What does a PhD student actually do all day? Well every project is different but chances are you’ll be spending a large chunk of your day in front of a computer. Without deadlines or exams looming constantly like at undergrad, it can be difficult to keep working and not spend all day reading the news or looking at stupid pictures online.
Having succumbed to the twin demons of facebook and failblog, I decided it was time to take notice of what I was doing online and try to motivate myself to work. Without obvious work goals it can be hard to feel like you’re doing much when you’re chipping away at a huge project rather than submitting assignments for a 12 week long course.
Firstly, I needed to stop myself idling away hours looking at useless websites. This is where leechblock comes in. Leechblock is an extension for Firefox (I’m sure there are similar for other browsers) and thankfully I can install browser addons even while our computing services have my admin rights!
Once installed you can pick which time wasting sites to block and when. I group mine into categories: social networking, news, general timewasting and so on. Then I decide when to block, so I get 5 minutes in every hour, which I figure is enough for a quick break, along with an hour off for lunch. Once that time is up, I get a blank page until an hour has passed. A little timer lets me know how much time I’ve got left. I have realised that 5 minutes is a long time on some of the sites I frequent! Though it leaves enough time to read a news article.
The other prong of my anti-procrastination attack is using the pomodoro technique. I came across this when I was writing my masters thesis. Essentially the pomodoro technique involves doing your work in 25 minute bursts with a five minute break between. Every four pomodori you get a longer break. The wikipedia article gives a simple outline and explains the name.
I use my phone on silent to time my 25 minutes and then put my headphones on and get down to work. Maybe 25 minutes of Matlab, or 25 minutes of reading a paper, or 25 minutes of writing. Once the timer buzzes (I keep it in my pocket to avoid annoying everyone) I note it down on a little text document. I then time a 5 minute break and get back on with work. I do occasionally forget to reset the timer!
I’ve set myself the challenge of a daily average of between 12 and 16, corresponding to between 6 and 8 hours of work. I haven’t really reached that yet, though I only have myself to blame (staying up late trying to catch up on tv isn’t conducive to a good nights sleep!) It is nice to know that I am doing work and allows me to compete with myself to do a bit better than yesterday.
It can get a little frustrating when an interesting conversation happens amongst my office mates mid pomodoro. I’ve invested in some better headphones which should block out some noise. I don’t mind them talking, I love we have a friendly atmosphere in the office, but I get annoyed at not being able to join in. Sometimes I do join in a little as long as its not too distracting!
Procrastination isn’t quite busted yet, and some days you need to give your brain a break, but I feel like I’m working much better than I was.