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!

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My Mentor’s PhD Advice

Having the right mentor to turn to can make all the difference when you’re writing a PhD. The person I turned to most, even if only in my mind, was without a doubt Gordon Smith. I met Gordon when I was studying for a MSc. in European Politics and Policy at the LSE – he was my tutor, and what a terrifying tutor he was! He enjoyed causing a bit of a stir, and he liked to ‘keep me on my toes’ as he called it. But even though I was petrified every time I stepped into his tiny office, as I knew I would probably be told off for something or be otherwise insulted, shocked or startled, I came to enjoy our encounters immensely.

Gordon is now roaming the Elysian Fields, so I couldn’t ask him for his PhD advice firsthand. Instead, I compiled some of the advice he gave me when he was my tutor at the LSE, as it could be applied to writing a PhD.

His top 4 tips (according to me):

Write for the right reason

Gordon had an unlikely academic career, and only took up a lectureship at the LSE at the age of 45, after mostly working outside of academia. He told me how he started writing his first book, I believe it was a text on West German politics, on the train on his commute to work. “One day,” he told me, “I just started. I knew I had to write the book. So I took out pen and paper and I started writing. I remember it like it was yesterday.” That conversation always stuck with me, as I struggled finding my own PhD topic (something I naturally got yelled at for when he visited Florence: “Amber, you have to do something. I have to shake you up. You have got to stop faffing about!”)  I was also reminded of it whenever I was stressing for a deadline, instead of writing because I felt compelled to write. The lesson Gordon taught me is to write what you need to write. Because the work needs to be written. Nobody is forcing you to write a PhD. Write the right thesis for the right reasons.

Don’t let your canoe sink

It’s easy to get lost in the sea of scholarship, and I see some PhD students close to drown in the piles of papers they think they need to read. When I was finishing my PhD my energy levels were so low that I could not add many new papers to my repertoire. At the time, I was worried about it, as I thought my work might not be as current as it should be. The opposite turned out to be the case – I was forced to focus on the most important arguments already out there, and it markedly clarified my thinking. In the end, the couple of important new papers weren’t difficult to incorporate. It reminded me of a meeting with Gordon in which he warned against over studying, during exam time at the LSE. “Some people need the books,” he said, “but I think you don’t. You know enough. You’re smart enough. All you need to do is think. In your mind, that’s where it’s all happening. Think!” He continued: “Imagine you’re on a deserted island. No, even better, you’re in a canoe. And you’re only allowed to take one article for each topic with you. If you take more on board, your canoe will sink. Now read these articles and think about what the author is telling you. Reflect on it. Get inside the article you’ve chosen.” How many articles have you got in your canoe? Don’t let it sink.

Remember not to spend all your time in the library

One of the things Gordon had no patience for was procrastination. He used to tell me again and again, when I was confronted with yet another essay to write: “You have to get these things done! Get it over with!” And more than once he told me: “Remember not to spend all your time in the library.” At the LSE, the dominant paradigm was one of study till you drop. It’s a misguided paradigm of more is more, and one I see dominates many PhD student’s lives. According to this paradigm your productivity is measured by the hours spent on your PhD, not by the actual outcome of your efforts. I understand – it is notoriously difficult to measure your output in many phases of PhD research, and it’s so easy to trick yourself into thinking that you are doing a good job, if you at least put maximum hours in. But at best it’s a paradigm that makes you spend too much time in the library, at worst it’s a paradigm that is destructive for your productivity, alongside your sanity. Resist temptation. Instead, focus and get your work done. (If you are interested in learning how to do this: it’s what my online course is all about).

Don’t bore us too much

In my 2003 diary I jotted down:

‘Gordon and I agree on writing.  He tells me: “Be inspired. You have to be on a whirl. Make it crisp. Make it sharp. Put your pen on paper, get excited and write like you’ve never written before. Just let it happen.”

Though perhaps not on all of it: “If all else fails, don’t worry. Have a drink. A straight shot of vodka should loosen you up.”’

Gordon never quite approved of my choice of topics. He could not comprehend why anyone in his right mind would want to write on the EU in general, and on its policy processes in particular. (By now, I see his point. I have switched to studying ‘real politics’ Gordon. Not to worry.) At one particular meeting he told me I was “such an EU maniac”, and dismissed my proposed dissertation titles as “EU mumbo jumbo”. At the end of the meeting, on my way out, he grumbled: “Oh, well, write whatever you want to write.” Then, as I was about to close the door behind me he added: “Just don’t bore me too much!” I tried very hard not to. And I still do.

Do you have a mentor who inspires and encourages you? Tell me in the comments!