On Working Methods

Motivation has never been something I’ve struggled with during my PhD.  There are, I think, a number of reasons for this.  I’ve always loved my topic.  I’ve always counted myself lucky to be able to work on films and texts that inspire me.  I’ve always been motivated to work hard.  I’ve always had the fortune of having a supportive network of people around me – both within and outside of academia.  I’m extremely grateful for all of these things.

However, the last couple of months have proved a challenge precisely with regards motivation.  Nothing has changed.  I still love my topic.  I’m still inspired by the films and texts I’m working on (for the most part).  I’m still working hard.  I still have the same – if not more – support.  And yet, I seem to have reached a crucial point in my doctoral research.  I don’t know if this phase has an official name, but, having spoken to several friends who have recently completed PhDs, it is apparently a recognised phenomenon.  Typically, this phase seems to encompass: tears; procrastination; more tears; more procrastination; and a diminished sense of self-belief.  I’ll call it the writing-up blues for now.

As a means of countering this unexpected bump in the PhD road, I was advised by my brilliant supervisor, Dr. Julia Biggane, to alter my working methods.  As a starting point, she recommended writing a list of tasks to be completed, and then calculating how long each task will take.  Although I have a penchant for making ‘To Do’ lists, I’ve recently realised that matching tasks with appropriate chunks of time is something I find more challenging.  A consequence of this failing is an almost perpetual sense of dissatisfaction: no matter how many items I check off the ‘To Do’ list, there remain a plethora of tasks still to be completed.  And that, unsurprisingly, does not aid motivation.  A trick recommended by Julia is to allow significantly more time than you think you will need to complete each task.  An excellent piece of advice: if you happen to be slow off the mark/interrupted/tired etc., and you in fact need the extra time assigned, great – you’ve still achieved your goal; if, however, you finish ahead of schedule, even better – you’ve achieved your goal and can reward yourself (with an evening off, a trip to the cinema, a big fat cake with that afternoon coffee) as appropriate.

To put this into practice, I indulged my inner geek and prepared a table in Word with tasks to be completed colour-coded according to diverse activity types: organising, watching, reading, writing, redrafting.  I also calculated how long each task would be likely to take.  I update the table frequently according to the distinct tasks I’ve achieved throughout the week.  This allows me to chart my progression through the endless list of objectives to be met.

Another aspect of working methods I discussed with Julia was the construction of a weekly schedule.  After pencilling in the various other commitments I have outside of the PhD (part-time work, appointments, exercise classes etc.), I assign different tasks to the mornings and afternoons throughout the week.  As a morning person, I reserve the more taxing work for mornings (writing/theoretical reading), and the less strenuous mental exercises (watching films/lighter background reading) for the afternoons.  By varying the types of task undertaken over the course of the week, I am able to maintain a sense of motivation and am less likely to become disheartened with my research.  My project is ideal for this approach, given that each of my three main body chapters focus on a distinct figure in contemporary Spanish cinema – the child, the performer, the immigrant.  The diverse subject areas, as well as the fact that I am now nearing the end of my project, allow me to move between chapters, and thus keep my interest alive.  To aid me in this, each week I have a ‘Sunday meeting’ in which I decide what to work on in the coming week, and map out my week in timetable format.  I allow for a certain degree of flexibility, updating my schedule as the week progresses depending on how quickly I reach my goals.

The final alteration I’ve made to my working methods is my conversion to the Pomodoro method.  Briefly, this method entails working in half-hour segments throughout the day, concentrating solidly on the task in hand – no interruptions (i.e. checking e-mails/Twitter/phone; sending an e-mail/tweet/text message; looking up the reference for that library book) – for twenty-five minutes, before taking a five-minute break.  After four Pomodoros, take a longer break of between fifteen and thirty minutes.  Working Pomodoro-style has both forced me to take more breaks (something I’ve struggled with in the past) and taught me that my attention span is significantly shorter than I thought!  I’ve found it extremely helpful, and would absolutely recommend it.

To conclude this self-reflexive post, I thought I’d list some of the links on working methods that have inspired me over the past couple of months:

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3 thoughts on “On Working Methods”

  1. Fantastic to see that someone else is having the same to do list epiphany 🙂 Good luck! If you’re on Twitter, I’m @ellenspaeth

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