PhD or RPG: The game of self-directed study

An RPG is a type of video game. I like video games. I also like my PhD. But I like them in different ways.

My PhD gives me a sort of holistic, long-term, feeing of achievement. Deep down, in a gentle way.

Video games give me short term burst of achievement. I won the race. I completed the level. Even shorter? I nailed that corner. I beat that enemy. I’ve loved video games for a long time, but I hadn’t put my finger on why until recently. Party it’s because it’s cognitively engaging. It’s one of the only activities I can do where my brain is really distracted from PhD  thoughts. Partly, it’s because it’s emotionally engaging. The story, the music, and the gameplay suck you in, and you feel like you’re in another world.

But partly it’s because of these short bursts of achievements. I’ve always responded well to short, challenging but achievable tasks.

I loved the learning part of school (as you can imagine, I wasn’t that popular…) because of the short, achievable goals.

I found my undergraduate degree more difficult. There were still objectives, which was good, but I could make more decisions for myself. There were more things that could go wrong. I burned out, and took a couple of years away from study. I went to a temping agency and asked for an admin job where I didn’t need previous experience and I could be given tasks to complete. I didn’t realise that I had identified (possibly for the first time) my preferred working style.

I did that job for a few months, and found that these tasks and bursts worked for me. It was a bit problematic in that job – I worked like a fiend. I finished everything. There was nothing left to do (for the day…). There was nothing to do. I wasn’t allowed to read. I was reported to my boss for playing solitaire. I didn’t have internet access apart from for specific, work-related sites.

So I learned how to tune out. And then the work would build up. And then I’d blitz it. And then I’d have nothing to to do. So I’d tune out.

Rather than identifying this as another signpost to my preferred working style, I struggled with it. Tussled with it.

My Masters degree was similar. It was taught, so had a similar amount of structure to my Bachelors degree, but a bit more choice. I could choose how to spend my time. It was hard to find work to do at the beginning of the course, so I tuned out, and spent my time replaying Zelda: The Ocarina of Time on my N64 and working doing first line IT support, both of which involved short tasks and quick achievement (apart from the Water Temple, which is a notoriously lengthy part of that video game).

And now, I’m doing my PhD, a very self-directed project. I’ve found it really fun, but really difficult. In my first year I was tired all the time. I had a normal routine (in my opinion), and was getting eight hours of sleep every night. But I was exhausted. I went to the sleep clinic in Edinburgh, where they strapped wires to me and watched me sleep. But there was nothing wrong (despite my awesome theory about alpha brain waves interrupting my sleep). And it was then that I started to realise that the problem was engagement. And achievement. I wasn’t ill. I was bored. Stressed, and bored. I took an interruption of studies for three months, and came back.

That was a year ago. My year has been more structured – organising studies rather than undirected reading and writing. But I’ve still been stressed. Less bored, but still stressed, and sometimes a bit lost.

Why?

I’ve only just recognised it, this small, sharp-toothed monster that’s been dragging along at the bottom of my jeans. I’ve been feeling guilty that my working patterns don’t match other people’s. How has this happened? I like being different. I usually embrace this. But to me, having a different working style equates with sucking (colloquially, not literally).

People have prescribed a certain amount of hours that you should devote to your PhD each week. 40 hours a week is what I’ve been told. 40 hours a week means that you don’t have to feel guilty in the other hours of the week, and that you will get you work done.

The amount of hours a week that I work on my PhD vary. I have a job 2 days a week (doing technology training, which is more self-directed than my previous job). But I’m trying to set myself tasks and do them. And then feel the achievement.

And I can get so much work done that way.

And so I’m just going to say what seems to be taboo:

It is not about how many hours you work. It is about how you spend your time when you are working.

I feel inferior to friends who work in the office from 9-5. This is my own doing, none of them have ever made me feel bad about it. So I am identifying my working style, my strengths and weaknesses.

