Reading time: 13 mins (2678 words)
What better way to introduce a blog than by telling you all the ways in which I messed up?
Kind of joking, kind of not.
I seriously have been wondering about the best way to introduce this blog (but that’s not all I’ve been doing for three years, don’t worry, there’s plenty more I worried about).
However, it’s been 3 years, and it is comical at this point so I would like to share a distillation of the most important life lessons I have learnt while procrastinating this blog for few years:
1 . My to-do list is infinitely long, it’s growing exponentially, and tasks are not exactly getting crossed off. I remember when Facebook introduced the “save” button function. I. LOVED. IT. I remember thinking “Wow, this is so useful! Now my workflow won’t get interrupted by super interesting articles because I can just save them for later! Brilliant!”
This is who I am as a person and I have to come to terms with it. It’s honestly all done with the *intention* of actually reading/watching it, but I just never find the time!
My expectation was that I would somehow magically stop going through Facebook’s endless scroll (yeah, sure…) and THEN on a regular basis check my saved posts, read them and tick them off in an organized manner.
What actually happened was that I just kept on scrolling (endless scroll will do that to you…) and saving, scrolling, saving, scrolling, saving – until I was jolted upright by some kind of reminder of an immediate deadline or the realization that 3 hours had passed and I’d done literally nothing but Facebook my life away.
Funny thing is, I started noticing this happened not just with Facebook, but with everything.
I *love* me a to-do list. Mmmmm, good stuff! Pen and paper, app-based, check boxes on Evernote/Word. Doesn’t matter – love ’em all! Once it’s on your to-do list, it’s basically already done and you can chill!
It makes me feel so organized. Like, look at it, there is a physical representation of all my good intentions! And we all know ah-MAY-zingly that works, right? (see all previous New Year’s resolutions for reference)
The problem was that my little to-do list habit was covering up a bigger issue underneath: I spent a lot more time thinking about the stuff I was going to do than actually doing the stuff I wanted to do.
And it didn’t matter what area of my life I was focusing on, this was an issue everywhere.
Blog? Man, I have ideas for so many posts! I’m gonna write about this, that and oooh, this would be really great, and what about…
Academic work? Can’t start writing this yet, duh! Gotta think up MORE options! We could do A) B), or even better C). No, actually, what about Χ, Ψ, Ω. Or wait, you know what would be an absolutely fascinating approach???? (⑅∫°ਊ°)∫
Dude, even MEAL PREP! “What should I eat this week?”
But, in the end, no choices are made, there’s no food and I’m hangry.
You get it, it was an all-around issue.
But every time I became aware of what was going on for a split second, I had an excuse. I wasn’t *really* procrastinating, I was just full of ideas!
But you can’t *just* be an ideas person. You’ve gotta actually do stuff.
When you add to that perfectionism (which a lot of people struggle with in academia), nothing ever gets done, yet every moment is stressful as hell (double fun!).
Sometimes I tried to get around it by focusing on smaller tasks. But a lot of times, those smaller tasks just turned into me focusing on details at the expense of the big picture. (Bruv, do you know how much time I spent thinking and rethinking the title of my blog? The subtitle, the potential categories, color schemes, tags, pages etc??? Yeah….)
My mom used to tell me that in Bulgaria they had a small story about this type of attitude:
“Ah, these buttons are perfect! Now, all I need is the coat for them to be sewn onto!”
Okay, look, it might’ve been funnier in Bulgarian… and when my mom told it. Or maybe it’s not funny at all…But you get the point!
I wish I could say that I eventually found an easy solution or system for getting through your to-do lists, but I haven’t…
However, I’ve gotten better at it by accepting that you’ve gotta start somewhere.
Just pick a thing.
Then do the thing.
Yeah, there are other things you could do, other ideas you might have, but you have to spend most of your time actually doing the things you want to do instead of dreaming about the things you want to do.
If it seems important, write it down for later. If it’s not, finish what you are doing and stop double-guessing yourself; you can think about it later.
Doing what you can is a lot more satisfying than dwelling on what you could.
And even when you “understand” this, it takes practice to apply it, but eventually, your habits improve and that’s good enough.
