Monday, 20 October 2014

How to have more productive days

Other than the research itself, one of my favourite things about doing my PhD is the flexibility it lends. Yes, I end up working most days and at weird hours, but I can also fit in a mid-day gym session, go for a drink mid-week or start my day at 10am if I wish. The obvious counterpoint to this, is that it takes a hell of a lot of self-discipline to make sure you're actually getting enough done. When your ultimate deadline is measured in years not days, and nobody is telling you what to do, it can be easy to think a missed day won't make a difference, but it definitely does.

The kind of responsibility is totally different from the scheduling of school or uni, or the structure and oversight of a 9-5 job. It is far more akin to somebody who works from home or runs their own business, albeit the tasks themselves are quite different. So I thought I'd share some of the steps I've taken to make sure I stay disciplined and have more productive days.

Set an alarm & get ready: There are two main points here. The first is deciding when you'll get up and then sticking to it. It can be 6am, 8am or 10, but make an agreement with yourself and honour it. This speaks to a broader point of taking the goals you set for yourself seriously. Even if the structure of your day is flexible, it doesn't mean you sleep in and laze around all day, lest nothing will get done. The second point is to get ready. Working from home may mean you won't go out all day, and there is certainly no dress code. But staying in your PJs can make work time feel like leisure time. I feel much more alert and attentive to my work when I get ready properly, even if it's for my own peace of mind.

To Do Lists: Some people are list people, and I'm definitely one of them. Set goals for your week and for each day and do the best you can to stick to it. Maybe even attach a small reward to each if it will help motivate you. Or, link them to a time of day - plan on checking off X number of things before lunch. Either way, having a written list of tasks helps you track your progress and feel confident about your productivity. Likewise, if you're slacking, you'll know it.

Partition your space: When at home I try really hard to work at my desk. Sure the couch is more comfy but I find the pace of my work and the level of my focus is much better if I'm in a space intended for working. Likewise, I've banned things like blogging or social media from occurring in my workspace. So, if I want to partake in these 'leisure' activities, I need to move out of my office and actually relax. When most of your work is done on a computer there is an easy blurring between what's productive what's procrastination, so making these rules with yourself is paramount in my opinion.

Change of environment: While I make use of my home office when I'm at home, one benefit of my work is that I can do the majority of it from anywhere. So, if I'm getting cabin fever or I find I'm not working at my peak, a change of environment can be really good. I've done a fair bit of searching to find cafes with wifi and power points and that are friendly to people taking their time, and with noise levels that suit me. I don't mind background noise but I know that if there is a single conversation going on next to me I'll get nothing done, so becoming familiar with places that work for you is really important. That, and invest in a pair of good headphones! Libraries are also fantastic - they are free, assured to be quiet, and the stacks of books and relics of prominent intellectuals around you can be good motivation!

RescueTime: When things were getting pretty out of hand, I decided to pay for an app called RescueTime. There are different variations of similar things, but this one tracks your computer activity and sends you daily and weekly reports about your productivity. You can customise your settings so it knows which sites or applications are 'productive' or not for your work and then you can see how much of your time you've spent e.g. reading PDFs or writing in Word, versus browsing facebook, youtube, or shopbop (oops!). You can also set goals, or have it block particular sites during certain hours, but I found just seeing the amount of time being wasted and knowing it was going to get recorded, was a good impetus to be more self-disciplined.

What are your tips for being more productive? I'd love to hear how other people stay on track!

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