Career Magazine

How to Thrive as a Research Student. Part1: What NOT to Do.

By Olgadegtyareva @olga_degtyareva

How to thrive as a research student. Part1: What NOT to do.You wake up in the morning and decide to finally get going with that research project you’ve been postponing for a while. It’s been on your mind for quite some time, but you just never got around to working on it. You arrive at your university office early, full of enthusiasm. Sitting down at the computer, you are ready to start researching and writing.

As the computer fires up, you think: “Why don’t I check my emails quickly, before starting to work on my project?” The next hour is spent replying to some of the emails, clicking on the email links and browsing the internet. When you finally look at the clock, it is time for morning coffee. In the break room you start chatting with someone you know. When you get back to your computer, it takes you some time to refocus on your initial intention.

A fellow student comes over with a question, and you rush to help her. After that, you decide to hide in the library in another attempt to make some progress with your project. Then your mobile phone rings, and you get distracted yet again.

During lunch, you get to meet up with some friends and hear rather unpleasant news about coming funding cuts. Your remaining enthusiasm vanishes. You spend the rest of the day getting busy in the lab. The project you were hoping to work on today remains untouched. This situation continues for days and weeks, slowly driving both yourself and your supervisor mad.

This was my reality when I was a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh in Physics ten years ago, and I’ve heard similar stories from the current students at the School of Physics. Recently, I have been discovering productivity techniques that deal with just this kind of challenges. When I started to apply those simple techniques to my work day, I saw immediate results. People began to notice and ask me what I do differently, and how I manage so many things while staying relaxed and positive.

I am going to reveal some of those techniques in a series of articles. However, today I am not going to tell you what to do. Instead I want to share with you what NOT to do to become more productive and get things done.

1. Do not get distracted by anything.

Focus on working on one project for just one hour, but make it an hour of complete focus, without any distractions. Whenever you get distracted, you are not working on the project in front of you. Do not allow yourself to get distracted by emails, phone calls, chat, instant messenger, Twitter, Facebook, blogs or games. Switch off all of the above to allow for complete focus. You will survive; after all it’s only for one hour!

2. Do not allow interruptions by anyone.

Let others know that for the next hour you are not to be distracted. Put up a sign if you need to. This is important because if you do get interrupted by someone, it takes about ten to fifteen minutes to get back into a state of concentration. You can get a lot done during one hour of absolute focus, but to complete it in a distracted state would take you a day or sometimes even a week.

I remember the time when I got very desperate to finish one of my projects. I was constantly distracted by colleagues and students at work during the day, and by my two little children at home in the evening. So I started to wake up at 2 am and work for one hour in complete quietness for a few days – just to get that project done! It worked.

Find that quiet hour during the day or night when you know you won’t be interrupted. Let people around you know that this is what you are going to do. Switch off all technology and close down all applications apart from what you directly need to work on your project. Practice complete focus during that hour. As a result you will see a significant progress in that overdue project! You will be amazed how much you can get done during this short period of time.

In the next article of this series I’ll talk about what to do to achieve the best results during your complete focus time. I’ll share with you simple and effective tips on how to stop procrastinating and get things done.
This article was originally published in the #11 issue of the EU:Sci (Edinburgh University Science magazine).

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