(But on a side note, I’m like 100% sure that if I had just a few more weeks this blog would be a million times better, but I’m scared that my friends might actually handcuff me and press the publish button for me if I procrastinate any longer, but, other than that, I totally learnt my lesson, I swear…)
2 . Everything takes SO MUCH LONGER to do than you think and NOTHING goes according to plan. What’s the reading time for this blog post? 13 minutes. What’s the writing time for this blog post? Well, lemme tell you it’s not 13 minutes.
To be honest, I’m not sure exactly how long it took me to write this. But roughly, 3-4 hours, not counting “thinking time” beforehand, previous rough drafts, and editing time afterward. (And being that this point was written about halfway through the post, it means I actually had to go back to edit this estimate.) Does this mean I spent those hours typing non-stop? Nope. How many bathroom breaks, food breaks, tea breaks, staring-at-the-space-around-my-desk breaks does include???
But did that stop me from wanting to plan out exactly how this was going to go?
You bet your pretty lil face it didn’t!
Along with a deep love of to-do lists (see point 1), I also have very strong feelings about timetables. Again, whether I write them out super neatly, type them up on Word or have a beautiful color-coded iCloud calendar or even a scheduling app, it doesn’t matter – I love all of it!
I mean, clearly, the solution to all of life’s problems and the key to success is planning out every little thing as it *should* happen.
Why would you not plan meticulously? It’s fool-proof! If you just write down what’s gonna happen; then that’s what’s gonna happen, BOOM!
“Fail to plan and you plan to fail” is a cliché for a reason!
When I finished my first year as an undergraduate, I thought that by now I would have solved the question of human hair diversity and have moved onto a brief stint in the UN to finally achieve world peace before spending a few years mastering Kung Fu at a Shaolin monastery after which I would just travel the world and learn a couple language (you know, just in case I got bored).
By the first year of graduate school, I had readjusted that plan to something I thought was more realistic.
I thought that by the beginning of year 3 I would have learnt ALL OF THE GENETICS, a decent amount of Chemistry, and of course, my dissertation would be half written and I would have had this blog published ages ago.
Lol, nope, not even that.
Really long term plans are no use.
Hopes, aspirations, yes.
But actual, concrete plans, not so much…
Even in the shorter term, you often have to readjust your course as you get new information.
E.g. Really important realization on my part: I will never learn “ALL THE GENETICS” because even geneticists don’t know all of the genetics. No one does. It’s kind of unknowable. Very much a case of ‘the more you know, the less you know’.
And a big problem is that a lot of these “goals” that I had were very broad and vague. (Laugh at me if you will, but honestly, at the time it seemed like a completely reasonable, doable plan).
In the end, realistic goals for grad school were set with the help of my advisor and the graduate handbook that we have.
What is a realistic goal?
- Pass class X in the fall semester.
- Take exam Y in the spring.
- Write proposal Z by deadline A.
Those are some realistic goals.
But I, being who I am, tried to plan those out more precisely too! Forget the syllabus, make your own!!! I can do all of the things and then more! Do all of these extra things and make a daily plan!!! (Again, sounded much better in my head at the time)
Does that mean your only choice is to abandon any attempt to plan or schedule?
With time, I have understood that the necessity to plan things falls on a spectrum from things that have a LOW need for planning and you can be very flexible about to things that have a HIGH need for planning and you must be strict about.
And it’s not just a single universal scale. It’s a scale that each person must construct for themselves (depending on their priorities) and it can be constructed for many different types of situations.
Low – break times while studying, shows to watch as a distraction, beverages to drink while relaxing studying….
Medium – How much time to spend on various exam topics. Study material.
High – WHERE IS THE EXAM?! WHAT TIME? HOW DO I GET THERE?!
(capitalization and punctuation are to emphasize level of freaking out which is appropriate if you fail to plan these things)
But equally, one can imagine that such a template can be applied to something like planning a holiday…
Low – what routes to walk through the city, what sights to see, what time to wake up…
Medium – A few food stands/restaurants you definitely don’t want to miss. Location and times for museums or shows you want to see.
Medium-High – How to hit up every Krispy Kreme on the way to the final destination?! Are we sure Hot Krispy notifications are ready to alert on phone at all times!?!!!
