Jump to content
  • advertisement_alt
  • advertisement_alt
  • advertisement_alt

Struggling with time management

Recommended Posts

Hi everyone,

It's only halfway through my first semester of my social science PhD and I am already struggling hard. The stupid thing is that I understand and enjoy the material I am learning, and I like my program and my cohort a lot. But I am struggling so, so much with the time management aspect.

I have always sucked at managing my time, but my level of suckiness regarding time has increased ten-fold during my PhD. I've already been late turning in 5 assignments in varying classes because I underestimated the amount of time it would take me to complete them, and I am late to classes all of the time by 5 or 10 minutes. One day I was even 30 minutes late. Every time I am late doing something, it is so embarrassing and discouraging. I know that it is making me look unreliable and irresponsible to my professors and my classmates, which is upsetting me. If it happened just once in awhile it wouldn't be such a big deal - but it is definitely a huge pattern. I have communicated to two of my professors that I know time management is an issue for me, and that I am working to correct it, and they were understanding. I framed the conversation as "just wanted to let you know I do care a lot about these classes - don't want you to think I am blowing them off, I just struggle with time and am working on it," rather than giving excuses. I can't believe that I had to have that talk with them - being late has always been a problem for me but not missing deadlines has NEVER been something I thought it would develop into. I guess my time management problems are just a lot worse than I thought.

Meanwhile I am trying to work on things -  I am in therapy to deal with my ADHD and anxiety/depression (contributing factors to my time management issues) + starting a new medication, bought a planner, and have been trying to track my time and set deadlines for myself. But I still keep turning things in late and being late to classes, and every time I am getting more and more frustrated. I don't want to wreck my chances to do well in this program or mess up my professors and classmates opinions of me. Plus it is so embarrassing that I am almost 30 and still haven't figured out how to be on time to things, when everyone else in my cohort is in their early 20's and doesn't struggle with this issue. I know fixing this is going to take time and can't figure out what to do to get better in the meantime. I'm trying to take it one day at a time, but I am getting really discouraged and starting to wonder if I should just put my PhD on hold until I get this under control. I am just worried I am going to do too much damage to my reputation while I am fixing it. 

Just UGH. Does anyone have any suggesstions? Has anyone else ever struggled with this? I know I have skills in other areas that others lack and so comparing myself to others is dangerous but time management as a skill is SO IMPORTANT and seems SO BASIC that I just feel so silly for lacking it.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I deal with some of the same issues you do (including attention deficit, anxiety, depression) but over the last few years of grad school I've managed to refine my methods, maybe some of this will help.

First.  I find that a solid work schedule begins and ends with a solid sleep pattern, because this helps you establish a routine which I think is so important to dealing with some of these mental health issues.  If I go to bed on time, and wake up on time, the day goes well.  If I stay up too late and oversleep, surprise surprise, I have a hard time even getting grounded and it can be very hard to recover.  Have a routine, and have set work hours.  It doesn't matter if you work from 11am-7pm, 9am-5pm, or 9pm-5am, routine is important.  If you're struggling with getting to classes and meetings, pick a set of working hours amenable to that.  Keep that time sacred for work (though remember to take a break here and there - though don't get too far afield).  If you're like me, and struggle with focus, there are apps for that!  Don't rapidly snap into this new routine overnight, work your way up to it.  I find that even on the weekend I only deviate slightly from this sleep schedule, I shoot for 7 hours of sleep each night, your body may have different needs.

Second.  Protect some time for non-work stuff and keep that sacred as well.  Don't buy into the myth that you should be putting in 70 hours of solid work each week.  Nobody is really doing that, and even if they are, there is plenty evidence to suggest that working in small, intense bursts actually produces better output than dragging out your workday for the sake of being able to comfortably say you logged a lot of hours.  If you have nothing to look forward to then it will be very hard to stay committed to your work.

Third.  Never go into anything as important as a day in your life without a plan.  Even if you wake up and finish your breakfast and walk your dog and you're just itching to sit down and write until your fingers bleed, take some time to plan out your day.  I have used checklists, but I've found that I've had more success after I bought a small lined notepad.  Each day, I mark out the clock hours I'm going to work, each line represents a 30 minute increment, and I visualize how my time will be spent, accounting for time spent on the bus or walking from place to place, as well as any breaks.  Each day starts with a 30 minute block I label "planning/prep", in which I check my e-mail, check and update my planner, get any old coffee cups off my desk, and get whatever books or materials I'm going to need for the day.  After that, I turn on my website blocking app for the next 6-7 hours and I work.

Fourth.  Try doing creative/intense intellectual work in short, highly focused bursts.  There are studies that show that even highly trained and experienced experts in various skills have a very very finite amount of mental energy/willpower that they can expend on their practice before they start to see diminishing returns.  Since I've started actually producing my dissertation, I limit my actual writing time to two very intense 90-120 minute chunks of writing each day.  I've found that I'm having quite a bit of success this way.  In a typical day, I begin at 9:30 a.m., I take care of prep stuff and everyday tasks until 10, I then write until about noon, at which time I take a 30-60 minute break to eat, walk the dog, etc.  I then write for another 90-120 minutes.  These minutes of writing, of course, are focused and intense (I don't check e-mail, don't use my phone, etc., just write).  I then leave the rest of the day for reading and research, or other less intellectually demanding stuff.  I always take the last 15 minutes of the day to close everything down, make some notes on what I need to do tomorrow, and then I take like five minutes or so to just close my eyes, breathe, and disengage from the work.  The strategy of short, intense, flurries of output takes some practice, but I think is ultimately far more rewarding than the drawn out days I used to spend at my desk distracted and despondent.  If you're still in coursework, you may have to alter this formula slightly in order to keep up on reading and seminar prep, which is demanding in a somewhat different way, but I think the principle still holds true.

