Behind the scenes I am preparing for the next live sessions of the Stress-Free PhD Programme. This means I’ll be running the course with a live session at the beginning of the week, where you can ask questions (and I’ll answer them!) to get the most out of the programme. The programme is designed to help you write your PhD in fewer (and happier) hours a day. This can be done! But it takes a few steps, some of which are to do with a shift in mind-set (we’ll be going against the conventional wisdom of working longer hours is better), some of which are practical steps (figuring out what exactly a productive workday looks like for you, and how to create such a workday in a realistic way).
The idea of ‘working in waves’ is at the heart of the productivity part of the course. I’ve written about this way of working before before (click on the productivity tag). Today’s blog outlines how this works. The course will help you implement these ideas, step by step. In detail. Sign up here.
Working in waves
How many hours do you spend sitting at your laptop? And how many of those hours are spent productively? Maybe you don’t need all those hours. Following a ‘normal’ 9-5 working routine is not the best way to write a PhD. You can’t do intense mental work for eight hours a day. It is impossible. If you’re having an exceptionally good day you may be able to manage six hours of reasonably intense mental work; and considerably less if you’re doing something particularly demanding.
The good news is that you don’t need to work for six or eight hours a day. Once you start writing your PhD in a more efficient way you’ll need a fraction of that. Say two or three hours of intense mental work a day. Four maximum. When I was finishing my PhD (I had to do so with very limited hours) I started researching productivity and came across an idea I wanted to try: designing my day around my mental energy levels, instead of trying to push harder for longer. This simple idea completely transformed my PhD experience. I now call it ‘working in waves’.
Catch a Wave
The basic idea of ‘working in waves’ is to ‘catch a wave’ of energy, get a lot of work done efficiently, and then relax and recuperate before your energy levels and productivity start to drop. This second step, the relaxation part, is crucial. Allow yourself to recharge. Then repeat. You’ll notice that your ability to focus is renewed when you start your second ‘wave’, because you took the time to recharge. Over the course of the day these energy refills add up. You will be more productive and will feel much better at the end of the workday (which comes sooner too).
Step 1. Work like a sprinter
The first step is to determine how long your work cycles should be. This depends on your general energy level, your attention span, and on the difficulty of the task involved. In my own case 45-minute segments, followed by a 15-minute break worked really well. Some people prefer 90 minutes. I know someone who used 10-minute slots to finish her PhD. Really!
Step 2. Relax and chill out
The second step is to relax and chill out. Get away from your computer, go make yourself a cup of tea, put some music on, go for a walk around the block, go for a short jog or whatever helps you disengage from your work. We don’t value our downtime. This is a mistake. This is not just about productivity, of course, but from a productivity angle this is certainly true.
Step 3. Repeat
Then, after a little time away, get back to work. Set your timer for a new chunk of time, and get going. Once the timer sounds: relax and recharge. Over time, once you get into the habit of working this way, this will become a flow, dipping in and out of work. Working in waves in action. This is when you will see your productivity picking up.
Step 4. Stop
The next step is to stop when it’s time. Less is more. You shouldn’t try to fill the whole day. We often try to push harder for longer. In the short run, this can be a winning strategy. In the long run it doesn’t really work. Slowly (or not so slowly) we run out of steam, until we end up in a rut or a slump. Or both!
Find out how this way of working in waves could work for you. When are you most focused and productive? Make those hours the central focus of the workday. When are you distracted? If it’s during a time you want to be writing: you have to find another way! If it’s during a time you wouldn’t be productive anyway, ask yourself whether you want to spend your time sitting at your computer, or if it would be better to give yourself permission to ‘leave’, and do something you really want to do.
Naturally, this approach only works if you apply yourself during the chunks of time you allot to working. Imagine it as a sprint – ready, set, go!! Run! You will get your rewards afterwards: a good chunk of work done, a sense of accomplishment, and the ability to relax because you know you have done your work for the day.
My Own PhD Schedule
In the course I go into depth discussing the details of what my own workday looked like when I was finishing my PhD. Not so you can copy how I did it (though you are welcome to!), but to give you ideas, and reflect on what might work for you.