PhD students: how to pimp your productivity

One of the biggest challenges of graduate study is the lack of structure and the need to be self-directing and self-disciplined. A PhD is as much about consistency and endurance as about intelligence or technique. I know a lot of very clever people who did not finish their doctoral studies.

I am doing my doctorate at a university that is not particularly close to my home. This means I don’t get to travel down to campus very often. Usually once a week, sometimes more often, sometimes less. When I do go in, I travel by train, which I quite enjoy. I book my seat, have a table, my laptop, some breakfast and a cappuccino, and settle in and do some work. The reason I don’t go in more often is simply that it’s expensive and I can’t afford it. So not only am I engaged in a pursuit that is largely unstructured, I don’t even get that structure from simply being in a traditional work environment. I need to find an alternative.

The simple answer, of course, would be to work from home. But over the years I’ve learned a little about what works for me and what doesn’t. I tend to work really well in busy environments. Trains, cafés – I once revised for undergraduate exams in a bar with a jukebox. And in case you’re wondering, I aced them 🙂

I’ve tried working from home. I keep thinking, I’m a grown woman, I should be capable of sitting at my desk for a few hours without getting distracted or going back to bed. I suffer a lot from tiredness and have recently found out that I’m a bit anaemic, but I don’t know how much of my working from home block is physical and how much is psychological. Anyhow, I generally acknowledge that ‘working from home’ tends not involve much ‘working’ in my case and settle myself in wherever there is good coffee and free wifi. Although it’d probably be cheaper to pay for the wifi than for the coffee. I have become a master at eking out  12 fluid ounces over the course of the morning. But I do tip well.

I’ve tried various things to make my working hours more productive and more consistent. The one that seems to have absolutely transformed my output is co-working: working together with other people for a fixed amount of time, then taking a break at the same time, chat, stretch. Rinse and repeat. And because I don’t have colleagues living near to me, I’ve been doing this virtually. I joined an online PhD support group and posted one day, “Is anyone on UK time and would like to work together tomorrow?”

There are various protocols for this technique, but the one that seems to work for me is 45 minutes on, 15 minutes off. I wasn’t sure about 45 minutes to start with. It didn’t seem enough to tackle the huge amount of work that needs doing. On the other hand, one of the popular techniques, ‘Pomodoro’, uses a 25-minute session, but I found that too short. I’ve also read advice to do 90 minutes on and 30 off – longer sessions, longer breaks. But I’ve found that 45 minutes is enough time to get into what I’m doing and make some progress, but I’m always ready for the breaks when they come around. The breaks go by so quickly, but so do the work sessions. I have to use a timer so I don’t go whizzing past the 45-minute mark.

And I’ve made some really good friends in the process. Sometimes we talk about our work, sometimes we share tips, give advice, and sometimes we just get to know each other a little bit. The rules are simple: agree at the start of each session what you’re going to work on; be really strict about start and stop times, otherwise it’s just too easy to let those 15-minute breaks become 20-minute breaks, then 30, and… you get the picture; and perhaps most importantly, unless the session requires internet, then it’s wifi OFF during work sessions – if you realise you need to look up a reference online, make a note or put in a marker and look it up later; if your session does require internet, close down everything that is not related to your work. Yes, that includes Facebook!

It seems so simple but it is astonishing the difference it makes to both output, and the pain of creating that output. I’m more likely to get out of bed and less likely to quit early if somebody else is relying on me to help them with their stuff. It’s also quite nice knowing you’re helping just by being there. Plus, not fixating on the seemingly bottomless pit of things-that-need-doing, and focusing on one thing for a fixed period of time, actually makes me more productive, not less. So a huge thank you to my work partners – you have no idea how much you’ve helped me!

Posted in PhD study, research
3 comments on “PhD students: how to pimp your productivity
  1. Excellent tips – thank you! I often struggle with the same experience trying to phd from home, though I always feel a bit guilty working for hours at a cafe (though I haven’t been tipping and that may help!) Good to know I’m not alone!


  2. This post so resonates with me! I have found the #SUWTues group on Twitter absolutely magical for getting me out of what I call “frozen zombie” writing slumps. I’m still building up to joining in a group where it will be obvious if I’m missing, though. Not that I’m commitment-phobic or anything… :0


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