Dealing with Darwin Days

In 1861, Charles Darwin wrote in a letter: “But I am very poorly today and very stupid and hate everybody and everything.” Ever had a Darwin Day? Yep, me too. It’s frustrating when we’ve put aside some time for deep work, then our brain refuses to cooperate. There are a few options to consider, though:

  • Do you need a rest? If our bodies and brains go completely floppy, perhaps they’re trying to tell us something. Taking a day off allows us to recover and then attack our thesis with renewed vigour. Obviously, it becomes problematic if we designate every day a Darwin Day. We need to stay in tune with ourselves and learn to recognise whether this is exhaustion or just procrastination. You can only tune in once you’ve slowed down.
  • Could you work through some easier tasks? Although they’re not desperately exciting, these jobs get you closer to the finish line without requiring too much brainpower. This is precisely the stuff you don’t want to be bothered with when you’re in flow, so they’re best saved for low-powered sessions.
  • If you’re lacking in motivation, is there a trigger that would get you back in the mood? Amitoze, a PhD student in AI, told me that he watches videos on machine learning to rekindle his enthusiasm. This gives him some context for his writing and inspires him to get going. Other students teach themselves a new skill, do some exploratory reading, or try writing more creatively.


Create a list of activities for Darwin Days. What could you still achieve, even when everything feels rubbish?Ideas include:

  • Tidying formatting.
  • Downloading articles.
  • Checking regulations (dull, but vital).
  • Organising your workspace.
  • Verifying citations.

No single approach will work every time a Darwin Day strikes. The longer the list, the better your chance of finding a suitable activity. If you work through all of them and still nothing’s happening, it’s a good idea to give yourself a day off. That could be a sign that you’re overdoing it.What do you do on Darwin Days? Let me know in the comments below.

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