The PhD supply chain problem


It’s been a funny old start to the year hey?

As I write this, in mid January, the Omicron variant is raging here in Australia. Supply chain problems are resulting as key workers either get sick, or have to isolate. Every visit to the supermarket is an adventure – you don’t know what you are going to find. The other day I had no trouble with the fruit and vegetable department:

Of course, there was the obligatory toilet paper shortage (how would we even know if there was Covid around if there was no TP panic!?), but I was shit out of luck in the Meat and Oyster Sauce department:

Australian Twitter had very ‘bird in the classroom’ energy, with people screaming at the government, at each other, at tennis players about, well – everything. Let’s just say, it wasn’t a restful summer break. For the third year in a row. Sigh.

All this supply chain nonsense started me thinking about how life can appear stable on the surface, but if the work to maintain normality is not done (picking fruit, driving produce around, stacking supermarket shelves), a crisis can develop quickly. You might not even see the crisis coming because so much ‘maintaining normality’ work is invisible, unless you are the one doing it.

Just as a lot of ‘invisible work’ is needed to keep a supermarket functioning, so it is with the PhD. At the end of four or five years, we hope to see a document of around 80K words appear, but the work involved is virtually invisible to everyone except you. We don’t talk about this invisible work much – except for writing (there’s always a lot to say about that).

I remember going into my PhD office each day for the next couple of months and being a bit, well – lost. How was I actually meant to *do* this PhD? Was reading stuff enough? It took me ages to find a way to organise my day so that I felt like I was making progress. It wasn’t until I started my 1000 words a day process for writing the first draft that I started to get my shit together.

Most of my early PhD days I kind of noodled around, accidentally discovering most of the things I needed to know about data collection, analysis, writing. I gathered all the technical skills around analysis in a completely ad hoc way too, mostly teaching myself from books (YouTube wasn’t a huge thing back then). There were whole days where I didn’t know how to spend my time productively. I was doing ‘work’, but it didn’t feel very effective or efficient.

As a working academic, you don’t have time for noodling about, but it’s easy to carry on with some of those PhD habits. With that in mind, here is a workplan for someone just starting out on the PhD. A set of things you can do each day that will help move you towards that distant target of the 80K (ish) document.

I’ve laid my workplan out in a highly structured way based on my years of running bootcamps. My plan is structured this way because research shows that switching around between tasks leaves what is called an ‘attention residue’ that disturbs focus and impedes flow. My six part time table is designed to avoid this switching problem and give you enough brain rest so you are not exhausted at the end of the day.

I’m not suggesting you follow this plan exactly every day. Most people are working some kind of job to make ends meet. In the sciences you often have experimental schedules that are intense for short periods of time; people in the humanities can have data collecting schedules too. The daily workplan sketched out below is for when you have the luxury of a whole day at your desk and you want to be effective. The schedule is carefully contrived following the science that exists on brains and creativity, but hey – use this information in whatever way works for you.

1. Do the most difficult things first

Most people have what Hugh Kearns calls a ‘golden hour’ (or two) at the start of the day where you are at your most alert and perceptive. (After years of self observation, I know this is true for me). Therefore, you should tackle the most difficult task first. The most difficult task is usually the one you keep putting off doing… For me, this is untangling a spreadsheet or doing something number based – but your mileage may vary. It might be reading a really hard paper.

It helps to keep a weekly ‘punch list’ of things you want to get done. Arrange this list in order of difficulty so that you always have a list of ‘golden hour’ tasks to do. Sometimes the ideal golden hour task pops up when you don’t want to tackle it; so make a note and schedule it for another day. And I really do mean schedule – a stern note from past self in your diary instructing you to use these two hours for THAT task is remarkably effective.

Ideally just work on this difficult task until it’s complete, or get it to a stage where you can pause. I don’t recommend perservering beyond two hours. If you haven’t cracked it by then, hold it over until tomorrow. If you do nothing else on this daily list, try the golden hour idea for two weeks and see what happens.

2. Then take a short break.

Yep – after one or two hours of hard concentration you need a break, even if you are feeling all fired up after solving your most difficult problem. If you can, take a short walk as well as a beverage – but keep it short. It’s easy to lose focus all together if you let this break blend into lunch. Aim to be dialled back into the next task within 20 minutes.

3. Go and be creative for an hour or two.

The hour or two before lunch is some of your best thinking time for the day. Now is the time to read, if reading was not on your agenda for the golden hour. It’s also a good time to learn something new: your brain is warmed up and you have not used up all your decision making energy. You can afford to let your interests guide you in this section of the day.

