Maintaining PhD Productivity: Tips for Mindset and Organisation
By Britt Berning
A PhD is a big, daunting challenge to undertake. The list of things to tick off is seemingly never ending: reading in your field (and out of your field), experimenting, writing and communicating your research, and much more. As I work my way through my PhD in neurobiology, I keep a lookout for strategies to get my work done properly and in a timely manner. The following are a few key tactics for productivity that I have picked up along the way.
See the big picture
PhD students wear a lot of different hats: scientist, writer, programmer, graphic designer. The list goes on. One of the most important aspects of a PhD is the ability to think like a project manager. Having an overview of the major milestones that comprise your project, and the smaller steps required to fulfill those milestones, will act as a compass to keep you moving along on the right track. It’s important to revisit this big picture regularly as your project grows and changes over time – sometimes the data closes certain avenues, and new and interesting leads open up. There are a range of great project management apps available (I love Asana) but you could equally plan things out in a word document or brainstorm on your whiteboard.
Set realistic goals and take it easy on yourself
It’s better to overestimate the amount of time necessary to complete an experiment than push yourself towards an unattainable goal. Repeatedly falling short of your goals will only dampen your momentum and enthusiasm. Being reasonable with your expectations of yourself gives you some positive feedback and gets you ticking things off faster. It can be helpful to set two deadlines for a task: a hopeful deadline to strive for, and a more realistic deadline that factors in time for optimisation, potential delays in the lab, or periods in your personal life where you may feel the need to slow down at work. That way, if you happen to go over time in reaching your goal, you won’t feel too bad about it and your motivation won’t take a hit.
Excel and Google Sheets are your best friend. Beyond data analysis and storing important logins such as your ORCID ID, spreadsheets can be used for keeping track of micrographs for publication, or making notes on the literature. A spreadsheet enables you to see everything at a glance and makes it easy to pick up on emerging patterns.
Carry a small notebook in your bag and make use of note taking apps on your phone. Use them to record ideas for experiments or papers as they pop into your head, or plan out the structure of a paper, or design of a conference poster when small pockets of time present themselves to you (perhaps during an incubation period or while waiting for a particularly fickle piece of lab equipment to decide to function).
If in doubt, Pomodoro
For smaller, pesky tasks that I’m prone to putting off, or a paragraph where I’m struggling to clarify my point, I’ll use the Pomodoro technique. Set a timer to 25 minutes and focus solely on that task for the whole time. Break for 5 minutes, and then move onto the next task.
Find an accountability partner
Particularly one who will stare you down when you start checking Twitter in the middle of a writing session. Share your goals for the week, keep each other in the loop regarding upcoming opportunities, bounce ideas off each other and schedule writing sessions together in your calendar.
Do not underestimate the serenity of flight mode
As a researcher, your ability to focus becomes your currency. Guard it with your life. Jumping from task to task and being bombarded by distractions will leave you drained and frazzled. I already keep email notifications switched off at all times and generally check once in the morning and again in the afternoon. When I really need to focus and think, I’ll switch my phone to flight mode and remove all but the essentials from the immediate space around me on my desk so that it’s just me and The Task That Needs Completing.
Done is better than perfect
After a while you have to take a step back, be proud of what you’ve done, and release it so that you can move onto the next exciting thing. The author Liz Gilbert once described perfectionism as “fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when it’s actually just terrified.” I couldn’t agree more. Perfectionism can be crippling and it really shouldn’t be the badge of honour it’s made out to be. A clear and meaningful result generally means that it’s time to move forward to the next interesting experiment, not time to plug away at the same assay only to make tiny incremental improvements that don’t actually add any value to your paper.
I hope that these tips help you reclaim some of your time so that you can focus on the more complex aspects of your work, think deeply, and take care of yourself.
Britt Berning is a PhD student in the Neurodegeneration Pathobiology Laboratory at the Queensland Brain Institute, University of Queensland, where she investigates amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Her research is focused on changes that occur to the protein trafficking system in the motor neurons of the cortex, brainstem and spinal cord. She believes a picture is worth a thousand words; when she's not playing with a microscope, she is fiddling with her camera. You can follow her on Twitter to learn more about ALS and cool new findings in neuroscience research or visit her Instagram for insights into PhD life (@NeuroBritt).
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