Work Your Career: How Can I Be Productive?
As summer winds down, are you prepared to tackle the term? Work Your Career authors Loleen Berdahl and Jonathan Malloy share an excerpt from their helpful guide, offering practical advice on how you can get (and stay) organized.
Excerpt taken from Work Your Career, by Loleen Berdahl and Jonathan Malloy.
Professionalism means doing what you say you will do and by when you say you will do it. You cement your professional reputation by getting things done—and done well, on or ahead of schedule. This requires the ability to manage time, resources, and energy to make this happen, over and over. By carefully managing your time and your projects, you will be more thorough, meet deadlines, and avoid accidentally missing steps.
Most productivity and time management tips are written for business audiences. The target reader works at a desk managing projects with clear, looming deadlines and has a boss who is highly interested in the worker delivering something (reports, analyses, new code, corporate strategies, etc.) by a specific date. No deliverable, no profit, and soon no job for the employee. These books tend to assume that the reader needs more time—sweet, uninterrupted blocks of time—to work on something with clear parameters and built-in boundaries.
PhD students face a very different challenge. While taking classes, you have various paper deadlines to balance and possible teaching or research assistant responsibilities. After classes are done, you are trying to coordinate reading literature with dissertation-related writing, more teaching or research work, a panel that you are organizing, and so on. But these responsibilities are typically done within a context of large amounts of unstructured time. The illusion of abundant time can be overwhelming, and the projects themselves get more challenging. Scholarly life is full of theoretical and empirical rabbit holes and blind alleys that can drain your time and energy. Again, dissertations in the social sciences and humanities lean toward the model of “go away and think,” and students are provided with limited direct guidance and supervision. Not only is this a route to inefficiency and years of drift, it also undermines the building of professional habits and demeanour.
Deliberately building project management skills increases your prospects for career success. And like other aspects of professionalism, it requires careful attention. Fulfilling your project commitments, and doing so in a way that allows you to retain some degree of quality of life, won’t necessarily happen naturally. Four basic steps that you tailor to your personal energy patterns and circumstances can ensure that you are achieving your goals while maintaining quality of life.
Step 1: Make a list of what needs to be done
Quite often, people try to just keep everything straight in their heads. The problem is that it is easy to forget things or to remember them inaccurately. The solution is simple: To determine what needs to be done, you need to get organized by writing a list of everything you have committed to and the associated deadlines.
“Wait,” you might be saying, “this is rather obvious.” Of course it is. But just like “eat right and exercise” is obvious but frequently ignored advice for healthy living, the practice of listing commitments and deadlines remains a habit that many PhD students have yet to adopt. If you have already done so, good for you: You have our full permission to enjoy a well-deserved sense of self-satisfaction. For our more mortal readers, let’s get down to business. Start with a large “brain dump” of commitments for a specific time period. (The academic semester is a good place to start.) Are you taking classes? If so, check each class syllabus and then list all of the readings, papers, exams, lab projects, presentations, and other class tasks, noting the associated dates. Are you working as a teaching assistant? Again, check the class syllabus and list all of the class tutorials, exam dates, paper dates, and other TA-related responsibilities and their dates. Are you working as a research assistant? Working on a conference paper? Do you have committee responsibilities? Other responsibilities that we have failed to mention? Do your best to think of everything you have to do over a specified time period, and then scan both your calendar and your email to see if there is anything you have missed. The more complete your list, the better. List complete? Excellent. Now just reorganize the list by due date and you have a clear picture of what needs to be done.
What do I do if I have taken on too much?
Feeling overwhelmed is awful. The panic in your chest, the feeling that you are going to let people down, that you will need to do nothing but work and more work for weeks or months, the associated anxiety and insomnia … It is the worst. And the fears that are associated with it are often well based: If you are someone who fails to meet commitments, who is constantly behind on timelines and long on excuses, it reflects poorly on your professionalism. At a certain point people may start to perceive you as either unreliable, incompetent, or both.
If the amount you have on your plate is not realistic relative to the time available, you need to identify where you can make changes. Are there any committed times that could be reduced? Is working fewer hours in your part-time job, or getting help with family responsibilities, or reducing commute times an option? (You may be tempted to cut back on sleep, fitness, or personal hygiene. Please don’t.) Chances are good that your ability to make change in the committed time part of the equation is quite low. So then you must ask, are there any projects on your list that you don’t really need to do at this point in time? Or are there some steps within the projects that can be removed or streamlined?
