on productivity culture, plus all my organisational hot tips
One of the main reasons why I decided to boot up this whole damn newsletter thing was to document the experience of being a full-time employee / part-time PhD researcher, in the social sciences, in Australia.
See, back when I was toying with the idea of spending the rest of my twenties buried in research papers and drafts, I trawled the Internet for some forewarning of how my beats and rhythms of my day-to-day life would change — but what I needed was missing. Whilst there’s no shortage of PhD-related vlog, blog, social media content out there, a lot of it is from the perspective of US- or UK- or Europe-based students buried in coursework and exams, or stuck in chemistry labs.
So hey, I’ll never be a vlog / social media influencer, but I’m happy to share a few insights for the next sociologist who decides on an unconventional PhD-is-my-side-gig approach.
A little preamble, before I get to the heart of things. I want to acknowledge that productivity culture has become a huge Thing, and increasingly, a more style-than-substance Thing. Through many years of being Extremely Online, I’ve seen and been part of all the cultish waves: studytube and studyblr, bullet-journaling to Notion, Deep Work to Atomic Habits, five AM morning routines, optimal desk set-ups, the GTD methodology. Using one-hundred-and-one different tools and systems to prove that I very much Have My Shit Together makes my perfectionist heart sing — particularly when those tools and systems embody a nice, clean, minimalist, pastel-coloured aesthetic. Being organised, preferably in a Instagrammable way, has always been my hobby (read: symptom of my anxiety).
Productivity culture helps, but I would be lying through my teeth if I didn’t admit that it also hurts. Taking pride and joy in the routines that could otherwise become chores has buoyed me, but it has also driven me to waste a fuckton of time and energy on frivolities. It is too easy to get bogged down in processes rather than the output; at the end of the day, a pretty to-do list won’t necessarily help me get things done.
All I’m trying to say is — where it’s helpful, do take inspiration from productivity culture, and from the lessons that I’ve learned and embedded myself. Where it’s not, be sure to cut through the bullshit.
Okay, so —
I’m a part-time PhD student. This means I’m expected to invest twenty rather than forty hours into my research every week; and that my funding covers six to eight rather than three to four years. (Caveat: I’m aiming for closer to four to five years, and plan to undertake at least a year at a full-time rate to meet that timeframe). I’m nearly exactly one year in.
I do have a touch of coursework — this is unique to my faculty and not particularly common for PhD degrees in Australia. I need to complete four units before I’m eligible for confirmation. My full-time peers do all of these in their first year, whereas I still have two to go this semester.
I have three brilliant supervisors who guide me, but my project is otherwise self-initiated and self-driven. It’s up to me to define my research problem and study design, execute the study, and write up findings. This is in contrast with programs where a PhD student might join an existing research project.
I juggle my PhD with a not-quite-full-time job (four days a week), a few volunteer commitments (I’ve scaled down now, but am still a board director at a non-profit organisation), adulting (housework! medical appointments! lol), and being a partner, a daughter, a friend, and a sister.
Time Attention and Energy Management
Then: Last February, when I was just kicking off this strange era of my life, I had a plan marked out in my Google Calendar — an hour every morning for shallow work, an hour and a half most weeknights for deep work, and a decent nine-to-five chunk on Wednesdays. (I’ll come back to shallow and deep work in a bit). I built out rigid morning and evening routines around my twenty-hour weekly target. I armed myself with a determination to build habits, an alarm clock (a cheap one from IKEA, in a bold attempt to keep myself away from my phone when in bed!), and the belief that all I needed was some discipline.
And hey, it did work for a couple of months. Then a lethal combination of winter and exhaustion hit — cold, dark, gloomy mornings; high-stress work days; chronic tension headaches; sleepless nights. The more I struggled to get out of bed and to my desk, the more I simply didn’t bother, and the more I didn’t bother, the more dejected and anxious and demotivated I became. Discipline is control, and I became frustrated when I began to lose control of myself.
Now: I’m stupendously grateful that I came across the concept of energy management. Instead of forcing myself to meet the demands of my work, I now permit myself to adapt the work around my headspace and mood as it fluctuates. In practice, this means that I’ve stopped worrying about clocking twenty hours a week,and instead embrace natural highs and lows. I've gone through periods where I'm spending weekends at the library or staying up late at night because I'm excited about what I'm reading. I have also been known to take a few days of annual leave to smash out a few thousand words. Other times, I've readily parked the literature review for sleep-ins and movie nights, or taken a Wednesday off to get a massage instead. I no longer attempt to schedule in particular tasks to particular slots in my diary, but instead, use time-blocks in my Google Calendar as suggestions, and make weekly rather than daily task lists.
Sometimes, this also means leveraging working-from-home arrangements. Full disclosure, I’m writing this at 3pm on a “day job workday”, because my to-do list is light-on (yes, I’ve confirmed this with my manager), and I’d rather just ride this wave of writing inspiration whilst I’m having it. I am fortunate to have a workplace that does not rely on micro-management, and I consistently do early log-ons and late sign-offs during busy periods in the office anyway — so it balances out. There is truly nothing worse than pretending to be busy doing nothing, instead of actually being busy doing something meaningful.
Obviously, there’s a risk to the go-with-the-flow approach: the risk of simply never having the energy or being in the mood, in the face of non-negotiable tasks and deadlines. I’ve worked around this by respecting my energy patterns, and allocating work accordingly. I’m always tired by the evenings, so I’ll settle for doing my very routine, “non-cognitive”, less important tasks during these blocks: cleaning up my reference library and emails, downloading new papers, inserting references, skim-reading the only partly or tangentially relevant papers. I tackle this shallow work, often with Criminal Minds on the background, and forgive myself for indulging in bad habits — because, at the end of the day, I am a silly human, not a robot. On the other hand, I put on my study tunes and Forest timer on select mornings or Wednesdays, to focus solely on the tasks I actually need my entire brain for: reviewing useful papers in full, taking and consolidating notes, writing up literature review drafts or study design notes.
Then: Following my bullet journal phase, I’ve had a good few years as a Notion devotee. I got excited and had an elaborate Notion set-up before my PhD even officially started — a very slick dashboard with a master task list, to feed into weekly to-do pages; a separate database to log all my hours spend on various aspects of research; a section documenting all my workflows; a page for each of my subjects, with assessments and expected deadlines in a table; others for notes on ideas for publications and records of supervisory meetings. I went from spending more time updating my Notion trackers than actually doing the hard yards, to not updating them at all because I did not have the time.
A year in, I still think Notion is incredibly powerful in its functionality and offers a lot of value. For me, though, as a part-time student, it’s not worth the hassle — my PhD to-do list is shorter and simpler because I’m doing it slowly, and I can’t really use it for my day job as well. Notion is also not as helpful for longer-term planning (i.e. the timeline view for databases is a bit too clunky for me). Accordingly —
Now: I’ve actually gone back to paper, and a simpler bullet journal approach. I still love washi tape and hand-lettering and pretty headings with brush pens and mildliners, but don’t bother with elaborate layouts or spreads anymore — I just stick to weekly to-do lists. If I do need to plan further ahead, or manage reminders or meetings or events, I lean on Google Calendar.
For the stationery and bullet journal tragics, my set-up is in the style of the Traveller’s Notebook, with one insert each for ‘research’, ‘work’ (day job things), and ‘personal’ (mostly just doodles). It’s a gamechanger to have one flexible system to meet the needs of my double life. I can keep all my notes together, grouped into categories, without worrying about the ‘work’ third of my notebook being filled up before the other sections.
Knowledge Management (Files! Notes!)
I’m terrified of the metric fuckton of research materials I’m sure to accumulate over the next few years, and rely on a few excellent tools to minimise the amount of time I waste looking for information. Broadly, I’ve woven the tools together to support a Zettelkasten-like workflow.
Search Tools: To keep on top of new publications, I have a bunch of search alerts set up with Google Scholar and a few other databases, which come straight through to me via email. Every few months, I also run my bibliography through Litmaps to pick up related, frequently cited sources.
Reference Manager: Zotero, including its Firefox extension — plus Zotfile to automate lots of PDF management functions, and Zutilo to make organising tags easy. I use folders to triage files so that I’m investing my attention wisely. All sources start in the “Inbox” folder, and tagged with “Action”, in the first instance. Then, once I’ve read them, sorted into “Relevant” (i.e. let’s skim and annotate quickly), “Core” (i.e. this is gold and deserves a full set of notes) or “Revisit” (i.e. tbc, I’ll come back to it once it’s clearer how useful this article will be for me). Other tags are used to label the papers with key ideas or themes. PS. Fuck Mendeley.
Notes: Obsidian. I find Word clunky (I refuse to have one never-ending document), Notion a bit too pretty (too much work to format and build the perfect system), and other tools just meh. Obsidian is slick, uses markdown — so I can’t fuss around with fonts, which happens to be my favourite procrastination method — and has a very cool graph view that maps out my notes and their relationships to each other.
Drafting: I’ve tried Scrivener, and I really wanted to like it. At the end of the day, though, Word documents are easier for my supervisors to review, and can support integration with Zotero. Once I have research findings to write up and am in the thick of drafting, I may revisit other tools.
Other Miscellaneous Things
Workspace: I do my Wednesdays in an office on campus, if I can be bothered leaving my apartment, and the rest either at cafes (when I need white noise or a fresh perspective), on my couch (terrible) or at my desk. At my desk, I use a second monitor with my laptop (which sits on a stand), because I have very poor eyesight and an unreasonable level of neck pain for twenty-something year-old.
Tech: PhD students seem to really like iPads. I’ve experimented with a tablet for reviewing and annotating PDFs — an Android one — but still prefer reading on my laptop! My handwriting is gross fyi.
Notepad: A lined, B5 Rhodia notepad I lug with me everywhere, just for scrappy thought bubbles and stray ideas and brainstorming.
Google Recorder: I’m not yet up to the data collection stage of my project, but when I am, it’ll be ethnographic and I will need to take field notes. Recorder’s transcriptions are surprisingly accurate, though security is tbc. For now, I’m using it when I need to think aloud, or want to reflect on my research process and experiences.
Text Expansion Tool: I can’t believe it took me so long to discover the wonders of aText. This little tool is gamechanging: the milliseconds I save every time I get to type a few letters instead of entirety of intersectionality or Black feminist thought add up!
A final note before I wrap this up: here are a few things productivity culture might not tell you. One — the best system is whatever helps you get the work done to the highest quality that your lazy, endlessly flawed, worst-case-scenario self can sustain; particularly if you don’t actually make a living off being perfectly and aesthetically productive in the same way those influencers do. Two — your system can evolve because your responsibilities and habits and lifestyle will, and that’s so fine. And three — you’re doing your best, and you should be proud.
I still like logging my hours — just roughly! I did so during my Honours degree and it was fascinating to see the ebbs and flows of my time, divided across the different months of the year and stages of the process.