The danger zone.

Anyone who has a child, or who has ever babysat, knows the look. It's the look someone gets when they're tired, or hungry, and you have only a few minutes to intervene and provide the missing element before a real nasty tantrum sits in. Sometimes you catch it in time, and sometimes you don't, but over time, you come to figure out the warning signs, and the conditions under which those tantrums happen. Then, you're a few steps closer to figuring out how to avoid them all together. 

Now, the brain of a PhD student (or any adult, really!) is not that much farther along the evolutionary track than your average toddler. We might have more tools to describe how we're doing, and more resources to meet our own needs, but we all melt down sometimes. What if you spent some time in the next few weeks thinking through what your "tantrums" look like, what your warning signs are, how you can prevent them systematically, and how you address them in the moment? 

For me, my tantrums are often, but not always, caused by fatigue/exhaustion/brain fog. I have a chronic illness, so those are sometimes symptoms of my disease, sometimes they're symptoms of the fact that I stayed up late watching Netflix. A typical tantrum progression looks like this:

  1. Notice that I'm tired/foggy, apply coffee

  2. Feel like a god for 15 minutes, decide that I can overcome my body with the force of my mind (and coffee)

  3. Skip lunch/snack because coffee suppresses my appetite and I'm in the zone, and then eat quickly when it's too late, or eat things that don't make me feel great.

  4. Stare at computer while it slides out of focus, become increasingly irritated (not with myself, but with the cruel universe that invented the idea of computers, or the concept of Wednesdays)

  5. Look up at the clock, realize that three hours have passed, confirm that in fact, 10-15% of lots of tasks are finished, and no single task has been checked off. 

  6. Meltdown

 So now, I try and pay attention to those warning signs, and intervene at any of those steps. For example, here are those steps again, with the "corrective actions":

  1. Notice that I'm tired/foggy, apply coffee

    1. Try hot water! Or a lower caffeine solution. 

    2. If coffee is a must, alternate coffees with water. Cap at 2. 

    3. Schedule a hard cut off time for the day, a nap, or plan for time off later if today's schedule doesn't allow for it. 

  2. Feel like a god for 15 minutes, decide that I can overcome my body with the force of my mind (and coffee)

    1. Remind myself that I am not a god, make sure that I do not cancel plans to take care of myself 

  3. Skip lunch/snack because coffee suppresses my appetite and I'm in the zone, and then eat quickly when it's too late, or eat things that don't make me feel great.

    1. Do not skip lunch! Make a list on post it note, not in kitchen, of possible foods and choose best options based on grocery/time/appetite restrictions.

    2. Bring snacks up to office to eat during pom breaks. 

  4. Stare at computer while it slides out of focus, become increasingly irritated (not with myself, but with the cruel universe that invented the idea of computers, or the concept of Wednesdays)

    1. Go for a walk. 

    2. Have a desk dance party.

    3. Switch to lower brain activity tasks. 

  5. Look up at the clock, realize that three hours have passed, confirm that in fact, 10-15% of lots of tasks are finished, and no single task has been checked off. 

    1. Use pom timer to have natural places to reevaluate progress

    2. Close tabs / programs with other tasks in them

    3. Use extensions to block unhelpful websites to make it easier to stay on task

  6. Meltdown

    1. Apply self-compassion. 

    2. Change locations

    3. Make a plan for tomorrow, or later that day. 

So just like it's important to make a schedule that works for you, it's equally important to know your own danger zones, where the pressure to stick to the schedule might actually be causing more harm than good. You're just a curious, hungry, tired toddler under all that grad school regalia - it's okay to take care of yourself.