Merve Mollaahmetoglu, an SSA-funded PhD student at the University of Exeter, shares six tips to help with productivity during your PhD.

At some point, most of us will have spent a morning staring at a half-written paragraph or an incomplete to do-list. A dip in productivity during a PhD is a common problem, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this is not often openly discussed, perhaps due to fears of being perceived as not hardworking or determined. Here are my tips on how to be or stay productive while doing your PhD.

1. Redefine productivity

You may think of a productive day as one where you wrote an introduction or finalised data analysis. This disregards all the steps that are required for the final product: to write an article, you need to read around the literature. To complete a statistical analysis, you need to do data cleaning and checking. All of these steps take time, and defining productivity on the outcome is not very helpful.

It is also important to note that time spent on a task doesn’t equal productivity. Two hours of focused, dedicated work may be much more productive than four hours of work without any direction. Personally, attending write clubs where I can do short bursts of focused work has significantly improved my productivity!

We tend to think of productivity as time spent ‘doing’ rather than ‘thinking’. Sometimes we may need to spend time thinking, for instance brainstorming on ideas for a new research project, so it’s important to acknowledge that this is also time well spent.

2. Manage the productivity guilt

The second thing to acknowledge is that it is common for your productivity levels to fluctuate throughout a PhD, depending on your personal circumstances and external factors. For instance, the current pandemic has likely affected many people’s work due to the barriers of working from home, anxiety brought about by the uncertainty of the situation and the associated social isolation. It is okay and completely normal not to be productive all the time. (See this Twitter thread about seeing productivity as a ‘wave’.)

A decline in productivity can often amplify feelings of impostor syndrome, whereby self-doubt and self-criticism might contribute to a lack of motivation. It may be helpful to approach ourselves with self-compassion when this happens, rather than focusing on negative thoughts. Self-compassion involves extending empathy, understanding and acceptance to oneself. This skill may not always come easy; therefore it might be helpful to practice meditation, focusing on cultivating compassion.

It can also help to try and detach our self-worth from our productivity. Although it can be very easy to tie self-worth to productivity, this can be damaging to our mental health and may not help when we are struggling to be productive.

3. Talk to your peers

Talking to other PhD students and sharing experiences always helps, you may be surprised to hear that other people have struggled with similar issues and may have advice about what helped them. I personally found that speaking to fellow PhD students gave me some perspective; it is often too easy to compare yourself to others and think that everyone is being more productive than you are. On that note, as the circumstance of every PhD project and student are unique, focusing on negative comparisons between your and other people’s work is not a good idea.

4. Apply project management techniques

One approach that benefited me was applying project management principles to my PhD work. Setting out vague and unclear tasks can be overwhelming. Simplifying and verbalising tasks and attaching a timeframe has helped my focus and productivity. For instance, instead of setting out ‘Data analysis for first study’ as a task, try ‘Conduct regression analyses during the first week of July’; instead of ‘Publish second study’, try ‘Write introduction during the final week of July’.

5. Review progress and set out priorities

Another tip is to review your work regularly: ask yourself what has gone well and what hasn’t, and adjust accordingly. I try to do this at the end of the day on Fridays and it makes me feel prepared for the next working week. I also find it helpful to set out weekly priorities for my work; if you’re working simultaneously on multiple projects this can be particularly valuable for effectively managing workload.

6. Match tasks to motivation levels

My final tip is as follows: when you are not feeling particularly focused or motivated, try to complete tasks that will move the project forward, but won’t require as much engagement and mental energy. For instance, if you are experiencing writer’s block, complete your references or format your figures and tables, rather than staring at that half-written paragraph for the whole morning.

Merve Mollaahmetoglu is a PhD student funded by the SSA and the University of Exeter, investigating rumination as a risk factor and treatment target for alcohol use disorders. Other research interests include the use of ketamine for the treatment of substance use disorders. Follow Merve on Twitter.

Editor’s note: The title and formatting of this blog were changed on 26 October 2023

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