This weeks contribution is from Meredith Rose (@20Biscuitcrumbs). Meredith is an Early Years Course Leader and Senior Lecturer who is also doing a part time PhD. Her research is focused around curriculum design and dilemmas, including meeting the differing needs of students.
Many of us will recognise that time disappears like snow in summer, when you are doing a PhD. You make endless lists, have huge piles of very interesting articles and very good intentions…usually!
What tends to happen is you start well, and then other distractions take away your focus. Sound familiar?
You sit at your workspace diligently reading and everything’s ok, because you have a plan and its written in your special PhD writing pad! You begin reading and then, a bird flies past your window which has suddenly become sooooo interesting, even though you’ve never really taken an interest in birds previously!! Your doorbell rings and there’s a real human being with a parcel, but you can’t touch it for 3 days, so you have to have a quick game of ‘kick the parcel through the door’, or my favourite distraction is “I’ll just make a cup of tea”! Before you know it, 30 minutes has been passed, and you have indeed made a beautiful cup of tea, but you’ve also read the ingredients on the biscuit packet and realised how many you’ve eaten….or is that just me?
Staying focused has been one of the biggest challenges so far. Since starting the PhD, my office has been redecorated in a rainbow of colour coded post it notes, which I initially splattered across the walls as reminders. What I have very quickly realised is that they are actually a huge distraction; a little like the sun in your eyes when you are driving.
The point is time is precious and disappearing at a rate of knots into the deep PhD ocean. As a part time PhD student alongside a full-time course leader role, I have had to have a ‘little word with myself’ and get organised as there are only 24 hours in a day, despite what we try and cram in.
So, big question coming up! How do you strike a balance between work, PhD, socialising (although that’s all a bit odd at present), oh…. and those necessary things like eating and sleeping? I really wanted a nice crisp timetable that ‘told’ me when I had allocated time, just like my teaching timetable. But as I quickly realised whatever you plan, gets nudged, moved and sometimes trampled on with size 10 boots. What I have realised is that one big plan does not work for me. That said, I do need the structure that a plan provides.
I was introduced to the Pomodoro technique by a colleague who like myself, gets very distracted by ‘interesting things’! My initial reaction was one of dismay and quickly added it to the never ending to do this.
However, the following morning I decided to try the approach to get one specific task done, and to my amazement…. it worked! 40 minutes in this instance was sufficient, but it can obviously be changed as needed. The task itself was not a complicated one, but it just needed focus. If it had appeared as a 60 minute block on my outlook calendar, it may have been a little daunting, but 40 mins, seems more friendly somehow. I remember a very early PhD discussion advising me that you “can’t eat the whole elephant at once” but “try chopping a bit off”! It works for me, at the moment as I can fit it in between meetings and teaching.
I have therefore adopted a different approach to control my environment. I set a stopwatch for 25 or 40 minutes and plan to read or write something. I usually have a weekly list of PhD tasks, and as long as something gets crossed off in each of the 25 or 40 minute slots, then I have learnt to be happy with my efforts. At the end of the week you can see how much you have actually achieved, which is a real boost.
What this experience has helped me realise is that you need to allocate time to try things rather than just read things. Does it work for you? How did it feel afterwards? Was it a productive use of time? Only you can decide what works for you, but you do need to be brave and try things. It might also help you eat less biscuits!