This week, blogger Pierre talks about how to handle the dreaded task of getting enough things done.
By Pierre Botcherby
The best PhD advice I ever received, whilst a tad squiffy at a conference, was ‘so long as something gets done each day, it’ll be ok’.
I’m sure we’ve all had days during our research where the chances of achieving anything feel more unlikely than those of Coventry City winning the Premier League. As soon as we open that still unread but, according to our supervisor, crucial piece of secondary literature, the words slither morosely to the bottom of the page like dregs in an abandoned pint glass. Where we type and retype the same words in a doomed bid to crest the summit of the next sentence before they, like Sisyphus’ rock, tumble back down again amidst the thunder of the backspace key.
For me, the biggest barrier to productivity on days like those is thinking – well, worrying – about productivity. I imagine that this is quite an acute problem amongst PhD candidates, accustomed to being high achieving and held to – and holding themselves to – exacting standards.
This is where the tipsily received (and possibly tipsily given) advice comes in. In the past, I’ve been a worrier about productivity and not terribly good at switching off – especially once the sense of guilt over a “wasted” day has crept up on me.
‘So long as something gets done each day, it’ll be okay.’
To stop myself tearing at my own hair (and Lord knows I’m low on supplies there…) on so-called “wasted” days, I’ve made sure to have other tasks – non-thesis tasks – to which I can turn. These have included: teaching seminars, taking teacher training, leading student research and public engagement projects, and doing admin for a research group. They haven’t all been work tasks, either: I’ve also turned my energy and enthusiasm, if not my ability, to the university’s staff squash league.
The risk with such extra tasks is taking on too much. Everyone has their own capacities and limits on that front, and I’ve just about stayed the right side of manageable. Crucially, for me, these extra tasks have meant there has always been something I could get done each day. Short-term, they have been a change of pace, a breather from the thesis bubble, the looming guilt of unproductivity replaced by the sense of time usefully employed. Long-term, they have stopped my thesis work going stale. The thesis has become just one task amongst many and stayed fresher as a consequence. As the thesis has progressed, I’ve became better at switching off in the evenings and on weekends because I feel like my days and weeks had been productive. Creating the conditions in which I can be productive has meant I worry far less about productivity.
I don’t think my colleague meant his remark to push me towards taking more on. In fact, he probably meant quite the opposite. Either way, his central point was to not let the PhD, and productivity towards the PhD, become all-consuming. Finding more stuff to do to boost your PhD productivity may seem counter-intuitive but energy positively directed towards these other tasks is far better used than energy negatively directed to worrying over (a lack of) productivity. Get something, thesis or otherwise, done each day, and you’ll be far happier – and more productive – for it.
If you’re keen to read more on productivity, take a look at ‘A Short Guide to Productive Procrastination’ . Alternatively, if you’re worried about how much you’re achieving, take a look at these musings on ‘Am I Working Hard Enough?
The PhD Life Blog is full of different topics. Take a look at our Contents page and see what you can find.
How do you manage productivity and procrastination? If you have a top tip for your fellow students, please leave a comment below, tweet us @ResearchEx or email email@example.com
Pierre has been a PGR in the History department since 2017, where he works on the impact of industrial decline and urban regeneration on community in England in the post-WW2 period. He has also been Administrative Assistant to Warwick Oral History Network since 2018. Alongside his PhD, he has had 3 years teaching experience in the History department, as well as roles managing or co-managing student-led research projects including Memories of Binley Colliery, Then & Now: Arts at Warwick, and Student Research Portfolio. In 2021, he was a Student Fellow of WIHEA and the Arts Faculty Student Experience Intern. This year, as well as writing for the blog, he is working as a PGR Development Officer in the Doctoral College and as a tutor on the university’s Community Values Education Programme. Outside of work, he can often be found chasing shadows on the squash court as part of the Staff Squash League.