Time management for thesis writing

Photo by Sonja Langford, sourced from Unsplash
Photo by Sonja Langford, sourced from Unsplash

On 3 July this year, while I was printing my thesis I got a few notifications from my LinkedIn network. As it turns out, the day I submitted my thesis was exactly the day I completed three years working at Lincoln University, therefore three years of my scholarship. I won’t lie, it was not planned, and if it was it probably wouldn’t have worked so well.

Managing time and keeping motivated during the PhD is not easy in itself. After a period of struggle and procrastination I found a way that worked for me and ended up submitting my thesis in three years, while teaching part-time. Since then, I have been asked by some colleagues and friends how I did it. At this point I should make clear that some people have been calling me a “productivity addict”, a “planner freak”, or have not said anything and just laughed at my system. Anyway, the bottom line is: it worked for me, and maybe could be helpful to someone on the other side of the screen.

To start with, I made and kept updating at least every couple of weeks a thesis timetable with my full thesis research and writing plan. When the write up time came up procrastination came with it. Because I didn’t know where to start, I would find other easier things to do (the house has never been cleaner!!). Reading inspiring academics such as Raul Pacheco-Vega, Eva Lantsoght and Inger Mewburn, I thought maybe (just maybe because I wasn’t a planner after all) a planner attitude could work. Following their advice and the method Neil Fiore presented on “The now habit”, every Sunday I would plan my week using Google Calendar as follows:

  1. Add ‘static’ commitments (classes, meetings, workshops, commute, etc),
  2. Add things I want to do (gym, happy hour/dinner with friends and family etc)
  3. Plan my writing in the remaining time

This might seem too good to be true, as we tend to feel like 24 hours of our day should be devoted to the research. However, seeing how much time remained I relised I wouldn’t be able to do most of the things I wanted to if I didn’t take advantage of my writing time slot.

Since I was using Google Calendar as a planner, I tried to use it as a diary as well, but I found difficult. It can be embarrassing in some situations when you need to be quicker (at meetings for example) and have to ask everyone to wait until your smart phone updates and loads the data. In these situations the old fashion way of having a physical diary with the appointments is still the best option for me. So I adopted one. I then write down my appointments on the diary and plan my time on Google Calendar.

During this process another tool that helped me to keep control of my time was the Pomodoro Technique. Every pomodoro is around 25 minutes of focused work plus a 5 minute interval. My day ended up measured in ‘pomodoros’ and I kept a table of the number of hours I spend really focused working on the thesis. You would be surprised how much you can produce in a few hours when you are focused! I have recently tried to abandon this habit, I though I’d grown out of it and didn’t need it anymore. It didn’t work and I had a very much wasted day.

Now that I have submitted my thesis and started working in a new project I am slowly going back to my planning routine with a diary, Google Calendar and pomodoros.

But as Dr Amanda Geary Pate says

“Submission is not the finishing line, wearing your robe and standing with your certificate in your hand is.”

There is still more to come. So let’s keep going and hope for the best in these next steps.

How do you manage your time? What techniques and applications do you use?

8 thoughts on “Time management for thesis writing”

  1. Thank you for sharing! as a first year phd, this really helps and i will try to use your advice.
    What works for me for the moment is disconnecting my computer from the internet while writing. Also, I always tell my supervisor what i plan to do until the next meeting and then make sure i keep my promises :). Elena

    1. Hi Elena. I am very glad you found this helpful. There are some ‘pomodoro’ apps that block the access to the internet or other applications besides the word processor, so you could have all in one. I also used to tell my supervisors what was coming next, so I’d have that as a deadline for myself. Thanks for your visit and for your comment, and good luck with your PhD. 🙂

  2. Much the same as you — I had two babies and a full time job at various times during my PhD (although it took me 7 years! but with a lot of suspensions etc due to maternity). I found the book ‘Finish your dissertation once and for all (and get on with your life)’ absolute gold for the final year of hardcore planning and pulling together. Wish I had found it earlier!

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