The only advice I have for this section of the day is try to do only one thing at a time; flip flopping between tasks will create attention residue and erode your focus. Pick a paper and read it all the way through, set a writing goal and get going on it, or watch a video about a technique. Don’t worry too much if what you do in this time bracket seems a bit tangential to your PhD work. Being a PhD student, or an academic for that matter, is a creative pursuit. You need to feed the beast; stoking your brain with new input it can process is part of the work.

This is your intellectual carb loading moment, enjoy!

4. Connect with someone – or your body – at lunch time.

It’s easy to lose yourself in your PhD work and let your social life wither on the vine. Lunch provides the ideal time to re-connect. Connecting with people is refreshing for most of us, but do it in the way that suits you. I have a highly introverted son and his idea of connection is a text exchange on Discord, whereas I prefer a lunch out with a friend where I can laugh and gossip. Even reading the paper or scrolling Twitter counts as connection. You can also connect with your body by going for a long walk, swim or hit the gym.

The idea of the connected lunch is to physically lift yourself out of work concerns so your brain has some space to do its thing. Your brain is remarkable and will keep working on problems in a ‘low focus’ mode while you lunch. Technically, what you are trying to do in your connected lunch is trigger is a dopamine high, yet relaxed state where you are distracted which stimulates creativity. Connvivial conversation and exercise are both great ways to create this brain space. Learn to trust this ‘low focus’ mode and give it some space in your life.

5. Now do the boring, yet necessary work

You might find you’re refreshed enough to return to the problem from the morning – if so, great! Get back to it. Most of the time however, you will be digesting food and this can really affect your ability to concentrate. To make things worse, it’s highly likely you’ve used up most of your decision making energy for the day. Deciding what to do now will take more time than it should, which means it’s harder to settle into a task.

It’s vital to have something soothingly routine planned for this next couple of hours. Your punch list should have things like fixing up referencing in writing, organising files, or cleaning a data set. It could be a good time to look at your Life Admin list and sort out the kids’ dentist appointment or run an errand. You may find this task is sufficiently ‘low focus’ that ideas start to pop out. If so, follow them where they lead, even if it’s just making some notes. If you enjoy journalling, you can sometimes get excellent stuff out of your brain in these couple of hours.

It’s tempting – really tempting – to use this mid afternoon time to process email. Notice how I haven’t mentioned email yet? Ideally you should do email in one block of time during the day. If you do it now your focus is going to be completely scattered. Email is full of what some people call ‘unclosed loops’ – it triggers actions that can’t be completed straight away, like looking up a detail, asking another person a question, filling in a form or finding a specific file. You can end up in an endless yak shaving loop if you are not careful (do you ever finish shaving a Yak? No!).

6. Clean up and prepare for tomorrow.

Leave a block of time at the end of the day to review and get ready for tomorrow. I recommend at least an hour. This is the best time to do email. I’ve measured how much time I spend on email over the year using the Timing App and it averages out to about an hour and a half a day. You might have less.

In an ideal world, I would only open email in the last hour before I leave – of course, I am in a management role now where I have to be responsive to other people’s needs, so I can’t. But if you are not a manager (or managing a critical incident) you can – and and should – leave email to the end of the day, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, sometimes people work out their own problems and you can ignore some of the items if you let conversations play out without you. Secondly, email tends to trigger more email and by leaving it to last, you are reducing the time window in which this email can arrive to distract you.

Cal Newport recommends you have a ‘closing ritual’ for the day and I think it’s a good habit to cultivate. I use a bullet journal, so the last thing I do is review and migrate tasks to the next day, including setting up my golden hour task. But your closing ritual does not have to be task focussed; at least one person I know does a gratitude meditation. The trick is to do the same thing so it signals to your brain that work is now being shelved until tomorrow.

7. Do a ‘sandwich activity’

The absent minded professor stereotype didn’t come from nowhere! It’s hard to really turn off creative intellectual work. Most of us carry on with it, in some fashion, in our off hours. This can make us difficult to live with and vulnerable to burnout. It’s important, I think, to have some kind of ‘sandwich activity’ between your closing ritual and the rest of your evening. For me, this is often walking or biking home if I am in the office, or cooking if I am working at home. Planning an exercise class right after work is another strategy, or activities like walking the dog or playing with your kids. Whatever it is, it should be something you enjoy so that your brain gets distacted from work and focusses back on what is really important.

So that’s my plan – I stick to it most days (except for the email bit). I’ve gifted this schedule to thousands of students who have attended our bootcamps and many carry it on when bootcamp is over, reporting good results. If you want more on the background to the science, I talk about productivity hacks with my co-host @jasondowns in our monthly podcast On The Reg. You can listen and subscribe to On The Reg via your favourite player here.

If you liked this post, don’t forget to visit The Whisper Collective, a site we built to continuously curate all the best research education material on the web. Have a look on the Q&A page under the productivity tab for all posts relating to doing work effectively.