So there I was in my girlfriends car with tears in my eyes and my face in my hands.
It was the 3rd year of my PhD in physics and I had failed in almost every area of my life.
I'd received an e-mail from my supervisor berating me for my terrible performance as a PhD, my total lack of responsibility, professionalism and care for my own work and the work of others. It was brutal, demoralizing, and definitely justified.
So how did I get here?
The year was 2002, I'd just moved to Spain and started high-school at an international school. I was a capable student. Like many others, I got through it by having a natural inclination for academic subjects. I wasn't organized, and tried my best to keep up with things as they appeared. Progressing through to university, with work getting harder and my responsibilities multiplying in all areas of my life I found myself struggling more and more.
It all came to a head on the final year of my Masters. As the courses were entirely elective I found myself in classes without my friends. The added pressure of having to travel into London for 3 hours every day was too much. I stopped going to class, instead spending entire days in bed watching re-runs of Friends or playing video games. I missed a lot of course content, missed deadlines, and did everything last minute.
After grueling all-nighters I'd managed to finish my degree with a decent grade. It was below what I was predicted, and definitely below my capabilities. One course was way beyond my level but I procrastinated and didn't switch to another course. I got 14% as my final grade, in the exam I answered a single question and wrote an apology to the examiner.
By the end of my degree I was exhausted and disillusioned with the subject. More than anything I was tired of failing and feeling ashamed.
So naturally I decided to do a PhD.
The PhD was a whole other ball-game. To begin with I was confident that things would be better. I was working in a great environment on things which I found rewarding with hard-working and talented people. Things should turn out better.
I was completely wrong.
My bad habits came rushing back.
As more commitments popped up I got worse at maintaining control. I would fail to complete a task, make excuses and avoid turning up to the office. I missed meetings and conferences without telling anybody for no good reason. I closed off completely. My ability to produce meaningful work declined.
The problem is that now other people are depending on my work. This was their job. Deadlines were for conferences not homework. Not completing work would affect my teams reputation so others had to pick up the slack.
Other areas of my life also suffered. I was late on paying rent and utility bills for no reason other than a powerful and pervasive fear of dealing with things. I'd alienated my colleagues, and all but cut-off communications with my family. I was stressed out about money, but would often waste it on going out or things I didn't need. I felt like quitting the PhD and crawling into a hole on a daily basis.
Then came the email:
"At this rate you're not gonna graduate"
So what was going on? Why was I so seemingly broken and incapable of doing what I needed to do?
Looking back I think it was a combination of a few things. I was exhausted from thinking about one subject for 7 years straight. I was definitely overwhelmed by the number of commitments I had to handle with nothing but my brain.
I was spinning 20 plates and when somebody would give me another plate I would just drop everything.
I was terrified that this was me. Now, before, and forever doomed to fail at projects and piss off people. To aimlessly run around with the smallest bucket of water putting out fires until eventually the whole house burns down.
I don't know when or what clicked in my head, but one day I found a video that described the many downfalls of using your brain as an organizer. The idea that the brain is built to have ideas not to keep them. All the problems and emotions I had were being listed out to me.
It was great to hear I wasn't alone, so I pursued the topic further eventually finding GTD.
I didn't buy the book until much later. I started by cobbling pieces together from various articles into something like a trusted system. Regardless of the implementation, my view on life was changed forever. I slowly built and evolved control over my life.
Having things under control allowed me to systematically deal with the bad habits I'd picked up by being more mindful of my thoughts and fleeting emotions. Massive daunting projects became a series of small tasks. Things which were uncertain or unclear suddenly were clear, counted, and revisited.
"Fear lets you know something is important"
The journey is not over. I'm still getting better at focusing on and doing the things that matter.
But today I work for a devoted team and I'm able to handle multiple projects, help my team mates, and manage my life and relationships with calm and grace instead of fumbling through with fear and shame.
Instead of getting brutal critical emails I'm told that I'm a great contributing member of the group. That I make people's lives better and brighter, instead of harder and more stressful.
I sit here knowing that the me from 3 years ago couldn't have done it.
But I can.