Mental Fitness for Researchers: 8 Tips for 2021

Jan. 27, 2021, 12:01 a.m.

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What will it be like to be a researcher in 2021? 2020 certainly brought a huge number of changes for all of us, and 2021 promises to do the same. As the first month of 2021 is coming to a close, how are we as researchers to cope with the rest of the year?

I had a chance to speak to Professor Samina Ali, from the department of pediatrics at the University of Alberta. We talked about the mental health stressors that 2020 has placed on many of us, and what steps we can take towards a healthy work-life balance for ourselves and our colleagues.

Professor Ali is an outstanding Canadian leader in her field. Firstly, as an exemplary researcher where she has published extensively on the management of pain in the pediatric emergency department. And secondly, as a champion of wellness for researchers, clinicians, and learners, having served as the Assistant Dean of Professionalism at the University of Alberta. In our conversation, Professor Ali and I talked about eight ways researchers can work towards mental fitness for 2021.

1. Make Creative Space

Professor Ali notes that in 2020 we had "more hours to work but less psychological space." She describes this paradox as a trap. We feel that we should be more productive, but our creative productivity has decreased. It can be difficult for all of us to keep our focus when we are also worrying about our future, our safety, and the health of our families. For many of us the short physical breaks between meetings were a source of creative space where we could process the previous meeting while traveling to the next. With video conferences and working at home, it is too easy to schedule a continuous parade of meetings with no creative space between them.

To try to regain creative space, Professor Ali uses a combination of tactics. For one, she now tries to avoid back-to-back meetings where possible, and prefers to allow some creative space between them. In addition, she has adjusted her expectations: admitting that she no longer tries to force creative work into a busy day. When a day is full of meetings and has little creative space, "I use that time to just answer emails and schedule meetings."

Personally, I have also felt that in 2020 creative space did not appear spontaneously in my life as it did previously. I have found I need to make a more diligent effort to create this space rather than just wait for it to appear. Setting aside creative space is an easy way to make our workflow more efficient. I have always said that I do my best coding while riding my bike. When I can schedule the workday to my design, I prefer to set a couple of hours in the middle of the day for exercise. This allows me to process the ideas of the morning, and prepare for the work of the afternoon. Often just thinking about a problem rather than acting on it is enough that a better solution presents itself. Sometimes a few hours on the bike can save days of coding.

2. Check Your Self-imposed Deadlines

For many researchers, working at home means much more control of your schedule. However, Professor Ali notes that this can also be a source of stress. Particularly, when researchers put pressure on themselves to meet deadlines. Professor Ali states that her number one concern is not meeting the needs of others, and worries that by not meeting deadlines she may make it more difficult for others to reach theirs.

Sometimes "I look at it and concede that the deadline to finish the manuscript was mine and nobody will die if I don't finish it this week," explains Professor Ali. She also tries to remind herself that her career is "a marathon, not a sprint." While opportunities may sometimes be missed - a chance to be part of an important committee for example - she knows that other opportunities will arise.

In my career I have also needed to concede occasionally that some opportunities will simply be missed. In time, however, it seems to balance itself. Early in my career I may have missed opportunities, but have had time to make them up. Later in my career, I have the experience to better know which opportunities to pursue, and which to politely decline.

Watch Your Deadlines

3. Set Boundaries

Professor Ali admits that working from home can make it difficult to set both physical and cognitive boundaries. She also notes that this problem is amplified when trying to care for the wellbeing of children and other dependants.

How does she cope with the increased demands? "Sometimes I have to say 'I just can't'," she admits. Receiving at least 100 email messages each day means that she simply cannot always answer them in a timely manner. She also tries when possible to physically segregate personal space from working space at home, so that it feels more like "working from home" and not "living at work."

While many of us struggle with setting boundaries, I have noticed that my female coworkers most often bear the major responsibility for childcare and are disproportionately affected. Many have developed clever and unique ways to balance these responsibilities. Since I was forced to move out of my downtown office workspace for 2020, I have noticed that working from home has its own new encumbrances. Simply taking a few hours away from work can induce a sense of guilt in abandoning my duties. Often, I reconcile this by simply asking myself, "if I was working from my office today, would I be answering this email now?" If the answer is no, then the email can probably wait.

4. Be a Healthy Example

Professor Ali recounted a story from her earlier career. She would routinely schedule her onsite meetings from 9 am to 3 pm. But she did not feel comfortable telling her colleagues why: so that she could see her children off to school in the morning and receive them afterwards. Now she feels that is "our responsibility to show junior researchers that it's ok" to prioritize their personal lives as well.

"As educational leads we need to do better," Professor Ali states, "we don't support them and set them up for the same boundaries we give ourselves." She feels that while senior researchers do need to be physically available, it can be done with a healthy balance. "Senior researchers need to be mindful of junior researchers' time." For instance, when she is supervising a project she typically asks for researchers to commit to a certain number of hours to complete a task, but does not require them to be physically present during office hours. "There is no pressure to show up and be seen."

