If you’re a new PhD student, chances are you’re concerned about how to manage your time. You may feel that, compared to your pre-PhD life, you now have acres of space in each day, but very little idea about how they should or could be filling it. If you have family or work responsibilities plus a PhD, you might feel quite the opposite: where on earth is the time going to come from? Are you going to spend the next 3-5 years trading off one responsibility against another, and always feeling guilty?

This is often where it starts, my friends, the nagging feeling that you’re not doing it ‘right’, because you’re not at your desk at 9am with a clear plan of what you’re going to achieve that day.

You’re certainly not alone.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve met a couple of hundred of new doctoral students, and this has been what they most want to talk about.

It’s always a big topic, but this year it seems to be causing even greater anxiety as many are starting away from their departments, so it’s hard to get a general impression of departmental norms, or calibrate against more senior students.

Q: What would change, if you accepted that the way you’re currently (not) managing your time is just fine at this super early stage? 

Perhaps you’d be able to take a beat, steady the compulsion to do ‘busy work’ for the sake of it, and just feel, for a moment, the incredible sensation of space that you’ve stepped into. Because all that currently unallocated time (or the time you knew you’d be able to create), and all that energy you’ve got racing around inside of you ready to get stuck in? That’s where your PhD is going to come from.

Perhaps you’d be able to pause the anxiety, or stop berating yourself, for long enough to get curious and see this as a piece of work in its own right, one which is a truly worthwhile investment of your time?

Perhaps you’d hear and and really take on board that a doctorate is a marathon not a sprint and, as all serious runners know, pacing is crucial. And to pace effectively, you need to know yourself and your running really well.

Treat yourself as your first research project.

  • When do you feel most alert?
  • When in the day can you concentrate best?
  • When can you do routine tasks which require high attention?
  • And others with low attention?
  • If you have a chronic health condition, how does this shape your days, weeks, months?
  • What about family or work commitments?

Know that most PhD students do not work flat out from 9-5, and that’s fine

The ‘treat your PhD as a job’ school of thought has a lot to be said for it: it creates time- and conceptual-boundaries that stop the the PhD consuming your every waking moment and scrap of energy.

Don’t be lured in by productivity narratives from business and manufacturing, and fall into the trap of thinking you should be turning in a good 7 hours of writing a day, every day. This is impossible: our daily resources for deep work aren’t infinite. We can push ourselves (or ‘sprint’) for specific deadlines or over relatively short periods, but we can’t sustain it without risking burnout.

Next time you ‘sprint’, pay close attention to how you feel in the days afterwards. Do you get something like a work-hangover, and need a complete break to recharge? If so, add this awareness to your future planning.

Experiment with your pace for key PhD activities

Allocate a day to some really dense critical reading. Keep track of time carefully. First, just read until your brain rebels. Make a note of how long that was, and then take a properbreak. Now do the same thing, but use the Pomodoro technique of 25 minute blocks of effort, followed by a five minute break. Again, do it until you can’t productively read another line? How did that feel? How did the timings of the two sessions compare? Could you work for longer on the second model?

Do the same thing for writing. If you have no idea what to write, then call to mind your PhD proposal and (without re-reading it), free write through it as though you were just explaining it to an educated layperson, and add your commentary as you go – questions, anxieties, links to literature, etc.

Vary the length of blocks and see how that feels – some people find 25 minutes too short, others like to use a couple of short blocks to hack themselves into starting something when they feel reluctant and then extend the blocks as they hit their flow.

Beware the siren call of task-switching!

There’s a ton of research on how distracting task-switching is. and how long it takes to settle back into the original task once you’ve been distracted.

So when you’re trying to concentrate, minimise the likelihood of distraction: unplug a landline, set your mobile to silent, use a focus app, don’t check social media or your email, don’t let your brain tell you this is the time to review your budget for the month because even that’s preferable to what you’re supposed to be doing.

Have a system that allows you to capture the thought (I’ve talked about Trello and Workspaces here), and then return to the task in hand.

Batch routine or low effort tasks together and schedule them

So you know when your high energy / strong focus times during the day are. Don’t waste them replying to routine emails or hunting for a winter coat online.

Schedule an hour, get your list of low-energy tasks, set a timer and see how many you can get through. Repeat as necessary. As with all work, these will expand to take the time you let them, so hem them in!

If your living arrangements allow you to meal plan and batch cook, try it. There’s nothing like ending work for the day and knowing that you only have to heat something up, rather than start of scratch.

TLDR: You’re where you need to be

Time for self-exploration and developing self-awareness is built into the doctoral programme even if that’s not explicitly stated in your handbook. You’re not expected to know everything right now, you have time to learn these things about yourself, you will deepen your understanding of how you work by playing about with variables as I’ve described above.


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