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From PhD to Life

Making big changes: Start small, be kind to yourself


When it comes to making changes in your life, start small. It’s all well and good to decide to exercise regularly, take up a vegan diet, or write for two hours every day. But if doing so means a significant departure from your current routine, you’re unlikely to succeed unless you take things one step at a time.

We are all creatures of habit. Doing something differently requires spending extra brain energy figuring out what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. The more you do something, the easier it becomes: your brain creates and strengthens neural pathways so that in time it will require a significant outlay of energy to not carry out this specific sequence of steps. The expression “fall into a routine” isn’t quite right but the sentiment is spot on. Once we’ve “fallen” we have to make an effort to get up, sort ourselves out, and move along.

Badgering yourself, or being pestered to make changes by others, is more harmful than helpful. Yes, acquiring knowledge about one’s situation — learning about the health benefits of going vegan, for example — can help move you into action but negativity doesn’t motivate or support you further. Instead, treat yourself (and others) with compassion. Understand that the process of change is challenging and individual. Counter negative self-talk with the truth: that you are trying, that these things take time, that patience is a virtue. Avoid naysayers and pessimists, especially when you’re feeling vulnerable. Remember what’s important to you about what you’re doing. Remember that you’re honouring yourself by making this change.

I write all this in hopes it might help some of you be kinder to yourself and more supportive of others, but also as a reminder to myself. I’ve got big personal and professional goals, a list of things I want to be doing, a vision of the person I want to be. Sometimes, knowing what I want — knowing how I should be living my life — is motivating; sometimes, obsessing about what I don’t yet have depletes my energy and dampens my spirit. Here’s to clear knowledge and purposeful action, as well as self-compassion and trust in myself! And here’s to you, too.

Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and entrepreneur. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website:
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  1. Jim Hartley / September 17, 2014 at 14:51

    Having just retired after 34 years I echo the advise that Ms. Polk suggests. I maintained my interest in activities prior to retirement so that I had secure actions already to build upon. Adjusting my routine by just one hour a day allowed me to use that one hour to try something new, and if not feasible then I tried a different task the next day. I have never found any real difference to my day, but one hour has given me so many new opportunities that I would not have otherwise experienced. Take things slow and change will evolve.

  2. deb / September 26, 2014 at 19:48

    Hi Jen,
    Long time no see! I have been adjusting to a change of my own: a new schedule as more editor than tutor in the last few months & sadly, it has kept me away from twitter and my blog friends. anyway, I think this is good advice, and I also think it speaks to the shock of transitioning to post-ac life. Doctoral work is so all-consuming. When it’s done and there’s no academic job at the end of it, graduates get ejected from a world that has consumed them. there’s nothing subtle or slow about that-which explains, in part, why the change is so difficult.

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