Ah, there’s nothing like finally making the time to write a post on time management. Improving my ability to manage my time was certainly one of the most important skills I gained from the dissertation project. Good time planning is a meta-skill: it fosters flourishing across the different parts of your life. In this post I discuss some of the big picture challenges of the dissertation and argue that time management’s biggest boon is not the increased productivity, but its potential to free you from one of the most pernicious aspects of PhD life: the anxiety spiral about never having done enough. In another post, I’ll dive into more specific approaches I found helpful and talk about planning individual days. My thinking on all this in deeply indebted to Cal Newport’s excellent book Deep Work, which you should go buy immediately if you haven’t read it. It’s both extremely practical and rooted in a philosophically rich vision of the good life.
What’s so hard about a dissertation anyway?
The dissertation was unlike anything else I had done in graduate school (my program didn’t include an MA thesis). It’s a long-term project with few, if any external deadlines. You receive infrequent input from outside sources. Moreover, the “finished dissertation” is a rather abstract and nebulous: it’s difficult to say when any given chapter, much less the whole is “ready.” The combination of large-scale and ill-defined final product is a project manager’s worst nightmare (you are essentially your own project manager while doing your dissertation). Compare coursework, where you typically see a professor several times a week, often have graded assignments other than a final paper, and usually have clear parameters about page-length and topic. In short, my strategies for doing course work well did not work well for getting a dissertation done. It wasn’t enough simply to do the reading, read a couple of books, read some articles, and assemble something near the end of the semester. Even comprehensive exams, which for me required months of study, were much more clearly defined tasks. I could simply ask how many questions I had prepared or how much of the primary reading list I had gotten through. By contrast, with a dissertation you always feel the pressure to read that one more book, or that one more article in German, because you’re supposed to be the “expert.” This quickly leads even sanguine types to a persistent anxiety and frustration, because you never feel like you’ve done enough. Frankly, I think getting free of this anxiety spiral is much more important than the actual productivity you get from good time management, because the phenomenon this anxiety spiral persists even when you are objectively productive. There were lots of days I put in significant time, made respectable progress based on external metrics (pages read, words drafted, etc.), and still felt spent and hopeless at the end because there was still more to do (one of the reasons rest is so vital). Flourishing as a person is vastly more important than your objective output. Careful time planning not only makes your work time more efficient and productive, but also makes your off-time more restful and nourishing.
Time management, or life really, is about expectation management. A good process for time management should allow you to make reasonable estimations about what you can accomplish in a certain time period with the resources at your disposal. This usually requires a few things. I’ll list them here and expand below:
- Dedicated time to plan and reflect.
- Clear estimates for how long it will take to perform tasks.
- A clear schedule for when and where you’ll be working on the task.
- Deadlines that influence your behavior
Time for Planning and Reflection
You probably only need 5–10 minutes at the beginning of the day to plan, and maybe 20–30 minutes at the end of a week to reflect on how things went the past week. It’s easy for planning to get put off in favor of some more “productive” task like reading an article or reading a primary source, but I try to keep myself from falling into that trap. Regular planning, however brief, is vital not because you need to keep to your plans meticulously, but planning brings awareness into a process that often proceeds without any consciousness at all. Reflection on how things have gone helps you re-calibrate your expectations on how long things will take. This reflection allows you to say things like, “Oh, I didn’t read quite as much as I wanted to this week, but that’s because I took that one morning off to go to the zoo with my kids. That trade off is worth it to me.”
Clear Time Estimates for Common Tasks
Some research tasks are fairly predictable and you should have concrete numbers for. How long does it take you to read a page of academic prose in English? How about in German? French? Questions like that are vital but it took a surprisingly long time before I had explicit answers. I found, for instance, that in an hour I could normally read about 60 pages of academic prose in English. I read German, French, or Italian at about half the rate. I know that I can read 250–300 lines of Homer in an hour, or normally between 1500 and 2500 words of Greek prose an hour, depending on the difficulty of the author and how much sleep and coffee I’ve had. This means that when I was deciding between reading an entire book or just selecting the chapters I needed, I could see immediately that a 500 page book in English would require 8–9 hours of time, while selecting, say, the most relevant chapter or two may only require 1–2. Or, when I was selecting which primary sources to deal with, I knew that reading ps.-Basil’s De vera virginitate in Greek would take about 10 hours. Other tasks are a little bit more variable, like drafting new material are more variable, but even here you you should track your progress and make educated guesses. During periods when I was writing new material I’d typically shoot for 1,000–1,500 words a day. Sometimes I’d get there, other times not. Perhaps the most difficult task to estimate time for is editing. Proofreading for style is different than incorporating suggestions from an advisor or friend, for instance. Ballpark figures are still useful though, because you don’t want to obsess to the point where you refuse to move on to the next chapter. So you probably want to a deadline (I’m sending this to my advisor in two weeks) and then work backward from that to fit in however much editing is possible.
A Clear Schedule
Because of family responsibilities, I normally had about 15–20 hours a week that I could spend on the dissertation. Setting a normal work schedule allows you to project into the future. You don’t have to have the exact same schedule each week, but by the beginning of the week you should be able to say something like, “I’m going to work from 8–11 MWF and 2–4 on T/Th). For those, like me, who have kids, your work time is set by how much childcare you can afford or when your spouse or a family member can watch the kids. Arranging childcare is a pain, but on the flip side, it helps you focus, since there’s a dollar amount attached to the time you’re working.
As for location, it’s often helpful to have a space devoted to work (a study at home, a certain part or desk at the library). Our brains associate locations with task, so it’s easy to get into a flow state if you’re working in a spot that you’ve learned to associate with productive work. More important, however, is that the spot be free of distraction. For me, this meant the library was a much better space than the graduate student office in our department, and a home office was better still.
Deadlines that Influence your Behavior
Working backward from a deadline is actually one of the most important things you can do with a dissertation, because there’s always more that you could read or incorporate into any given chapter. You want both large scale deadlines (I’m going to defend in April, 2019) but you want them at a smaller scale too (I’m going to finish the reading and research phase of this chapter by the end of the month, or I’m going to turn this chapter in by the end of the Summer). Once you’ve set a deadline, you can figure out how many hours that translates into (a month was typically 60–80 work hours for me). Then you figure out how much you can read and write within that time. You’ll inevitably have to make some compromises, but you’ll be conscious of the trade-offs: “I didn’t read those articles because I thought it was more important that I read Gregory of Nyssa’s De virginitate in Greek” or “I cut that section from my chapter because it would have required 40 hours of reading that I don’t have time for now. I’ll save that for a future article instead.”