In Your Own Time: Productivity Tips For the Postdoctoral Scholar

I’ve now been in post in my new postdoctoral fellowship for over a month. Since beginning, it’s been like being caught in a tornado – work has been picked up and whirled around, along with moving house, attending neglected appointments, and taking deliveries of furniture. As I’ve walked around campus, I’ve spoken to lecturers and teaching fellows, whose working lives are syncronized with the rhythm of the teaching term. In contrast, my own schedule is self-established, albeit with the knowledge that I have targets to hit if my fellowship is to be deemed successful. Most of these goals are publication oriented: the book, numerous academic articles, pieces aimed at a wider audience. Time management is key to achievement in a postdoctoral fellowship – especially one that has a humanities focus – so I’ve drawn together a list of tips, which are largely applicable also to graduate students also (with perhaps ‘the thesis’ as the focal point, as opposed to ‘the book’).

Some of these tips are self-generated, based on my own experience as I’ve made mistakes and learned. Others are drawn in from the business world. Humanities postdocs. have a lot in common with freelance writers. We know we have duties to take care of and have to report to the people who pay our wages. However, we, by-and-large, don’t get caught up in departmental administration and, by-and-large, don’t have supervisors breathing down our necks on a daily basis. This freedom can be invigorating, but it also means that we have to be self-motivated.

Manage your energy and make use of ‘structured procrastination’

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It’s hard to be creative when one’s feeling glum. Grotesque at Shibden Hall, Halifax.

I started writing this blog post because I realised that I’d let my social media presence slip – and social media is integral to my project. Also, I decided to do it then because I had an important dentist appointment in the morning, and my worries about that event had sapped my energy to confront the editing work that I’d planned.

I find informal writing cathartic, and I felt that writing this post would inspire me to do some work on my publication projects at a later time in the day. It is important to assess when you are strongest, and plan your most difficult tasks for that time. If you’re a morning person, plan to work on difficult articles in the morning. Don’t feel guilty if you spend 1pm-3pm checking emails and updating yourself on your Twitter feed. I like the phrase ‘structured procrastination’, because it alleviates my guilt about the inevitable down times, yet encourages me to keep an eye on the clock.

Employ digital resources to help manage your time

Long ago, when I was a marketing assistant, I planned my day assiduously using an Outlook calendar. Now, when I am feeling overwhelmed with work, or directionless, I set out my research using my Gmail calendar. I allow for flexibility depending on how I’m feeling (see above), but if I ‘fail’ to tackle a task, I move it straight into a slot in the next day.

Productivity tools such as Leechblock have been invaluable to me. Mindful procrastination is not always bad (see above), but sometimes you need a little *kick* to ensure that you confront a task rather than putting it off. When I have a difficult paragraph to write, I often find my mouse cursor migrating towards the Facebook tab. Leechblock prevents me from accessing social media easily – you have to actively disable it if you’re really determined to gain access.

Set up collaborations

The postdoctoral fellowship can be a lonely business. For example, it is not uncommon for me to go for an entire day without speaking to anyone else. In addition, the pressure of self-determined deadlines can weigh heavily on your shoulders. That’s why I think it is important to set up collaborations with other scholars. If you pick the right collaborators they will help you to maintain momentum and get work done. Collaboration also means that you do not feel alone in your work. It helps you to maintain perspective – and to learn to play well with others. I’ve also found that it encourages me to avoid complacency  – I have to make sure that I am not the one who is dragging her feet. In the process of ensuring my diligence in a single project, I’ve found that I’ve become much more productive overall.

Get enough sleep and take breaks

I’ve made a spreadsheet to record my holiday allowance because I realised that I failed to take my full quota last year. The work of a research-focused postdoctoral scholar is almost piece-work. We get paid for our output, not for the number of hours that we put in. We don’t exactly get a cheque for every article that we churn out, but, equally, the system does not reward us for simply sitting at our desks. Therefore, though it is important to put in the hours, sitting staring at your screen with bags under your eyes is entirely pointless. Go for a walk, get a cup of tea, or just leave your desk early if you think that it would be better to start early tomorrow instead. Flexible hours is one of the advantages of a research postdoc., and I have yet to meet an early career academic who puts in *fewer* hours than they are paid for.

As a postdoctoral scholar, you will not be congratulated for every achievement that you make (e.g. being accepted for a conference, having an article published etc, or even getting your Inbox down to zero), so it is important to reward yourself. This might be as simple as having a walk around campus on a sunny day, or buying a muffin from the coffee shop – I think it’s important to recognise your own achievements. One day last week, I took the afternoon off and had a wander around Shibden Hall in Halifax. It has 600 years of history, so I certainly did not feel like I was cheating myself.

I took the afternoon off to visit Shibden Hall near Halifax: great inspiration territory.

I took the afternoon off to visit Shibden Hall near Halifax: great inspiration territory.

Nooks and crannies at Shibden: an unexpected dose of material culture.

Nooks and crannies at Shibden Hall: an unexpected dose of material culture.

Have a ‘spring clean’

When I started my new fellowship, I spent almost two hours reorganising my files on my office computer. It was amazing how good I felt afterwards. Spending these hours doing this task made me feel like I was doing something useful at a time when I was short of creative energy. And, it turns out, it really was a useful task. In the hectic last few months of my Internship, I’d allowed files to become lodged in the wrong folders. I had become uncertain about which was the latest version of each  article I’d written. My new organisational system allows me to see which articles I’ve got in progress, and enables me to access source material (e.g. PDFs of medical articles) much more easily. Having my work computer in order has also encouraged me to work from home less often, which – let’s face it – can be a massive distraction!

I hope some of these tips have helped. I’d be interested to hear what tactics other early career researchers have found useful!

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2 comments

  1. A fantastic piece again, Debs! It’s nice to know we’re allowed to take ourselves off for little breaks, and after six months of feeling desperately lonely, I’m setting up a “publishing the book” group with other post-PhDs for some academic social contact. Things are always better in company.

    1. Thanks Jane. That’s a really good idea! I think talking things over with others often simplifies what can seem like impossible problems too.

      I enjoyed going for my break, and ended up finding a great cafe to do some typing in – and subjected the owner to way too much information about my research!

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