Getting organized as a PhD student – part 2

As a doctoral student, whether on contract or not, time is one of the most precious resources we have. And let’s be frank, as a human being, that’s true too. If I’m perfectly honest, time is the thing I dread the most. How do you fit everything into a limited amount of time? How to accomplish everything, read everything, write everything, when time does not slow down? In fact, the doctoral student must necessarily worry about time, after all, in principle, he has only three years.

Without any pretension, here are a few little tips that have helped me a lot, hoping that they will be useful to you too. And since your time is precious, I’ll make it quick and to the point.

© Lukas Blazek

To start, of course, the inevitable to-do list. It obviously helps to clear your mind of all the tasks, but only if it’s perfectly exhaustive. It can take many forms: a simple list or a moving list in « to do », « in progress », or « done ». In my opinion, and this is very personal, it benefits from being as simple and sober as possible. On the other hand, I refuse to make daily lists. It always seems more relevant to me to have two big lists: one with everything that needs to be done for the month (personal, professional and school included), that allows me to keep an eye on the tasks that come up every month; and a bigger one, more durable, that carries everything that is not especially urgent, but that deserves to be taken care of, or the longer projects.

By the way, speaking of what is urgent and what is not. There is another well-known technique, which is to divide the things you have to do into 4 categories. « Important and urgent », « urgent but not important », « important but not urgent » and finally « not important and not urgent ». This method is called the Eisenhower matrix (it would have been developed by Dwight David Eisenhower). But as far as I’m concerned, since I’ve incorporated it into my two to-do lists by nature, this work is only done in my head and doesn’t need to be written down.

When it comes to getting to work and actually eliminating tasks, there are several methods. The one that I think is the most useful is the Pomodoro method but with some adjustments. This method basically consists of activating a timer of 25 minutes during which you concentrate fully on the task. Then you take a 5 minute break, and after 4 sessions of 25 minutes, you can take a longer break of 15 minutes. It appears that 25 minutes is about the time it takes me to concentrate on a task. This makes it very difficult for me to take advantage of my 5 minute break, knowing that I am still, let’s say, « in the mood to work ». So I adapted this method to my needs as follows: I work for an undetermined amount of time, but I always set a stopwatch at about 1h30 or 1h45 just in case. Then, option A: I work without fatigue or weariness for that hour and a half and end up taking a break at the end when the timer rings and I’ve accomplished a lot, or option B: around 45 minutes for example, I feel some weariness, I’m not inspired, etc. and so I take my break at that point. To do this, I need my breaks to be optimal. A break of less than 15 minutes does not have enough impact to make me feel rested. To optimize my break, I give myself real relaxation time: I make myself a cup of tea and drink it quietly on the balcony, I play with my cat, I read a chapter of a book or I watch an episode of a series. Experience has taught me that in order to be productive again, I need a real break before I get back to it. In the end, I get back to being more peaceful.

© Monica Sauro

Author Brian Tracy, in his book « Eat that frog! « recommends doing the most difficult task of the day first thing in the morning. In their book « Make Time », John Knapp and Jake Zeratsky recommend, among other things, to choose one thing to do each day that is the priority of the day and focus on it. If at the end of the day, that one thing is accomplished, even if it’s only one thing, then the day is considered successful. As a PhD student this could be: writing a thesis page, answering a call for papers, etc. Combine these two techniques and your days will be much more relaxing, yet more productive. Even if you only accomplish one task a day, at the end of the year you have 365 tasks accomplished that you care about, and that’s what counts.

When it comes to time management, there are a multitude of ways to organize your schedule as such. For example, each day, I don’t make a list of things to do, I make a « clock », on it, I know that I have 12 hours of work. I then divide up what I want to do in those hours. Others just dash on a post-it note and that’s fine too. What you mustn’t forget is to keep time for the things that don’t seem important, but that will help you progress much faster: leisure. Don’t be afraid to set aside some leisure time each day, with something you really enjoy doing and that has no real purpose other than to give you a good time. Read a novel, try a new recipe, play games.

Finally, what you need to do is to find your own method, even if it means cobbling together your own from ideas here and there. But above all, enjoy your time!


Thank you for reading this article, I hope it has helped you, see you soon!


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