Focusing on Organisation in a PhD

I’m not sure I know anyone who isn’t a massive fan of procrastination, myself included. Even though I really enjoy my PhD topic and have a list as long as my arm of poetry journals I want to submit to, I just can’t seem to help seeking distractions. In order to stay focused I’ve had to block social media and news sites from my PC during the day because, particularly in the current political climate, I get zero work done in favour of scouring newsfeeds for information regarding the state of the union.


My super cute Inuit art calendar

I’ve also surrounded myself with calendars, clocks and to do lists (NB, not literally. I have one of each of those things on or near my desk…I was just exaggerating for dramatic effect), because I find I work best when I have quite a strict schedule. I like to know in advance what I’m doing each day and how long I have to finish it. I also purchased a nifty wee academic diary for keeping track of appointments, meetings, workshops etc. (now I mention that I need to get a new one for the new year…eek!)

Despite all this, life still somehow manages to get in the way. I almost never get to bed by 10pm as I’d like and rarely get out of bed before 8am to go for that early morning swim I’m always promising myself. I also have a strange habit of distracting myself from work with different work. For example, I’ll give myself a morning for writing and editing my creative work with the idea that I’ll do some reading for my thesis in the afternoon. I inevitably get caught up enjoying the creative work and the academic side of my research gets neglected. As it stands I’m on a self-enforced break from creative writing so I can concentrate on getting a chapter of my thesis written, but uh-oh! I’ve somehow managed to write 5 poems this week while D.H. Lawrence and his birds, beasts and flowers lie wallowing under a pile of notes. I suppose what I’m trying to say is, working boundaries are great but you have to stick to them.

Of course, regular supervisory meetings really help – as we all know, having an impending deadline is a great way to focus the mind! Every 4-6 weeks works pretty well for me, though I know some people meet far more often. I also think it’s great to get outdoors and get out of your head for a decent stretch every day. If I spend too long at my desk, I wind up feeling sick and miserable and get even less done than I would if I’d just given myself a break.

There are some really cool apps and websites you can use to help organise you these days too. I’m a big fan of Evernote, especially when I’m away from my desk. I can keep track of any wandering thoughts while I’m out and about, write pseudo poems, and make to do lists with satisfying tick boxes and alarms to keep me focussed. My fellow SGSAH-er Maxine Branagh wrote a really great post about the Happiness Planner, which helps you manage the work/life balance. (Maxine and I walk our dogs together with previous guest blogger Lucie Whitmore…here’s Mollie and Chumbo sharing a kiss while Birdie is distracted by important beach business.)

chumbo and mollie

I guess the real key to organising your day is to find what works best for you; maybe it’s 9-5, maybe it’s 10-6, maybe you need to assign office days, maybe you need to give yourself an afternoon off every week to go to the cinema because you treated yourself to an unlimited members card and your working class roots are insistent that you need to get your money’s worth, not that I would know how that feels…just whatever works best for you!

If you feel like you’d like to share any of your experiences of being a PhD student do get in touch! Email or tweet @SGSAH_.

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