The ramblings of an absent-minded doctoral student

The ramblings of an absent-minded doctoral student. Chronicling my life as I earn a PhD in history.

Friday, September 23, 2011

And so begins year two

In reality, however, year two only marks the PhD progress. I have been in school for what is now my twentieth consecutive year. I think there must be something fundamentally wrong with me. I'm either extremely dedicated or a sadomasochist...there's a fine line in the realm of academia.

At the beginning of every new momentous event [whether it's the new year, a new school year, sometimes even just a new week or day], we all make claims that THIS one will be better. THIS is the year/week/day that things are going to turn around. We're going to be more motivated, more dedicated, more successful...and truthfully, sometimes we are [for a moment]. And then our same lack of will power finds itself steadily taking control once more, and we fall back into that same funk, finishing things at the last minute, getting less and less sleep and eating whenever is convenient [not when our bodies tell us to]. Many might call me a Negative Nancy...I prefer to think of myself as a Realistic Rita. I am one of these people. At various points through the year, month, even day I tell myself: "Self, we can do better. So why don't we?" And sometimes it works. But fret not fellow colleagues! Apparently we can now do resistance training for our "will power muscles."

According to the authors of the newest book about this phenomenon, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney:

"You only have a finite amount [of willpower] as you go through the day," Tierney says, "so you should be careful to conserve it and try to save it for the emergencies."
Exhausting your mental energy is a process that researchers call "ego depletion." Decision-making taps into the same energy reserves as self-control.
"You don't think of decision-making as necessarily being like resisting temptation, but it is," Tierney says. "It involves the same kind of mental energy, the same source of mental energy."

Maybe it is possible to re-work our willpower and train it. I leave that to the individual to decide. But for me, I am going to make that same ol' claim: I will make this year better. Even though I know that at some point, my willpower will falter, knowing that I at least gave myself the benefit of the doubt is a surprising self-esteem boost. And maybe that's all we really need: to know that what we're doing is worth it, and that despite the pitfalls, there are times when we can succeed.

This year is going to be full of fresh challenges. I'm assisting with the Center for Historical Research for a quarter instead of teaching, so that's a new experience. Generals Exams are looming ahead in Spring Quarter. Fellowship applications and opportunities need to be taken more seriously. The key is not to let it overwhelm me. Bring it on, year two [or twenty, whatever]! I'm ready.