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Creating a Kick-Ass Schedule for Your PhD Studies

Creating a Kick-Ass Schedule for Your PhD Studies


The hardest part about being a phd student is not the workload, it’s the freedom.

I would argue that most of us thrive on a weekly structure to be productive and, ideally, that structure is made for us. Like in grade school when we had a class schedule, then we had afternoon activities, homework, dinner, and bedtime. Every hour of our day was scheduled for us. When we’re adults, most of us get jobs with specific hours. We punch in, punch out, and we know that we’ll have the weekends to relax.

But as a PhD student*, we’re given the assignment (100,000 words) and a rough time frame (3-4 years) and a salute (“Good luck!”). We don’t have classes to attend, no one is checking our attendance, or our office hours. We just have to meet with a supervisor every once and awhile and hand in something once a year to prove we’ve done some work.

[*Surely this can’t be said for all PhD students but I’m talking from my own experience and my Literature and History colleagues’ experiences.]

You’d think that sounds amazing, right? If you wanted to go on vacation for four days, you wouldn’t need to book time off. You could just go. If you wanted to sleep until noon every day, you could. Hell, you could sleep all day and work all night if you wanted!

Let me tell you—it’s really not as amazing as it sounds.  

The thing about being in school is that work-mode and school-mode are not black and white. Your assignments circulate in your brain because you could be working at any time, any day of the week. It’s not like work where you punch in, punch out, and when the day is done, you can leave your work behind and relax. 

If you have no real work schedule, then do you theoretically have a real break schedule?

Ask my boyfriend what I used to do 50% of the time on the weekends. He’ll tell you that I paced the room, sick with guilt, debating if I should be watching TV or working on my PhD. This was because I didn’t stick to a schedule and I let myself screw around all week, since no one was telling me not to. 

Scheduling yourself is difficult. We’re not good at holding ourselves accountable. We let ourselves off the hook because we aren’t disappointing anyone. But . . . we are disappointing ourselves. And we ignore the toll it has on our mental and physical health.

How many of you feel guilty at the end of the day for not “having done enough”? *Raises hand*

Keep reading for insight into how you can make a schedule that you will actually stick to and stop feeling guilty about having not done enough.

A PhD is Not an Office Job
— So Stop Trying to Work 8 Hours a Day

Last year I came to a realization that lifted a lot of guilt from my shoulders. I thought I needed to treat the PhD like an office job. I should be working 9 to 5 every day and if I work any less than that, I didn’t do enough. So when I wrote for 4 hours and didn’t want to write anymore, I’d leave school to go home but I’d feel guilty about it for the rest of the day. 

But if I stayed and forced myself to continue writing, the material would be half-assed. It would be painful to drag out of my brain. I just wouldn’t produce anything good. 

Creativity takes a lot of brain energy. It can be draining.

I like to treat creative writing (in my case) in the same way I treat lifting weights. When I deadlift heavy weight, I need a 5 minute rest to recuperate. I can’t just continually deadlift all day, every day. I need to eat food for fuel. I need to rest my body. I need to take a shower because I stink.

If my creativity burns out after 4 hours of writing, so be it. I won’t push it. The rest of the day can be used for other tasks, like collecting research, reading, or working on something else entirely. 

If you are a grad student and you are consistently beating yourself up for “not working enough” every day, then you might be overly ambitious! Give yourself a break.

The Basics for Creating a Kick-Ass Schedule

First thing’s first—accept that you’re not going to stick to a perfect schedule. Put down the credit card before you go buying a bullet notebook and a pack of colored pens because you’ll be wasting way too much money and time designing a beautiful schedule you’ll never use. 

Now, let’s move on to simple things you can do to make a kick-ass schedule.


Time Frames & Tasks

I wasted so much time scheduling out each hour and, literally, each minute of my day.

You don’t realize how many things get in the way of your meticulously planned out schedule. Facebook stalking, Instagram scrolling, a friend asks to have a quick coffee break, you had spicy chili last night and you’re in the bathroom for longer than expected…

This is why I recommend time frames. Work from 9 to 11. Or even less specific than that—“Work in the morning.” 

Here’s an example:

Screen Shot 2018-10-04 at 2.13.46 PM.png

I give myself no more than 3 - 4 tasks per work day. These tasks can be anything specific like “Write 1,000 words” or non-specific like “Research X book”. 

Here’s an example with Trello:

Read more about how I use Trello  here

Read more about how I use Trello here

I also make myself stop working after 5 every day. As if I’m a real-life businesswoman coming home from work at the office. After 5, I shut off work-mode and I make food, I watch TV, I shower, I read, and, most importantly, I feel accomplished.


Bedtimes & Wake-up Times

The whole “I’ll wake up when I want to wake up” sounds lovely in theory, but it’s a terrible strategy. If you can get your body to work like a clock with a set wake-up time and bedtime every night, instead of “whenever”, you and your body will be happier for it. 

I love the iPhone Bedtime feature. If you don’t have it, I suggest setting a reminder or an alarm on your phone so you know when it’s time to get ready for bed. You don’t have to go to sleep right away but just get in bed. And put your phone on Airplane Mode. Read or listen to music. Do something that isn’t too stimulating. 

Wake-up times should be the same every day. Or close-to the same. I have two alarm clocks. I keep one in the bathroom so I’m forced to get out of bed. My second alarm is my phone, which goes off 10 minutes after the first. 


coffee shops & the Deadly Transition Times

It’s a fantasy people have to be able to work remotely in cafes. Yes, I give sole credit to working/basically living in a coffee shop for meeting my boyfriend (so cute, omg) but I refuse to work in coffee shops anymore because it’s a huge time waster

Coffee shops are cramped, noisy, you can’t predict the WiFi signal or if there’s going to be free space, and you are (at least you should be) aware that you’ve been sitting there for 2 hours and only bought $2.50 worth of coffee. Add getting there, ordering, opening your laptop, the amount of work you actually do, and then when you decide to leave and go elsewhere, you’re about five dollars short, time is ticking, and so is your caffeinated body. 

Work somewhere without distractions. I’m lucky that the university has a space for me to work, but if you don’t have a space, try the library or even book a few hours at a communal workspace. Plan beforehand so you aren’t hopping from one coffee shop to bookstore to Starbucks to another every few hours. The transition time adds up. 


Pomodoro Technique & Limiting Procrastination 

(I didn’t realize this “technique” had an actual name until my friend said it, so thanks Valentina!)

The Pomodoro Technique is simple: work for 25 minutes, break for 5 minutes, work for 25 minutes, break for 15-30 minutes, and repeat the process. This is perfect for keeping you in check. 25 minutes isn’t that long, so if you’re desperate to watch the “Dancing With the Stars” recap, odds are you’ve only got 15 minutes left of work to do and then you can see how well so and so’s foxtrot went. 

kelly’s Key Takeaways:

  • Plan no more than 3 - 4 tasks per day

  • Scheduling large blocks of work time is more efficient than scheduling minute to minute

  • Stick to a regular bed time and wake-up time

  • Find a place you can work distraction-free

  • Use a timer to schedule breaks from work

I hope this blog post helps you get your shit together.

Let me know in the comments the ways you keep yourself accountable for a productive week of work. And . . . tell me your favorite part about having a flexible schedule! My favorite part is that I can go to the gym whenever I want :)

*For more organizational tips, check out this post.

Playlist for Productivity

Playlist for Productivity

The Shower Principle

The Shower Principle