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Spinning many plates? Find balance in small joys - Dr Lou Mycroft

Staff in FE are commonly juggling other major demands alongside their college day job. That is a particular reality for anyone involved in research. So how do you juggle competing priorities and make sure you are able to give your research work the attention it needs without it taking too great a toll?

My first challenge to you is: Enjoy it.

If I was to judge the experience of studying for a Masters/EdD/PhD by what I read on social media, rather than my own experience, I’d think it was hard labour. Nobody seems to get any pleasure from it. This negative feed is only part of the conversation, but it’s very visible.

I got myself a companion species – a little bowerbird figurine. He had a number of theoretical functions during my PhD, but he came to be more than that. After the first couple of years, I never studied without him at my side. In any research, there’s always a metaphor to be crafted, crocheted or purchased from Etsy. Because the Bowerbird was connected to my ethics, he always reminded me of why I was there.

You won’t get through this if you don’t enjoy it. The good news is that if you’re feeling negative you can turn it around.

If you know my work, you know where I’m going with this. It’s time to dig deep and find the joy. I think many people will know that I’m part of the JoyFE💛 Collective. Although it didn’t quite happen intentionally, JoyFE💛 grew out of my studies via the work of the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. His work around intentional ethics shaped my methodology and he believed in joy - or potentia - as an activist energy which sparks into life when humans encounter other humans - and non-humans, incidentally, hence the bowerbird.

Joyful practice channels the dark and fierce energies of anger, sadness, frustration and other pain into joyful practice. It’s not just a mindset, it’s a way of being in the world with other people. That last bit is important. Joy is collective. It’s relational.

I am not denying how busy you are. But I believe we can be intentional about creating quality study time. We go so deep into our subject that it’s virtually impossible to reach any meaningful depth if you’re multitasking, or studying in five minutes here and there. What you need is quality time on the ball, because if you keep getting interrupted you’ll have to start again with your focus - and that’s exhausting, it also wastes time. I’m a literal expert - my cognitive wiring is ADHD and when I get into focus it’s a proper nirvana. But it’s a hard journey there.

What you’re after is a slow ontology. In fact, I think the glory of part-time study is that it’s properly cooked thinking. And, after all, you’re busy right? So why would you want the experience to be shorter and more intense than it needs to be. Decelerate.

Jasmine Ulmer is my go-to person for slow ontology, her writing is compelling and she loves thinking on the move. It’s easy to assume that higher level studies are all about the writing but they are not. You should spend equal time on your fieldwork, your reading, your rest time…and definitely your thinking time. Travelling is always good for that. Switch off the podcast, take the earbuds out and let it all maze around. Rest matters. What do you tell the students in your care? To study day and night? I doubt it. You cannot think with a tired brain.

Practical things that I did really worked. Having the bowerbird by my side. Early on, I chose a candle fragrance and a very boring playlist and I had them both with me without fail. Sounds small doesn’t it, but I can’t tell you how powerful it was to stimulate my senses in different ways.

I’m going to pause now and reflect that everything I’ve said to you - one way or another - is about how I used my energy. Resting when I needed to. Moving when I needed to. I only turned to social media when I needed to work through something thorny; I didn’t engage there much because it would disperse my social energy when what I needed was to spend time around others in trust spaces such as the Bowerbird’s Writing Rooms, a JoyFE initiative which is still going, twice a week. Honestly? You could probably do all the writing you need to do in those 90-minute spaces. And we do have people who commit, week after week. What we’ve learned about the joyful practice of coming together is that the very evening that you feel too tired to go is the evening you most need to go - the energy of others will uplift you.

Collective spaces also help us not waste energy on imposter syndrome. Women, in particular, seem to really take imposter syndrome to heart. Feeling unsure shouldn’t make you an imposter. In fact, in a VUCA world - volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous - it makes you wise. Don’t give it your energy. Get yourself into a collective space of trust.

Finally, your studies will create ripples in your life and you’ll have to deal with that. This experience may cost you too much in terms of time, money or relationships. Having those trusting collective spaces will enable you to think through if it’s time to pause. Doing a research project is not the be all and end. It’s OK to be vulnerable. It’s your life. And it’s your research. Enjoy it.

12 Top Tips

  1. Enjoy it
  2. Get a companion species
  3. Don’t Compare
  4. Get the Forest app
  5. 12 mins daily meditation
  6. Get a reference list going
  7. Read one thing a week
  8. Choose a fragrance
  9. Consistent playlist
  10. Rest
  11. Collective Trust Space
  12. Read Tulyshan and Burey on Imposter Syndrome

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.