10 tips for the overwhelmed researcher (Autumn O'Connor)

Photo by Kevin Ku | unsplash.com
Lack of direction, not lack of time, is the problem - we all have 24-hour days
   - Zig Ziglar

Feeling overwhelmed? Too many deadlines and too little time? Supervisor on your back to submit something? 

While it won’t solve all your woes, perhaps what you need is a little help with time management.

Here are 10 tips to help you manage your time better - use a few strategies, or use 'em all!

I highly recommend you take a breath and reflect on these. They might just help!

1. Focus on what needs to be done

Prioritise! I know it seems like a super-fun idea to check your Facebook, or watch that cat video, but writing your thesis should probably be the first port of call.

‘OMG, my thesis is what’s making me feel overwhelmed!’ I hear you cry. Yes, I understand that.

What I'd suggest is, instead of looking at the thesis as a giant insurmountable task, change your concept of it to be a set of smaller, manageable tasks. How? By, assessing what NEEDS to be done first. Things that don't need to be done? Don't do them!

For example, if you don't need to learn SPSS right now, don't. This doesn’t mean you’ll never learn it, but that you are prioritising. Is the motivations section of Chapter 1 most important right now? If not, don’t do it. Yes, you will get to these in time but, right now, to manage those feelings of being overwhelmed, focus on what absolutely needs to be done.

2. Quality is more important than quantity

A thesis is a long body of work, with many words. Considering you’ll be examined at the end of it, quality is more important than quantity. If you can produce quality and quantity, that’s great! For most of us, writing is a struggle and meeting both criteria at the same time is a challenge. So, instead of smashing out as much wordage as you can in a 3-hour block of writing, it’s better to do 20 minutes and write 300 words of awesome. In shorter time-frames, you can rack up more quality work, which saves you time later. Focus on quality.

3. Say NO

The number one reason graduate researchers tend to get overwhelmed is that they take too many things on. Stop saying yes to everyone -  you do not exist in the world to make everyone else's life easier, at your own expense. You don’t need to be a martyr; start a little self-lovin'.

If you are studying, your research needs to be a priority - see Tip #1 - so learn to say ‘No’.

Consider your needs. Consider your inner self: a sense of calm, a sense of peace, a sense of ‘roominess’. To have all these experiences, you need space. This is only achieved by not taking up every opportunity. You can do it. It's okay to say ‘No’.

4. Write 'Get-To-Do' lists

'To Do' lists are out. 'Get To Do' lists are in! It's purely a semantic thing, but 'To Do' sounds so much like an order and can make completing the task unattractive. A'‘Get To Do' list, on the other hand, is an empowered list that allows you to take charge.

Create your list, and at the top, title it, 'Get To Do list'. Whenever you look at that list, your first thought will be: "I GET to do this!". Changing the title of the list gives you a different view of your work; you have a choice to do the list. It’s not an order. It’s not a list of “must do”; it’s a choice. This may seem odd, but a simple semantic change like this can make a difference.

Take charge, and give it go!

5. Woof. Take a Power nap!

Just 30 minutes will refresh you. Hey, if we do it to break up long driving trips, we can do it when studying hard. A power-nap has been shown to add spring to your step.

6. Make your breaks mini-holidays

Everyone deserves a break from hard work. When you take a break, make sure it is actually a break. No checking emails on break!

Think of your breaks as mini-holidays. Do something really fun and engaging to shift the energy from "study/work" to relaxation. Note: you may need to switch off your devices.

7. Do hard work when you feel good

If you're feeling buzzy and ready to take on the world, that is the KEY time to do hard work. If you are happy and fresh one morning, write the thesis! Start a chapter. Continue a section. Read a paper. Annotate the transcript.

Do your essential hard work when you feel good.

8. Set deadlines before the deadline

Instilling a sense of urgency in your work will trigger a little (good) stress and make you get the job done. Set deadlines for your work at least 2 weeks before it’s officially due, then work towards that new deadline. If you don’t have a deadline in mind, ask your supervisor or colleagues when they expect to see drafts or completed sections of research, then set your personal deadline 2 weeks earlier. If you keep this practice up over several months, it will become second nature, and you'll hand over better material!

Also, having the space between your personal deadline and the actual deadline accounts for any nasties. What's a nasty? It could be a flash-flood in your laundry; getting a viral flu infection; your best friend crashes at your place for a week; you realise you haven’t been paid but rent is due; your mother comes to visit unexpectedly; or your internet connection dying...EEK! Those all sound intense! However, with 2 weeks to spare, if you haven't already finished your work, you still have time to finish it.

9. Get up early

Up earlier = more time in the day.
Yes. It really is that simple.

10. Be boring in structure

There is something quite beautiful about a routine. Being awake at the same time, eating the same thing, having 'sameness' - this is structure.

A routine allows the mind to focus on more important tasks. Why? Because, with routine, actions become automated. Instead of consciously thinking about the order of steps involved to achieve a task, your brain power can now be focused on saving the world (or writing up your research).

So, start small here: keep the same routine every day, even on weekends (if you can). Do you get up at 7am on weekdays? Do the same on Saturday and Sunday. Getting up at 7am on Monday morning will be so much easier! Plus you'll be brimming with creative ideas.


Autumn O’Connor is a Master's-qualified practicing psychotherapist, writing her interdisciplinary thesis on ‘computational autism’ (that is, how autistic learning systems can enhance cognitive computing models). 

She has worked as a private tutor to undergraduate students for over six years and is deeply inspired by the power of the written word! 

A rebel and a pioneer for change, Autumn will work hard and take on challenges. Her research interests include ethics, self-awareness, the philosophy of artificial intelligence, psychoanalysis, and relational dynamics.

Autumn's website is: https://autumnheart81.wixsite.com/seemework