The self-sustaining cycle of thesis productivity

How do you stay productive, day after day?

One day you’re on fire, the next you struggle to write 50 words.

It’s frustrating; you know you’re capable of doing it, but that just makes it worse on those days when you can’t get going.

1: The first working hour of the day is the most important

If you start the day achieving something, then you’re more likely to stay productive for the rest of the day.

But if you don’t know exactly what you’re going to work on when you sit down at your desk, then your default routine takes over (email, news websites, etc). Two clicks and you’re stuck in a procrastination loop.

So wait before turning on the computer. Spend 10 minutes or so just thinking about what you’re going to do. Start with something easy you can finish!

2: Stop while you still have something in reserve

At the end of the day, don’t work till exhaustion just because you are “on a roll”. You need rest to stay consistently productive!

Stop, and set yourself something easy to start with tomorrow.

The self-sustaining cycle of consistency

If you do this, taking care of the beginning and end of the day, you will be able to keep your momentum from one day to the next.

Achieving something early generates momentum. That means you get plenty done and can finish the day happy with what you’ve done.

Then it feels OK to stop, so you can rest properly, and leaving yourself something easy to do means you can achieve something early, which generates momentum…

12 things you need to know when starting a PhD

1: Beat your first deadline

Whatever your supervisor gives you to do first, beat the deadline by at least 24 hours.

2: Get to know people who can make things happen

You might not need them yet, but saying hello to secretaries, technicians, porters etc is a very good idea before you need a last minute favour later. Then…

3: Thank people who do things for you

Especially your PhD supervisor. It’s easy to complain if they aren’t there for you, but recognise that they are almost certainly busier than you are, and show that you value their time.

4: Get to know other people’s research

This will give you a broader knowledge base, and stop you getting too narrowly focused on your own research. You’ll learn far more (and faster) by talking to people than you will by reading.

And your colleagues are more likely to be interested in your work if you show an interest in theirs.

5: Get really, really good at one thing

Nobody knows everything. You’re not expected to. But try to get seriously good at at least one thing.

Even better if it’s something useful to other people.

6: What you write now, you won’t like in 3 years time

3 years from now, you’ll know far more than you do now. That’s the whole point of the PhD.

The value of doing a lit review now though his to learn the basics. Focus on basic concepts, and don’t let writing get in the way of starting research.

7: Downloading papers doesn’t count as reviewing the literature

I mentioned this in 17 random tips for PhD success, but it’s worth saying again. Check out this post on an easier way to review literature.

8: Publish

Everything you do should be working towards getting published. If your work isn’t going to be publishable, it’s not going to be worth a PhD.

9: Make contacts outside your department

Contacts are the lifeblood of your career. Get to know people at conferences, get their business card, add them on LinkedIn, and that CV you send 3 years from now won’t be coming from a stranger.

10: Write everything down

Write notes as if they are for someone else working coming in to take over your work after your shift ends. Your future self will forget!

11: Time goes faster than you think

Sometimes the days will drag, but the years will fly by. Set yourself a target for what you’re going to achieve in the first 6 months.

12: Make mistakes

If you make no mistakes, you’re not taking risks and you’re not pushing yourself.

Just make sure you learn from them, take responsibility for them, and try not to make the same mistake twice.