Advice on managing your time as a research student.

Kathy Barrett – Time Management

Dr Kathy Barrett is the PhD and Early Career Researcher Careers adviser at SOAS.

Part 1

Time Management with Dr Kathy Barrett Part 1

Download media as file

Some research students discuss problems they have with time management:

  1. When I read I feel I should be writing, when I write I should be reading. I am so confused about how to manage my time. I feel guilty when I take a break or do something for pleasure.
  2. I am not very disciplined. I spend lots of time reading things that are not directly related to my research. I spend time auditing other classes, which I find interesting. I check emails, waste time. There is never enough time. I find it hard to make good progress, another week passes and I think what have I done. I have problems focusing, I am easily distracted.

Dr Kathy Barrett outlines some common time management problems:

  • I keep my email open and keep checking it.
  • I cannot fit reading in there are always more urgent things that need doing.
  • Data collection is unpredictable.
  • I’m always doing my PhD, it is so tiring.
  • Research is like fishing, you don’t really know if what you are doing is going to be useful, if you are going to catch anything
  • I wish I had worked harder in my first year. I had so much time then. I don’t have enough now. Time becomes more constrained as you progress through your PhD. The final year is the busiest.
  • Perfectionism. Everything has to be perfect. You need to realise that everything cannot be perfect, good is usually enough. You have to learn to identify those things where good is enough and those where perfectionism is required. A PhD can never be the perfect, but it is only the beginning of your research/academic career.
  • Being distracted from the main line of enquiry. This can make it difficult for people to finish. You are sidetracked by side issues and can mean you struggle to put together a coherent narrative when writing up your thesis.

Part 2

Time Management with Dr Kathy Barrett Part 2

Download media as file

A research student talks about ways they manage their time:
I plan what I do for the day and for the week. I keep a diary. I outline what the main targets are for the week and for the day. It involves keeping track of things that I have to do for my research, things I have to do in my personal life and administrative tasks. Everyday, at night, before going to bed, I make a plan for the next day. I will also check that I managed to do the things I had set myself for the day just gone. These days however I am not managing to plan ahead. I am only writing what I have done not what I plan and need to do.

Dr Kathy Barrett suggests things you could do to help plan your time more effectively:

  • If you plan your time really effectively then you have much clearer goals and aims and it can help you with discipline.
  • Sometimes you get the feeling of getting nothing done, effective planning can help you get over this feeling.
  • Effective planning can help you to use your time more effectively and stop you wasting your time on only vaguely relevant activities.
  • It is always possible for a researcher to do more. How you fit more into your limited time? It is not that you fit more into the limited time you have, it is that what you get done is more important or more useful or you get things done more efficiently. It is a question of prioritising.
  • 20% of your results will come from 80% of your effort. You need to identify what those results are in order to focus your efforts.

Goal setting can help you to have a really good understanding of where you are going. Here Dr Kathy Barrett talks about the importance of goal setting:

Breaking you goal setting up into different stages, short term, medium term and long term can help you keep perspective and plan where you ultimately want to end up. You must always be aware however when setting your goals, especially long term goals, that however much you plan for the future, unexpected events can occur.

When planning in stages such as short, medium and long term, it is sensible to reassess your goals every so often to ascertain whether or not you still want the same thing in 20 years time as you had originally planned when setting out your goals.

Keep your goals positive. This can help your motivation. If you have a goal you need to know when you have achieved it. This requires precision in your goal setting, so that you know when you have achieved a goal and so that you can celebrate your achievement. Prioritising gives you a sense of order in planning your goals. Writing them down is important. Many people have their goals in their heads but those goals can be very fluid and flexible, if you write the goal down it is a lot more tangible and a lot more concrete.

When planning for your long term goals, you will have lots of little steps to take along the way. If you keep those steps small, it will make it a lot easier to reach the final long term goal.

Set performance goals rather than outcome goals as you have some control over performance goals.

Part 3

Time Management with Dr Kathy Barrett Part 3

Download media as file

Think about your goals, Dr Kathy Barrett offers some advice on how to identify and plan your goals:

  1. Smart objectives, these are criteria you apply to your goals. SMART –
    • Specific, make your goal clear.
    • Measurable, so you know when you’ve achieved your goal.
    • Achievable, make sure your goal is attainable.
    • Relevant, a goal that is relevant to you and your plans.
    • Time-framed, it is all very well setting yourself a goal, but your plans should not be open ended, by setting yourself a time by which to achieve your goal, you will motivate yourself and plan your time more constructively and you will achieve your goal.
  2. CIA – Control, Influence and Accept. Think about what you can control, what you cannot control but what you can influence and accept what you can neither control nor influence.

Dr Kathy Barrett talks about the importance of having your own time:
You are very important. There is the ‘you’ in terms of the professional life and then there is your personal life and it is important to keep them in balance and making sure you leave time for the personal as well as the professional.

When you are doing a PhD it is very easy to see nothing beyond the PhD and to work on it all the time and feel guilty when you do not work on it. This can make you exhausted. You must give yourself time to relax. Humans need downtime.

Sleep is very important. Masking sure you have uninterrupted sleep patterns is crucial to feeling energised.

Part 4

Time Management with Dr Kathy Barrett Part 4

Download media as file

The work life balance – you should not only consider your academic and career goals, the other things in your life are just as important, for example, family life, doing things outside of academia and fun activities/hobbies.

