Methods of Work

One trick I learned early on in my master’s degree, both from experience and from the advice of others, was to treat my degree like a nine-to-five job. That is, I would set certain working hours for the day and they would form the default framework for when I started and stopped working. I’ve sometimes heard this (or a version of it) called a block schedule.

This served me well up through at least the first year of my PhD. Especially in the early stages of my PhD, it was a useful way to structure my time because the project itself wasn’t very structured, and had no state of completion to arrive at in the near future. Thus, I structured my days around a time-based routine, and ensured that I filled the working hours with productive activity; I figured that whatever I accomplished during reasonable working days would represent ‘enough’ work. Having a fixed end time, when I knew I’d be able to go home and spend my evening on other activities, also motivated me to work and prevented the feeling of claustrophobia I sometimes get with projects that swell to consume all my time.

To my surprise, when I got married and started working at home most days, this method of scheduling didn’t seem to work any longer. Admittedly, some of this was simply that I didn’t adhere to a schedule with the same rigidity. I was so tired, starting out, that most days I was still in my pyjamas when Mike left for work (poor guy) and only then dragged myself into a semblance of functionality. But, beyond this, I somehow felt frustrated by my block schedule. It was a huge source of guilt (because I didn’t stick to it) and didn’t seem to be making me productive.

One reason for this was that being at home meant that there were interruptions to my work that I couldn’t control. Plumbing problems were a notable one. Because I was at home, I was the one dealing with the plumbers, the letting agent, and adjusting my schedule to make sure I was there at the right times. At one point, the plumbers tore up the carpet in half our living room, shoving all the furniture to one side and blocking me off from my laptop where I’d been working. Instead of attempting to relocate amidst the chaos, I resigned myself to washing dishes.

There were other ‘homemaking’ tasks that, although they weren’t necessary to do during the day, seemed to make life much easier when I did tackle them before the evening. For example, washing dishes at lunchtime, so that we started the evening with a clean kitchen, and doing laundry during the day throughout the week. Neither of these tasks is time-consuming, but I felt plagued with guilt whenever I did them because I was ‘failing’ to stick to my schedule.

Some may disagree with me here, but what I eventually decided was that, for a while at least, this was a battle with myself that wasn’t worth fighting. In other words, the structure that used to help me be productive was now the source of daily frustration.

I decided to try a different method of structuring my time, focusing on discrete tasks which were clearly defined and completable, rather than on what time I stopped and started working. In fact, later in my PhD I had noticed that some people I knew seemed to work this way all along: they set themselves tasks to finish and didn’t stop until they were done. They might postpone a dinner date because they hadn’t finished their work, because they structured their day around tasks finished rather than hours worked. This actually isn’t a method that I ever found helpful earlier in my PhD, but I decided to give it a try.

Now, for each section of my project (e.g. each chapter), I have a long master to-do list of very specific items – paragraphs that need editing, topics that need thinking over, specific books to read. Each day, I assign myself a selection of tasks from that list, and concentrate on doing those tasks rather than watching the clock. This actually suits my work at this stage, which is much closer to completion and hence has much more defined goals than earlier in my degree.


Almost to my surprise, this has worked much better. Having those little items to tick off has helped make my work seem more manageable. And, though this may sound weird, I think it has something to do with being ‘at home’ being, for me, being in a list-ticking mode (which is how I manage cleaning and other household tasks), whereas if I am ensconced in a desk it’s much easier to be in ‘just work’ mode. Much of my struggle working from home (and I know it’s this way for most people who do so) has been that it’s simply hard to get ‘in the zone’ the way you can at a desk in a workplace. So perhaps the list-ticking feels more natural to me when I’m physically at home, an acceptance of my environment instead of trying to pretend that I’m somewhere else.

Which mode of work do you use? Do you structure by time or by tasks?

3 thoughts on “Methods of Work

  1. This was really interesting for me to read. I remember you were very organised during the Masters and it was something I struggled with. I agree with you that 9-5 is helpful but can become limiting. I think it’s most helpful simply as a reminder that a PhD is work, so you need time to clock off.

    I may be exposing myself as a bad wife here, but at various points over the last few years I have sometimes rung Fed at work and said, sorry, there is hassle with the lettings agent to deal with and I am working to a deadline: you need to take time off work and deal with this. It helped me feel as if my work was ‘real’ work, somehow, too. Though obviously I value the flexibility most of the time and rarely need to do this.

    I’m really enjoying your blog, thanks for posting.

    1. You’re right that the 9-5 paradigm is a good reminder of the necessity both to start working and to stop! I think probably if that awareness is carried over into another model, it can work just as well – as in the case of some people I know who, because they have children, do the majority of their work in the evenings. But they still have a way of structuring their time and having an endpoint.

      I haven’t yet had a time when I couldn’t deal with the house-related issues, but I do have to remember (as you describe) that it’s also okay to ask Mike to deal with it sometimes, if it happened that I couldn’t. I do try to prioritise my own schedule when arranging things with the letting agents – I tell them I’m gone on a given day and simply not available, rather than reschedule my library plans. So while I am more flexible than someone with 9-5 schedule, I do refuse to budge on certain things, because as you say, my work is real work and it’s good to remember that!

  2. Not everything can be fitted into a 9-5 schedule, which is something artificial that we’ve imposed on ourselves rather than something natural. I’m currently very glad to be back working 37.5 hours a week, but then I’ve only been doing it for 2 days so I’m sure I’ll develop some groans soon!

    For many science PhDs it’s impossible or impractical to work sociable hours all the time, because that’s not the way their experiments run. A lot of my late nights were my own fault, but a lot were simply inevitable. There were the more that came because I did what you’ve said: I completed a logical task (such as a section of thesis or a function of code) in one go, rather than giving up at 5 and then spending 2 hours cranking my brain up to speed in the morning. Working at night would also mean I got disturbed less, and also that I didn’t procrastinate so much because I really wanted to finish and go to sleep!

    Time-based scheduling is what this guy ( ) calls the “manager’s schedule”. I think that most PhD students are instead on a “maker’s schedule”: we’re creating somethign complex, and can only conveniently stop when it’s created. That’s why working 9-5 isn’t always the best idea, even if it’s the easiest way to have an outside life.

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