Impostor Syndrome, Happiness and To-Do Lists

I was asked recently, “What’s your life goal, your aim?”.

Starting a PhD involves lots of people asking if academia is the career you’ve decided you want. It also involves lots of people assuming that academia is the career you’ve decided you want. Either way, those people tend to tell you what they consider are the most important skills to build up during a PhD. This mostly consists of being told things.

When I was asked what my life goal is, I had to think for a while. In the end I decided the only true way to answer that is by saying, “I want to be happy”.

Then I was asked, “What makes you happy?”. “Oh” I thought, “That’s a difficult question”.

Then I realised, it’s not.

I know I am happiest when I’m achieving something. It doesn’t always matter what it is, as long as I’ve decided I want to work towards it. Sometimes that might be a short term thing like playing badminton or writing a blog post, sometimes it might be a longer term thing like preparation for a job interview I’m excited about and sometimes it might just be spending time with friends and family to relax. I try to have at least one thing like this planned for every evening.

The same principle applies to my daily PhD life. I try to write a to-do list at the beginning of every day, split into at least four things – those four things should all be achievable by the end of the day. Whenever I begin to lose focus I can look back at the list and feel satisfied I’m moving forward. This helps my mind focus on the next thing to do and I can continue working with minimal procrastination.***

I hate getting to the end of a day and feeling like I wasted my time getting out of bed that morning. Like (I think) everyone else, I find it impossible to always concentrate and work productively every moment of every day. If I have too many days without focus I can suffer (again, like many others) with Impostor Syndrome. (An excellent post “Feeling Stupid Doesn’t Have to Hurt” by Sarah Kendrew describes Impostor Syndrome and her approach to tackling it.)

There’s one more outcome to this, and to me it’s the most important one. By structuring my own life this way I feel happier in myself. As I’ve decided my life goal is to be happy, I think this works.

Tomorrow is another day, with another to-do list. And that’s a very good thing.


*** It probably goes without saying, but this doesn’t always work! For me it works often enough that the five minutes each day I spend writing that list is time well spent.

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