Time management from Mongrels: Smash it!

When do you PhD?

Someone asked me that the other day. Seems like a very reasonable question, given I try to tell people that I don’t do my PhD full time but have a full time job instead. When you add to the equation that I play and referee basketball, which takes up the best of two nights a week and a full day during the weekend, things get difficult to understand.

Do you have a life?

I have not been asked that one, but it is read all over the face of people who wonder when do I actually get to do some PhDing. I have been told by many people before that they have “no time”. There are many self-help books out there negating that in principle. I would say I have very restricted time, and because of that, I have become very protective of the very necessary minutes here and there that make up my PhD.

I don’t do crazy wake up times. In winter, I struggle to get out of bed before 745. I am lucky (to a point), because Glasgow is a lovely place over the summer – the sun never goes down, being so far up north. So when it’s bright outside, I find it difficult to sleep – all I want to do is be all outdoorsy (maybe not at minus three degrees like today, but you get the picture). So in the summer I do get an extra thirty to forty-five minute block of activity before the wife is even up. It is normally reduced to about 20 minutes of actual productivity – by the time I have a coffee in my hands and the computer is on, is almost 720.

In this first block, I work by instinct. Did I leave something urgent to write or think about the day before? Had I scheduled myself to write a certain amount of words? Do I need to read something? At that time of the day I work in oximorons: I am still half asleep and some of my ideas feel half baked at times, but I have uninterrupted concentration on the task, so at least I *have* ideas. Later in the day I reassess whether that idea was okay or if it needs more work or just to be binned and started over again.

I don’t allow myself many distractions, but I know how dangerous they are. For weeks at a time I used to make myself wake up at 7 against my body’s will and ended up checking Facebook or the news. I reconsidered my time wastage against my body’s needs and decided that I would assess my readiness to work from my bed: Am I going to get up and waste my sleeping time? Don’t get up then. Sleep for another 45 minutes. Your body will thank you. I now set a quiet alarm (my watch has one, and it’s so nice and soft and marvelous!). I am normally not fast asleep by then. Today, for example, I did set the alarm, but I was too tired to get out of bed, so turned around and slept for another 40 minutes. And right now I feel refreshed.

Another thing I have changed since working in an office environment is the time I leave the house. I now try to leave at the same time as my wife, even though it takes me twice as much to get ready. This is not due to vanity, it’s because putting on cold clothes and preparing my lunch are activities I dread and I delay them as much as possible. She gets on with them and is ready to go by 815. I enjoy having my coffee and a blank stare for ten minutes whilst my mind wonders, so I am always late.

Leaving at the same time as her (or at least trying) allows me to get to work half an hour before I am meant to start. My office space, the one I have for PhD things, is just around the corner from my work office. In there, I enjoy a good 20-30 minutes of uninterrupted activity again. I have noticed that working there is actually more beneficial than I initially thought. I used to go to the office for two hours before work when I worked in hospitality (9-11), and I always managed to do lots of writing and reading there, but having reduced the time I can spend in that office space has pushed my productivity-per-minute. I sit down, open my notebook and put my thoughts on the pad. I have to do it that way because in that small window and having a computer from the 80s in that office, it is really not worth it trying to open a word document. But normally I have been working on something just before at home, and I somewhat remember what I wrote before.

I am preparing a presentation for one of my supervisor’s modules, and I was asked to put together some thoughts about this translator. I wrote 1,000 words about it yesterday. Today I just opened the pad as I got in – I was late, and only had 15 minutes. In 15 minutes I managed to write a full page (roughly 200 words?) and lay out some points to continue later on. This is still quite surprising to me when I think about it, but it must have something to do with the comfortability that that space provides me with, and the good “me time” with my pad when I have one sole focus. Of course I wish I could stay there for a longer window, maybe an hour or two, but I will take what I can and run with it.

Once I am at the office, PhDing is left at the margins of tasks. There are a lot of every day things that your degree needs that are solely admin. And I work in admin. It is easy to write up some minutes to a meeting, prepare an agenda, schedule when to write, schedule the week workload, write up scholarship applications and other boring tasks when pretty much that is part of your daily job. So I try to get those done among the other admin tasks. I find it easier and quicker to do that as part of the daily routine as my mind is already thinking in admin terms. Believe me, it is easy to write in “minutes to a meeting” language once you have done three in a row…

After work, I am now trialing having another block of writing. I still haven’t figured out how it’s going to work as I can’t establish a pattern. Sometimes I go to my office space, sometimes I go home, lay on the couch and read. I normally have until 6ish, but then again it is hard to do any work after 5 o’clock. I normally just read. It is something that one cannot help but doing when PhDing.


