Where does all my time go?: 4 ways to manage the PhD-and tasks

Looking back on May I feel like I haven’t done any work. I’ve read a few things, done a wee bit of writing, but it doesn’t feel like I’ve made any forward progress. Yes, I went away for a few days but that doesn’t seem to account for it. However, I’ve realised this seemed to happen last year as well. Part of it was panicking about and over thinking my annual review, but the more I thought about it May seems to be the month when I’m swamped with all the bureaucratic tasks and extras that go with a PhD. My annual review reminds me of all the ‘PhD-and’ things I’m supposed to be doing. A PhD-and: getting published, going to workshops, GTAing, running a conference, going to conferences, engaging the public, getting funding, networking, going to lectures… becoming employable. But for some reason my brain doesn’t register these as real-work but distractions.


As I thought about it I realised how much time all the PhD-and activities take up. The more I thought about it there are quite a few hours a week lost to paperwork, emails, and “extras” that are meant to help me win the golden ticket of a job one day. Often it is the unknown surrounding these tasks that take up the most time for me because often I don’t know where to start. And since my brain doesn’t register the tasks themselves as work, it certainly doesn’t see wandering around the internet and sending out emails as where to figure that out as productive. For some reason I have a tendency to think of it as a wasted morning, instead of as simply part of the task (but oddly my sub-conscious has no problem encouraging me to watch one more clip, I mean come-on Colbert counts as the news, right?) The anxiety induced procrastination only making it take longer.


I think in part there is simply more expected from PhD students today as the job market becomes more competitive, but I think that also leads to a sense of shifting goal posts. How many articles do I have to publish or GTA experience do I need? What about an internship or how many conferences? There are numbers that float about, but for instance I’ve recently had a friend who’s recently completed their viva secure a post doc with no publications. I’m not saying that that’s the norm or you shouldn’t do the extras, I certainly still am, but I’m trying to use it as a reminder and a bit of hope that if I don’t get more GTA time or the publications I’d like, it doesn’t mean I’m out of the running. I think it gives me perspective and takes some of the fear out, and therefore, some of the anxiety. So, if I don’t get that internship or GTA position, or that article is rejected, it’s not the end of the world. It means I have the space to fail as part of figuring it out.


With that perspective in mind I have a few ideas that I’m going to be trying in an attempt to be better and more efficient at all the PhD-and’s that come up during the day, while feeling better about my progress.


Identify it as necessary work – For me at least, that sense of progress and productivity is key to my mental well-being and motivation. It may sound odd, but I come from a place where a good day is a productive day and how you gauge self-worth. I often begrudge the time I spend sending emails and doing other tasks as taking away from my ‘real work’, so I think the place to start is to recognise and identify it as real necessary work because it is!


See it as practice for the future – Many of us would like to have careers in academia and the truth is the extras will only become a bigger part of our day. I try to see my PhD as kind of an apprenticeship for learning how to be an ‘academic’. I think a big part of that is learning to manage research with all the other requirements that go with being an academic. So, I think it would be best for me to learn how to manage those responsibilities now when I have more time and space, then try to figure it out once I get a job.


Shrink the fish bowl – Gold fish only grow to the size that their bowl will accommodate, and I think tasks do the same thing with time. The more time you allocate to do something the more time it will take. My most unproductive days are when I say that I’ll stay here till I’m done with x, especially when x is all the bureaucratic paperwork and extras I’ve been leaving undone. I do far better when I say I’ll spend an hour on this or two hours on that and then actually stop and move on when the time is up.


Just start – Often my overthinking is worse than the task itself. In my mind it becomes an insurmountable task, a battle I have to steal myself for. Although, when I don’t have the time and it has to be done, I just sit down and do it, and it normally is easier and takes less time than I thought it would.


I hope those help and as always feel free to share any thoughts or advice of your own below. Good look with all the PhD-and things this week!


We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with David via email at d.peters.2@research.gla.ac.uk or connect with the blog on Twitter

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