I’m 13 miles into a 32 mile footrace and my legs refuse to move another inch. I started winding my way through trails on the foggy Mendocino coast hours ago. Now, after crossing a couple of icy cold streams and climbing 4,000 feet through the redwoods my legs and I battle.
At this moment, I considered my options. I could walk back 2 miles to the nearest aid station and hitch a ride to the start. I could find a cozy looking rock on the side of trail, take a seat and begin to ponder why I even started trail running in the first place. Quitting at this point would provide short-term relief, but negate months of early morning training sessions and sacrifices my partner and I made so that I could properly build up to this race. Instead, I chose a third option. I convinced myself to forget about the overall goal of finishing the race, and instead focused on much smaller goals--the same way that I was getting myself through graduate school. I often think about the similarities of long distance running and graduate school. I started my PhD 4 years ago, and as a first generation college student the thought of eventually conducting original and cutting-edge invasive species research scared me. It still does sometimes. I sign up for these long distance races because they also kind of terrify me. But both can be accomplished by focusing on achievable and still satisfying short-term goals.
Back to the trail: Goal number one, polish off my water bottle to calm my cramping. I could do this. I drained one of my bottles and feebly fist pumped into the cool coastal air. I then moved from my standstill and began a slow walk down the mountain and toward the finish line. This is the embodiment of what I’ll call “the turtle approach.” In this moment, I hoped that a more steady, deliberate pace could deliver me to the finish line. Breaking down scary tasks into small achievable goals is consistently the strategy that helps me achieve my career and athletic goals.
Here’s my favorite turtle approach for success in graduate school. My typical achievable goal is to work uninterrupted for 25 minutes (i.e. no instagram, twitter or whatever distractor you prefer) and taking deliberate 5 minute breaks in between. Even if I don’t finish a whole paragraph or even a whole sentence in the 25 minutes, getting through that stretch of consistent work gives me a feeling of accomplishment. Some call this the pomodoro method of working, I call it the eat-trail-mix-and-pet-my-dog-every-twenty-five-minutes method. Even with achievements adding up, I always advocate for additional breaks to get outside, socialize, grow a garden or read book. All of these will help to prevent grad school burnout.
The common thread in my academic and athletic achievements is my ability to breakdown insurmountable and unknown tasks into a more digestible form. I won’t forget the feeling of arriving to Boston University as the first in my family to go to college. I very quickly had to learn how to manage coursework and navigate a complicated financial aid system all while working part-time. Before graduate school, I spent 5 years working for education nonprofits in my hometown of Providence, RI. When I returned to school, the idea of taking one (or more!) statistics courses all while developing my own research projects seemed impossible. These feeling are common to anyone taking on challenges, so maybe you’ve felt them too. Turtle approach to the rescue! I recommend treading down the long path of your dissertation one step at a time. Focus on completing the homework assignment for this week, before worrying about the quiz next week--you’ll work your way through the course! Schedule regular check-ins with your mentor. Preparing an agenda for this check-in will help to remind you just how much you accomplish each week.
Back in Mendocino County my slow walk down the mountain turned into a slow trot and then it quickened to a run when I finally made it to a smooth section of downhill. With 8 miles to go I smiled and stopped to stare at a roaring waterfall tucked in the redwoods. And as I wound my way along the sandy bluffs near the finish line I was almost nostalgic for those gritty moments in the mountains.