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Happy PhD: Optimizing your Workday for Writing

Amber Davis is a political scientist and PhD coach, who studied at the London School of Economics and Leiden University, and holds a PhD from the European University Institute in Florence. She teaches stress-management and productivity seminars for PhD students and created the HappyPhD Online Course to help you write your PhD (almost) effortlessly in a couple of hours a day. On her blog, she is giving away the online course twice to celebrate the New Year. Click here to enter the contest.

In the first blog post of this series I discussed how to take care of your brain, and create optimal physiological conditions for doing academic work. It’s the first and most basic level of productivity. The second level of productivity relates to your workday and the work habits you have in place. Writing a PhD is often approached as a standard office job: we work 9-5, or even worse, we sit at our computer from 9-5, realise we haven’t gotten anything done, then frantically try and get some work finished, followed by worrying about how little we got done for the rest of the evening (and night if you’re particularly unlucky). We think we are ‘behind’, we will never ‘catch up’, we feel bad about ourselves for being less than productive and start wondering why the hell we are writing a PhD anyway. Obviously we are not cut out for this. Obviously it is doomed to fail!

An important thing to understand is that you cannot write a PhD like it’s an office job. You cannot sustain mental productivity for 8 hours a day. By trying you are setting yourself up for failure. Of course, there are always things you could do to fill those 8 hours – don’t we all know how to fill 8 hours staring at the computer screen -, but on the whole it’s a paradigm that needs reconsidering.

The key to being a prolific academic is to shape your workday in such a way that it sustains your productivity. Consider the comparison with physical training: you would not go to the gym for 8 hours a day. That would probably be a waste of your time, and you will end up in worse, instead of better shape the next day, let alone in a week or month’s time. It’s impossible to keep up. Even top athletes only work out about 4 hours or so. And then they rest and recuperate, as that is half the work! It’s quite similar for doing challenging mental work. As a top mental athlete, you may be able to sustain 4-6 hours of focused mental work a day, at the very maximum, on a very good day. But in my experience less is more. Once you understand how the brain works, and that it is not a machine that works in a linear fashion, you can make the most of your mental energy. Your productivity will soar when you work hard for a set length of time, followed by a period of relaxation. The relaxation is as important, as the ‘hard work’ put in. In fact, for many of us, the relaxation part is also the hardest! Try working on your thesis for a couple of hours a day. Two or three hours, say. It is enough. Then relax! Give yourself full permission to not work on your PhD once your time is up. It works much better than trying to put the maximum number of hours in.

How to do it: Choose how many hours you want to devote to working on your thesis today. Be a minimalist: less is more. Do not work continuously. Instead, work in intervals. Work for 30-90 minutes (maximum!), followed a break. Repeat until your hours are up. That’s it. Productivity saved! Now you have time to relax, exercise and meditate.

If you are interested in increasing your PhD productivity, have a look at the HappyPhD Course I created. It will walk you through it step-by-step, day-by-day, for 6 weeks. That is, until productivity has become a habit. To celebrate the New Year (it’s still January after all), I am giving away the course for free twice on my blog.

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This Post Has 5 Comments
  1. I agree with what you have shared. PhD thesis really requires proper dedication and time to complete it successfully. So, devoting proper time with regular intervals is really what required.

  2. In a way, I definitely agree. It's impossible to spend long days, say from 9 AM to 9 PM, working on your thesis. Nevertheless, this schedule made me wonder how much time would be needed for completing the thesis? Say, you would write for 4 hours a day, how long would it take in total? I think lots of students are also facing a hard deadline for finishing their thesis, when funding runs out. I'm lucky not to be in that situation, but I can imagine that would make this schedule unrealistic. Curious to hear your thoughts 🙂

  3. Jo, I believe it depends on the discipline. In some fields you have to do a lot of time-consuming data analysis, which consequently takes many hours, which may be a few-hours a day schedule unrealistic. Nevertheless, when it comes to analysis and writing, I believe SO much time and energy is wasted. If I speak for myself: I used to work 6-8 hour days, and shortened them to 2-3 hour days of intense work, plus maybe another hour, sometimes 2 of less intense tasks, without loss of productivity. It is the aspect of working in intervals that makes it work, and it works really well. I finished my thesis within the deadlines because of it, although it seemed absolutely impossible. Amber

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