Why plan in the first place
There is so much advice available regarding planning and organisation, but the fact that this is still something we all struggle with to a certain extent says something.
For instance, I’m most definitely a dreamer. I love to plan things out, usually with loads of colour and mind maps and graphics and all the fun stuff, but I struggle to put the best laid plans into action. There’s clearly a level of planning here that needs more thought.
In this respect, I’m not going to provide the answers on ‘how to plan’ as much, but more a guide for how to figure out what kind of planning works best for you, and what kinds of things you might want to work on. The beauty of this kind of thinking is that it doesn’t just apply to university work or research papers, but planning applies much more broadly.
Levels of planning
Planning by time
And no, sorry, no amount of planning is going to help you if your deadline is in a few hours. Sorry ‘bout it. You’ve just got to get on with it. But if you do want to plan ahead, when I say think of time, I mean more of a focus for short term, medium term(s), and long term (how you define these is up to you – I tend to use daily, weekly, monthly and quarter/half yearly – I struggle beyond that, as I find I usually need to revise plans by then). I always without fail bring my deadlines a week forward in my calendar (more on this in the tools section) – it’s not so much a trick of the mind, but more so that if I’m ill, or if anything urgent comes up last minute, I’ve got a bit of wiggle room. I used to kick myself for handing things in that I didn’t feel were up to standard, just because I was rushing. And don’t get me started on the stress. If you take anything away from this short article, this would be my number one tip.
Planning by task
In this respect, you may have a large task to complete (hello PhD), that helps nobody when it sits on your to-do list as ‘do PhD’ (this one comes from personal experience, if you hadn’t already ascertained). Breaking tasks down into much more manageable chunks makes approaching it a lot easier. It could even be broken down to the point of planning a chapter, collating a reference list, or even planning a paragraph – I use this method still for writing research papers, and find it helps keep me focused, but also takes away the overwhelm of writing 6,000 words plus in one go.
Planning by importance
Out of the three, I feel this one to be the ‘back up’ system for planning, as if you’ve got to this point, it’s coming quite close to the wire (I say that, but I still end up using this effectively, especially when term gets quite busy). In essence, to save panic setting in, it’s about really prioritising what needs to be done now, and how long you can realistically give to the task. For instance, you might have a journal review to complete, read a chapter for an upcoming research meeting, and submit a conference abstract. Consider when the deadlines are – how much time do you estimate you’ll need for each one? Can you work a little later today if it’s due soon, and take some time back in the morning? Or if it’s really tight – can you ask for an extension on a submission? (I know I’ve had to ask a couple of times about this – you’ll never know unless you ask!)
The tools that work for you are really up to you – there’s no magic formula here. You’ll find a plethora of tools that you could use to help you plan, but it is up to you to try what works for you. These are my top three – without these, I’d be a crumbling Netflix-bingeing wreck 24/7:
I cannot do anything without my calendar. Seriously. Why give my brain more things to hold when it already feels at capacity? I switched to a digital calendar over a year ago, purely because it syncs between all devices that I use, so I never have to say ‘let me check my diary and get back to you’ – I always have it on me. If you want to be a little extra, you can even set your calendar up to remind you of events coming up. This also helps with the ‘planning by time’ option above, as you can look ahead and see when any potential busy / quieter are, and plan work accordingly.
Again, I converted to a digital to-do list before the start of the last academic year, and good grief did I see a difference in my productivity. I am that kind of person who loves to see things ticked off and complete, so this works for me. Having it in digital form (plenty of options available – I personally prefer Wunderlist) means that I’m not rummaging for paper to-do lists written on scrap paper – I have it synced to my phone and my PC, so I can write things down as I remember, but also have it on my PC for when I work, so I know what I should be focusing on. The key with my digital to-do list that really makes it work, is that I date everything. Any and every item on there has a date which I need to address it. The list can be set up to remind you of things you need to complete, which is helpful. Coming back to the ‘planning by time’ option – this is where I set my to-do for a week ahead of time. I’ve managed to keep on top of multiple roles and responsibilities (including birthdays!) this year by using this.
Whichever genius invented these, you are a wonderful person. If you haven’t heard of pomodoros, it is essentially a technique for breaking down tasks into short timed sessions, with built in breaks. If any of my students are reading this – you’ll know what I mean – I recommend it all of the time. I have such a short attention span, I shit you not, I would not have completed my PhD without this. Again, there are plenty of apps you can use for this, but all you really need is a timer. I set mine for 25 minutes of work, and 5 minutes of break. You can extend this longer if that works best for you, but this really is my optimum. I need a half-hourly beverage fix if I’m working. This also works well with the ‘planning by task’ option above, as you’re giving yourself a real manageable amount of time to complete something small (craft a paragraph, write a chapter summary, read a short paper), but over the course of a day, you’ll have achieved so much. It is key that during the time you set yourself to work, that you really do work – no social media, no phone (I put mine on do not disturb during this time), NO EMAIL, no playing with pets. And then in your break, reward yourself with whatever you want. Give it a go – honestly, what even is life if you can’t find 25 minutes to attempt something? For me personally, I use this for everything – piano practice, reading for fun, exercising – it’s great.
These are just a few examples of how to approach figuring out what planning might work best for you. Something to note here is that you do not need to stick to one method! Depending on the thing you need to plan for, you might use different methods at different times. Also – the thing I always hear from students when I talk about planning is that they don’t have the time, as there is too much other stuff to focus on. Hey – I know, I’ve been there! At one point during my PhD, I was lecturing full time, and also working part time in a supermarket to help fund my PhD. Whilst also moving house. There is honestly no time like the present – you don’t need a clean bill of time to try these methods out, but you do need to just have a go.
Did you find this helpful? Let me know! @CharlotteJD