Ideally, you can solve your overload problem well in advance: You can tell people that you will need to decline a particular opportunity for now, or that you will need to have someone work with you to complete it, or that you will do it for a later deadline. These conversations can require a certain degree of bravery, but it is better to be upfront with people as early as possible rather than disappoint or anger them at a later stage. On the plus side, the discomfort of disentangling yourself from overcommitment may serve you well in the long run as you instinctively avoid taking on too much in the future.
As we have said at several points in this book, be attuned to your mental health and wellness. Seek balance and support networks; check in regularly with a counsellor or other source of assistance. Everyone feels stressed and overwhelmed sometimes; learn to ask for help in identifying when it is too much, and seek the support you need.
Step 2: Break activities down into smaller tasks, distinguishing between high- and low-energy tasks
Start with the list that you created in step 1. Now look carefully to see how you can break the items down into discrete tasks. For example, the paper due on October 31 requires numerous individual steps to complete it: creating an outline, searching the library database for relevant sources, reading these sources, writing a first draft, editing the draft, writing a second draft, completing the bibliography, and so forth. This detailed list allows you to create target completion dates to keep you on track and, importantly, to manage your time and energy strategically.
When you look at the more detailed list, it should be apparent that some tasks (such as writing, reading, or data analysis) must be done when you are at your peak, and other tasks (such as editing a bibliography) can be done when your energy levels are lower. By clearly labelling tasks as high or low energy, you can strategically assign the high-energy tasks to those time periods during which you are usually highly productive, creative, and energetic, and assign the low-energy tasks to the times when you are usually a bit spent out. (At this point in your life, you probably have a good idea of which times are which for you; if you are not sure, just pay attention to your energy levels for a few days.) Your goal is to protect your high-energy periods for high-energy work, and restrict all low-energy work and other activities (like dental appointments and coffee meetings) to low-energy times; to do this, you need to clearly label the tasks.
Step 3: Block work time into your calendar
The trick to getting things done (and done well and on time) is to schedule the work times into your calendar and to respect these times. Remember, an unstructured schedule and its illusion of endless time is your enemy; imposing structure on your days is necessary. Doing so is simple:
1. Block off all committed times (classes, work hours, commute times, sleep, fitness, family responsibilities, etc.) in your calendar.
2. For each task and project, estimate the number of hours you will need. Because most things take longer than you assume, and to provide cushion in case of unanticipated events (illness, transit strikes, broken water heaters, etc.), increase this number by 50 per cent.
3. Working back from the deadline, schedule task-specific working time in your calendar, assigning high-energy tasks to the high-energy time slots.
Now, in doing this process, you may be prone to optimism (“I don’t need to increase the project hours. My original estimates are realistic.”). We understand. But imagine—just as a thought exercise— that we are right that things tend to take longer than anticipated and that life sometimes throws curveballs. Blocking the extra time into your calendar allows you to quickly identify if you have taken on too much and then make needed adjustments. Of course, if your original estimates are accurate, there is risk of turning down opportunities that you could have completed. For this reason, we suggest that you treat the thought exercise as just that. But if your gut is telling you that you might have taken on too much, respect that and proceed cautiously.
Be strategic in how you enter things into your calendar. It is imperative that you save your high-quality times for high-quality tasks. The most important thing to schedule is your writing time. Social science and humanities doctoral programs involve a lot of writing: Most courses involve written assignments, and after courses are done there is (in most traditional programs) the dissertation proposal, the dissertation itself, and other writing that you seek to complete. Writing should therefore be paramount in your schedule, and we strongly suggest regularly scheduled short writing sessions (e.g., every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 9 to 11 a.m., or every Monday to Friday from 1 to 2 p.m.). This approach, admittedly, goes against the typical academic binge-writing style, in which the author procrastinates and then completes all the writing tasks within a large block of time, like a second-year student cramming for a final exam. To be sure, there can be a time for binge writing. But like binge eating and binge television watching, it has both short-term satisfactions and long-term consequences, and inevitably the former exceed the latter. Regularly scheduled writing may not fully eliminate the need for occasional binge writing, but it can reduce it (and the associated stress) dramatically.
