messy desk with sticky notes

#72: 1000 things to do – no clue where to start

Do you feel overwhelmed by the amount of tasks waiting for you? No idea what to turn to first? We’ll help you gain clarity over your endless list of PhD tasks, and decide what is most important to focus on. Let us help you regain orientation and gain a sense of control.

A PhD candidate recently approached me with the following: “I have 1000 things to do, my stack of unfinished work is growing bigger by the day, and I have no clue where to start – do you have any hints what I could do?” 

This is an all-too familiar situation for PhD students: The amount of tasks you should be working on and processing is growing, and although you work hard, you don’t feel like you are accomplishing enough or getting the most important stuff done in order to actually make progress on your PhD project. But it is not just that you have a lot to do–there’s also a growing feeling of losing orientation and control. A feeling of merely running behind on everything. 

With this blogpost, we want to show you why feeling overwhelmed and lost is common among PhD students, and when it typically occurs. We discuss the reasons behind this commonality, and show you another way of working with your PhD – one that is more joyous and less stressful. And we give you five very concrete tips on how to regain control of your PhD tasks again with our free worksheet Instant help to gain clarity over your PhD tasks. 

If you want to hear more about how to work with your PhD in a more efficient and less stressful way, sign up to our next free webinar for PhD candidates. 

What’s the problem?

Increased workload

As you progress with your PhD, the workload normally increases. I often speak to PhD students who are in their very first weeks, right at the start, and believe me, they often feel like they have all the time in the world, and sometimes don’t even know how to fill their workweek meaningfully. This, of course, quickly disappears as you actually dive into your PhD work. Ironically, the more you get into your PhD, the more work pops up. But if you have a closer look at it, this is pretty logical. 

One reason is that you work on a complex research project which involves many tasks. And let’s be honest, you may not have thought through everything when you started, so now when you work on it you discover more and more practical tasks you have to perform in order to make progress. 

A second reason is that you are collaborating with others around you. Supervisors, group leaders, post-docs, and external project partners approach you with requests, suggestions, and questions, and although you’re probably really excited about all these opportunities, each action also increases your workload. The same goes for the educational part of your PhD or graduate school programme. Coursework, conferences, summer-schools etc. require your attention and add to your workload as well. 

No system in place to tackle incoming tasks

Not only does your workload increase, but there’s another thing that causes you difficulties: You have no system in place to tackle the constant influx of tasks. No one has ever taught you how to deal with such a multitude of tasks and a workload that is higher than the Empire State. You lack a system to organise and process your tasks. 

Not knowing how to distinguish important from not-important tasks

More specifically, you don’t know how to filter tasks and requests that are popping up, and how to decide what is important and what is not important. This is related to the point above. If you have a workload that is higher than what you can manage – and most of us experience that sooner or later in our academic careers – there is only one way forward. Instead of trying to do it all – which is impossible and the very reason for your frustrations – you have to start selecting and prioritising. If you can’t do it all you’ve got to start making a decision on what to do and what not to do. You’ve got to make sure to get the important stuff done and cut down on the trivial jobs which cost time but provide little benefit. 

Not enough clarity about your long-term PhD goals

From working with several thousand PhD students over the years, I know that many struggle to figure out what is important and what is not important. If that is the case for you, it might be the reason for your disorientation. I will let you know why:

You can only decide what is important if you know where you are heading, and if you know exactly what the goals of your PhD project are. The clearer the goals of your PhD project are, the easier it gets to decide what you have to do in order to get there. But if your goal is unclear, you become lost! In these situations PhD students typically try to ‘do-it-all,’ running around in a frenzy without direction or targeted effort. If you don’t know where you’re heading, you can’t decide what is important to work on, hence your feeling of disorientation. 

What happens if you work this way on your PhD?

If you suffer from one or all of the systemic difficulties I outlined above, your PhD work can’t run smoothly. As a consequence:

You lose time

You don’t know what task or job to tackle next, or you feel unable to decide what to do. This causes you to get stuck and lose valuable time. Or, because you don’t know what is important and what is not, you work on everything – unimportant stuff included – and that takes extra time. 

You feel insecure

Maybe you always feel uncertain about whether what you do is meaningful or not when you work on your PhD. You’re doubting your own abilities, and you don’t know if you’re working on a trivial task or on one that will be part of your dissertation in the end. This insecurity over time erodes your confidence. 

You go in circles

Because of the lack of a very clear goal for your PhD, you can’t focus straight on your most important work and progress towards completion. Instead, you are meandering like a river that can’t find the straight way to the ocean. Students who work this way often take longer to complete their project than planned. Their successful completion is more the outcome of a constant ‘trial-and-error’ approach than that of a targeted effort. 

Do you want to keep working on your PhD project this way?

What’s the option – another way to work on your PhD

The smarter way to work on your PhD project is to clarify your project goals, and set up a project plan for your remaining PhD time. I also suggest you get an overview on incoming tasks, and you strictly prioritise what is important for you in order to reduce your workload and keep your PhD afloat (and your mental health as well). 

In my new digital programme ‘PhD Success Lab,’ I work intensely with participants over a period of 12-weeks. They learn exactly how to refine their project goals with specificity. They learn how to break down their project goals into manageable chunks and how to schedule tasks for each month until PhD completion. 

I teach them how to distinguish important tasks (those that will help them finish) from less important ones (those that don’t). They keep a razor sharp focus on what to work on each week – Monday to Friday – so that they can complete on time. And although they have a lot to do, they know exactly where to start and what to work on every single day. This results in them feeling confident and being able to work without feeling lost and overwhelmed. 

If you want to hear more about how to move your PhD towards success, sign-up for our next free webinar for PhD candidates

How to get clarity over your PhD tasks?

If you want to make a head-start to gain clarity over your PhD tasks, I suggest you take the following 5 steps as outlined below. You’ll find all the details in our free worksheet ‘Instant help to gain clarity over your PhD tasks’. 

 1. Get an overview

Pick everything that is swirling around in your head and write it down. Really, write a long list of everything that comes to your mind. What have you recently thought you should be doing or have to do?

2. Group individual tasks together 

Run through your list and try to sort them into groups or clusters of tasks that belong together. These clusters are in fact sub-projects within the bigger framework of your PhD project. Give your sub-projects meaningful labels, so you can distinguish them. 

3. Look at your PhD project goals

Look at the project goals of your PhD project. See if these are still valid. If your goals feel a bit outdated, then work on and update these before you go further so they reflect what you are actually working on and aiming for. 

4. Prioritise

With your updated project goals in front of you, now have a look at the sub-projects you have identified. Ask yourself the following: How important are these sub-projects with regard to achieving your goals in the PhD project? Order your sub-projects according to their importance of achieving your PhD project goals. 

5. Decide what to work on

Now that you know what is important to you and have re-gained clarity on your project goals, you should be able to make a decision on what to work on. Try to spend the majority of your hours on your most important tasks. Make a plan for the upcoming weeks and days regarding which of your sub-projects you will work on at which points in time. 

Spending your work-days wisely so that you get the spare-time you deserve is another issue we work on during the PhD Success Lab. If you’d like to hear more – sign up for our free webinar ‘The 4 Secrets to a Successful PhD’.


As you can see, there are strategies that can help you further your PhD study if you feel overwhelmed by your tasks and don’t know which step to take next. It really helps to take a step back and get an overview, and then decide what is most meaningful for you to work on! 

We hope you enjoyed the tips in this blog post, and we hope we can help you successfully continue your PhD work!


Worksheet: Instant help to get clarity over your PhD tasks

Free webinar for PhD candidates

More information

Do you want to successfully complete your PhD? If so, please sign up to receive our free guides.

© 2020 Tress Academic