Conquer your research project with 13 time management and productivity strategies that work

Time Mx and Productivity pic

Why does it seem like some have more hours in a day than others? Time is a finite resource. Can we really manage it? It ticks away as you read this without us having any control over it. The challenge lies not in managing time itself but rather in managing our behaviours as to what we do while time is doing its own thing. This blog post explores the nuances of time management for postgraduate students working on their research projects.

Why is it sometimes so difficult to make progress on our research projects? Navigating the misty mountains of research can be daunting. This is especially true when you don't get a lot of guidance, and one is expected to create your own steps to climb the misty mountain of uncertainty. The university-set deadlines are often few and far between, and it's easy for your research project to slip into the realm of important but not urgent tasks. Open deadlines make it tempting to postpone crucial steps.

You can do some essential things to create your own structure and healthy habits. Let's dive in.

Strategy #1 - Know the bigger picture: Where are you heading to?


Create your vision. Being clear about where you are heading, especially with the bigger picture in mind, will make navigating the steps to get there easier. Do you want to graduate in two years, submit a paper within the next six months or get your dream job? Knowing your "next" destination will help you through tricky times and will give you even more motivation when things are going well.

Create a vision board for added motivation so that you have something to remind you of your bigger vision. Creating a vision board is a creative and visual way to set and visualise your goals. You can create one on good old paper with pictures from magazines and newspapers or create a digital vision board using pictures from Google Images and put it together in Canva.

Before you start, clarify your short-term and long-term goals. What do you want to achieve academically, personally, or professionally? Collect magazines, newspapers, or print images from the internet that resonate with your goals. Include words, phrases, and images that inspire you. Start placing the cutouts on the board. Experiment with different arrangements until you find a layout that feels right. Consider categorising your goals (e.g., academic achievements, personal development, career aspirations). Be as creative with colour as you want. Step back and reflect on your vision board. Does it capture the essence of your goals? Once satisfied, find a prominent place to display it – somewhere you'll see it regularly.

Take a few moments each day to look at your vision board. Visualise yourself achieving your goals and let it serve as a positive reinforcement of your aspirations. As your goals evolve or are achieved, update your vision board to reflect your current ambitions.

Strategy #2 - Set your goals and define them properly

The SMART pneumonic sounds like a cliché these days, but it is definitely not an empty recommendation. When we don't define our goals "properly", we risk not achieving them just because we are not clear what we want from them. It's easy to fix. Set SMART goals.

Make your goals Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Then, break them down into action points for better clarity – these smaller steps will form part of your to-do list.

An example of a not-so-SMART goal is: "Submit paper"… mmm, that sounds more like an intention than a goal. Let's turn it into a SMART goal: I want to submit my first research paper (study 1 of PhD) to a peer-reviewed academic journal by 30 August 2024. It is measurable because you'll know whether it happened or not. It is specific; you know what it is that will be submitted. It is achievable because the data for this paper will be collected by April 2024. It is relevant because it forms a part of your postgraduate research project and is necessary to achieve your vision for graduation and getting your dream job. And it is time-bound; you know exactly when you want it to be submitted. Tara!

Strategy #3 - Create an effective to-do list


While many people find to-do lists effective tools for organising tasks and managing time, some are against using them. The reasons for their scepticism or resistance towards to-do lists can vary, and here are a few common reasons:

  • Some people feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of tasks on their to-do lists. When the list becomes too long, it can create stress and anxiety rather than providing a sense of accomplishment.
  • To-do lists can be seen as rigid or inflexible by those who prefer a more spontaneous or adaptive approach to their work. Some individuals find that having a fixed list constrains their ability to respond to changing priorities or unexpected opportunities.
  • If tasks are consistently carried over from one day to the next without completion, individuals might feel guilty or demotivated. This can lead to a negative perception of to-do lists as reminders of unmet goals.
  • To-do lists may lack the context needed to prioritise tasks effectively. Without a clear understanding of the urgency or importance of each task, individuals may struggle to determine where to focus their efforts.
  • Some argue that relying too heavily on to-do lists may hinder the development of intrinsic motivation and the ability to manage time without external prompts.