To make the best use of high-energy time, you need to consciously batch together low-quality tasks (e.g., getting books from library, checking citations and bibliographies) and commit to addressing them only during low-energy periods in the day. Email in particular can suck up time and energy with little payoff. Make a decision to file email into a batch folder that you will address at a prescheduled low-energy time; during your high-quality work times respond only to email that, if not addressed immediately, may result in someone bursting into flames.
How can I take advantage of unexpected time?
Most weeks include a fair bit of relatively useless time. Sometimes this time is structured into your schedule (commuting time or time sitting on the pool deck while your child takes a swim class) and at other points it is unanticipated (time waiting outside your supervisor’s office because his department meeting is running long). Sometimes it can be good to just stop, take a breath, and relax looking at online cat videos (so cute!). But sometimes it is nice to make use of this time, and you can plan ahead for these opportunities by ensuring your writing projects are accessible through the mobile device you are undoubtedly carrying. The three-minute note here and the five-minute idea there will actually add up to paragraphs, and the perennially growing file creates within you a sense that the project is moving, while eliminating the frustrating “start up” time that can occur if you don’t work on a project regularly. If you adopt this practice, you will start to see small windows of time as bonus time. A friend is late to meet you for coffee? Great, you can edit your introduction! Your child has a 30-minute gymnastics class that you sit through every Monday night? Awesome, you can aim to write 150 words each time. This approach needs to be tempered; you should never feel that every second must be used efficiently. But if you can tackle some tasks during found time, you can free up more time for other things in the future. Which, we must stress, could include a run by the river, or beer with a friend.
Step 4: Work your calendar
Ah, plans. Like fitness schedules and New Year’s resolutions, making them is the easy part. But the execution, well, that takes discipline. And this is where the difference between the professionals and the others shows itself.
Scheduled writing is often the most challenging commitment to keep—which is ironic, since this single activity is most associated with a PhD student’s success (or lack thereof). Honouring your scheduled writing commitment as much as you would honour a class, meeting, or other work obligation is the sign of a true professional. But it can be hard: While thinking about writing is exhilarating, and reflecting on completed writing is satisfying, the in-between period—you know, the actual writing—invokes a broad array of emotions, not all of which are pleasant. As well, the more theoretical and interpretive your work is, the more likely it is that writing is the primary or even sole activity itself, as opposed to gathering and analyzing empirical, documentary, or archival data and then writing about it, making writing even more paralyzing.
Many writing problems occur because people are trying to plan, write, and edit simultaneously. To get around this, start with a clear outline and then focus your daily efforts on small units within the outline. Allow yourself to put ideas in point form, making notes to yourself in the draft to be dealt with at a later time (e.g., “insert three to four sentences about Jones et al. here,” “add citations”). Avoid the temptation to edit as you go along so that your creative thoughts, which will generate the innovative ideas that matter to your work and your discipline, are not impaired by your more critical editorial thoughts. Aim to get a full first draft completed before you turn to editing the work. The more you focus on small sections and just getting ideas down, the more your writing time can actually be allocated to … writing.
Working your writing time—treating it like the heart of your job—is key to your professional success. It can be tempting to schedule something else in the writing time slot “just this once,” or to fail to use the time wisely when you are in it. And it can be tempting to use low-quality tasks as “short” breaks during your productive periods (“this paragraph isn’t really going anywhere … I’ll work on my passport renewal form”). Remember that tasks expand to fill the time available, and the task might end up killing your productivity for the day. The small writing time investments add up to significant results. And the more frequently one does something, the easier it becomes, as both the runner and the smoker can attest. Use the power of habit and routine to your advantage. To further your progress, consider establishing a writing group that provides support and creates a sense of accountability.
Making it a practice to repeat these four steps will develop your professional image. You will get projects done on time, giving others the sense that you are on top of things and take your work seriously. People will notice that you are organized and competent, and they will respect you for this. Plus, you will have time to join them for a squash game or coffee.
Loleen Berdahl is Professor at the University of Saskatchewan, and co-author of Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD.
Jonathan Malloy is Professor at Carleton University, and co-author of Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD.