20 Productivity Tips for Researchers

Eva Lantsoght
7 dec ’17

The internet is full of productivity advice for office workers, knowledge workers, writers, and more. Today, however, I want to give you a "Best Of" edition of the general and specific tips that you can find on PhD Talk. Consider this as my early Christmas present to you, and perhaps something to keep in mind when you decide you want to work in a smarter and more productive way in January.

Without much additional introduction, here are my twenty best productivity tips for researchers - things I use in my daily work practice, and that helped me to get tenure in less than four years after defending my PhD.

1. Plan

Productivity and planning are inseparable. If you want to do productive work, you need to have identified first which work you need to do, and when - otherwise everything will always be a chaos and source of stress. Check out this post to learn more about the strategy I use for planning my work per semester. Plan at different levels: from long-term, to what you need to achieve this semester, this month, this week, and today.

2. Walk around when you get sleepy

If you need to proofread lots of text that you wrote yourself, you may find your attention go away. In that case, get up and pace around. You won't doze off when you are walking around. If you don't have enough space to walk around, try bouncing on an exercise ball - during my pregnancy I did a lot of my reading on an exercise ball, to stay focused and to relieve my back.

3. Use two screens

If you are not working with two screens yet, get a second monitor ASAP. Being able to have your calculations open on one screen, and write your text on another screen, for example, reduces the number of times you need to switch between programs, and the number of mistakes you make when switching back and forth.

4. Use shortcuts when writing

Don't lose time moving your cursor around to select the formatting style that you want to use, or to click on "save" for your document. Instead, memorize the shortcuts of the actions you often use. If you don't need to switch between your keyboard and mouse all the time, your writing will flow more easily.

5. Teach yourself speedreading

If you don't need to understand every single calculation step in a document, but are hunting for a precise bit of information, use speedreading. If you don't know how to speedread, teach yourself speedreading. This skill will be crucial when you need to quickly tear through large amounts of text.

6. Remove your smartphone from your desk

Keep your smartphone in your backpack or store it away in a drawer when you want to work without disturbances. Switch off the sound, remove all the notifications, and use your phone in a way that suits your needs, not in a way that is only procrastination.

7. Quantify your goals

Make sure your goals are SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound. If you use a good planning, you will already know during which chunk of time you need to be doing which task. But to have that task described in the most optimal way, quantify it. Instead of planning to write your dissertation in a timeslot of two hours, identify what exactly you want to achieve: make Table 6.4, revise figure 6.2, and write 1000 words to section 6.5 over the next three hours.

8. Batch process email and use inbox zero

If you don't pay attention, you can easily spend your entire day on email and admin. Every now and then, when I have a massive backlog and my projects are all running smoothly, I may set aside an evening, day or large timeslot to get a grip on my mailbox again, but in general I spend only an hour a day on email. During that hour, I read, reply, and store each email. I store emails in folders corresponding to different projects, and then delete them, so that I only have emails in my inbox that require action.

9. Write daily

If you want to produce papers, you need to put in the time and work. You could binge write every now and then, but writing regularly gives the best results for most researchers. I start almost every workday with two hours of writing, so that I can constantly move my different writing projects forward. Reserve time in your planning every day for writing, and make sure you reserve this time during a period of the day when you have sharp concentration.

10. Reserve quiet time for research

Just as you need to reserve time for writing without disturbances, you need to reserve quiet time for doing research. Make sure your time does not get chopped up with meetings, and colleagues or students walking into your office, but that you can spend 1,5 hours to 2 hours in deep thought to move your research forward. Learn to find focus for deep work.

11. Use reference management software

Start using reference management software as early as possible during your PhD. Inform about the available software, and always archive papers in your chosen reference management software after reading. If you haven't used reference management software yet, set aside a day or a few days to enter your references - your future self will thank you.

12. Use the urgent-important matrix to prioritize tasks

If you feel overwhelmed by all the work you need to do, use the urgent-important matrix to prioritize. When you develop your planning for a semester, use this matrix as well, and make sure you spend enough time working on your important - not urgent tasks. A classic example in this category are journal papers: they don't have a deadline but are of the utmost importance for your career.

13. Read often

Keep a fresh view on research by reading often and reading a lot. Set aside time in your planning on a weekly basis to read, review papers for journals, and/or commit to reading a paper a day with a #365papers challenge. Spend time and effort on creating your reading habits, because your research will benefit from this.

14. Trust your students

If you give a research subquestion to a student, trust his/her abilities to work on your research. Don't check every single number they calculate. Don't breathe down their neck all the time - give your students the liberty to explore research and come up with original ideas. Keep in mind that you should focus on your research, and not on playing nanny of your students.

15. Try the pomodoro technique

If you need to push through a tedious and repetitive task (one that you can't program for example), use the pomodoro technique: set a timer for 25 minutes, and commit to working only on this task without disturbances for the next 25 minutes. Then, take a break of 5 minutes. Repeat 3 sets of 25 minutes concentration and 5 minutes of break, and then take a longer break to refresh your brain.

16. Measure your output

Measure the number of papers you read and keep track of this in a spreadsheet to check if you are meeting your goals. Measure the number of words you write on a daily basis, and keep track in a spreadsheet to see how you are doing on a weekly and monthly basis. Seeing the numbers grow and seeing a streak of days in which you meet your goals can be very rewarding.

17. Get accountability partners

If you don't have much self-discipline, commit with a fellow PhD student that you will work together on achieving your goals. You can do the #365papers challenge together, organize a #shutupandwrite meeting on a weekly basis to get writing together, or simply check in with eachother frequently. If there is nobody within your institution to pair up with, check out the options on Twitter.

18. Learn to roll with the punches

Experiments fail, theories don't work, papers get rejected - academia is full of learning moments. You can call these failures or disappointments, but these are part of the nature of research work. Learn how to bounce back quickly after an unexpected result, so that you don't start to lag behind because you are moping around.

19. Take care of yourself

Eat properly, sleep, and exercise. Take care of yourself, because a tired brain is not fit for research. Don't fall into the trap of working late hours, not sleeping enough, and then trying to get work done while you are not feeling in the mood for work, so that everything takes much longer and you need to stay late again...

20. Celebrate your successes

Stay positive, and stop and pause to celebrate what is going well when you achieve a milestone. Take out time to celebrate your successes and have a good time with your colleagues - this, too, is part of the nature of research work.

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