PhD candidate on laptop

#113: Identify your top PhD priority to boost your progress

If we asked what your top priority is in your PhD, what would you say? Do you have one priority? Or, for that matter, do you know what is important? Can you single out what really matters from the overwhelming amount of things you could or should do? If you’re unsure about any of these questions, this blogpost is for you. We’ll help you reflect on what is important, and drill down on your number one priority – free worksheet “Identifying my top PhD priority” included. Focusing on your one-thing will boost your progress and what you can achieve scientifically.

A PhD is an exciting endeavour. There is so much to discover in your scientific field, so much going on in the work group or department, so many things to learn and absorb. And because of that, it’s very tempting to let yourself get sucked into the whirlwind of activities around you and just go with the flow. And sooner or later you end up sitting there with a heap of tasks and responsibilities and you’ll try to do them all.

What PhD candidates often tell us they value most in a PhD is the freedom. Not being told what to do and what to work on, but to have the opportunity to decide, to choose, to explore what interests them most. Being the master of your own time is a fantastic feeling. 

But with that freedom comes responsibility: You’ve got to make sure you finish what you’re supposed to and  what you want to do in your PhD project. You’re responsible for spending your time wisely so you can achieve your goals, and that is not always easy. There might be tension between your perceived freedom, your wish to just go with the flow, your desire to explore everything, and the necessity to focus on work that will ultimately help you get a PhD. 

Does everything seem important to you?

In our courses with PhD candidates, we regularly ask them to write down all the tasks they had to or wanted to do for their PhD and then identify their priorities and mark these from ‘1 = not important’ to ‘3 = important’. Most jot down a long list of all the tasks that are on their mind and which need to be done, but then they often struggle to identify what from that list actually matters. We’ve been told many times: “I can’t decide” or “I’ve marked nearly everything with a ‘3’ – all my tasks seem important.”

Below, we want to share 3 insights which can help you increase focus in your PhD and determine what matters most. Shifting that mindset can transform your PhD experience. You will go from being a PhD student working on everything with few results to one with a very clear focus making major progress. With our free worksheet “Identifying my top PhD priority”, you can apply the principles right to your own situation and drill down on those tasks that truly matter. 

Insight no. 1: Not everything is equally important

You’ve probably heard about the Pareto principle. Pareto, an Italian economist, observed that often there is an imbalance between input and output, or cause and effect. With 20% of our input or effort, we achieve 80% of our output while 80% of our input results in only 20% of our output. The principle has been validated for various areas, e.g. wealth distribution, taxation, business studies, etc. (See Wikipedia for a short overview.) Pareto realised that in the processes he observed, there was a dominant ratio between input and output so that a disproportionately small cause resulted in a large effect. Applied to your time investment versus actual achievement or effect of that investment, the ratio may vary–it can just as well be 40% to 60% or 10% to 90%. 

The significance of the Pareto principle is not that it has to be exactly 20% to 80%, but in the realisation that not everything is equally important. In other words: There are activities, tasks or actions you’ll take in your PhD that matter more than others. In fact, they matter much more than others. Focusing on these tasks can give you immense value relative to the input you invest. Realising that not everything in your PhD is equally important is a significant first insight. 

Insight no. 2: A few things are more important than others

So if you have a long list of things to do for your PhD, of course there are a few that matter more than others. There are activities that will result in a bigger benefit, achievement or progress with your PhD in comparison to other things on your list which upon closer examination, will have a marginal effect. If you reflect on and identify what really matters in your PhD, you can move from spreading yourself thinly across a multitude of activities to zooming in on a handful of activities that actually move your PhD forward and increase it’s quality. 

Being involved in a multitude of random activities often results in feeling overwhelmed and stressed. You’re losing orientation and you don’t know where to put your attention. You may put in a lot of hours without making significant progress. But if you clear up what is important, you can start to focus and hone in on the most important activities. 

From the number of experiments you can do, a few will be much more important than others and yield the results that will be decisive for your PhD –and probably your career later on. Among the cooperations you have with other scientists, a few will add much more value or give you a much better learning experience. From the courses you’ll take in graduate school, a handful will be of immense value. For all the conferences and scientific meetings you can attend, some will be a fantastic return of your time investment, others not. 

Knowing what is important in your PhD and spending your time primarily on achieving these tasks is a huge mindset shift and a major step ahead. Working on what matters (in comparison to working on everything that comes your way) will help you move ahead and increase your satisfaction because you can feel yourself moving in the right direction. 

If you want to figure out what is important to your PhD, download our free worksheet: “Identifying my top PhD priority”.

Insight no. 3: There’s one thing that is the most important 

What is your top PhD priority? Yes, we mean it, just a single one. Do you know what the top priority in your PhD is? 

