Doing less, being more

Life as a PhD student and postdoc isn’t easy – there’s always more we could be doing, more experiments, more data to analyze, more papers to read, more writing and rewriting and refining. It’s not a surprise that a lot of us (myself included) suffer from “burnout”. I go through cycles of being extremely productive to cycles of reduced productivity. Now as a postdoc, I’ve been through numerous “productive/burnout cycles” and while I’ve identified the issue, the solution remains elusive. How can I achieve more “balance” in my life? Is it even possible as a scientific researcher?

I’ve read self-help articles and blogs, listened to podcasts and watched YouTubers talk about how to be more productive. I’ve attempted to apply their advice but it always only works for a week or two before I spiral back into my old habits. Upon reflection, I’ve realized that all that time spent on self-help, productivity optimization tips was just another form of procrastination.

“Just do the things you need to do” or “Make a list” is what people will tell me when I complain about my issue. However, it’s much easier said than done. There’s the paralysis of the endless task list, the inertia in getting started on a difficult task and the constant bombardment of emails to attend to in a timely manner.

I came across this article “Let yourself be unproductive. At least for a little while” by Peter Bregman in Harvard Business Review that really helped me see my issue in a different light. The author has similar issues to me regarding the “habit of relentless productivity and achievement” and suggests that it may a coping mechanism to keep “running or repressing or denying or distracting yourself by doing”. Rather, it’s important to recognize why we need such control of ourselves and our lives and what fears we have if we decide to loosen up and relinquish this control.

“Our doing habits are so strong.” It’s all about multitasking in the lab, getting involved in more projects, reading more books or squeezing in another podcast during the commute or when doing chores. Instead, the author invites us to consider doing less, walking away from our calendars (I know, it’s a scary thought!), letting our mind wander (rather than listening to another podcast or music or even actively trying to pay attention to our breathing). Just take a moment to be vulnerable, open and “find the emotional courage to follow your inklings, step by step, toward what, even just maybe, feels right?”

Daisy Y. Shu @eyedaisyshu on Twitter/Instagram

Interested in contributing original content to the ASIP blog? Contact me at to get involved!