Finally, the controversial point: I don’t work on weekend. I physically can’t. I need one full day of rest doing absolutely nothing to enjoy with the family, which is normally Sunday. Saturday, I combine resting with refereeing here and there and everywhere. And yes, on occasion I take a book with me – since I don’t drive, they make excellent company on the train. But I normally get very little done, no matter how hard I try. And I have stopped trying hard.

I do get in the end about 10 hours of work a week, if I am lucky. It is not a lot, but it’s a good as part-timing goes. I think that, considering the time I actually spend working on my PhD, I get quite a good productivity-per-minute ratio. Of course this cannot be recreated in longer time periods: the more you work, the least you will get done in percentage. It’s like Test cricket v Twenty20. I think the Twenty20 analogy is very useful for me: you have very few overs, so smash the ball to the boundary as much as you can and get all the runs you can.

I will soon be also trialing having a day off from work per month to full immerse myself in writing activities. I have not yet thought through how that would work out, but I will give it some thought, do it, and then write about it. I am thinking of modelling it in a “thesis boot camp” style, so it needs a fair bit of planning (just to make sure I have food at the ready at all times and a stress-free environment). We’ll see how that goes.

Ps. I only got into cricket over the Christmas period. Look at me talking like I know shit.

The switch to Part Time

This is a long overdue post, so I am just gonna go ahead and get it over with. I am now a part time student. When I say “now”, I mean it’s only been recently (or it feels that way), but it has been back tracked from October. I got the switch in December, but for the record, I have been part time since October. In hindsight, it was a great decision, and at the time it really looked like the only solution.

Back in November, and as I have explained in this blog before, I was sick. I was sick and I don’t know why, and some blood tests and stomach ultrasounds later, even the doctors don’t know why I was sick. As usual, they attributed my sickness to excessive nerves and stress. Since it’s rather difficult to prove otherwise, I was left with no choice but to believe what the doctors were saying. I had really bad stomach cramps, like I’ve never had before. They all started after I had been at the AngloCatalan Conference in Manchester in November. My partner thinks it’s something I ate which took three weeks to process. I think I prefer that explanation to having “a possible ulcer”, “potential IBS”, or “stress-related stomach disorders”. Whatever it was, it left me defenceless. I am a productive bean, and I can handle many spinning plates, and certainly I do many, many things in life. But being sick, not being able to predict if I’d be able to go to work or even get out of bed, left me totally knocked out. I had to quit a game halfway through it, I had to cancel many days of work and of basketball officiating, and I had to take a real break.

With so much time in my hands, my mind wandered. Trying to find a cause for my state was a priority. At that point I realised that my body was telling me to slow down or stop completely. I entertained the thought of switching to part time, but I wasn’t too sure about it. When the days off sick and the cancellations kept accumulating, I realised that it could not be another way. I usually work around 25 hours in hospitality per week. Even in my most organised weeks, I cannot dedicate more than 20 hours to my PhD. That is really the definition of part time. And trying to pretend that I could carry on being a full time was just lying to myself. Having the physical time to do things slowly, and the allowance, was key to get back on track.

When I got sick, I was halfway through writing my Chapter 2. I really didn’t know where I was going with it, so I think it just helped the stress. I was two months away from it. I decided not to get back to it in December because it made no sense. After the switch was completed, I decided to give myself and my body some holidays. I went home for Christmas. My stomach felt healthy again. In January, I went back to writing Chapter 2, and I finished it. Last month I corrected Chapter 1 and I just finished the review of Chapter 2. Supervisors were happy and acknowledged the fact that my academic English is getting better. The switch to part time then did wonders to me.

Speaking to your supervisors and letting them know how things are going is the key, really. There is no point in pretending everything is okay when you really are sick. And the worst thing you can do in that sort of situation is ignore your body and keep going, because then you will get truly sick. When I first told my supervisors about wanting to switch to part time, they were very positive about it – knowing that I am a particularly self-driven person, they did not fear that going part time would make me go ‘lazy’ about things. And it has worked out really well.

Sometimes, having the time to mentally breathe is all you need.