Two Hundred Weeks: Productivity for Mortal PhD Students (book extract)

by Luis P. Prieto, - 10 minutes read - 1929 words

Is there a way to be productive in our PhD without falling into all-out work obsession and burnout? What habits and systems could help us make good use of our (inherently limited) time and effort, taking into account that we could die tomorrow? In this second part of our Four Thousand Weeks book summary, we look at some of the tactical and strategic advice stemming from the productivity mindset shifts the book suggests – filtered and contextualized for doctoral students aware of their finitude.

A (very) finite PhD

I find the doctorate transposition of Oliver Burkeman’s book title (which you find in the title of this post) both enlightening and terrifying: the typical 4-year PhD degree process (this may vary from country to country, and your workload status – adjust to your specific situation!) will translate into approximately 200 weeks. Once we start subtracting holidays (yes, you should take those), sick periods, trips to conferences and similar disruptions, bureaucratic impasses (especially close to the final review and defense of the dissertation)… we probably feel a certain sense of unease: there are not that many weeks left to become an expert in a sliver of human knowledge, design and run a research program, analyze data, write up results, write papers and get them published, etc. And most of these things we are novices at, as PhD students! Certainly not a lot of time.

There are two typical paths after this realization of the (very) limited nature of a PhD: Some will stress out and work, work, work, striving towards perfection… and possibly falling into burnout. Others may directly despair and quit the PhD as a lost cause. But there is a third, middle path, between workaholism and dropout, which is to stop avoiding the uncomfortable truth of these limits – and the uncomfortable emotions they bring, like the shame of limiting our research question’s scope, the uncertainty in our methodological choices, or the exposure by others of holes in our imperfect publication drafts. To accept our finitude and laser-focus on what’s really, really important, in the dissertation and in our life. In sum, the mindset changes we described in the previous post.

Let’s get tactical

Yet, this shift in our attitude can have little impact in our behavior, if we do not have habits, systems and tactics that align with them. Although Burkeman’s book does not dwell for long on the tactical tips and hacks that are so prevalent in other productivity books and channels (especially if you search Youtube or Tiktok), here are a few of the productivity principles he suggests that I find most applicable to doctoral students – and researchers in general:

  1. Pay yourself first: Given our limited time, energy and attention, and the thousand tasks (and people) pulling at us, it makes sense to plan first (and defend!) our most important tasks. Long-time readers of the blog will have seen this in practice in the calendar approach to time management: for instance, putting in our calendar “meetings with ourselves” about the most important dissertation tasks (probably reflected as milestones in our thesis map), when doing our weekly review. If we use the “Most Important Task” (MIT) productivity strategy (I still do!), work on such MITs in the first hours of the day, before meetings and emails sap our energy and attention. Basically, this is about applying granny’s rule to our (prioritized) to-do list.
  2. Limit your work-in-progress: Software development shops have long noticed that serializing your projects (working on only one or very few big projects at the same time until one is done, before you open a different one) is way more effective than its opposite. This may be because each open project we are working on generates its own administrative overhead of meetings, emails, and other menial tasks… or just because we finish things more often (which engenders a virtuous motivational “progress loop”). Thus, follow the main tenets of productivity systems like personal kanban (also a book) and fix a hard upper limit to the number of things (especially, big projects) you are working on at any given time. As a PhD student, you might focus on writing the one big journal paper at a time, foregoing thesis writing or external collaborations until the paper is sent. As a nice side effect to this strategy, you will probably get better at phrasing tasks and goals more manageably, as vague/huge projects will quickly clog your productivity system if you impose this kind of work-in-progress restrictions.
  3. Fixed-volume productivity: This is maybe a generalization of the previous strategy. Aside from working on only one/few big projects at a time, invent other ways of making your workload reasonable and sustainable in the long run. A classic way to do this is to enact fixed hours for your PhD work (e.g., I will never work on my thesis past 6pm). Keeping the time available for the thesis limited will force PhD students to increase their focus, and to get creative on how to be more productive (or productive enough to keep afloat), rather than just throwing hours at the problem and seeing how other aspects of their lives suffer. In a similar vein, you can implement a pull-based productivity system: rather than having an infinite-capacity to-do list, have two to-do lists: an infinite one labeled “back burner” with any task you think you might want to do (a sort of wishlist), and another one, labeled “to-(really)-do” with, say, 10 slots, which is what you really manage and try hard to get done in your everyday.
  4. Resist the allure of middling priorities. When implementing the previous strategy in a PhD, it is very important to have a good “map” of the critical elements and milestones of your thesis, to avoid the real to-do list’s limited real estate getting crowded out by unimportant stuff. Always have a good proportion of the “to-(really)-do” list populated with tasks about these critical thesis elements! More generally, since we have too many important things we want to do at any given time, try to organize your time around, e.g., the top 20% of your priorities (hopefully your thesis is somewhere in there!). The rest of your priorities, avoid at all costs – at least for now, until they climb up in importance as you finish other things (like the PhD :)). Basically, this is about getting better at saying no: not only to “easy no’s” we do not really want to do (peer reviews, extraneous assignments/opportunities from our boss) – also to “hard no’s” we really want to do but are not critical (e.g., that external collaboration with a cool researcher we admire, or the research stay in that city we always wanted to live in).
  5. Make your devices boring and single-purpose: This strategy tries to address distraction rather than finitude. To avoid the many sources of “priority leakage” we often suffer due to multi-purpose devices like our smartphones and laptops, use more single-purpose devices (e.g., e-ink readers for reading books and papers, a paper notebook for working out paper ideas), especially in those activities that require deep focus. You can also make your existing multi-purpose devices more boring (e.g., make your smartphone monochrome). A corollary of this tactic to improve your focus is to make your environments exciting (for what you want to do) but still single-purpose: maybe have a specific table at home you use for reading thesis papers, a specific library you use for writing, or a bench in the park you use for working out experiment designs. Going for a walk along the river with only a paper notebook and a pen to work out the outline of the next journal paper in your thesis seems like the perfect example of this cluster of tactics.
  6. Plan (and state to others) what you will be lousy at. Implicit in the previous strategies and tactics is a decision about priorities, made not in the spur of the moment, but rather in advance, when we are calm and can think clearly about what’s most important in our lives (e.g., when doing a yearly, quarterly, or weekly review). Once you decide one priority (e.g., finishing the thesis) is most important in this upcoming period, you can assume logically that you will be lousy at most of your other priorities (e.g., being a good research collaborator, or an impeccable parent). Writing this down this decision can be helpful (to remind ourselves). It can also be useful to tell the people around us about this focus, so that they can understand our actions and take mitigating measures (e.g., maybe we can arrange for grandpa to take care of the kids in certain moments, to make space for the time the “big priority” needs). In the case of a PhD, it is also important to note that a PhD is temporary, so it may be a top priority for some time, but it will eventually step down allowing us to focus on other priorities. Again, having a clear map of the thesis will be helpful to also understand (and maybe talk with our supervisors), which parts of an “ideal thesis” we plan to be lousy about (maybe our literature review will be sub-par… in service of a really strong research design or a deeper, multi-method data analysis phase).

The book also has other nice tactical advice that will be useful more generally in our lives: paying attention to what we pay attention to, focusing on the tasks completed rather than only on the to-dos (easily achieved if you implement a weekly or yearly review practices), etc. Yet, I think this is enough tactical advice for a single post – let’s remember again that we have limited time :)

The diagram below shows the main ideas and tactics in this post.

A key realization about the finitude of the PhD, and strategies and tactics for a PhD that go with it.

Main ideas in this blog post.

Thus, if you feel overwhelmed and burned out as a PhD student, maybe the mindset shifts in the previous post and these tactics can help you. My advice would be to try just one of each (the ones that feel more relevant in your particular situation) for a few weeks until they become second nature, and only then reflect: has your long-term productivity and life experience improved? Add another one for some weeks. Rinse and repeat. In a few months, you may find yourself more productive and, especially, more human as a PhD student.

Did you try any of these tactics in your own life? Did they improve your productivity, the quality of your experience, or both? Let us know in the comments section below, or leave a voice message!

This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which means that I may get a small commission (at no extra cost to you) if you buy the books I pointed to, using the provided link.

Header image by Bing Designer1

  1. The prompt I used was: “Please draw an image in the style of Quinton Hoover or Alphonse Mucha, depicting a non-caucasian, slightly overweight doctoral student in a labcoat, whose hands are turning into sand, which goes down to a sandy floor. All this scene is in the upper part of a giant sand hourglass, which is running out of sand. Make the ambience dreamy. Take your time, you can do a great job. This drawing is very important to me, I hope my readers like it a lot!". I just love Hoover and Mucha’s paintings… also, it is (not) funny how the model cannot cope with multiple “atypical” human features, like being overweight and of non-Caucasian ethnicity (atypical in the training data, it seems!). ↩︎

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Luis P. Prieto

Luis P. is a Ramón y Cajal research fellow at the University of Valladolid (Spain), investigating learning technologies, especially learning analytics. He is also an avid learner about doctoral education and supervision, and he's the main author at the A Happy PhD blog.

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