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Tips for Productive Planning and Using Lists

It’s Q&A time! I recently got this question from a reader, and would like to expand on it in a full post.

The question is the following, as a comment to the post on my PhD schedule:

To me, it sounds like you have it all figured out so well… that it almost depressing to read for someone who is not able to meet her own plannings 😉 (and yes, I do make lists for evenings etc. too, but I can’t always put them into reality)…
Even my supervisors now think that I will not mee the goal (only have three months left to finish my PhD)…

So any hints for more productivity and sticking with lists?

Or how to deal with it when you have another view on the planning than your supervisors?

My quick reply was the following:

Though question – and I’ll expand on it in a post (need to think a little deeper about that!).

But – one of the things that helps, is to cut out all the “crap”. Try to really stick to what matters in terms of replying your research question.

And experiment with different productivity tricks to see what works for you. We all have different learning styles, so it takes some trying out to see what works for yourself (although I understand you’re pretty pressed for time!)

(Oh, and BTW, I HAD things figured out when I was a PhD student. Now that I’m a fresh assistant professor, I’m again trying to get it all together)

Since I promised to think a little deeper about this question, I decided to look at the different elements in this question.

1. It sounds like you have it all figured out so well

Honestly, I don’t have it all figured out. Yes, during my PhD I had a working schedule, but now that I’ve just started as an assistant professor, I feel like I’m starting all over again, with new challenges.
We never have it all figured out. We never know it all. Life is about searching and experimenting, and that is the whole journey.
You might like to remember Kavafis’ poem here:

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

2. Not being able to meet your own planning

I wrote about what to do when your planning fails previously.
As with everything, finding a planning that works for you, is an iterative process. You make a planning, find out that you are thinking you can do more in a day than what actually gets done, so next time you plan less work to be done in a day.
What helps, is to closely monitor how you spend your time. I use ManicTime for tracking my time, so that I can learn how much time things really take.
And then, when all is said and done, and your planning just won’t work: take a deep breathe, don’t get mad at yourself, and just start all over again. You’ll get there eventually!

3. Even my supervisors now think that I will not meet the goal

Prove them wrong ;-)! Get ruthlessly efficient at cutting out what does not matter over the next 3 months, and steam ahead with full determination. Whatever parts of your research that are interesting look deeper into, but are not directly related to your research question: but that in the freezer and focus on your research question. Monitor yourself constantly. Try to pump up your motivation by rewarding yourself with a treat in the evening if you manage to meet your written word count for the day, or the part of calculations you needed to do.

4. What to do when you have another view on the planning than your supervisors?

Your PhD is your journey towards becoming an independent researcher. Since you’re almost at the end, I assume you’ve reached quite some levels of independence by now.
When it comes to knowing your work rhythm, you are the expert. Nobody besides you knows when you do your best work (at night, or early mornings, for example). Nobody besides you knows how much rest you need to be able to stay focused on your work. Nobody besides you can make your planning.
You have a clear view of your goal, so arrange your planning in the way it works best for you – and defend your working schedule to your supervisors. They’ll like to know what your plans are, and when they can expect your chapters and results.

5. Any hints for more productivity and sticking with lists
– Don’t put too much in your planning: Something that I myself am guilty of. I tend to plan every single minute of my days, but there’s always something that happens, so that things get postponed. Seeing at the end of the day that you could not do all you wanted to do is distressing. So, try to plan only 75%-80% of your time, and leave the rest as “buffer” to deal with whatever trouble comes your way.
– Try the Pomodoro technique. I wrote about it here and here, and it still works well for me to get through tedious tasks.
– Switch off all distractions. If need be, use Leechblock or something similar to keep you away from websites that distract you. Put your phone on silent. Use noise-cancelling headphones. Close your office door. Given the time pressure that you are facing, this is not the right time to chit chat away your afternoons.
– Keep separate lists. I use and track different lists: admin, errands, waiting for, writing papers, tasks work, goals 2014 – to name a few of the different lists that I use.
– Prioritize: Know your 3 MITs of the day, your 3 Most Important Tasks. These would be 3 actions that keep your dissertation moving forward. Do these first thing in the morning, so that you know that you are on a roll.
-Take good care of yourself. Eat well, sleep enough, exercise – you might think that you now don’t have time for that, but, more than anything, you don’t have time to get sick and/or sluggish. Keep your energy levels high by taking good care of yourself.

I hope these tips will help you, and if you have further questions, or want to talk more about your situation, feel free to reach out to me! You can do it!

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