Time-management – or the lack of it – is one of the most common reasons for stress and anxiety during doctoral studies. Usually doctoral students possess very good time-management and self-management skills, but for some reason or another, they are not able to utilize these skills properly in the post-graduate, academic environment. This is where I come into the picture.
If you have previously been able to be self-directed and use efficient time-management strategies, but you just don’t seem to get things done at the moment, don’t worry. I am here to help. And if you, after reading my advice on time-management strategies, still find it hard to manage your time and your work, it would probably be a good idea to talk to someone about how to increase you motivation or support your wellbeing.
Before I dive into the tips, I want to remind you to go easy on yourself. It is totally normal to lose motivation during a large crisis like this ongoing pandemic or during a personal crisis. All of a sudden you realize that you don’t have any interest in writing, reading or doing anything related to work.
Do not despair.
I know that you are able and good at what you do, it’s just the upside-down world that messes with your motivation. When you have realized this and perhaps practiced some self-compassion, you can move on to the next step.
Take a moment to think about how you work – what works and what doesn’t? I especially want you to focus on strategies that have worked in the past but you find difficult to do right now. What environment has been good for your efficiency? Did to do lists work for you? Do you work best during office hours or do you need to scatter your effective time throughout the day?
Once you have gathered some of your best practices from the past, you might notice that you all of a sudden already have some tools at your disposal. Well done!
You can try these strategies for a while and see if they help.
If you want more, you can pick and choose some tools from below for your time-management toolbox. See more information about these tools by clicking their headings (still under construction). These time-management tips are also available at the Aalto psychologists’ pages in Into.
I’ve also gathered some exercises for you to try out (also under construction)
The important thing to remember is that, what works for someone else, might not work for you. You have to find your own ‘best practices’ and no-one else can know what they are, but you.
BTW: Check out the course “Time to get cracking” for Aalto students (also doctoral students).
To do lists are a quick and easy way to get on top of things. Write daily, weekly or monthly to do lists. Write them by hand on paper, or use a to do list app. The world is your oyster. To maximize the benefits of a to do list, you have to set clear and achievable goals.
Sometimes your to do list might not do the trick for you. One of the reasons for this might be that your goals aren’t clear and achievable. Or that your goals are too big. Use some time to really think about what your goals are, how you have defined them, and chop them into smaller, more manageable pieces. When you reach a goal, commend yourself. I’m serious – do it, tap yourself on the back. It will make a difference. And if you can’t reach the goals you’ve set, go back and re-evaluate your goals. The important thing is not to get disheartened by it; some goals are not meant to be achieved and your self-worth is not defined by how many items you are able to check on your to do list.
Even if you have a great plan for managing your time and getting work done, it all might still fall apart. Often this is due to the fact that you are focusing on non-essential task instead of what you’re actually supposed to get done. When you’re planning how to allocate your time, prioritize. What do I need to get done right away, what can wait? Even though organizing your pdf’s or emptying the dishwasher are important tasks, they might not help you complete the most important task at hand. Allocate time for less important tasks, but always make sure to prioritize more important tasks, that support reaching your goal.
Focus on time-off, breaks, and recovery.
When you’re allocating time and making to do lists, be sure to reserve time for recovery and breaks. Your brain can’t be effective for several hours straight, you need to take breaks. The same goes for your body. Stand up. Walk around. Sleep. Eat. Watch TV. Whatever works for you. As long as you take the time-off that you need. Because you’re worth it.
Turn off notifications and work in a non-distracting environment
Sometimes it might be a good idea to block your e-mail and your social media apps for a certain period of time. Or work in an environment, where you won’t be interrupted every 10 seconds. We are not built for multi-tasking even though we love to do it. Every time we get interrupted, or try to multi-task, our brain is transferring huge amounts of attention between tasks. This is a very cognitively wearing and error-prone way of working. It will only make you tired and probably not improve the end-result. Give your brain a break!
Allot time and block your calendar.
If you have trouble starting a large task, such as writing, you might benefit from allotting time in your calendar for these sorts of tasks. For example, you could make a deal with yourself that you write every morning from 8 to 10. If it’s in your schedule, then it’s what you’re supposed to do right then. Try to not book any other activities or tasks in that time-slot. Not always possible, I know, but try. If you still feel like you have trouble getting motivated for these tasks, you can try to chop them into smaller and more meaningful blocks. What are you going to write during that time? What kind of text; just flow of thoughts or the real deal? I can’t stress it enough: chopping goals and making them more attainable will make all the difference, I promise.
Have you ever thought about what kind of routines you have? Or don’t have? The ongoing pandemic made routines really important because, all of a sudden, we had to manage our work in a new environment – at home. One way to stay motivated while working from home is to have routines. They might be routines that you have used at the office, or you could create new ones at home. Go for a cup of coffee in the morning and in the afternoon. Take a walk before work and after work. Decide when you are working and when your free-time starts.
Sometimes it might just be enough to change environments. If you don’t feel motivated to work at home, you could change to an environment that tells your brain you are at work. For example a library or a coffee shop.Or a friends house (just ask the friend first). Or even just work in a different room at home, if you have the luxury to do that.
Enroll in writing retreats and co-writing events
The power of peer support is phenomenal. Enroll in co-writing events (where everyone writes together at the same time), ask your fellow doctoral students if they would like to join you for a writing retreat, or just reach out to people in your doctoral programme and suggest working together, either face-to-face or online. Co-writing doesn’t have to mean writing the same manuscript (and then being a co-author), it can mean writing separate manuscripts but doing it together in the same space. This is a great way to foster togetherness and enhance self-efficacy.
Learn to say no.
You don’t need to be involved in every project you are asked to participate in. I know they all sound so interesting but you have to put yourself and your wellbeing first. So learn to say yes to things that fit your schedule and no to things that don’t.
You’ve reach the end. Congratulations. I feel like I should give you some sort of award for having the patience to read all the way through. Or maybe you just skimmed and skipped to the end. That’s ok too. As long as you know where to find these tips and feel like they are to some use for you.
You’re gonna do great!
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