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Researcher Development

Researcher Development

Positive working habits

As discussed in the previous section on Finding balance, creating boundaries, there is no “best” way to work, there is only what is best for you. There are hints and hacks for making us more productive and focused (which we’ll explore in this section), but firstly it’s important to take some time to reflect on your own patterns and habits.

 In the previous section, we explored how to plan your working week. In this section, we’ll look in more detail about how to be most productive, once you’re sitting down to work.


Picture your perfect working day… Do you get up early? Sleep in and then work super productively in the afternoon? Do you chat to people or work in silence? Do you like to work in the same space all day, and really settle in? Or do you like to change in up, working in a café or sitting under a tree? Do you need silence? Does talking ideas through help? Have you got the perfect playlist? Do you prefer to work in short bursts or long stretches of time?

Once you have imagined this Perfectly Productive Day, think about how you can generate more of these environments and boundaries into your own working days. It may not always be possible, but having this knowledge means you know what you are aiming for.

If you want to think more about this, have a read of Exeter PhD student, Merve Mollaahmetoglu’s, blog on dealing with the ebbs and flows of productivity.

A sense of routine can not only help us be more boundaried and focused, but can also support our wellbeing when we are feeling stressed, tired or overwhelmed. This is partly because we don’t have to expend extra mental energy on working out what to do or where we should be. Having a plan for how to organise your working day can be really effective. Many students find that the admin of research can eat up their time. Just doing emails for an hour each morning/after lunch, and not getting overly distracted by time-eaters, like forms and applications, can be really important. These are tasks that need to get done, but it’s important to keep them condensed and not laboured over. Don’t spend an hour crafting the perfect email if you should be studying!

Different people find different ways of organising their time helpful. Below we list a few different approaches, so you can try them out and see what works best for you.

Pomodoro technique:

This is a technique that’s very popular with research students, and involves working for 25 minutes, with real concentration and no distractions. Breaking for 5 minutes. And repeating as many times as you decide. It can work well in a group, using the break time to share your progress. Of course, you can always alter the timings to suit you and your needs.

One research student at Exeter shares his success with this technique:

I used the pomodoro technique right from the start of my PhD. Looking at a mountain of reading can be pretty daunting, but breaking it down into focused 25-minute slots throughout the day can really help you rattle through it. It’s also great if the writing angst has set in: a whole day or writing is daunting and, let’s face it, a pipe dream, but it’s amazing what you can get done in a couple of poms!

Harry McCarthy, PhD in early modern theatre

Get things done:

This is a five step process, where you capture clarify, organise, review, engage as a system for systematising the clutter in your brain. It’s based on writing everything down that’s in your head and organising a plan for how to approach it. The To Doist explains how to do it in detail here.

Eat the frog:

The ‘Eat the frog’ technique is all about starting with the hardest thing first. It is inspired by a quote from Mark Twain:

“If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And If it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”

 Basically, do the worst thing first! Learn more here.

Deep work:

Deep work is a concept developed by Cal Newport, and the idea behind it is that focus is a resource we should nurture. He suggests that concentrated, dedicated, longer sections of time, with no distractions, are worth more than short chunks of time, broken up throughout the day. We recommend watching this video by Exeter research student and YouTube star, Tom Nicholas, if you want to learn more. ( And, whist you’re there, you could also watch his video on staying motivated in long term projects too.)

Students on the St Luke’s campus at Exeter may have seen this cheerful plaque on the wall of one of the buildings in the quad. I’m not sure why they are trying to give us all nightmares, but it is a healthy reminder that times is a precious resource.

If you are struggling with procrastination, you may find this article helpful, Don’t Put it Off: Procrastination, which examines some of the main reasons people put things off:

Fear (of failure, of success, of incompetence, of the outcome)

Perfectionism – want to get it right first time, getting paralysed in the middle

Difficulty getting started – “I haven’t done enough research”

Lack of motivation – not invested enough, or too invested

Distractions – seemingly productive procrastination – e.g. emails; not just about watching Netflix

Take a moment and reflect on which resonates most with you. Do you want to get it right first time? Or getting paralysed half way through a task? Do you find it difficult to get started (and keep telling yourself  “I haven’t done enough research!” Are you not invested enough? Or too invested? Are you convincing yourself your seemingly productive procrastination, by writing emails or tidying your work space, is necessary before you can do anything else?

If you can work out the root cause, you can then start to take actions to stop your procrastination in its tracks, however uncomfortable it might be.

Top tip

If you lack discipline or can lose track of time, you can use tech wizardry on your devices to make you behave better. For example, you could….

  • Set a screen time limit on your iPhone or Android (how to do this varies by phone, but should be easy to find out through a search engine).
  • Set an alert so Facebook/Instagram tells you when you’ve reached the limit you’ve set for yourself that day (eg. 30 minutes). To do this on Facebook, go to ‘Settings’ and then ‘Your time on Facebook’. On Instagram go to ‘Your Activity’ and ‘Set daily reminder’. On YouTube, there is a ‘Remind me to take a break option’ under ‘Settings’.
  • Use an app like Forest, to keep you off your phone. This app works by getting you to plant a ‘tree’ and if you try and use your phone, the tree dies. They’re partnered with a real-tree-planting organisation, Trees for the Future, to plant real life trees, so your productivity is also good for the plant, if you like an extrinsic motivator.
  • Turn off notifications (or at least make them silent).
  • Move your most enticing apps from your home screen.

Any other tips and hacks? Why not tweet the Doctoral College @ExeterDoctoral and share them? Then put your phone away!

If you are struggling with motivation, it can help to work out what the things are that drive you forward. There’s an interesting quiz on how we respond to expectations and what motivates us by Gretchen Ruben, based on her ‘Four Tendencies’ framework. You can learn more about it here, but the premise is that we are all influenced by both outer expectations (such as meeting deadlines) and inner expectations (like keeping a promise to our self or a resolution). How we respond to these pressures means we fall into one of these four tendencies: Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, Rebel. This is just one approach to understanding ourselves better, but – like in all things – (self) knowledge is power. The more we understand ourselves the better able we are to challenge and encourage ourselves, to help stay motivated. That might be imposing external accountability, challenging our desire to rebel, making an inspiration board, or tempting ourselves along with the promise of a coveted reward (one student, who shall remain nameless, has been known to meet a writing deadline by sitting with a pack of Skittles and rewarding herself with a skittle for every 50 words!). Do what works for you…

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