The Options Suite

One of the things participants in my courses notice is that I keep it ‘real’. I don’t portray life as a last-year PhD student or as a newly minted PhD graduate, or an early to mid career researcher, as a glamorous path, because it ain’t.

It’s stressful, it’s exhausting, it’s anxiety-producing. And I help people prepare for, and deal with, all those feelings, alongside the work and circumstances that generate them, because they’re every much a part of the ride as the work itself.

One particular situation, especially nearing the end of the PhD, is when things are just not working out for you. Distress that the words aren’t coming faster, or more easily, on the page.  Annoyance that the computer server is down. Frustration that the printer is out of paper. Despair that the library on campus is closed because it’s a public holiday or semester break. Irritation that you have a new and very ‘chatty’ PhD student working in your shared office space. And so on.

Many years ago I came across a concept by a management guru called Steven Covey, who distinguished between one’s ‘circle of influence’ and ‘circle of concern’. The circle of influence sat inside the circle of concern, and was much smaller. Issues in the ‘concern’ circle included things like climate change, world politics, the weather, traffic conditions. Issues in the influence circle could include things like your attitude towards the traffic, your consumer choices, your decision about what to wear for the day.

According to Covey, humans tend to spend a LOT of time giving energy and attention to the things they can’t influence and can’t change, and that they spent far less time and energy on the things they could influence and change about a situation. It’s another way of describing what’s commonly referred to as the serenity prayer,

‘to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.’

For those of you who can identify with expending energy on the things you can’t control (but which are REALLY bugging you!), I won’t be at all surprised if you’re rolling your eyes and thinking ‘the last thing I need right now is a pep talk about changing my attitude’. You just want the irritating situation to go the way you think it should and everything would be just dandy. I hear you!

So how best to deal with not getting what you want or what you expected?

One helpful method is to keep on giving yourself options so you feel less a victim of circumstance or other people’s behaviour. The flow on effect is that when you’re then presented with a situation that frustrates you, or one you find yourself thinking about and feeling annoyed by, you’ll be more inclined to ask yourself:

1. Can I do anything to change this situation?

2. If I can, what specifically can I do?

And if you could do with a bit more serenity in your life, you could add a third question to this list:

3. If I can’t change the situation, what attitude will help me best co-exist with it?

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