We're a little crazy, about science!

The game plan

A pirate's treasure map.

Well I’ve got two days (not counting today) to get so much stuff done I don’t even know where to start. The good news is I’m feeling slightly better about my odds. The bad news is nothing is done so there’s nothing to celebrate just yet. I have a plan though and I feel good about the way I laid out my work, if I’m careful (and lucky) I’ll be able to get it all done. We’ll see, it’s going to be tough, but today let’s cover why I plan my work when I get swamped like this and how you can do it too.

Since it’s been awhile, let’s run through the intro again. I’m a third year PhD candidate in neuroengineering. I have a BS and MS in mechanical engineering and while both of those things have engineering in the name, they are two very different fields. I’ve built robots, prosthetics, and now I’m working on figuring out how the spinal cord communicates with the brain and what happens after spinal cord injury. There’s been ups, downs, and a lot of hurry up and wait involved. If you’re new here, welcome aboard and I hope you enjoy your stay. Things have been busy and that’s a running theme when you do your PhD, but this time it’s excessive, even for me (see yesterdays post).

Yesterday I said the thing about deadlines is they clump together. This is outrageously true, especially (and specifically) in academia. By Monday I will need to get done things that I could’ve spent months doing. For example, the latest proposal I was told to write which is in the format of an R21 (luckily I’ve written one before). That alone is months worth of work I’m told to get done in days. Then we have the end of the term, so a lot of homework, projects, etc. Basically all the stuff I talked about yesterday.

So instead of doing all the work as quickly as possible I sat down yesterday and spent a good hour or so making a plan of attack. That may seem like procrastination, but trust me when I say it has a purpose. The problem is when there’s a lot to get done sometimes the place you pick to start isn’t always the best option. I mean my list is long, I gave I think ten of the major things I need to do yesterday all due by the end of next week (most of it due Monday!) and that’s not even the full list.

I could start on things and just knock them off my list by order of when they are due. For me that’s not the best solution to the problem though, so I try to plan ahead to make sure it all gets done. I can’t just power through long projects, I get tired of working on the same thing, bored, whatever you want to call it. So while I could work on my funding proposal until it’s done, switch gears and work on something else, I know that about a quarter into the first draft I wouldn’t be able to do much because I’m not looking at it fresh and writing for me tends to taper off as time goes on. I also have other projects that could take up a couple of days all on their own, so here’s what I did.

First I listed all the stuff I needed to do and the amount of time I wanted to spend on each thing start to finish. I also listed when they were due, but at this point I’m acutely aware that everything is due now, so that wasn’t a huge consideration. Then I took the big tasks, broke them into chunks, and sprinkled in the other things I need to get done.

It looked something like this, first I said that I would need 12-18 hours minimum for the proposal, another 8-12 hours for my project minimum, 4-6 hours for homework, etc. Then I took my trusty calendar (okay, fine I wrote out the days on a piece of paper, sue me) and started blocking out what my days would look like between now and the due dates. The result is a solid outline of all the stuff I need to do, how much time I plan on spending on each task, how much time I actually had, and most importantly it gave me dozens of small milestones to hit which keep me on track to finish in time.

As it turns out, if my estimates are close to correct I should be able to get it all done. The proposal will take the longest, but if I spend roughly 4 hours of my day working on it between now and Monday I will have spent about 20 hours (including yesterday to Monday) writing it. Of course 4 hours straight wouldn’t be the best way for me to work, so it’s an hour at a time, with a break in between, then the project. The project is due Wednesday but it will take almost as much time as the proposal, so I spend between 1-2 hours a day between now and the due date (probably more as it gets closer and as I get the other stuff done) and I should be able to finish in time. Homework will get tossed in the mix as well and I plan to break it into two hour chunks done over the weekend because it’s due Monday.

See the theme? I work better when I’m fresh on a project. Sure I can work 8-10 hours a day (if absolutely needed) , but if it’s all the same project my productivity goes down, I’m stuck on twitter trying to distract myself from work, and then a ~10 hour project becomes a 40 hour project. Been there, done that, don’t enjoy it! Will my method work for you? Maybe, maybe not. As usual I’m sharing the stuff that works best for me and my style, but it’s a very personal thing. If you’re looking for a way to manage your time better, this may not be the way to do it. You should think of this little outline as one possible solution to an almost infinite number of solutions to help manage your time.

Maybe you work better on one thing for long stretches so you can get into your groove. Don’t let me stop you! Maybe you prefer breaking it up even further. Make it happen. The point being no one taught me this stuff going into grad school and I spent the first term of my Masters flailing around (heck I still do from time to time). Sometimes it helps talking about how others manage their time so you can find out what works best for you. The idea is to get you to think about this stuff when you have spare time so you can implement it when you find yourself swamped.

Sometimes taking the extra time to map the fastest route is better than getting lost half way through. Then again, that’s just what works for me!


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