Time management skills are a byproduct of being an academic. Juggling research, teaching, admin and other and having done a PhD over four to five years lead you to acquire ways of managing your time more efficiently. If you’re a PhD student, assuming you’re not lab-based or doing extensive group work, you’ll spend a lot of time on your own with few set structured tasks to do. Even those who meet very regularly with supervisors and devise lengthy plans will spend time thinking about how to break bigger tasks down into daily or hourly tasks.
In the early weeks and months (maybe longer) of my PhD research, I was hopeless at time management. At around the mid-point in my PhD I realised that every job I had completed so far had taken roughly three times longer than I’d anticipated. Whether it be sending emails to local community organisations, writing reports, collecting data – it all took three times longer than planned. In the later years of my PhD when time was really squeezed due to the looming final deadline, job applications, day job, casual work and inevitable ‘life stuff’, good time management became crucial. I upped my game. Mostly this meant hour by hour planning, daily for several months with way too much ‘overtime’. I’m not recommending that but I am recommending trialing some of the following techniques, all of which got me through different points of my PhD and most of which I continue to use now.
1) Work backwards from a deadline
This is actually a technique I picked up long before the PhD when I was a door-to-door sales rep. I’ve used it ever since. Here’s how it works. If you have a deadline (either fixed or a personal deadline) for a particular task (finishing a paper, chapter, completing a report) then think about the thing that needs to be done immediately before that deadline in order for you to reach it. For example, if you want to finish a thesis or book chapter by 1st December then the thing needed to be done immediately before might be to proof-read the chapter. Taking into account all other commitments, think about how much time you will need for this task. I could say that I want to allow 3 days for proof-reading and editing of the chapter. My ‘deadline’ for that task would therefore be 27th November. You then repeat this, thinking about the thing that needs to be done immediately before that (e.g. organise reference list, check structure of chapter, update literature search) and set a deadline for this task …and the next one …and the next one.
I’ve found that this strategy does help you to spot unrealistic personal deadlines. If you find that you’re working backwards from a particular date and get to the present day with several tasks still to complete, you’ve not allowed enough time.
2) Colour coded calendars
As simple as it sounds. Colour code blocks of time in your calendar to correspond to different tasks and always block out time for things. I regularly block out an hour or two for “admin” if I have a lot of emails and small tasks to catch up on.
Mytomatoes.com is a very simple no-frills online time management page based on the pomodoro technique. For those tasks which require time, focus and motivation (I can think of few that don’t!) I cannot recommend this simple technique enough.
The basic principle is that you engage in 25 minutes of focused work (no distractions) followed by a 5 minute break. mytomatoes.com also allows you to write a few words about what you achieved after each 25 minute work period a.k.a. tomato.
One thing these brief notes taught me early in my PhD were just how much time I spent on things that I figured would take much less time (mostly emails and form filling). Not only did this technique motivate me to work through the use of a HUGE timer counting down to a break on the screen front of me, it taught me to be more efficient in certain tasks.
Yes, it’s very primitive and no, we shouldn’t need timers to tell us when to work and when to take breaks but unfortunately many of us do, including me suffer from getting distracted too easily (also see below!)
4) Shut up and write
I have the Thesis Whisperer to thank for this one! During my PhD I shared an office with 4 to 7 others at varying points. We all got on incredibly well and this was often problematic for our work. Shut and write sessions were a fantastic way to get together, be productive and then celebrate over a bit of lunch.
To test the water I created an anonymous survey to scope out interest in ‘shut up and write’ sessions as well as mutually ideal days and times. A similar principle to the pomodoro technique but with others!
5) Start your day early
I’m not embarrassed to admit that when I’m working from home I’ll often start work in my PJs and slippers after a quick breakfast. There is something very satisfying about getting half of a to do list ticked off by mid-morning.
6) Blocking out distractions
I’m definitely not one of those people who feels compelled to reply to texts, tweets or Facebook messages straight away and my closest friends know this! Many days I’ll put my phone on silent or switch it off and then reply with a “sorry I was working…”. If I’m working on research, I won’t have email notifications on so that I can only check them when I have time. Switching off from social media and personal messages (patience of friends and family permitting) definitely grants a new level of focus.