Tips on Time Management from a Serial Procrastinator

During your PhD you will have a lot of demands on your time (including: research, lab work, classes, teaching duties, meetings etc.) and it will be your responsibility to manage said time effectively in order to meet all your deadlines. This means that good time management skills are absolutely essential for a PhD student, so if you know this isn’t a strong point of yours then it might be worth getting into good habits now to prepare yourself.

As a serial procrastinator myself (semi-reformed!), I know how hard it can be to break the habit of a lifetime and actually start your work ahead of time; there are so many time-wasting traps and temptations to lead you astray…

deadline cat

Top ten things NOT to do when you’re on a deadline:

  1. 1.       Think that just making a list of important tasks counts as an important task. Yes, it’s very important to make task lists and schedules and suchlike to help you keep track of things. But it’s also very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that, because making the list is work related, it therefore counts as work. If you’ve put more time into making your work schedule than you have into any of the actual work on it, then you’ve probably procrastinated enough.
  2. 2.       Think that colour coding the list also counts as an important task. Seriously, put down the colouring pencils! And the highlighters. And the multi-coloured biros… When you make your task lists or schedules, start from the current day and make sure you put in a task for that day, to be completed straight away. This will encourage you to make a good start, otherwise you will have already ruined your beautiful list, and it will help you feel as though the schedule is helping you already, making you more likely to stick to it in future.
  3. 3.       Pretend that cleaning the whole house down to the skirting boards counts as a productive day. This is another tricksy one as you’re doing something that needs to be done, so you feel less guilty about not working than if you’d just watched TV.
  4. 4.       Stay up late working but then use it as an excuse to sleep all day afterwards. If you’ve been up late working hard, odds are you’re going to feel pretty tired the next day. So you’ll have a nice long lie in as a reward. The only trouble with this is that if you’re have to catch up on sleep then you will probably want to sleep for longer than normal, which then wastes more time than if you’d gone to bed a little earlier and got up and started working again at your normal time.
  5. 5.       Start reading Game of Thrones just before your dissertation is due. This is equally true of watching Breaking Bad. Or getting Candy Crush on your phone… Just say no!
  6. 6.       Make unrealistic time plans that you know you won’t stick to. To plan your time better you need to know how you work best. Do you prefer to work for long stretches so you don’t lose focus or do you prefer to take lots of little breaks so you don’t overload your brain? Are you better at focusing on one assignment at a time, or switching between assignments to keep your interest up? Thinking about your work style like this will help you to plan your time more effectively.
  7. 7.       Kid yourself that even though you can’t be bothered right now you will definitely, absolutely, 100% get it done tomorrow. Yeah right! Once you start putting things off its all too easy to keep doing so until suddenly its snowballed out of control and you only have 2 days left to write 3 assignments! Try to make a start, even if it’s something small like reading a couple of papers or making some notes and before taking the rest of the evening off. Having something down already will make it easier for you to write it up later, you might find that simply starting a project inspires you to keep going and get even more of it done.
  8. Think that, because you’ve started something you don’t need to work again for ages. This is a very common trap for people who struggle with time management (in fact, this is actually my personal weakness!) You’ve started a project ahead of time; you’ve got some research ready, a few notes or a plan; you’re feeling pretty proud of yourself for making a head start. So you think it will be fine if you leave for a couple of weeks. After all, it’s not due for ages! The problem with this approach is that you will get other assignments in the interim so the work can sneakily pile up with you noticing. Also, by the time you come back to it you may have forgotten some of the details and end up having to go back and re-read a lot of the research you already did, which means that the time you spent making a good start, was effectively wasted. Once you have started working on a project, try to come back to it at least once a week to add more research or work on the next section. This will help you make slow but steady progress and keep the work fresh in your mind.
  9. Have Facebook and iPlayer set as your internet homepages. Try getting rid of these sorts of things from your home pages as it will merely tempt you to procrastinate every time you open your laptop. If you’re on a really tight deadline then blocking them for a little while might be a good idea; it may sound silly but just making it that little bit harder to access your procrastination tools, will help you think twice about whether you should be doing something else.
  10. 10.   Tell your friends you can’t come out because you’ve got too much work. Denying yourself any time for relaxing/socialising won’t help to keep your motivation or energy up. Try to allocate some time for friends/ family/downtime each week to keep you motivated (and sane!) Just try to keep your work and social lives in a healthy, manageable balance.

The above advice may seem like common sense, but for less organised people, myself included, it can be very easy to get off track and end up with a huge stack of work, deadlines looming and a week of panic and sleepless nights to look forward to.

insanity wolf

So I’ve told you what NOT to do, but here are some tips on what you can actually do to improve your time management skills:

  • Plan well ahead of time.  This applies to both long-term and short-term goals. Make sure you keep an eye on how well your PhD is progressing and whether you are on schedule to finish it, as well as planning your smaller task and assignments.
  • Leave enough room in your plans for flexibility.  Unexpected things happen in life and in a PhD. Make sure that you’ve left enough flexibility in your schedule to adapt and stay on track if life throws you a googly once in a while.
  • Learn to prioritise tasks. When you’re making your task lists try to think about how important and how urgent a task is and prioritise accordingly. Complete tasks that are both urgent and important first and then continue with important but not urgent tasks etc.
  • Covey_Time_Matrix_Web
    (Image retrieved from: )
  • Know your own working style and capabilities. Only you will know how you can work most effectively, so take some time to honestly consider your own style, how you can be most productive and plan your time accordingly. For example: are you more productive if you take frequent short breaks, or do you find it easier to focus on a task for a long time and rest afterwards?
  • Learn to say ‘no’ sometimes.  It can be very hard to say no to your supervisor when they ask you to do something but you have to be realistic about how much you can take on at once. There’s no point agreeing to a task if you KNOW you won’t be able to complete it in time or to the desired standard.
  • Respect deadlines!
  • If you’re getting behind, tell someone! Speak to your advisor if you feel that you are falling behind, and don’t wait too long to do this. The sooner you address the problem, the easier it will be to fix.
  • Use your time effectively/Learn to multi-task.
  • Update and refine your task lists every day. This will help you keep track of your progress and which tasks you need to prioritise the next day.
  • Keep a good lab notebook. Keeping detailed notes about your methods, lab protocols and analysis as you go will help you write up these parts of your thesis later on.
  • Meet with your supervisor regularly. Part of your supervisor’s role is to help you to make the most of your PhD and keep you from going way off track and wasting time.
  • Make some time for yourself!


    • finish all the things

    I hope these tips will be of some help to you lovely ninjas as you progress through your PhD’s. For further information on effective time management and a truly inspiring lecture, check out this link:

    Finally I’d like to say a huge thank you to Dr Emily Cross from Bangor University for letting us source information from her  Introduction to a PhD presentation “Getting the Most Out of Your PhD: Expectation, Organisation & Strategy” . Her presentation featured excellent advice and information on time management, which really helped to shape this post.

    -Dr L


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