It is a strength that I can do things quickly. It is sometimes difficult that I work best in short bursts. But a PhD is the time to harness this, because I am in control of my own time, as described by Ben from Literature HQ in a recent Thesis Whisperer blog post.

So I’ve been turning my PhD into a game.

For the past six weeks I’ve been setting myself weekly tasks, and when I aim to complete those tasks. It has helped enormously. The tasks have evolved, and become increasingly specific.

So, continuing the Zelda comparison, rather than “complete the water temple”, it’s narrowed down to  “find the next silver key“, to “hookshot over to the door”, “beat the enemies in that room”.

Or in writing terms, it started with “design my study”, and narrowed down to “scan literature about physiological measures”. Now it’s “email C regarding her physiologist friend”, “do a Google search for ‘measurement windows pulse rate'”, “read the abstract of five of the results that come up”, “if any are relevant, read protocol, if not repeat search”, and so I’ve broken my PhD into small morsels of achievement. And I feel good. It makes me want to keep going.

My aim is to make my PhD the thing that I just want to keep doing until the next save point, because the achievement is so tantalising. It’s easy to keep working because you feel guilty that you’re not doing enough. But to keep working because it’s fun? To get enough done in those sessions that I can block out time for the rest of my life?

That’s my goal. What do you think? Do you find yourself playing video games instead of your research? Does the 9-5 work pattern sit badly with you? Do you have any tips for how to manage expectations of a certain working style? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below….

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5 comments

  1. I find that I work in bursts as well. And that I also feel odd about it.

    So I’ve gotten to where I work in so many sets of bursts that I am now identified as a workaholic (a totally new appellation for me).

    Creating the small achievable goals–chunking the work into bite-sized pieces–has helped.

    Keeping a list that transfers “to do” to “done” also helps. Then when I feel underwater with all the stuff left “to do,” I can look at “done” and go, “Oh yeah. I did do all that.” Now I need to maintain that list and keep up with it. but it has helped in the short time I have been using it. (Maybe it’s my pile of gold?)

    I’ve been working on turning one of my classes into a game-style model, to try it out, but I hadn’t really thought of my work as a game… even when I said I was “gaming the system.”

    Interesting ideas.

    1. Thanks – nice to hear that someone else is having a similar experience.

      Trying to emulate the video game model is helping so far. It makes a lot of sense, but it’s easy to slip out of it. I’m planning to write more on the idea, and develop some good habits at the same time.

  2. Aloha Ellen

    A really handily timed piece for me as I think about my own phd strategy, thanks! (I’m a small achievements, work in bursts person too.)

    On the games front, your post reminded me of two things that might appeal to you if you haven’t come across them already:
    1. Jane McGonigal’s Superbetter ‘game’ – creating quests, bad guys and powerups for my phd (or rather for my ever present ability to procrastinate) has been really handy. There’s Tedtalk video of her talking about it at http://www.ted.com/talks/jane_mcgonigal_the_game_that_can_give_you_10_extra_years_of_life.html and the app/website is at https://www.superbetter.com/
    2. The link between your learning and gaming – James Paul Gee on What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy is chockful of handy principles that can help ‘gamify’ approaches to learning. (There’s a handy list of his principles at http://edurate.wikidot.com/the-36-learning-principles but the book draws them out really well, well worth reading.

    Thanks again.

  3. Great post. I’m fascinated that there are others having similar thoughts about the process of doing a PhD. I started in September ’12 and even in my first week was logging ‘achievement badges’ in my mind, conversation and notebook. The ‘gamifying’ approach has been applied to everything from engaging kids in learning, to household chores to fitness, so why not a PhD?! I got inspired enough to blog on this myself ( http://writingintobeing.wordpress.com/2012/12/24/the-phd-game/ ) but haven’t gone further in actually developing more of a system than just the ad hoc comment ‘yay, that’s definitely another achievement’ to myself.

    I’m probably more inclined to casual games than quest or adventure games these days, unless I can play them in short bites :)

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