I gave a few solutions to these challenges in this video and this blog post. It's essential to recognise that the effectiveness of to-do lists can vary from person to person. Some may benefit greatly from the structure and clarity they provide, while others may prefer alternative methods of task management. Ultimately, the key is to find a system that aligns with individual preferences and enhances personal productivity and well-being.

Explore the benefits and drawbacks of to-do lists and decide if they align with your workflow. Learn how to phrase tasks effectively and when to use to-do lists. Decide between online and paper-based solutions based on your preferences.

One way to use to-do lists to help keep the momentum of your research project is to create a list of what needs to be done when you open your laptop tomorrow (or for your next working session). Sometimes, when we are not completely clear about what needs to be done next, we postpone and procrastinate and decide to do something else that is easier to get done. This is especially relevant when we are given the "gift of time" when we only have an hour or two available. But if you have a list of "next steps" available, it's easy to open your laptop and dive right in. Because those tasks become easy to go to tasks that you give preference to, this video explains more. 

Strategy #4 - Do an audit of all your tasks and projects

The Eisenhower Matrix is a prioritisation tool that helps individuals categorise tasks based on urgency and importance. The matrix consists of four quadrants:

  1. Urgent and Important: Tasks in this quadrant require immediate attention and are critical to one's success or well-being. These are often deadline-driven or unforeseen emergencies that demand immediate action.
  2. Not Urgent but Important: This quadrant includes tasks that are crucial for long-term success and personal development. These tasks are not urgent, but investing time in them can prevent crises and contribute to personal growth, strategic planning, and relationship-building.
  3. Urgent but Not Important: Tasks in this quadrant are often time-sensitive but may not contribute significantly to long-term goals. They are often distractions or interruptions that, while requiring attention, do not align with one's major objectives.
  4. Not Urgent and Not Important: This quadrant involves tasks that are neither urgent nor important. These tasks are timewasters and should be minimised or eliminated to create more time for activities that align with one's goals and values.

In his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey encourages individuals to focus on "important, but not urgent" activities, emphasising proactive, strategic planning to prevent crises and enhance overall effectiveness. By categorising tasks and projects based on urgency and importance, you can prioritise their time and efforts more efficiently, leading to increased productivity and a better balance between short-term demands and long-term goals. Get more details in this video and blog post.

There is also another cool way to prioritise tasks and projects. The MoSCoW method is a prioritisation framework commonly used in project management and goal setting. The acronym MoSCoW stands for: Must-haves, Should-haves, Could-haves, and Won't-haves.

This method helps individuals and teams clarify the priority and importance of various elements or goals within a project or initiative. It is also a great tool to ensure that you are aware of what is the most important and what can be classified as bells and whistles, and it will help you to not spend hours on the could haves at the expense of the must-haves. Thus, a perfect way to curb perfectionism.

  • The Must-haves are the non-negotiable, essential elements or goals that must be achieved for the project to succeed. They are critical to the project's core purpose and are typically high-priority items.
  • The Should-haves are important elements or goals that are not as critical as must-haves but are still significant for project success. They contribute to the project's overall value and should be included if possible.
  • The Could-haves are desirable elements or goals that would enhance the project but are not essential. They are optional and can be considered if time and resources allow. If certain could-haves cannot be accommodated, it won't impact the project's core success.
  • The Won't-haves are elements or goals that are explicitly deemed unnecessary or inappropriate for the project. They are deliberately excluded from the scope, and their inclusion is not considered in the project's planning or execution.

Individuals can focus their efforts on what truly matters and allocate resources (aka time) more effectively by categorising goals into must-haves, should-haves, could-haves, and won't-haves. This video and blog explain it in a bit more detail.

Strategy #5 - Nip overwhelm and procrastination in the bud

Sometimes, it just feels like there is too much to do. We get overwhelmed, and that is when we procrastinate. The first step to tackle this is to figure out what makes us feel overwhelmed and want to procrastinate. Is it the fact that the next steps are not well defined, a misty mountain? A huge task not broken into smaller steps can really floor us. Break the task into smaller manageable steps; even if they feel stupidly small, that is fine. Something like "Create a title for paper 1" can easily take you 15min if you are playing with words, but… it will feel amazing once it is done, and it is a definite step forward.

