Are you like Hanna, one of our course participants, who asked herself how she could structure her PhD work days? Are you looking for any proven strategies how and when to plan your days? In this blogpost, we show you 6 steps for planning a great workday – spare time included. Deciding how you spend your day has a huge influence on your overall well-being and performance.
In our courses for PhD candidates and ECRs, we ask participants to come up with suggestions for blog posts about topics that are bothering them, and for which they would like input from us. The suggestion for this week’s blogpost comes from Hanna, a PhD candidate, who sent us the following note:
Dear Bärbel and Gunther,
Thanks for your support. It is reassuring to know that there are actually people who care about our lives as doctoral candidates.
One question I come across every single day is: How to structure my day? And when should I do it? Are there any commonly used strategies, how to shape or divide a researcher’s working day into sensible parts? And to be honest I would love to find a way that REDUCES the number of decisions per day, because I’m convinced those are the most time and brain-capacity consuming parts in a scientist’s life.
Any advice would be much appreciated and I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only one who’s desperately looking for a good way of self and work management.
So, this is what I’ll help you with in this blog post: I will give you a brief guideline on how to structure your work day so that you can use your brain-capacity on your research. I’ll describe how you can plan your day in 6 steps, and in order to make application even easier, I’ve thrown in a free worksheet ‘My PhD workday’ – which you can fill-in in 5 min. every morning and plan your day!
There are many ways you can plan a day, and in our online programme PhD Success Lab, I teach participants a sophisticated system which is embedded in a long-term plan for their PhD project. If you are curious to hear more about how to influence your PhD Success, join us for our next free live webinar ‘The 4 secrets to a successful PhD’.
The most important thing is THAT you plan, and HOW you do it comes second. Using the guidelines in this blogpost can be a perfect start, and you’ll quickly find out what works best for you ,and can then fine-tune your technique.
Why plan your day?
1. You reflect on your work-habits
Planning your day means that you are reflecting on your work habits and realizing how to improve. That is a huge plus in itself already. It is the opposite of arriving at the institute in the morning, starting your ‘auto-pilot,’ and just going with the flow. If you plan your day, you are intentional about how you want to spend that day. Once it has passed, you can reflect on how it went, and improve your system and work-habits over time.
I have planned my days since I was a PhD candidate and it has helped me not only to complete my PhD on time, but to move forward in an enjoyable and focused way throughout my career. To this day, I plan every single working day and even my weekends so I can make the most of these as well.
2. Better focus on your goals
If you plan your workday, you have to make a decision about what to work on and what not to work on. That thought process includes reflecting on your strategic goals and what you want to achieve (e.g. PhD completion). What you work on during the day should align with your strategic goals. Pick tasks that will help you achieve your goals. That is why planning your day should be embedded in smart goal-setting for your PhD.
3. You decide what is most important
Important is what moves the needle! Important tasks are always those which help you achieve your goal. Planning your workday forces you to make a decision every single day on how you are going to move forward in your PhD. Doing this systematically every day accelerates your process and targets your efforts.
4. You’ll have a better life!
That goes for work and your private life! Planning your day helps you to be more efficient during your working hours so you can enjoy yourself afterwards. People who plan their days feel more in control and achieve more. That results in less stress, less anxiety, and more joy!
Planning your day also means planning your activities before and after work, as well as ‘planning’ for enjoyable weekends and holidays, so that you achieve greater happiness overall. As the research by Achor (2012, 2014) shows, happiness precedes success. People who have a more balanced life achieve more and perform better.
Since there are so many PhD candidates who struggle with mental health issues, planning your day and focussing on a more balanced life is an important stress prevention strategy.
When to plan your day?
There are two options: The evening before, and in the morning right before you start working. I prefer the latter, and I am convinced it works better. Still, some people swear by doing it the evening before. I think spending the first 5-10 minutes deciding what you’re going to do is a great way to start your day. Your mind is clearer in the morning, and your energy level is higher, which also helps with making confident decisions regarding your daily tasks and duties.
6 steps to planning your work day
Step 1: Decide when your day will end
Yes, the first thing to decide is when you’re going to stop working. That gives you the information on how many hours you have available to work, and how much time you’ll have available in the evening to do something else.
