to clean the kitchen sides.

Jo: But I didn’t spill anything!

Conscience: Sure… but Miss-Kitty-Shout-A-Lot just tap danced all over it.

Brain: Oh, come on!

Jo: (Dutifully cleans the sides. Again).

Back in bed, Jo charges the phone and spends a few minutes settling Back and Neck into comfy positions. She watches one episode of a new series and decides, responsibly, to leave it there for now).

Netflix: Good, right?

Jo: Yeah, seems promising.

Netflix: Another? Ah go on, they’re only 45 minutes long.

Jo: No, let’s sleep.

Netflix: You sure?

Brain: You heard her!

Netflix: (Placatingly) Alright, alright.

Relaxed and calm, Jo starts to fall asleep.

Ears: What was that?

Brain: Shhhh.

Ears: No, listen.

Dog: (Politely) Whimper, huff, huff, snort.

Ears: Huh?

Brain: (Runs canine translation system) She needs the loo.

Jo: (Gets up, causing Back and Neck to grumble, and opens door). There you go.

Dog: Whimpers.

Jo: You know how to use the dog flap.

Dog: Huffity huff.

Brain: She doesn’t want to go on her own or in the dark.

Jo upsets Back and Neck by staggering downstairs and into the garden with the dog. The dog takes 15 minutes to find the perfect place to pee and then poops in 3 different locations.

Conscience: You should –

Jo: I know!

Jo bags up the poop and cleans the dirty patio areas with the hose. She heads back indoors.

Conscience: You need to –

Jo: I bloody know!

Jo washes her hands and heads to the stairs, surprised the cat isn’t screaming again. She starts up the first step.

Brain: If we get to sleep in the next 5 minutes, we’ll have 3 and a half hours of rest.

Bladder: Um, actually, whilst you’re up…


Pinch: the shouting cat

Living with a PhD student…

Here is a handy guide on how to approach your spouse or partner as they undertake a PhD. In fact, this would apply to anyone living with somebody undertaking intense studying. Bear in mind, the context of this blog post = a family unit who hasn’t left the house since the middle of March, with the exception of dog walks in a secure paddock and medical appointments. We’re all a little tightly wound at the moment.


>> How long will that take you?

Try instead: never asking this question or any other that relates to timescales or speed of work.

Nothing will take me from feeling focussed and on task to exuding misty-red-rage quicker than this question. I have no idea how long it will take me. But I do know it will now take me a lot longer because I have to remember which figurative thread I was pulling on and which of the fifty-billion-million-tabs-I-have-open I was working on. Why do you need to know how long it will take me? You are a bonafide adult and you can occupy yourself or solve your own problem without any input from me.

>> Oh, I thought it was ok to talk [at you about my work / a meme I saw / the man-child] because you looked up from your screen…

Try instead: smiling, if there’s a brief moment of eye contact. That’s it. Nothing else.

Looking up from my screen doesn’t mean I am not processing something. PhDs are weird… you are holding so many ideas in your head at the same time and sometimes trying to push incongruent ones together. Looking up from my screen is usually an indication I am stretching my back, resting my eyes (which have always preferred to read on paper) or I’m sorting and moving things around in my mind palace. Ok, I’m no Sherlock Holmes but I do often visualise things. I will also say that this equally applies to reading for pleasure. Don’t interrupt me and pull me out of the world I was enjoying!

>> Bringing cups of tea or coffee and then moaning or being cross because they go cold.

Try instead: using one of the many lidded thingymabobs that we have (affectionately called stay-hots, in this house).

I realise this example paints me as a bit of a cow. I’m not ungrateful and I will frequently go without nourishment and hydration for many hours because I am in the zone (reading and thinking for several hours in a row so that I can write, literally, a single sentence). So, bringing me beverages is great and much appreciated. But, if I didn’t ask for one, I’m unlikely to even notice it arrive. Whacking it in a device that keeps it hot for longer increases my chance of drinking it. Also, the “telling off” for letting it go cold is another interruption which makes the answer to “how long will that take you?” even more volatile.

>> Offering to tidy up piles of work or books.

Try instead: doing nothing and leaving things exactly as they are.

For a start, in this marriage, I am not the messy one. In the past, I have had to tidy and clean her many offices because she likes to work in chaotic squalor. We are talking a penicillin level of neglect. The idea of her implying I’m working in a mess evokes words such as audacity, arrogance, cheek and delusion. I am methodical – it might not be obvious but there is always a method. So the piles are thus organised because they denote something: the order in which I plan to read, connections between authors and papers, topics or themes. If you touch them, you affect that organisation.

Also, this is an example where a partner or spouse looks like they’re being kind and helpful but the implication is that you’re somehow affecting the household because of the space you’re occupying. I have enough self-imposed guilt about being a 39 year old student without others piling onto it.

>> I thought you were going to work on [x, y, z], today?

Try instead: not commenting on when and how I choose to take time off.

See aforementioned references to self-imposed guilt. Sometimes, I am just not motivated to start or to climb back into the-monstrosity-of-an-office-chair-I-was-forced-to-buy-to-placate-my-fickle-spine. I just want to scroll through social media, watch Hamilton on Disney+, read a book for pleasure, play a game or message my friends. I know I have a deadline. I know it’s immovable. It is better that I take breaks, even unplanned, during my low motivation moments rather than arbitrarily having a planned night off that risks breaking a flow. Essentially, I don’t need a project manager; in this situation, you are my spouse and you are not responsible for my timesheet. Cheers.


I can guess that anyone reading this who knows me will automatically take my wife’s side… and fairly so. She is lovely and (usually) just trying to be sweet. This blog was more about explaining what goes on in my head when met with these comments, questions and actions. Also, we’ve hit 20 years of “how long will that take you?” It has been applied to my undergraduate degree, my PGCE, classroom planning and marking, coursework and controlled assessment marking, exam board marking (there’s been a lot of marking), DIY and decorating, MA assignments, and my MA dissertation. The answer is always the same and I’m surprised she hasn’t learned it yet.

It. Will. Take. However. Long. It. Takes.