Or maybe now that you have broken the bigger tasks into smaller steps, there is just so much to do, and now you don't know where to start? In this case, close your browsers and clear your desk. Remove anything that will serve as a distraction, and only choose one thing to start with. If you need a short break to create space between you and everything that is going on, take a walk or make a cup of tea. Come back and get going with one single thing. You can combine this technique with time boxing. This will get the momentum going. This video may be helpful. 

There is one more reason why we procrastinate, and that is that life out there may just be more exciting. As to that, I don't have any advice. Let's move on.

Strategy #6 - Organise a writing retreat: Immerse yourself in dedicated writing time.

A writing retreat offers an immersive environment away from distractions, providing dedicated time and space to focus solely on writing. It allows individuals, especially researchers and writers, to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life and concentrate on their work, fostering creativity and productivity. Refer to this video for more.

Strategy #7 - Create Accountability: Share your goals with someone who can hold you accountable

Accountability involves sharing your goals with a trusted individual who ensures you stay committed. This support system helps maintain motivation, provides encouragement, and ensures progress. By sharing aspirations, individuals create a sense of responsibility, fostering consistency in achieving personal and professional objectives. This video has more.

Strategy #8 - Timeboxing or the Pomodoro technique: Break your work into focused time intervals

Timeboxing involves allocating a specific timeframe to a task, promoting intense focus and efficiency. The Pomodoro technique, a popular time boxing method, advocates short, structured intervals of work followed by breaks. This approach enhances productivity, minimises burnout, and cultivates a disciplined work rhythm, making tasks more manageable and less overwhelming. Have a look at this video

Strategy #9 - Eat That Frog: Tackle the most challenging task first

"Eat That Frog", the title of a book by Brian Tracy, encourages prioritising and tackling the most challenging task early in the day. By first addressing the most daunting objective, individuals build momentum, increase confidence, and set a positive tone for the rest of the day. This strategy optimises productivity and ensures crucial tasks are not postponed, and one feels absolutely great when they are done first thing in the morning! This video says it all.

Strategy #10 - Work at your best times: Schedule demanding tasks during peak productivity hours

Recognising one's peak productivity hours and scheduling demanding tasks maximises efficiency and minimises procrastination. Whether you are a morning person or a night owl, aligning challenging work with personal energy peaks ensures optimal focus and performance, enhancing output quality and overall productivity.

Imagine working only during the few hours a day when one feels best! This is not always possible; we sometimes need to work while feeling slightly tired or sluggish. Adapting task lists to different moods involves planning activities based on energy levels. Strategic scheduling ensures alignment between task complexity and personal mood, allowing individuals to optimise productivity by matching activities with their mental and emotional states.

Strategy #11 - Embrace marginal gains: Small steps lead to significant progress over time

Embracing marginal gains involves focusing on continuous, incremental improvements, putting one foot in front of the other to make up a step, and repeatedly climbing a mountain. By making small, consistent progress in your research but also in other aspects of work or life, you accumulate positive changes over time, leading to substantial progress. This philosophy promotes a mindset of constant refinement and growth. This video explains.

Strategy #12 - Beware of perfectionism: Strive for completion over perfection

Perfectionism can hinder progress by imposing unrealistic standards. Striving for completion over perfection encourages individuals to finish tasks, learn from the process, and iterate for improvement. This mindset fosters productivity and resilience, preventing the paralysis often associated with pursuing unattainable perfection. This video has more detail. 

Strategy #13 - Have reasonable expectations: Set realistic expectations for your to-do list and time commitments

Setting reasonable expectations involves acknowledging personal limitations and crafting to-do lists and time commitments accordingly. Realism prevents overcommitment, reduces stress, and ensures tasks are completed effectively. By aligning expectations with available resources, individuals create a sustainable and balanced approach to productivity, enhancing overall well-being. This video shows you how.

Incorporating these strategies into your routine can significantly enhance your time management skills and boost productivity throughout your postgraduate research journey. Remember, mastering time is not about having more hours but making the most of the time you have.

Cover photo by Andrey Grushnikov.


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