How to write a PhD speedily & (almost) painlessly. Strategy 3: Work in intervals

I am writing a series of blog posts condensing the PhD-writing strategies that helped me finish my PhD. I went from being a not-always-effective researcher to finishing my PhD in a couple of hours a day. Read my story here.

Strategy 3: Work in Intervals 

Q 1: How many hours have you been sat staring at your computer screen today?

Q 2: How many of those hours have you spent not doing the work you ‘should’ be doing?

If the ratio of A1: A2 becomes too high it produces guilt. And possibly feelings of self-loathing. That, and your productivity drops, in both a relative and absolute sense.

The remedy is simple. When you’re doing mentally challenging work, the absolute best way to go about it, is to work in intervals. Focus on your work, as in FOCUS, for twenty minutes, three quarters of an hour, or an hour and a half (that’s the absolute maximum I would recommend – possibly too long already), followed by a short break.

The best-known application of this method is the Pomodoro technique, which works with twenty minute intervals. They even have an app that allows you to log what you have been working on in those twenty minutes. A little OCD, but sometimes a little OCD is just what we need, especially when we’re feeling a bit lost. Tracking progress can help you stay grounded and focused on what you are trying to do, such as finishing that paper you are working on. It will also help you see you are making progress, even if it may feel very slow. The slow part doesn’t really matter. Progress is progress.

When I was finishing my PhD, with very low energy levels, I was forced to work in intervals, and I was amazed at how effective it was. I have never been someone who could work for very long stretches at a time – a 6-hour workday is about the most I have ever managed, but even in 6 hours there is a lot of daydreaming, being distracted and numbing out you can do. Worrying, there is a lot of that you can do too. When my energy levels dropped I no longer had hours to work. I had minutes. It was dramatically bad. And I found out very quickly that if I spent these precious minutes being distracted I would never finish my PhD. But I wanted to finish my PhD! So I had to change strategy.

I started working in half-an-hour intervals, which slowly crept up to 45-minute intervals, a length of time I still like to work in. It’s long enough to get a substantial amount of work done, but it’s short enough to not lose a sense of urgency. The urgency is important. You can easily spend your 20 or 30 or 45 minutes not doing anything much at all. And in that case, nothing much is going to happen! You need to take your work time seriously. For me, it means I need to get excited about what I am trying to do. My late mentor Gordon Smith once told me (he was talking exams) to: ‘Get excited and write like you have never written before! Make it crisp, make it sharp! You have to be on a whirl!’ It’s that energy I try to infuse into my working hours. For me, it works.

It’s also important to make sure you are not distracted. Switch off your phone, the Internet (yes!) etc. and focus. No distractions.

Of the four PhD-writing strategies I am sharing in this series (see tag: Write a PhD almost painlessly), the strategy of working in intervals, together with the strategy of prioritising are the two that have made the most of a difference to my productivity levels. I can say that I truly became more productive in 2 – 3 hours of work a day compared to the ‘normal’ workdays I was working before. Try it.

If you want to give working in intervals a go, here are some resources:

I have already mentioned the Pomodoro website. I have never used their tools (I use a timer on my computer instead), but I have heard good things.

The book ‘The Power of Full Engagement’ by Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr. Theirs is a productivity system I highly recommend. They focus mostly on the business world, very different to the pressures of academia, but many of their recommendations are equally applicable.

If you suffer from low energy levels, like me, I suggest Michael Nobbs’s website Sustainably Creative. He is an artist with ME whose work slogan is: ‘little and often’. Very impressed with the way he manages to create beautiful things with very little energy to his disposal. He calls it: ‘Getting your important work done’.

Finally, the HappyPhD Online Course will help you build, and implement your personalised version of working in intervals tailored to academic work. I walk you through it day by day, until this way of working has become second nature. I would be absolutely delighted if you’d join me to create a PhD life that works for you!

Write a More Inspired, Happier PhD Subscribe & Let Me Show You How

You’ll also receive a copy of ‘Finding Your Academic Voice’
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