“Oh god, how am I supposed to plan 3-4 years of my life?”

That one thought was at least half of all my thoughts in the first week of my PhD, and it was a bit of a process, but I worked it out.

Initially, I spent lots and lots of time Googling variations of that question, with no real luck. A lot of resources are aimed at finishing your PhD. Not a lot are aimed at getting though those first 2-3 years. At that point I just started winging it.

Now, I’m the first to admit that I haven’t always been super organized. When I did my undergrad thesis, I wrote my entire proposal – lit review and all – in about a week and a half. I scored a HD, but I was exhausted for weeks after it. I was a lot better with the rest of my thesis, but still not perfect. So for a 3-4 year project, I know I need to get it together more than I ever have.

One thing that has always worked for me during exams is taking one day off, then spending that night planning what I’m going to do on each day for each subject leading up to the exam. That day-to-day structure and having a to-do list for each day was really good for my motivation. If I finished the to-do list, I’d take the rest of the day off. It’s a strategy I’d really recommend because it rewards hard work and gives you mini-goals to work on.

I decided to adapt that for my PhD. I estimated that (if I work hard) my first topic will take a year, my second about 6 months, and my third about 1.5 years.From there, the first thing I did was make a table that represented this year, and I typed a line or two about what I thought I could do in that month. This year view was just a messy throwing-down of ideas onto paper so that I had some rough idea of where I want to be when; I have no idea this will evolve as I spend less time on some things and more time on others.

The next thing I did was create a monthly template that I could use. I set up one section to house my goals for the months, one to write down important dates (both PhD and non-PhD), and one where I could write my achievements (it’s important to see you’re going forward!)


I also picked pretty colours. I like pretty colours. I then went on to create a weekly planner, where I could jot down a few points for each day, highlight my priorities for the week, and note down any tasks I needed to achieve.


And lastly (and perhaps most ambitiously), a day planner, where I divide my day into (roughly) what I should be doing at what times, what tasks I need to achieve, any chores I need to do, and anything else that might be of note in a day.

day planner.jpg

I then copy my daily tasks into my bullet journal, which I showed a few photos of in my last Thesis Thursday post. I find that having it down in a physical medium is more satisfying when I get to cross it off, but having it in a digital medium is a better way to plan, replan, shuffle things around, and break things down from 3 years to years to months to weeks to days.

It sounds kind of insane and I realise that, but honestly, give it a go. I’ve only been working on my PhD for 2 weeks now and I’ve already read an insane amount of literature (and taken notes along the way), I’ve written all of the “background” into my introduction, and I’ve taught myself how to format documents using LaTeX. Oh, and I’ve only been working 5 days a week, for 8 hours, with a 1 hour lunch break in the middle.

I’m not saying that I do or that I will stick to it perfectly 100% of the time, but I’ve become much more productive because of making plans. I allow them to change too, because if I’m deep in one topic of research I don’t want to suddenly drop it for another because that’s what was in my daily plan. Just be sensible and try to achieve the amount of work you wanted to.

If anyone would like my crazy-yet-totally-working template system, let me know in the comments and I’ll work out a way to share the files. Otherwise, next week I’ll be posting about the tools I’ve been using to keep my notes together and my time well-managed. See you then!