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Roundtable: Time-to-Completion Tips

On the heels of Dissertation Boot Camp we’ve decided to finish out the month by each answering the same question: In a lot (most?) of programs PhD students are often later than expected graduating. What has been the most useful thing for you to keep on time?
Mine? See my outpouring of the previous week. But I think, boiled down, it must be: build a structure that doesn’t give you the option to fall into patterns of distraction. Unplug the router.
Unplug the router, or, if you're feeling nostalgic for Office Space, smash the router.

Unplug the router, or, if you’re feeling nostalgic for Office Space, smash the router.

Jeremy, Amanda, Dustin, and I all write with considerable consistency on this point, elaborating different facets of it. Jer talks about the short game, Amanda takes the long game, and Dustin adds some metacognition on the game itself.
Jeremy: Rigorous Compartmentalization Week-by-Week, Day-by-Day
Structuring your time as “school time” vs. “personal time” and allotting a set number of hours for the former.  People often equate being at their computer with doing work (being productive); however, this type of work is usually accompanied by distractions and eventual burnout.  By allotting (for example) 50 hours per week for school work, you have defined the parameters in which you must work.  Anything done outside that time should not be related to school.  Doing this affords greater focus and time on tasks related to school work and it alleviates the guilt associated with not working on your thesis 24/7.  This may be impractical when deadlines abound, but for the rest of the time, it provides a sustainable framework for productivity and a good work-life balance.

Amanda: Timeline to Completion

I have always been a big fan of planning ahead. It might be surprising that one of my favourite things to do is sort out my “timeline to completion” every fall. It is certainly an overwhelming task to complete but it really puts your degree and everything you have to do into perspective. I find it useful for sorting out when I’ll be collecting data (and for what projects) and when I’ll be analyzing that data, as well as what manuscripts are written when, what conferences I am presenting at, etc. I think a lot of students are afraid to do this and I totally understand why. Graduate degrees aren’t a small feat, and we often forget about a lot of the little things that have to be done to graduate in time. When you finally do make a “timeline to completion,” I suggest taking that night off. It ends up being an exhausting reality check, but in the end it’s an incredibly useful tool.

board photo

Dustin: Why Don’t We Make Plans?

I think we can all agree that highly effective workers engage in a task with set goals and a plan for how to achieve them. That’s great … so then, why don’t we all do it? I know there are members of our loyal Gradifying readership who carry through their programs without a specific plan and have the same want to graduate as those with a plan. If setting a plan is so central to efficient and effective productivity, what are some reasons that people don’t do it?

Some people think it’s not necessary – the time it takes to plan takes away the time available to do. When you only have a thing or two to hammer out and the task is fairly basic, you’re probably right – just do the task. However, I think the graduate experience is typically a lot more complex, with teaching, TAing, grant writing, testing participants, reading literature, conference presentations, coursework, practicum work, jobs for your supervisor … oh, and groceries, cooking, eating, sleeping, laughing (what’s that again?), partners, children, exercise, hobbies, leisure reading … I think we all get the point. With so many things to do, how do you know how much time you can spend on one thing before you move onto the next? How do you know when you can’t play with your friends anymore because you have to have your x, y, and z tasks done by x, y, and z dates? Your plan. It helps you keep on track.

Some people don’t ever get around to organizing because it all seems too overwhelming. It can certainly seem overwhelming at times, but the scariest part of every situation is the unknown. When we don’t know how something is going to turn out it can be anxiety provoking. It’s like in the Wizard of Oz how everyone is afraid of the Wizard, but nobody actually knows what he looks like. But when Toto pulls back the curtain, everyone sees that there is nothing scary about him whatsoever. By setting goals and making a plan, you pull open the curtain of your scary tasks to find out that they are all attainable. (Or not, in which case you can make responsible changes now, rather than scrambling at the last minute).

Copyright WB (or so Wikipedia tells me)

Copyright WB (or so Wikipedia tells me)

 

How can we overcome the sometimes-paralyzing effect of being overwhelmed? Remember that these concepts of “easy,” “hard,” and “too hard” are constructed in our heads. There are a lot of thoughts that prevent us from putting in what we know is our best effort. These thoughts are often based on some past experiences from which we learned that we won’t do well (e.g. a supervisor or colleague letting us know something wasn’t up to par), or that it’s pointless because it’s not going to be worth the effort. However, even if those thoughts were true at one time in one particular context, it doesn’t mean they’re true in this context, and the beauty about being a thinking being is that we can learn and change. We can engage a discussion with ourselves to overcome some of these thoughts and make forward progress.

So, make goals (check out this site for setting effective SMART goals – http://topachievement.com/smart.html), and when you find yourself running around like mad but not progressing on your major tasks, pull up for a minute and ask yourself if you’re following your plan. If you’re not, pay attention to some of the thoughts going through your mind and see you can talk back with some thoughts that will motivate you to get back on track!

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