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.

Time Management from Mongrels

I came across this idea whilst on the subway yesterday. I had to dash from this workshop that I had only last minute decided to enrol in (so last minute that I got a confirmation of enrolment this morning…) and get to the city centre to pick up the lady and battle with Nike to replace my lonely and broken FuelBand. That took no time by the way – Nike were very happy to exchange it for a new one, I was in the shop for barely five minutes. Kudos Nike, thanks. So whilst on the subway I scribbled some notes on Evernote, if you pardon the pun, and I am now taking the time to develop the issue.

The workshop I was in yesterday was Time Management (fairly adequate that I showed up one hour late, only after I left work), delivered by Sarah Shinton, which I particularly enjoyed and have enjoyed in the past due to the tailored nature of it – very accurate and relevant advice is given, and that’s what we all need cause we don’t have time to spare or, dare I say it, waste. It was full of Pedigree PhDs, aka Fulltimers. I spoke to a few, and the more I heard their stories, the more I thought that Mongrel philosophy can help Pedigree PhDs with some of their issues. Not all Mongrels are the same, like not all Pedigrees are the same, but some patterns seem to be recurrent and I thought I would explore some communal problems and potential solutions. This might develop in a series of posts – the first one focused on time management.

The students I spoke to yesterday seemed to have one common problem: lack of productivity and confidence. They are interrelated problems – you think you’re not good enough, which in turn paradises your production, only to end up blaming your schedule and/or time tabling problems to bad time management skills. It is a vicious circle. However, about confidence and “getting over it” is a completely different topic, and I will explore it in another post. 

Considering the place where they were with their PhDs (plenty of second and third years), most students seemed to be unaware of what was their most productive time, and they seemed to be binge writers – only a looming deadline or two sleepless days will get them to work. Regular writing was not part of their routine. They did not have anything to anchor their day – a regular wake up time, lunch schedule, teaching schedule, or a coffee break habit. This came to me as a complete shock.

Now here’s when the Mongrel tries to save the world. This might not help anybody, but this is a breakdown of my schedule, point by point. At any given day. I swear. I get to the office every morning between 830 and 9 am. I allow myself to stroll up to the office without thinking that I have many things to do. I allow myself to enjoy the walk, in a way, weather permitting. Now I study at Glasgow, so that almost never happens – at least the only reason I run to the office for is to get out of the wet streets and into a warm and cosy building.

I start office work at 9am. If I am at the office early, I fiddle with bits that I know will annoy me if I don’t do them. I have TWO HOURS to do any work that needs doing. So the first fiddly bit is figuring what I want to achieve that morning. Things that need my urgent attention. And things that, if I am done with everything else, I can fall into and do just because. Dare I say I never complete all the items in the list – there is always one task in that list that is background/slow backlog. The aim of that task is to provide me with the mindset that only time and work will free me from my PhD duties. I don’t do everything. There is always something left to do

The second fiddly bit is updating my calendar – looking at the week and setting all my commitments outside the office. This normally means work and games to referee. That way I know straight away if I have any pending tasks by the end of the day, and if I have to arrange for travel or leaving early, etc. That way I know I don’t have to be worrying that I may have forgotten something. I free my mind.

The last fiddly bit is non-academic stuff: emails, game reports, sending scoresheets, etc. I know that advice does not apply to many people because they start with email and they finish with Facebook. But I don’t allow myself to jump from something non-academic to something just procrastinating for the hell of it, and also, my load of emails is really small. If I get rid of those early, I can focus on the important stuff next. This only applies to me because I am a Mongrel. Pedigrees, do not try this at home.

Every day, only with some exceptions, I start work (real life work, as in, a job) at 11am. Work is only 5 minutes from the office, so really, I have from 9 until 1050 to do everything I need to do. Everything needs to fit within that time frame. I finish work at 7pm. There is no way I have the energy to keep going at that time, and my partner would not let me clock any overtime in the office. At 7pm all I want is the couch, cuddles, dinner and playing with the hamsters – that is, if I have not fallen asleep at work. I do not work in the house, I only work in the office. All my documents and my log notebook are in the office. I used to carry the notebook everywhere. Then I realised that the hope of working elsewhere but the office was just me being in denial about the impossibitily of working elsewhere. I got rid of the desk in the house and we bought a table just for dinner. I took all my PhD books and folders to the office. The only thing that connects me with my research at all times is my Samsung tablet and a very old pen drive in which I back up everything. After having backed it up in every cloud system under the sun, of course.Also, I never work on weekends. One day I need it to be off. Saturday normally is my refereeing day, so I spend it wandering around Scotland with basketball officiating commitments. So when I say I only have TWO HOURS to work on my PhD every day, I mean those TWO HOURS every day are the one and only frame I got.

Now, it can seem like such a short time. But if you think of it, two hours is roughly four pomodoros, and accounts to about 10 hours of productivity a week. When I sit at my office, I know work is going to happen. It has to, because I have no option. If I have 500 words in my brain by 1045, I am majorly screwed, because I will never retrieve them. Once the clock ticks 1050, that’s it. So I really need to speed up to make sure that any words that are still in my head, have to find their way into paper, otherwise, they are gone. If, as a Pedigree, you set yourself a time, and a pressing task that cannot be ignored at that time (it could be anything, from teaching to meeting someone, etc), and you know you have to be out of your office or work environment by a certain time, then I assure you YOU WILL WORK. There’s no way around it. Or else do you want to lose 500 words every day? That is definitely not a pleasant feeling! Do it or die, sort of.

How I structure the small two hour unit is a completely different matter: most days I write for an hour, and do other business in the other hour. Most of the time, I have a pre-set schedule – that month, I want to achieve so and so, so I break down the tasks in time units that will make me effectively reach the aim by the end of those 10 hours a week. Believe me, I have tried to read at lunch time. I have tried to write late at night. It does not work for me. So why waste my time when I know I am not going to be productive. As The Thesis Whisperer once said, just because Mr Botton is paying a visit to Chair Town, that does not mean you are actually working. So get your ass off that chair as soon as you stop working on it, and only go back when you know you’re gonna work. Otherwise, the procrastination cycle begins.

Was that helpful at all? Now get over yourself and go manage your time. Pat pat.

Ps. I do think about my degree whilst I make coffee. I mean, I have been making coffee for a fair bit, so it’s really not a challenge anymore and my mind does wander. If I find myself with a brilliant idea after a vanilla latte, I write it down or record it on Evernote. But the rest of the day is spent trying to serve good coffee and giving random, hilarious chat to customers.