Focusing on the quest

I’m really thankful that there are some really inspiring academic bloggers out there – I particularly admire people who write about being involved in a dozen things at once and yet somehow they manage to continue to be productive and move forwards with all of them (e.g. see these great posts by Courtenay Norbury & Athene Donald). I often get days where I feel like I am wasting a lot of time. Sitting in an office with 2 final year PhD students who are writing up their theses has made me acutely aware of how precious my time is. I’ve had a few thoughts lately about what is keeping me from being more productive – an important step towards instigating change (i.e. identifying the problem).

Firstly, I seem to spend an unhealthy amount of time procrastinating by doing things I try to convince myself are useful. I’m not referring to obviously PhD-unrelated things like online shopping, watching stuff on YouTube or using Facebook (none of which I actually do that much of). What I mean is those things that you could feasibly convince yourself (however subconsciously) might actually not really quite be procrastination… For me, those things mostly involve reading interesting things online, primarily on Twitter and blogs via Google Reader. Sometimes, these are things that are very remotely and vaguely related to my actual PhD topic but more often they are about science and academic issues in general (e.g. discussions about open access). The misleading thing about this is that the things I read are often fairly intellectually stimulating, which makes them feel enough like work for me to not actually realise that I am procrastinating. I think awareness is the key here. If something isn’t directly and explicitly related to my research, it should really be left till lunch break or evening time.

Another example that springs to mind is my to-do list. I have a highly-organised, colour-coded list spanning several pages in Word, with various sub-headings and font sizes emphasizing what is a priority. Often, when I open this list up to try to work out what is the most important thing to do next, I end up spending a stupid amount of time moving things about and re-sizing things before I finally settle on what to work on next. I can’t imagine not having the list as I would blatantly forget to do something important. However, opening it up usually induces some level of panic & choice paralysis (think big-eyed doe staring at oncoming headlights). If I have something to do that has a very specific looming deadline, I have no problem and just get on with that thing. The trouble is that most of my analysis ideas and other things I am involved in are not obviously more important, more urgent or even more interesting than the others so I struggle to choose between them. I think my problem is that I waste too much time on trying to manage my time – a bit ironic really. Lately, I’ve been trying to timetable working on specific things in advance and although this doesn’t always work out, it helps to focus me sometimes.

Another excessive chunk of my time goes on writing & deciphering emails. The more important/senior the person I am writing to and/or the more important or complicated the issue, the longer I agonise over every word. Sometimes, if it is a particularly delicate issue or a particularly important person that I don’t know very well, my office friends get pulled in to double check that it reads well, is respectful/polite enough, makes logical sense and conveys the exact nuances of the matter at hand. I double check spelling, make sure there are no typos and even resort to not using contractions to make it sound a bit more formal/professional.

On the other hand, the length and apparent time taken to write the responses I receive seem to be inversely correlated to said person’s importance. Typical responses from important and busy people are often brief, contain the odd typo and occasionally are frustratingly ambiguous (probably because the writer gets an absurd amount of emails a day and simply doesn’t have the luxury of time to write long responses). I then spend about as much time as I spent writing my original email in trying to decipher what exactly the response is and what it refers to and what it implies etc. My office friends occasionally also get drawn into this process…

The whole thing just makes me feel like I am massively, massively wasting my time agonising over my emails but I can’t seem to help myself. I guess I hope that with time I will get a lot better at intuitively knowing what level to write my emails at and generally just get better at writing them and phrasing my thoughts etc.

I do wonder whether these productivity-decreasing problems of mine are a personality thing (I can be a little bit obsessive/perfectionist at times) or if they are simply things everyone in academia struggles with at times and improves at during their PhD. Hopefully being aware of them combined with taking steps to decrease the time spent on them or avoiding them all together will become second nature to me some day.

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4 thoughts on “Focusing on the quest

  1. I totally recognize myself in this. Some time ago I did start downsizing the amount of time I spend on reading articles through Twitter, Google Reader and the liked. I have a time limit in Leechblock on my desktop for Twitter, and now I try to process a lot through my phone (feels different sitting in the office playing with my phone in my hand – makes me more aware that I’m doing something else).

    As for planning, I have a set moment (friday evening) to revise my planning (see what I did during the week. what still needs to be done this month and thus next week and reflect why I’m behind on schedule if that’s the case).

    As for the email “problem”: I do that too – especially if it’s a senior researcher whom I’ve only met once. I then start typing, deleting the sentence again, wondering if it’s clear and polite, restart again…

    • Hi and thanks for your comments! I like your idea of planning & reflecting on a Friday afternoon. I usually try to make some notes for what to do on Monday but perhaps I should aim to set some time aside and do that sort of thing more regularly 🙂

  2. Sarah Carl (@SarahHCarl) says:

    Wow – I just came across your post, and I’m amazed at how much of it sounds like me! I’m also a 1st-year PhD student, and I recently discovered the exciting yet distracting world of academic-related discussions on Twitter and Google Reader. I feel the same about reading, say, debates about open access or career advice for PhDs – it seems just relevant and interesting enough that I can convince myself that it’s an OK activity for work, but I know it’s not directly related to my research. I do think that these sorts of things are valuable, but sometimes I even get overwhelmed by the number of interesting blogs out there that I think I should follow! Talk about counterproductive.

    I will second the idea of setting aside a time for planning, though. For me it’s Sunday evening, when I’m mentally preparing for the coming week. I have a goals document, with sections for weekly, monthly, 6-monthly and yearly goals I’d like to achieve. Usually I just update the weekly goals, and occasionally I do some long-term rearranging, but I try to keep it simple and straightforward. So far it’s really been helping!

    • Hi Sarah, and thanks for the comment! I agree, there is just way too much interesting stuff to read out there – I occasionally need to go through my Reader feed and list of Twitter followers and be a bit ruthless to cut things out when it all gets too much. I think it’s because I generally like to stay on top of what is going on and read things in as close to real time as possible and not weeks later…
      Setting goals for various time-scales sounds like a great idea! I think I’ll add that one to my to-do list for now and have a think about it properly at some point 🙂

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