Being an independent PhD student is great. You get to focus on what you are really interested in, follow wherever your conclusions lead you and, yes, work in your pyjamas.
However, going for weeks without a very strict structure means you can also be vulnerable to that most fashionable of workplace afflictions: procrastination.
At its worst, procrastination can be a spiral. You turn on your computer to work, you get distracted, you get upset with yourself because you’re not being productive so you soothe yourself with more procrastination. Eventually the day is finished, that chapter or article is only four words longer and you’re close to tears.
So here are a few of my favourite tips and tricks to keep distractions at bay while you power (or at least stumble purposefully) through your PhD!
The most insidious form of procrastination from work comes in the form of other work.
I often find myself putting off important, relatively urgent work by focussing on other smaller, non-urgent tasks. Or I will procrastinate from difficult, unpleasant work with easy, fun little jobs that end up taking all of my time.
Sure, I’m technically working, but am I actually achieving any of the really important things I’m supposed to be doing?
The best way to avoid this situation is to schedule a time to take care of those more minor tasks.
Every time you remember another thing you are supposed to be doing, write it down in a dedicated “to-do” list. When the scheduled “admin day” comes, you can whizz through your list efficiently without getting in the way of other work.
Depending on the nature of your work, you might have to take an “admin hour” every day rather than a whole “admin day” once a week.
Working from home can be excellent. You can relax and be creative, write at your own pace and be in when the IKEA bloke comes round. However, it's a lot harder to concentrate in the environment you associate with resting and having fun than it is in a place when everybody is working.
Productivity is contagious! Also, your home is a never-ending source of procrastination. Dishes to do, bathrooms to clean, newest episodes of Love Island to watch, chatty neighbours, milk to buy, the cricket on the radio… Sometimes simply getting started working from home is a small triumph.
So, identify the place where you are surrounded by the fewest distractions, pack up your laptop and get going! If you are a lab scientist, bear in mind that your “productive place” might not necessarily be the lab or the office, where small experimental tasks will haunt you to distraction. Try a library instead, or a nice coffee-shop full of other people working on their laptops.
Being in a place where everybody is working can also make you think twice about using your internet access for things that aren’t work. Writing while a Youtube video is playing may be perfectly acceptable at home, but you’ll probably feel (at least a bit) more self conscious in a very silent library full of undergraduates cramming themselves to death.
If a lot of your distractions come from friends and colleagues, don’t be afraid to speak to them. Having a civilised conversation doesn’t have to be awkward and can actually prevent resentment and tension building up.
For example, if there are a lots of undergraduates in your lab who require teaching and training, ask other members of the lab to help show them some techniques. Explain you find it difficult to concentrate if you’re often interrupted and ask your lab mates to hold off their questions until the end of the day, when you can set aside some time to help them with whatever they need.
Or, if the bulk of your distractions come from friends, don’t be afraid to ask them to not disturb you when you’re doing certain experiments or writing. If they work with you, they’re probably facing the same challenges and will be a lot more understanding than you think!
The average attention span is around 20 minutes. While you can obviously concentrate for longer than 20 minutes, your peak productivity time will come in 20 minutes chunks. That is, if you’re lucky.
For one, I know I cannot totally focus on anything for longer than 5-10 minutes at the time, and after 1 hour of doing the same thing I find it close to impossible to keep any concentration whatsoever. After years and years of studying, you probably know what your concentration patterns look like. Don’t fight them!
If you can only really concentrate for 20 minutes at the time, planning to focus on the same piece of work for an entire afternoon is a recipe for disaster. You are going to lose your focus and look for distraction. In other words, you’re going to end up procrastinating.
This can be especially frustrating if you work with people who have longer attention spans, but try not to compare yourself to other people. Plan your day with your limits in mind and you are a lot less likely to find yourself scrolling through Facebook instead of working.
Spending a little bit of time looking after yourself will make it a lot easier to concentrate and resist procrastination.
The three keys to keeping your brain healthy are hydration, nutrition and exercise. Try to stay hydrated throughout the day (especially if you’re chugging down coffee to stay awake, as coffee is a powerful diuretic). If you work in a lab and can’t take your water bottle/juice with you, set a timer every hour or so and go have a long drink!
Eating a healthy and balanced diet will also help you to have more energy and stay focussed. Fibre, fresh fruit and vegetables and plenty of Vitamin C will make you feel less tired and less inclined to snuggle on the sofa with the TV remote.
Most important of all: exercise! No matter if it’s a brisk walk in the park, lifting some weights in the gym or playing football with your friends. Physical activity will be very beneficial to your ability to concentrate.
You’ve gone to the library. Everyone from your students to your Aunt Sybil knowns not to bother you unless there’s a fire. You have an excellent plan to optimise your attention span and have scheduled all of tomorrow for taking care of admin/teaching/washing your whites. You’ve eaten so much fibre and drunk so much water that health is practically exuding from your unclogged pores.
And still here you are, scrolling down your friend’s Instagram pictures wondering if you too should go on a six-month pilgrimage in Cambodia to find your inner yogi.
It’s time to call in the Ghostbusters of procrastination: productivity software.
Productivity software essentially blocks a list of websites from your computer – typically Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, Netflix, BBC news etc. I resent productivity software immensely, mainly because I resent the implication that I don’t know what is good for me. However, evidence suggests I don‘t know what is good for me, or I wouldn’t spend valuable work time Facebook-stalking people I went to primary school with.
And so, in the same way I make myself eat cabbage, which I hate, for the sake of my digestive tract, I occasionally download and use productivity software. The best (also the worst depending on how you look at it) is Cold Turkey, which completely cuts you off from the civilised world for a pre-established length of time. It’s hateful, but it works a treat!
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