It goes without saying that this is a very fragile system, it takes some discipline to adhere to.  I have really excellent productive weeks using it.  There are also some weeks that nothing seems to go right with it, and I can't get a groove.  Consistency is key, good days beget good days, good weeks beget good weeks.  If there is something disruptive coming up like a holiday, or a conference, or research travel prepare yourself for it and figure out how you'll get your groove back when you return. I can't stress enough that the strongest indicator I can find as to whether a week is good or bad is a consistent sleep pattern that helps lock the routine in place.  Also, finding a workspace conducive to highly focused work is essential as well.

There is a book I've found very helpful called Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Dr. Cal Newport.  Some of the strategies I talk about in this post come from that, though most are modifications of things I was already working about.  What Newport provides is a solid well researched basis for these strategies and ways of refining them.  It's not geared toward academics, but the author is a professor at Georgetown so the strategies are actually rooted in his academic life.  It's not without its problematic aspects, but overall very helpful. 

Edited by jrockford27
Link to comment
Share on other sites

8 hours ago, strugglebot said:

Just UGH. Does anyone have any suggesstions? Has anyone else ever struggled with this? I know I have skills in other areas that others lack and so comparing myself to others is dangerous but time management as a skill is SO IMPORTANT and seems SO BASIC that I just feel so silly for lacking it.

Totally agree with what jrockford27 suggests. Personally, I find making a daily schedule of what needs to be done very helpful. My advisors asked me to do that at the start of my PhD (and they actually checked it). At first, I just found it tedious, but it did help me to make good progress. Don't fit in too much on schedule though and allow flexibility. Say you have 5 tasks to complete. You don't need to do them sequentially. You can do task 2 before task 1, or even multi-task if it is possible. 

Another thing is to avoid procrastination and perfectionism. I tend to delay writing because I don't think I can do it perfect, as my advisors always indicate a lot of problems. My strategy is to break it into small parts, e.g. I write a small paragraph in the morning, another one in the afternoon, then one more in the evening. I don't get obsessed with logical flow and grammar in my first go. I just make sure I finish with what I need to write. Then all I need is actually a day or two to tidy up the loose ends. I do set deadlines to get my writing drafts in to my advisors and stick to them. That way I ensure that I don't spend more time than I need on the writing. My writing still needs more work, but I am getting better and better. 

Regarding your issues of being late for classes, have you reflected on why? Could it be that you do a lot of unrelated things before you get out of the door, e.g. pay the bills, feed your dog? Prioritise what must be done before you get out of the door. Or could you be forgetful and leave your car key somewhere and you need to go back look for it? Put all things you need in your bag the night before, so you don't need to spend time looking for things. If there is a traffic problem, get out of the door early. Even if it only takes you 20 min to get from your home to school, spare 40 min for that. It will make sure that you don't run late even if you are caught in traffic. 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Some strategies that have helped people I know: (in addition to the above advice)

  • Keep a journal. Since you aren't good at estimating times, spend a few weeks actually accounting for what you did and how long it took you. Be honest, no one is watching. Don't forget to account for the time it took to get to and from places, the time you took off for chores, sleep etc, and time you set aside for non-work things (whether it's goofing off while at work or time you had actually planned to take off).
    • Try and keep a tally of unexpected things you weren't planning for but had to do on the spot, and how much time they took away from your schedule. You might very well find that the actual things change, but there's always some time that goes toward unplanned chores each week. 
    • Also see if you can identify patterns: on days when you got a lot of work done, what went well? On not-so-good days, what went wrong? Are there times of day when it's easier for you to write? read? do coursework? I definitely have preferences for what I do when. 
    • Do this for several weeks, even if it gets tedious. Then analyze your results: how much time do you *actually* have for work per week? How long did that paper *actually* take you to write? How long did you *actually* spend on that problem set? 
  • Break things down into small chunks that are easier to perform. It's also easier to estimate how long they will take. 
    • Have detailed to-do lists, listing these small chunks. Again, this helps with planning. 
    • It might also be gratifying to cross things off your to-do lists. Having small chunks makes it easier to keep track of your progress and not feel like you went whole days without accomplishing anything.
    • Write down time-estimates for how long you think things will take. When you're done with the journaling above, compare your expectations with reality. It's not at all uncommon for even very organized people to suck at these time-estimates. What organized people tend to do better than disorganized people is be aware of how much they suck, and give themselves that extra cushion to take them from expectation to reality. 
  • Use reminders if you need to. I assume you know how long it should take you to get from point A to point B. Plan a longer time period than you need to get there, and set reminders to help you leave on time. It should be a rule that when that timer goes off, you actually leave -- no taking care of one more email or spending just 5 more minutes doing whatever. If you can do it, I find that it's very helpful to have self-imposed early deadlines. If you have to be somewhere by 3pm, set your arrival deadline for 2:45. If you have a paper due on the 30th, have a final draft deadline by the 24th. Again, give yourself extra time so you're not always running around doing things last minute. These are habits that take time to form, but you can be very explicit about training your body and your mind to follow certain patterns. 
Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 3 months later...

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

  • Create New...

Important Information

By using this site, you agree to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.