It’s very easy to get caught up in the day-to-day stuff and lose sight of the bigger picture. My to-do list seems to never actually decrease in length as pretty much every time something gets crossed off, something else is added on. Given how I already feel that I spend too much time rearranging this to-do list in an attempt to prioritise my work, the idea of spending more time on reflecting, planning, timetabling and goal-setting is not hugely appealing. Part of me was convinced that this would just be another energy-sucking and perhaps time-wasting pursuit but the more self-aware part of me realised that I could easily put this off indefinitely because I was worried it might actually be hard work. Fortunately, I’ve had the same good advice from enough sources (some PhD-related blogs & a couple of comments on my blog) to actually do something about it.
I now have a fairly detailed and complicated table divided into weekly goals, with one item highlighted as of particular importance to work on per week and anything that is an outside, non-self-imposed deadline highlighted in red. These are then grouped into months, which have overall goals. Although the level of detail decreases as time goes on, I’ve also made an effort to have quarterly goals of larger things that I would ideally like completed within a certain timeframe (e.g. submitting work to a journal). The timetable has the dual effect of being a comfort and a motivational kick. It’s a comfort because I can visualise that when I spread out the work on my to-do list over months, it actually looks quite realistic, preventing unnecessary feelings of panic and it’s motivational because on days when I’m feeling demotivated and am likely to procrastinate, I can’t shake away the sense that I have specific assigned prior engagements I need to be getting on with.
My timetable has recently had something of an upgrade and expansion. This is because it’s time for my end of first year review. A couple of weeks ago, I had to submit a report of what work I’ve done this year, along with quite an in-depth proposed timetable for the rest of my PhD, even including a provisional outline of the chapters I intend to include in my thesis… Reflecting on how much I’ve achieved over the last 10 months (I started in January) and how this all fits in together, how it might look in a thesis and what the logical next steps are, was actually a lot less terrifying and a whole lot more exciting than I would have expected.
I’m really grateful that my University has this sort of system and requires first year students to make such detailed future plans. Although I’m sure things will be different to how I can currently envision my thesis, the motivation to reflect and plan has really helped to remind me of the bigger picture. I know that other PhD students have also had the same sense of this being a worthy process and I think that if you are a PhD student and your University doesn’t have such a formal process, I would encourage you to do something of the sort with your supervisors. I have still got a “mini viva” coming up, which I’m a bit nervous about. This is going to be a chat about my progress and plans with 2-3 independent researchers with some understanding of my topic. Most of my friends who have been through this say it’s nothing to worry about but I have heard a couple of rather unpleasant stories so am looking forward to having it over with…