Asking yourself this question brings your attention to a whole different level. Instead of focusing on a couple of important tasks (which, albeit, is already pretty good), you can now drill down to focus on a single thing that will help you achieve the most progress or the biggest breakthrough. 

Surely you are thinking: ‘But there’s a ton of things I have to do for my PhD! There’s never just a single thing I can work on.’ Right, but let us explain where the concept of the ‘one-thing’ comes from and how it can help you intentionally direct your focus to another level, and hence help you gain speed on your PhD process, solve big problems, move away roadblocks and in general, just help you be much smarter with your choices and time investments. 

The one-thing concept comes from Gary Keller, who developed the one-thing question:

“What’s the one thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” Keller and Papasan (2013, p. 106). 

It’s often the case that focusing on one single thing as your top priority will make a lot of other things easier, or even redundant. Asking yourself what your top PhD priority is can help you to single out the one activity that will have the biggest impact for you right now. Extraordinary achievements in your PhD do not happen incidentally–they come from the choices you make and the decisions you take. The one-thing question forces you to always think about what is most essential to your success and to take the necessary action to get there (Keller and Papasan 2013). 

How to apply the one-thing principle

You can apply the one-thing question in many different situations and to various time scales. 

a) Long-term strategy

Asking the one-thing question is an awesome way to figure out what counts most in your PhD in the long run. Apply it to ask yourself what will strategically be the biggest win for your research. What will help you to stop agonising over the 10 potential research questions or experiments you could or should undertake, and how can you possibly squeeze these into the scarce time you have available? Instead, single out the one that will yield the most astonishing or novel results and then, once you start homing in on that, you can move further from that point and start applying the one-thing question again. But by then you will already be on another level with your achievements. 

b) Short term – when you plan your day or week

Apply the one-thing question in the morning when you start working. You may have a long list of stuff you could do that day, but working on your long list may leave you with a lot of secondary tasks completed and no important tasks even begun. But if you drill down to the one task or activity that will count most, start your day working on that, and put most of your hours and energy into working on it, you will realise that your day unfolds in a different way. Not only have you made the best start to the day in the morning, but you will have made more progress and achieved more in the first two hours than you would normally in the entire day (coming back to the 80% to 20% rule once more). And you can apply the same principle to your weekly planning as well. 

More details on how to plan your day and the benefits of focusing on your most important thing first in our SMART ACADEMICS blog post no. 85: Planning your PhD workday.   

c) When you are stuck or experiencing problems

Let’s say you need three publications for your dissertation but you’re having trouble writing. You are unhappy with what you’ve written (if you get anything down at all), it takes a huge amount of time to churn out just a few lines, and you are afraid your results are not good enough and your paper will never pass a peer-review process. Your writing problems overshadow everything else you do in your PhD, and your low confidence spills over into other areas as well. 

What’s your one thing? In this situation, your one-thing is to improve your writing skills and publish your first paper. When you knock that one over, literally everything else will be easier. So the best strategy for you is to focus on improving your writing skills! Take a great publishing course, join an online writing community, get help by reading some of our articles about publishing on the SMART ACADEMICS blog, like post no. 79: 5 decisions that make writing your paper so much easier, get together with experienced authors, and work on how to overcome your anxieties. This will skyrocket your progress within a few weeks and help you get that first paper published as quickly as possible. It’ll make everything else easier. . .

Or, another example: let’s say you are overworked and stressed out about your PhD right now. You’ve regularly worked in the evenings and weekends, but your experiments are still not progressing as you wanted, and you’re exhausted and demotivated. This affects your ability to work at all during the day and your overall productivity declines (here you see the Pareto-principle at work again: huge input, little outcome).

In this situation, your one big focus is to work on your health and well-being. More specifically, you focus on re-establishing a private life, getting more rest, and drawing clear boundaries for when you’ll work on your PhD and when you won’t. The one-thing might be to take a week off right away then to decide on your working-hours so you will stop working in the evenings and weekends, and then to start having a few fun activities and seeing other people outside work. This will help you arrive at work with a fresh mind in the mornings and enable you to focus on your research. It’ll make everything else easier.

What is your personal top-priority?

Maybe you’ve started thinking about your own situation while reading this. You have an inkling that you’re not quite as focused as you could be. That’s good! Because with that insight, you’ve already taken the first step forward! If you’ve discovered that there’s room for improvement, you are ready to work on your PhD and take your efficiency to another level. 

Download our free worksheet “Identifying my top PhD priority.” It’ll help you single out the one thing you must focus on to bring about the biggest breakthrough in your personal situation. 

As Keller & Papasan (2013, p. 55) say: “Success is about doing the right thing, not doing everything right.” 

Join our free webinar for PhD candidates to hear more about how to work with efficiency and success on your PhD .



  • Keller, G. Papasan, J. 2013. The one thing. The surprisingly simple truth behind extraordinary results. London, John Murray Publishers. 

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