Is your thesis deadline fast approaching? Do you have tons of work to do, yet you can’t seem to get enough done in one day? Do you find it difficult to motivate yourself during these springy-summery days, when classes are out, departments are quieter, and your bike and the neighborhood park are calling your name louder than your research project is? If you have answered YES to at least one of these questions, then read on!
The best part about Graduate Studies – but also the most challenging aspect of it – is that, most of the time, you set the goals, the tasks and the pace for your work. How much you tackle in one day is largely up to you. Deciding how you structure your time to meet your objectives and deadlines is what makes you work independently – a skill that is highly valued by supervisors and funding committees, and one that will be crucial when conducting research beyond graduate school. There is a great deal of flexibility in being a PhD student, but the challenge remains that we have to learn how to motivate ourselves, fight procrastination and stay PRODUCTIVE!
Here are 10 things I (try to) do on a regular basis (but admittedly don’t always manage to do, because of extraneous factors that intervene with both my productivity and my sanity, as I’m sure is the case with you):
1. Figure out what works for you: Know the time of day or place where you are generally most productive. Maybe you are most productive in the mornings and fall into a slump around 2-6 pm. Maybe inspiration often hits pretty late at night and so it’s better for you not to get up at the crack of dawn every morning. Maybe you are most productive at the lab, rather than working from home and being distracted by how much your windows need to be cleaned (and what better day to tackle this than today?!). This might also depend on what you have to do; I can only concentrate on readings in the mornings, but am more productive in writing in the late afternoon or evening. Find a rhythm that works for you, even if this only works for a few days/weeks in a row, and then loses its effect. Be prepared to adjust your rhythm if you find your productivity has been slipping lately. Another tip: Be comfortable! Know what clothes, chair, table height, computer monitor, music, level of noise, etc. allow you to be most productive for a given task and depending on what mood you’re in.
2. Change settings: When it doesn’t work – move! Sometimes it simply takes changing it up a little, and the roadblocks suddenly disappear. Consider alternating your workplace during the week and try working from a café, from a cozy corner in a library, from home, at the park, from your balcony, or from the office. Changing locations within the same day also prevents you from calcifying in your seat! It helps you stretch your legs, temporarily clear your mind, and get some fresh air – all of which, in my experience, help you approach the task with newfound energy and motivation.
3. Try a different way: If you’re stuck, try approaching the task in a different way. If you can’t keep track of everything you’ve been reading, try making a table or taking notes. If you can’t write out your paper in coherent paragraphs, try making an outline (or going back to your outline) or a flowchart of your ideas. If you’re staring at a blank screen for too long, try writing by hand. As long as you keep trying something and keep moving, it’s bound to unblock eventually and you’ll be back on track again. Be patient, and keep at it!
4. Take a step back: When you’re saturated beyond belief with your Comps or some other very time-consuming activity, try to take a step back from it for a little while. This is a trick that a few of my colleagues have taught me. It seemed unnatural to me at first, because I’m the kind of person who must sit herself down and finish what she started in one sitting, otherwise I get agitated with myself! But, giving yourself some distance from a task can really help. Some of my friends even let a paper sit for a few days before they read it again and decide whether it’s ready to be submitted. Switch gears and work on something else, big or small. I’m certain you can find something else that needs to be done!
5. Activate a screensaver: This is something that dawned on me today, and sparked the idea for this blog post! If you are not working directly on your computer, but have it on in front of you, you are likely to be tempted by the excessive-and-ridiculously-repetitive-email-and-Facebook-checking-for-no-reason tendency. Although you are aware that nothing epic has occurred in the world in the 2.5 minutes since you last went through your full cycle of systematically checking all your accounts (sometimes checking the same thing twice – that’s how attentive you are), but you still can’t help it. It’s a disease. Do you even care about what friend of friend “liked” a distant relative’s aunt’s brother’s 60th birthday cake picture? No! Of course not! But your eyes need to fixate themselves on something other than your work for a few seconds. Fair enough. Activate a slide-show of some of your pictures, and set it to “very slow”. That way, you can occasionally glance up and, when you are bored with your own face or with pictures you’ve seen six million times, you can get back to work! Also bear in mind that people do not generally expect a reply from you within the minute, so, whatever email you are “missing” at that very moment could wait an hour! (Note: other people take drastic measures such as deactivating their Facebook account for a period of time, or even permanently (gasp!). However, this is way too drastic for me, and I prefer to log out instead, so that I have to explicitly think about logging back in and I have the time to talk myself out of it while I type in my long email address and password.)
6. Look forward to it: When you wake up in the mornings, try to refrain from sighing or frowning or (not so) silently complaining that you have lots to do and don’t feel like it. Plan your day over breakfast, in the shower, or on the bus. Look forward to what you have to tackle, and break it down into manageable chunks when you think about what you have to do, so that your day doesn’t seem so ominous from the start. Give the day – and yourself – a chance to rock! Tell yourself, “I’m so ready to be productive today”, and I assure you the days that begin that way are the most productive of all.
7. Schedule it out: If there’s way too much running through your brain and you don’t quite know where to start, or what could wait until tomorrow, write it out on paper. Have the top priorities written down first and not alllllll the things that run through your mind as you are jotting them down. If you are really tight on time, allotting a time-frame to each of the tasks also helps, provided that your goals are realistic. Remember two golden rules: (1) things always take longer than you expect them to; (2) if your goals aren’t realistic, you’re only going to overwhelm yourself.
8. Balance your work with your hobbies: Take breaks to give yourself a chance to smile. Make time for your hobbies this way, as short breaks during your busy day. I take short breaks to write to friends, call my family, write blog posts, or take pictures of sights that inspire me. I try not to get carried away with these other interests, but I do think that they help in feeling creative and happy with my life, and this positive attitude gets channeled back into my work.
9. Talk to people about your work: This is SO useful. Even if you think you know everything about your study and its background, talking it out with others who have similar research interests (or even with those who don’t) often helps you brainstorm. For example, with colleagues who have similar research areas, you’ll be able to make sense of how different theories could account for your data, and talking it out could help you pull the “big picture” together and synthesize what is out there, and how your own work fits in. On the other hand, sharing your work with people who are not in the field can help you see it from a different perspective, and this can help point out any logical gaps in your thinking or writing, as well as why your work is meaningful and timely (i.e., how to answer the “SO WHAT?” question).
10. Know when to quit it: Let’s face it: despite our noble attempts, on some days or at some point in the day, it just doesn’t work anymore. We’re human, and we get tired (or cranky or hungry). It’s important to know when it’s no use anymore, and to call it quits for the day. If you do so, you’ll be refreshed when you sit back down to continue working, and it’ll be a much more fruitful and productive period than if you had dragged it on the previous time. Forgive yourself if it wasn’t your best day, and prepare yourself to be more productive tomorrow.
Bonus tip: When all else fails, adjust your definition of “productivity”! Who says it has to be limited to PhD work alone? You can surely consider yourself “productive” in many other areas in a given day: Productivity in making yourself feel better, productivity in napping, productivity in doing-a-million-little-tasks-but-totally-ignoring-the-big-important-task-on-the-to-do-list. Productivity is in the eye of the beholder!
Just kidding (or am I?)