In case this is helpful (Tseen Khoo)


Hugo Gernsback in the Isolator, image originally published in Science and Invention magazine (July 1925) | Source:

This is not a post that wants to whip you into a fever of productivity. 

It is hard going right now, for many reasons, and it's fairly unhelpful for anyone to be telling you that you should be doing more than what you can manage right now. 

What's this post about then? It's about how we all have different blockers and tendencies when it comes to doing our work, and what we do about them can also be quite different. 

It all started with an idea I had while talking to the lovely people at 'Research Now' last week. Research Now is an informal weekly get-together that the RED team hosts, where we discuss a whole range of different things. We've talked about ways to do research planning, how folks approach literature reviews or orientation, candidature admin, coping with lockdown (this being a constant topic at the moment...). We've swapped baking tips, met more of each others' pets and children, and generally spend a relaxed 45 mins just hanging out. It's a good, low-threshold way to connect with colleagues. If you're interested in coming along to Research Now, email us and we'll add you to the list.

ANYway, last week, I ended up inviting the crew who were there to share their productivity issues and how they tried to address them. I find that we often know how we get in our own way when it comes to getting things done!

Have a look at the key issues we recognised in our own practices - if any of them look familiar, do the approaches to address them also look familiar? 

I started the ball rolling with my particular productivity blocker: 

I'm very good at being utterly daunted by projects and anxious about how much needs to be done - so I do nothing. 

How I have tried to address this is the classic strategy of breaking the project down into smaller tasks (you hear this advice 100 times and you need to be in the right zone to actually listen to it). I've also been training myself to goal-set better and made sure I have accountability for my goals. I'm part of a monthly-weeklies group, and I have also set up a personal accountability colleague for major research project milestones. 

Allira said: "I’m really good at false productivity – I’ll happily spend an entire day completing life and work admin tasks (sending e-mails, colour-coding my diary, etc), then feel guilty about not making any tangible progress.

I make a timeline for myself, every 6 months or so, with the headings ‘What’ (the task) and ‘By when’ (a rough deadline); this keeps me accountable and it’s easy to see whether I’m ahead or behind schedule.

I schedule 'Golden Hours' into my diary – these are the times when I work best and can write, uninterrupted, for a few hours (if it’s not written in my diary then it won’t happen).

When starting a new chapter, I love making brainstorms (with colours, photos, etc.) to help get the thoughts out of my mind. When writing out the first draft of a chapter (using what’s on the brainstorm), I follow the motto of ‘1000 words a day’. It only takes a few hours and it’s a complete rough draft; it really helps to get the words onto the pages."   

Dan said: "I am a list maker. In fact, so much of a list maker that I will sometimes even list things I’ve already finished, just to have the satisfaction of crossing them off. To be honest, I’m not sure if my list-making ritual is productive or procrastination but one common problem I have is the angst of not making it through to the end of a list. 

A management coach once told me that, in his experience, people tended to make lists that were far longer than what was possible to complete in a single day. His solution? To limit the list to a small \number (e.g. 8 to 10) of items. If you reach the end – GREAT! Reward yourself, but get out of the habit of making lists so long that they never get finished."

Anuja shared: "Tasks that I initially think will be quick, but end up taking a lot longer, particularly some emails. 

The solution for me is that, if I only have a handful of these, then I list them, and aim to get them complete by the week. This puts them in a separate category to the other emails and delineates them as a task of their own. If I have a fair few like this, or I don't have many hours in my day or week, I allocate specific time in my day or week to do these. I don't aim to finish them all at a given time, but allocate myself something like one hour a day to get them done."

Charmaine said of her work schedule: "Mondays are currently my designated study days and I work Tuesday - Friday so my productivity is feast or famine. I find it difficult to know where to start

I have found that the Pomodoro technique is helpful. However, it's only helpful if you have actually already planned, or mapped out, the focus of the Pomodoro sessions! Otherwise, I sit there staring at the screen.

Having a study buddy to be accountable to is also good."

Ashley said: "Too often, I let myself ‘off the hook’ when I should be writing, telling myself I’ll feel more like writing later (spoiler alert: I almost never ‘feel’ like writing until I start writing). 

My solution/practice is to have a routine or study schedule; this is crucial for me. I work full-time so the time available for PhD stuff is pretty limited as is but, without a schedule, I spend ages agonising over whether to write and feeling guilty if I don’t. To combat this, I set aside the same two evenings each week for study and I switch straight from my ‘day job’ to writing as this helps me stay in ‘work’ mode. For the past 3 months, I’ve been attending SUAW sessions on Saturdays – the group atmosphere keeps me accountable when my inner-thesis-avoidance monster would say ‘It’s the weekend – have some fun!’ (this is also helped by the fact that I’m in Melbourne so my pre-lockdown weekend activities are non-existent).

Sometimes, to-do lists send me into a panic, so I find it more helpful to keep a ‘done’ list. After a writing session, I write down the tasks worked on and time spent on a calendar. This acts as a reminder that even short sessions lead to incremental progress, which helps motivate me to work when I’m feeling discouraged. It also helps me better estimate how long tasks will take, so my to-do lists are (slowly) becoming more realistic and less panic-inducing.

P.S. PhDs are long and hard, and sometimes you do genuinely need to take time out and have a break. The above isn’t a suggestion to push through when you are exhausted or worn out. It’s for those times when you know you have the capacity to work – you’d just rather not."


Many thanks to the generous souls who shared their issues and practices in this post! I compiled them here in case they were helpful for others who have obstacles in common and wanted to see what colleagues did about them.


Dr Tseen Khoo is a Senior Lecturer in the RED team. You can find her on Twitter at @tseenster