When I work with junior researchers as a thesis advisor for the European Master in Disaster Medicine, I find that my most important role in the planning phase is advising students to simplify their research study. There is a great passion and energy among all the students during the short residential course, and students want to commit to ambitious research projects. However, when they return home, work returns also, and with it a need to balance work-life and personal-life. I feel strongly that it is my responsibility as a supervisor to help students choose projects that they can reasonably complete while still maintaining their work-life wellness.

5. Find a Rhythm

Professor Ali thinks that at the beginning of 2020 things were "too business-like," and that we were holding on to outdated expectations of remote working. "It can be very hard on the body and on the mind to just be slogging away." Although she is optimistic and thinks the situation is improving, she feels that many of us need to work to find our new rhythm in remote working.

"For me, it is the two-minute doodle hug," she recounts. She takes frequent two-minute breaks throughout the day to play with her goldendoodle Ripley, simply to get away from her desk both physically and mentally.

Consider Getting a Goldendoodle

Having only tropical fish - who are not particularly huggable - as pets, I have adapted a more implementable rhythm. I love the Pomodoro Technique. Tasks are divided into 25 minute blocks separated by a 5-minute espresso break. I find it easy to keep focussed for 25 minutes. And it's a great way to ensure my daily caffeine intake is met or exceeded.

6. Admit What You Do Not Know

"I used to be embarrassed to say that I don't perform my own statistics, but now I admit it openly," Professor Ali states. She recounts that all of us need to admit what we do not know, and seek help without feelings of guilt or embarrassment.

Asking for help from others and learning from your team members is a great way to expand your potential as a researcher. As Atul Gawande explains in the landmark book The Checklist Manifesto , we have reached "the end of the master builder." It is no longer necessary, nor sufficient, for one researcher to be the expert in all areas of research.

For me, it is usually the other way around. I love to work in new subject areas, especially where a colleague with great subject expertise leads the project and I provide the methodological support and analysis. This dyad can be extremely effective. It's also a great learning opportunity to work in a new field. And, working with someone who has a great passion in their field, and helping them answer important research questions is a great motivator for me.

7. Find Your Inner Motivation

Professor Ali admits that finding the motivation to finish a research project can be difficult for all of us. She finds this to be especially taxing when she is not passionate about the topic.

What motivates her? I have seen on the wall of her office where Professor Ali has written on her whiteboard "it is unethical to not publish." In our interview, she described her profound sense of responsibility to distribute her findings, particularly where patients have given up their time to be part of the research study and have put their trust in the research team. She is passionate about her major research focus: alleviating children's pain and anxiety in the emergency department, and finds it much easier to keep motivated when following that passion. How does she focus this passion? "I say no to projects where I am not interested in the topic."

My passion is for statistics. And it took me a long time to find my inner motivation. I approached my first Master’s Degree in Disaster Medicine with a passion, but quickly found that my interest was in methodology. I completed my Master's degree in statistics to follow that interest. Now, I find my inspiration in working with other researchers, motivated by my sense of responsibility to help them produce high-quality, reproducible results.

8. Get the Right Team

Professor Ali spoke extensively about the importance of working with an effective team. And, she is not alone. From the Amazon two pizza rule to Google's five keys to a successful team we continue to find that how the team interacts can be even more critical to success than who the individual team members are.

How does she find a great team? "I will say yes once to each team," Professor Ali describes. If she finds that the team dynamic works well for her, she will continue to work with them again. Otherwise, she will move on to another team. She advised to "surround yourself with smart people," and learn vital skills for researchers like grant application, navigating the ethics process, and engaging the community.

My experience is that every team seems to develop its own culture. Sometimes it is a culture where I feel I can perform at my best, and I am eager to contribute to the team. Other times I have found myself working in a team where the culture doesn't fit with my workflow. I have experienced this in the past even when each of the individual team members is a trustworthy colleague. If I know I will not be able to do my best work, it is unfair for both myself and the other team members to stay, and I will simply excuse myself from the team.

Staying Well in 2021

Throughout our interview Professor Ali recounted a number of inspirational stories illustrating how her and her colleagues adapted quickly to a new research workflow by being creative, clever, and kind. She maintained an optimism that this year we will do even better, and summed up nicely her advice for 2021: "be patient with one another."

For myself, 2020 felt like riding on a stationary bicycle. I always knew that I was putting in the effort and must be accomplishing something, but I missed the road signs telling me that I was going in the right direction. My plan for 2021 is to try to be more patient with myself, and I am looking forward to putting the eight tips for mental fitness that I learned from Professor Ali into action.

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By: Jeffrey Franc


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