Step 2: Plan your breaks
Plan for one good lunch break of about 1h, as well as 2-3 shorter breaks throughout the day. Think about how you are going to spend your breaks so that they are energising and enjoyable. It is amazing what you can fit into a 15 min. break, not to mention during a 1h lunch break – apart from eating, of course. You can easily fit in a short, brisk bicycle ride, an enjoyable talk to a friend, reading a chapter in a book, or some motivating socialising with colleagues you like.
Step 3: Plan your after hours
What are you up to after work? Sure for all of us, there are a few chore around the house, but really think about what you would LIKE to do in the evening. As PhD candidate Agata says on the University of Nottingham’s blog ‘Student Life’: “There is no better booster of your time management than having plans after work.”
Browse your mental list of activities that you love doing and make a decision. Anything goes – as long as you look forward to it! Balance sports activities with socialising and other things over the week! Best to write it down.
Step 4: Pick your tasks
In this step you decide WHAT you are going to work on during the day. That requires some level of awareness as to what projects you are currently working on, and what the key outputs for your PhD are. This is something I teach my participants to recognize during the PhD Success Lab, so they have absolute clarity on their key outputs.
There are many ways to pick tasks for the day. I suggest you keep a strict focus on those that are most important for you in order to achieve your goals. Select the 3 to 5 most important tasks that will help you to complete your PhD. What among all your tasks are the 3 to 5 that will help most to move your PhD ahead? Asking yourself that question every morning is a game changer, as it will not only help you to focus, but avoid postponing important stuff day after day.
Step 5: Estimate duration
For the tasks that you picked, quickly decide how much time you want to spend on each one. Most activities you work on as a PhD candidate are real biggies – like analysing data, writing a research paper, coding, or designing an experiment. In theory, you could do one after the other, but practically, that doesn’t work for any of us. So you’ll always have to perform multiple tasks during a day to move ahead. It is really smart to decide how long you are going to work on each task (I mostly work in 1-2h slots). That helps you to process a couple of tasks every day, one after the other. It is also a great way to avoid procrastination or getting stuck.
Step 6: Schedule your tasks
Now that you know WHAT you are working on (step 4), decide WHEN to do what. If you have the entire day at your disposal, go as you like. If you have lab duties in the morning, schedule your afternoon. If you have to teach in the afternoon, schedule the time before and afterwards.
One strategy that works best for most scientists I have worked with is the following: Start with the most important, most difficult, or most challenging task in the morning. Then work your way down to the less important ones. Your confidence and energy is always higher in the morning, and knowing that you have completed the most tricky stuff early on is super motivating.
Apart from that, batching together smaller tasks, e.g. e-mail correspondence, is a good strategy. That way, you don’t spend 5 min answering one e-mail here, and 10 min answering another there, but instead you reserve 30 min. e.g. after lunch to work through all your e-mails. For a nice example of using batching, see also Ciara Feely on How I Plan My Day as a PhD Student.
Planning your days influences your PhD progress
Planning your day can make a huge difference to how you work on your PhD, and your overall performance. By planning your day, you become much more conscious of what your important activities are, and you’ll also be much more intentional with how you invest your time. If you set your agenda in the morning, you are also less likely to say ‘yes’ to irrelevant side-activities or distractions that come your way. Try it out – you’ll be amazed!
If you want to hear more about how to complete your PhD in a smoother and less stressful way, join our free live webinar ‘The 4 secrets to a successful PhD’.
- Free worksheet “My PhD workday”
- SMART ACADEMICS blog post #2: So you want to finish your PhD on time?
- SMART ACADEMICS blog post #47: Plan your project – save your PhD! free QUICK GUIDE ‘Planning your PhD project’
- Ciara Feely: How I plan my day as a PhD student
- University of Nottingham’s blog ‘Student Life’: 6 time management tips for PhD students.
- Achor, S. 2012: Positive Intelligence. Harvard Business Review 90(1-2):100-2, 153.
- Achor, S. 2014. Positive Intelligence. Change your relationship with stress. In: HBR-Guide to managing stress at work. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 139-146.
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