Time management and organization are the two skills that I found to be the most important when I did my undergraduate thesis, and the same is proving true for my postgraduate. Having some good tools really aids in developing these skills. In this post, I’m going to talk about the tools I’ve been using for time management and how I’m using them. Next week, I’ll talk about my tools for organization. In the third and final week of this mini-series, I’ll talk about “other” tools I use to keep me on track and to keep my work-life balance intact.
Time Management Tools
I have an issue where I get sucked into “fake-productive” tasks. What I mean by that is, on a PhD workday I suddenly realise that I need to wash some clothes, or clean the kitchen, or plan a session for the next tutorial I’m running. All of that stuff, whilst important to my personal and work lives, should not be done during my scheduled PhD time. It’s productive work that does nothing at all productive for the actual task that was supposed to be at hand. Time management is therefore super important to make sure my PhD time is PhD time, work time is work time, and the rest of the time is whatever I want it to be.
Tool 1: Planners
I talked about this in my post last week, but I’ll mention it again quickly here. I have four “levels” of planner: daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly. They get less and less precise as they increase in length of time, but they provide a good overview of what needs to be done when. I probably use my weekly planner most, as it gives me an idea of what needs to be achieved overall in the space of a week (which for me is 5 working days of 9-5, and a little extra time on Saturday to make up for time lost due to working in my paid jobs for a few hours during the week).
Tool 2: The Pomodoro Technique
Many of you will have already heard of this technique, because it’s pretty well known. The classic structure of it is that you work for 25 minutes, then take a five minute break. Repeat this three more times, and then you get to take a longer break (15-30 minutes). I follow the traditional structure for most tasks. I do take a longer long break for lunch (around an hour) so that I have plenty of time to eat, get some housework done, and get back to it.
I sometimes modify the structure slightly, by making my work blocks and break blocks longer. I do this mostly for writing, because I find writing for 25 minutes hard. It’s difficult for me to get in the writing zone quickly and once I’m there it’s best to stay in it for a while before breaking back out. So I often do 50 minutes of work with a 10 minute break (a double pomodoro if you will) instead of the classic 25-5 for writing.
There are many apps, websites, and so forth for the Pomodoro technique, or you could just use your phone timer. The tool I primarily use is Marinara Timer, which offers both traditional Pomodoro structure and the option to customise your own timer. I’ve also recently found an app called Tide that’s available for both iOS and Android that allows you to set up your Pomodoro length and break lengths. You can also choose some “white noise” background music, or you can turn the sound off. I haven’t been using it for long, but I’m enjoying it so far!
Also, I keep track of my pomodori in an Excel spreadsheet so I can track how many I get through a week. I consider anything 12+ a day to be a good day, and anything below 8 to be awful. But it will depend on your work environment as to what good and bad look like for you!
Tool 3: Forest
Forest is a gorgeous little free app for both Android and Apple that can help you stay focused. The way it works is simple: you pick a type of tree, and you select how long you want to let it grow for. If you use your phone before the time is up, your tree dies, and you’re left with a haunting image of a dead tree in your garden. If you stay off your phone for the time period you selected, then you’ll get a cute little tree in your garden and some reward “coins”. Save up enough coins and you can buy other tree types – my favourite is the pretty cherry blossom.
And don’t fear! If there are apps that you absolutely have to use (for example, you’re keeping a to-do list on your phone) then you can whitelist it so that using that particular app won’t kill your little tree.
Because you can set the tree to grow for as little or as long as you like, it works well with the Pomodoro technique. You can set a 25 minute tree before your next Pomodoro block, and then let it grow until your break – preventing you from using your phone without the eternal guilt of a sad, dead little tree.
Forest is also available on Chrome’s extension store, but I haven’t tried it for web yet. I am considering giving it a go though, so if any of you have tried it please let me know whether you loved or hated it!
Tool 4: Have Back-up Plans
Sometimes I find that I just cannot focus on a particular task. For example, last week I had really sore eyes from, well, doing my PhD in front of a computer all day. I found that I was really struggling to read literature articles, even though I had planned to do just that during that time of the day. But I looked at my weekly planner and found that I had other tasks down for the week – working on my introduction, laying out my first journal article, and a few “admin” type tasks. So I swapped my time around and worked on stuff that my eyes and my brain could manage, and then the next day I went back to the literature with happy eyes and a much more focused mind.
It’s not really a “tool” I suppose, but more of a tip. If you’re just not getting anywhere with a particular topic, it’s not really worth doing it! You’re better off doing something else within your assigned workload that is useful, as long as it’s still work-related (no “fake-productivity”!!)
Tool 5: Set a STOP Time.
Again, more of a “tip” than a “tool”, but I think it’s important. Set hours that you’re going to work for. And try your very best to stick to the “stop” time. Getting free time, time that is for you to do things that you enjoy, is really, super, very, extremely important. You’re going to go nuts in any kind of study, research, or work if you don’t make sure you have time to stop and recharge your batteries.
Of course, there will be times where you need to work late because you got pulled away in the middle of the day. Or, like me, you might have to shuffle time around and study a bit extra on the weekend because of commitments that started taking up “PhD time” during the week. But make sure that in general you manage to stop, sit back, and unwind with something that you love. It’s important to relax and find things that make you happy, especially if you’re going to survive your degree (or job, or whatever else it might be).
So those are my tools of the trade for now. Maybe they won’t all work for you, but I think that if you give them a go, most of them will. There are also plenty of time-managing productivity apps, websites, and other tools that I haven’t mentioned here – so go exploring and find stuff that will help you be your best! And hey, please let me know if you’ve got something that works really well for you – I love trying new techniques to help me stay on track and productive.
I’ll see you next week for the second part of my series!