High – WHAT TIME IS FLIGHT?! WHAT GATE AND AIRPORT IS IT AT?!
Like I said, these scales are highly personal and context specific…
3 . Knowing when to turn to others for help is more important than you might imagine. No one succeeds on their own. This is why awards have acceptance speeches featuring thank yous; this is why books and papers have acknowledgment sections.
Of course, you can and should work hard. But not everything you have and achieve can be purely through your own efforts.
There’s parents and caregivers who raise you (a category that features prominently in acknowledgments!). Teachers and professors who help you learn skills and guide you to the knowledge that you need to achieve your goals. Friends who help you deal with life and hold you accountable when that’s what you need.
And countless other acquaintances and strangers that hold visible and invisible roles in your life.
Humans, as a species, are pretty hopeless as individuals. Without going on an Anthropology 101 tangent, there’s a reason why studying the history of humans makes you so humble to the importance of cooperation. Without humans doing different tasks and coordinating with each other, there would be a pretty big limit on the things you could do on your own. All I know is that if I had to worry about literal survival every day, finding food and shelter…. well, I’d have even less time to write my doctoral thesis…
But I’m not writing all these cheesy, emotional, mushy things just to emphasize the importance of gratitude.
Gratitude is important, yes. But realizing that you are already getting help should make it easier to seek it out when you need it.
For whatever reason, asking for help can be very difficult.
Sometimes it’s because you feel like you should be able to do it all on your own, otherwise, it’s cheating or you don’t deserve it. Sometimes it’s because you’re afraid you’ll be a burden.
And the struggle to ask for help is kind of how writing this blog and going to grad school came about for me.
Towards the end of 2014, due to some unforeseen circumstances, I did not have the funds that I needed to complete my applications to grad school. I was short on time and there was no way I could get another job/pay check, credit card or loan before the deadlines.
So I decided to start a little crowdfund.
Like, really reluctantly.
On the inside, I was sooooooooo not into the idea.
I was scared. Embarrassed. Terrified of what people might say…
“Why doesn’t she just ask her parents?”
“Why didn’t she think ahead?”
“She doesn’t deserve it, she’s irresponsible”
“Her work is not that interesting or important; why would I help her?”
“She should just find a job, earn money, and apply next year”
But I just shoved all those negative thoughts into a box and tried anyway because somewhere, deep inside, under 569 layers of insecurity, I kind of thought my project might be interesting enough for some people to help me do it (does that sound too confident?).
So, seeing this as my only shot, I went ahead and asked for help.
And to my surprise, a lot of people responded positively! When I posted about it on Facebook and Tumblr, a lot of my friends donated. A lot of them shared. And then donations and messages even started coming in from people I had never met!
I couldn’t believe that so many people believed me and, not only that, they believed in me and my ability to get into grad school and be successful.
With the help of all those people, not to mention the friends and mentors who helped me write and re-write my applications, professors who took the time to write letters of recommendation and advise me, and random people who posted resources for the GREs online; I got into grad school.
It’s still hard to turn to others.
I want to work hard; I don’t expect any hand-holding. There’s still a little pride in that; there’s still a little fear.
But I try to be realistic about when I can’t do something alone. And I know that if I ask for help, there will be people out there willing to be there for me.
I feel very lucky to have gotten where I am now, and there are a lot of people who I feel I can never repay for their help. So, whenever I can, I try to pay it forward.
In some way, I’m hoping this blog can be a way of paying it forward. If there are people out there who supported me because they want to know about the things I research, then this will be a chance to inform them. If there are people who want to know what it’s like to be in grad school and how to deal with certain issues that go along with that, hopefully, I can write something of use to them.
And if there is anyone who can tolerate my sense of humor, who knows, maybe I can make them laugh????
Anyhow, this concludes my introductory post and you can look forward to the first hair science post next week. But to keep you entertained until then, you can have a look at what to expect from this blog, more details about my research, and the story of how I ended up doing a PhD on human hair diversity.
P.S. I would really recommend the posts on procrastination on waitbutwhy.com – they were probably the most helpful thing I found while I was procrastinating by googling “how to stop procrastinating” a few years ago. (Here’s part 1 and part 2)