Your Time

Your calendar is a map of your time, so it only gets information regarding time specific things.

The way I see it, there are three-types of events that go on your calendar.

  1. Hard-Commitments: These are things that are hard or impossible to change. You have committed to being a grad student. With that you have committed to be in certain classes at certain times. This goes in your calendar. You are a GTA, so you have to be in front of your students at a certain time, you can not change this all willy-nilly.
  2. Soft-Commitments: Things that are still difficult to change the date of, but the time is more flexible. This person you just started seeing has a birthday next month. You are not sure if you are going to be seeing them on that day, but you want to remember to at least call them to let them know you remembered. You promised your advisor that you would send them an email on friday, but it doesn’t really matter when, so long as it is in their inbox saturday morning.
  3. Flexible-Commitments: Things that time must be made for that you have a lot of control over. Some of the things is this category are day-to-day needs. You need time to check your email and respond to it. Maybe you need time to hit the gym or hang out with friends. If you are like me, you need to schedule time to eat otherwise you will forget to do it. These are the hard ones that very few people put into their calendars and a lot of thesis related activity happens here. You have to read a bunch of stuff, write a bunch of stuff, maybe grade a bunch of stuff, prepare a bunch of other stuff, but when is really in a large part up to you, so long as it is done before any related soft or hard commitments you have made regarding it.

This last type of commitment is where David Allen and I disagree. He has a different method for dealing with these types of commitments. He would say that these things do not belong in your calendar and they belong on a “next action” list somewhere else. In many aspects of my life his method works very well for me. But I found that when it came to the thesis, there were several types of these flexible commitments that if I did not put them on my calendar, then I simply would not make the needed time for them.

Flexible-Commitments relating to the thesis.

Not all time is equal. There are different types of activities that your thesis will require from you and I found that it was beneficial to call these out. It helps to make sure that you are doing what you need to when you need to while also taking into account when you are best able to tackle the tasks at hand. Your energy level is not consistent throughout the day, and everyone has things they are perhaps better at in the morning and other things they are better at in the evening. When you schedule these activities will be highly personal, but you have to find these types of time and figure out when they are best for you to do. Ultimately, the goal here is that you will schedule these times with yourself and progressively think of them as less and less “flexible” but possibly still soft-commitments.

Organizing & Project Management: 1-2 hours, weekly

The first type of time you need is Organizing & Project Management time. This should be no less than once a week. This is time when you will look over and review all the parts of the system we will put into place and take stock in where you are. You will look at the goals and commitments you have made to others and yourself in the next few weeks. You will create lists for what you absolutely must accomplish this week to feel ok ignoring the rest until the next time you review the system. This might be the time when you plug in that external drive to make sure your computer is backed up. This is when you will look over those emails you have ignored from your thesis advisor to make sure things are still on track.

As we get further into this system, some other things will be added to this time, but for right now… just know that you need to schedule consistent Project Management time and consider it a HARD-COMMITMENT with yourself. You owe it to your thesis to make sure it is staying on track. I recommend that you do this on Monday and/or Friday. Both is not a bad idea. If you do it on Monday, you can set the agenda for the rest of the week, then review again on Friday to determine if you accomplished everything you needed to so you can just enjoy the weekend or if you need to skip that Sunday morning brunch date to get a couple more things accomplished before the next week starts. Whether you do this Monday, Friday, both, or some other day of the week… it is important that you do it consistently and at some time where you are in that high level planning sort of mindset. A time where you feel optimistic about the next seven to ten days.

Distraction Free Focused Work: 3+ hours, daily

Next you need a chunk of “Distraction Free Focused Work” time… EVERYDAY if at all possible. I found that I needed no less than 3 hours chunks to really get into the swing of things. This is the time when you will accomplish actual things. During your planning time, you hopefully set out the things you will do during this time so that you do not have to waste time figuring that out.

During the beginning of the process, this will be a lot of sort of focused reading and note-taking. It will be time when you are tracking down that source your advisor suggested you take into consideration. It will be the time you dedicate to trying to understand that esoteric concept someone you respect told you is very applicable to what you are trying to do. As you progress in your thesis, this will turn into more actual thesis research or writing type activities. This might be writing your IRB proposal, analyzing research data, or getting that first draft of a chapter section onto paper.

This is the one that requires the most self-assessment to determine when it is best for you to accomplish these things. If you are a morning person, maybe this is getting up an hour or two earlier and cranking it out after your morning coffee but before your 9 am class. If you are a night owl and think best after your housemates (kids?) are in bed, maybe this time is 10pm-2am. When is really about when you are the most focused and productive.

Landscape Scanning & Exploring: 1 hour, daily

Next you need time for what I call “Landscape Scanning & Exploring.” If you are not familiar with RSS technology and things like Google Alerts, get familiar with them. These two things will help you find materials, ideas, and resources that are useful to your thesis topic. Essentially, this “Landscape Scanning & Exploring” time is time that you set aside for discovering other things that you might want to read, reflect on, or incorporate into your topic, and pushing them into your system to be accomplished at some point.

Personally, I found that even though I am a morning person, this was an activity that I should NEVER do first thing in the morning. If I did, I would spend all day doing it, following the rabbit holes of the internet, and not really accomplish a whole lot else during the day. I found that with the use of an RSS reader, this became a great way to end my day with some light level triaging of things that deserved a more focused read than I was up to at 10pm.

Draft Revision: Highly variable and dependent on your writing strength

Finally, once you get really into the writing process, you will need “Draft Revision” time. I will talk more about this later, but revision time does not usually need to be as focused as writing time does. Often, this time requires little mental clarity from you as it is largely fixing typos, cleaning up a confusing sentence or two, and making notes to remind you about holes in your writing that you need to tackle during your more focused time. I generally need 1-3 hours per week once I really got into the writing phase of my thesis.

Find what works for you and put it on your calendar.

So these are the types of time I needed and about how much if it. You might need more or less of each type, but I suggest that you start blocking out these and see how they work for you. You might find as you get into things that maybe you do better with two 2-hour focused sessions per/day or that you are able to stay productive for eight hours straight three days a week. Find what works for you, but put it on your calendar, hold it as a commitment to yourself and your thesis and be careful about rescheduling the time too much. If your thesis advisor needs to meet with you one week during your Management time, fine… but move your management time to a few hours earlier or later that same day. Do not cancel it. Same goes for all your other time types.

Finally, when trying to schedule yourself time to accomplish things, remember Hofstadter’s Law!

“It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.”
Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. 20th anniversary ed., 1999, p. 152. ISBN 0-465-02656-7


We will come back to our calendar more when we get into the real writing phase later, but for now this will take you quite a way into productive thesis progress. Use one and only one calendar, put everything that requires your time on it, never have it anywhere but with you, consult it religiously, allow it to tell you what you should be doing at any given time, and treat it as a contract with yourself.

Now that you are managing your time, lets start thinking about managing your stuff. ->