Ways to plan your time:

  • to do lists
  • planners
  • diaries
  • and prioritising.

There are various tools to use when planning your time and one crucial thing to account for is thinking time. So when you are not planning, things can start to slip and you can get distracted by other things such as email. We should not be too prescriptive as we can end up limiting our academic life, however, it is a balancing act.

Planners, diaries and to do lists can help to plan your time, in the near future and far in advance.

Now to do lists are obviously informed by your goals. If you factor in everything you want to do it is going to be hundreds of items long. So the key now is to prioritise the items on your to do list, so that you can fit everything in.

Think about it in terms of a matrix of things that are:

  • important
  • and not important

and things that are:

  • urgent
  • and not urgent.

So if something falls under important and urgent then you need to start on that right away. Make sure everything does not end up in the important and urgent section. This is where you have to be quite ruthless with your time and say no to people if they ask you do things that are not going to help you achieve the tasks you have put in the important and urgent section of your matrix. If you put everything under important and urgent you will be running around and you will burn out as you will find you cannot keep up such a pace. When you are a nice person you will often put other people’s needs first, you can help them, but make sure it does not result in you putting their needs before your own all the time, resulting in you getting nothing you need to do done.

Part 5

Time Management with Dr Kathy Barrett Part 5

Download media as file

Plan time for yourself and remember to sleep.

One of the things that often gets left off the ‘to do list’ is sleeping. Sleeping is very important. It is necessary. Some people are amazing and only need four hours sleep a night, but not everyone is like that.

Some things that can happen if you do not get enough sleep:

  • aching muscles
  • dizziness
  • nausea
  • in extreme cases hallucinations
  • hand tremors
  • rapid involuntary eye movement
  • obesity
  • temper tantrums and irritability
  • memory lapses/loss
  • and slow word recall.

Sleep should be something that is always put in your important and urgent box.

It can help your work to take a break, take a walk for example in the fresh air to help you refocus and recharge.

Problems with over-estimating your time – where does the time go? You have a plan and then you cannot get everything done. We all overestimate the amount of time we have. There is always a chunk of time for which you cannot account at the end of every week/month. One of the crucial ways of dealing with this problem is having a really clear idea of how much time things take and be aware that things always take longer than you anticipate. Things may take longer because you are interrupted, you have to do something else urgently, or that you do not know how long something is going to take you because you have not done it before and you do not know how long it should take you.

To work out how long something might take that you have not done before, work out how long you think it will take you and then double that. This should, hopefully, leave you with enough time.

Be careful that you do not think just because you have given yourself double the time that you can relax and take it easy, you must keep on track. Keep your focus.

If you are new to a particular task it is often a good idea to ask someone how long such a task takes them.

One of the ways of dealing with time projections is to produce what is called a gantt chart. On this chart you break down the stages of a particular project, look at when they need to be completed by and think about how long they are going to take. Then plan your time/project accordingly.

Part 6

Time Management with Dr Kathy Barrett Part 6

Download media as file

Why we procrastinate?

  • The task is unpleasant.
  • The goals are unclear, so you are not really sure what you are aiming and where you are going.
  • If the task is overwhelming you can be scared about tackling a huge task and do not know how and where you are going to start.
  • Saying yes too often results in having so many things to do that again you do not know which task to undertake first or you have given yourself tasks you really do not want to do.
  • You can also take on tasks that you do not really need to do but you do them instead of something that you do not want to do, using tasks as an avoidance/displacement tactic.
  • An addiction to the last minute rush as the pressure to get things done helps to focus your mind. What can happen with working this way though is that the end result is not as good as it would have been had your planned your time better and had more time to do it. In the long term this is not a productive use of your time as you might have to do it again.
  • Fear of failure or success. Fear of failure is in a way obvious, you are worried that you won’t be able to do something well so you put it off and hope no one will notice. However, sometimes people are frightened to succeed. If you succeed in something then people will ask you to do it again. Or they will ask you to do a bigger task.
  • Perfectionism. We all like to be perfect in everything we do, however, you need to think about whether you need something to be perfect and can it ever be perfect? Have you got the time to make it perfect?

How to tackle procrastination:

  • An unpleasant task can be tackled by getting it done. Getting it out of the way means you do not waste time thinking about it.
  • An unpleasant task can also be tackled by drawing up a list of pros and cons, which enables you to be more objective about a task.
  • You can schedule an unpleasant task early in the day. If you do this, you can get it over and done with early. But also think about what times of the day you are most productive.
  • If you think about when you are most productive, then you can think about fitting in all the urgent, important and unpleasant tasks into that time.
  • Think about the consequences of getting the task done, for example the relief you will feel when it is out of the way.
  • You can delegate the unpleasant task to someone else. This might not be possible for PhD students, however, it might relate to your personal life. It might be that some people enjoy doing things that you hate.
  • Get help if you are not clear on what you are trying to achieve.
  • Think about who you are doing something for.
  • If the task is overwhelming, breaking it down into smaller parts can help make the task seem more manageable and you can congratulate yourself when you complete each component part of the grand task. Think about drawing up a gantt chart.
  • Sometimes just getting on with it can help. But sometimes you need to talk to someone else about what the task involves.
  • Organising your time can help you to deal with difficult tasks as you do not have to worry about other smaller and less important tasks.
  • Saying no to things.
  • Remember that 80% of your actions contribute to 20% of your outcomes.
  • Be aware that you procrastinate!