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Managing your Time for a Successful DPhil

Before we talk about time, there are a few important points to understand:

  • The DPhil is a marathon, not a sprint. Just as you would for a marathon, to achieve the best outcome you should plan and carry out your work in a consistent and structured way.
  • That may feel like an odd concept now at the beginning of your project, when you have three or four years stretching ahead of you for you to fill as you choose. But remember that you are responsible for completing your DPhil, and while your supervisor and others are there to support and guide you, only you can do the work. Beyond any formal milestones set by the University, your department or supervisor, your time is your own to manage.
  • Time management is not really about time. It’s about habits, attitudes, how you prefer to work, how you manage others (ie managing downwards, upwards and sideways).  That means that there are no hard and fast answers to effective time management. The good news is that there are a range of tools and techniques that can help, some of which are covered in this section. Try them out and use the ones that work for you.

Time Management Resources and Online Courses

The Balanced Researcher

How to Plan your PhD

Quick Time Management Tips from Vitae

Hints, Tips, Tools and Strategies for Time Management

Plot your formal and informal milestones

At University level your formal milestones are Transfer of Status, Confirmation of Status, Submission and the Viva Examination.

Your department and supervisor will also have additional milestones and deadlines that you are required to meet.

You should find out the dates and the deadlines for all these milestones and plot them in your diary. This calendar sets out the four academic years of your DPhil; you may find it useful to use for this exercise.

When you have plotted your formal milestones, consider what other things you want to do during your DPhil: Conferences? Skills training? Outreach? Teaching? What else? You may not be able to plan what you want to do when for the whole four years, but you can use your calendar to plot the long and short term priorities.

Make a to do list

Do this in whatever way works for you, but keep on your to do list (or lists) long, medium and short term goals. Break down the bigger, long term goals into smaller chunks and put those onto your weekly or daily to do list.

Assess and identify priorities

Once you have your to do list, you need to prioritise tasks. This will help you plan how to use your time most effectively. Here are two tools that might help you do that.

i. Progress and Maintenance

You can categorise anything you have or want to do as a progress task or a maintenance task, and this will help you assess how to prioritise your to do list.

A maintenance task is one that will prevent you from falling behind. Answering routine emails or cleaning equipment are maintenance tasks – they need to be done, but they don’t move us forward. Once they are done we are in the same place we were before.

A progress task is one that will move you forward from where you are now. Composing an email to a potential collaborator or assessing how a piece of equipment could be more productive are progress tasks because they move you forward from where you were before.

It’s easy to do maintenance tasks because they are usually obvious and well defined. And it’s easy to feel you have achieved a lot when you have used your time on maintenance tasks. Progress tasks are less well defined and may involve more risk; but it is these tasks that will move you forwards. The definition of what is progress and what is maintenance is subjective and depends on your context, and of course you do need to do maintenance tasks, but balancing the two will help you move forwards.

See this video on how to ring fence time for progress tasks.

ii. Important / urgent 

The Important / Urgent matrix is a well-known tool for deciding where to focus your effort to be most productive (or make the most progress.). 

There is a blank urgent / important template for you to use. Use your to-do list to categorise your tasks and provide clarity on where to focus.

Planning and actioning

  • We’ve already mentioned to do lists; when you plan and prioritise your daily or weekly to do list, make sure you are being realistic about what can be achieved. It seems counter-intuitive, but if you plan to do less, you will achieve more. Think carefully about what you are choosing to do first. Is it the easier stuff? Or the most important?
  • Know that not everything will go smoothly during your DPhil and that you will run into problems. You can’t predict what the problems will be, but you can include some contingency time in your planning.
  • Observe your energy levels during the day and plan to do the most important things when your energy is high, saving routine work for when your energy is lower.
  • Observe and notice what kind of things steal your time, and work out how take control by managing these things pro-actively. Download the slides on Time Stealers as a PDF to see some suggestions, or view the content of the Time Stealers slides as a webpage.

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