Getting your PhD (back) on track 1: Deep work and focus

Recently I gave a workshop about getting your PhD on track — or back on track, for those who have had some delays and detours due to COVID-19 and the usual crises and distractions that accompany PhDs. It seemed clear to me that I could not get anyone’s PhD back on track in a mere 1.5 hour workshop, but that I could put together a set of resources for following up. I grouped the resources around the three major challenges that I see in supervision and coaching of thesis students: difficulty in getting into deep work, difficulty in getting other tasks done, and difficulty getting appropriate feedback from supervisors. As you will see from those links, I have written about all these separately over the years, but it was really interesting to pull it together into a workshop.

Getting into deep work

In the workshop, I used directpoll to poll the students about what their major challenges were. While a bunch said ‘all three’, for the majority of the people at the workshop it was getting into deep work that was the challenge. In the context of a thesis, deep work is work that gets at the heart of the thesis where the connections are being made across your project. It definitely includes reading and writing, but can also include analysis such as coding (either in the qualitative sense or the computing sense), planning out arguments and experiments and more. It is work that requires concentration and is just above your comfort level, a little bit challenging. It is also limited in time: we cannot usually do deep work more that around four hours per day, as our brain then needs recovery! Johann Hari’s recent book Stolen Focus reviews a bunch of literature on this, including James Williams’ work on different kinds of attention: spotlight (task focus), starlight (focus and attention applied to longer term goals), and daylight (attention and self-awareness that enables to be even aware of our longer term goals and dreams). He points out that concentrated focus or spotlight has to be balanced out by ‘mind-wandering’ time, where we aren’t attached to devices or being entertained, but able to let our minds wander while doing something else: walking, gardening, cooking, caring for kids, staring out the window, and so on.

The best strategies for deep work involve planning to do it for a limited period of time, and then doing everything you can to reduce interruptions during that time. In terms of planning, jot some notes down the day before as to what you will do during the period of focus. You may need to gather some data, or find a bunch of articles to read and prioritise them. You may need to set up the outline of your document that will write in. To induce flow, I use a bit of routine, signalling to my body that it’s time to focus: much like setting up cues to put a baby to bed! I like to set up my desk and light an oil burner, get my hot water bottle and a cup of coffee. In terms of interruptions, do what you can, while recognising there will always be some interruptions. Get a babysitter and leave the house for two hours. Turn off the internet at the wall. Put on some deep focus music. Put a pomodoro timer on — 25 minutes on an activity with 5 minutes break. Plan for 4 to 6 sessions if you can. Deal with interruptions or distractions in the breaks. Put a sign on your door (try ‘in a Zoom meeting’ if people ignore your signs). If you get interrupted, calmly deal with or put off the interruption then return to your work for the period assigned.

At the end of your deep work period, write some notes for your next one, then stop. Go get the baby and play with them. Do you housework. Have your meetings. Eat lunch. Whatever needs doing.

Deep work summary

  • Deep work is time limited
  • Deep work requires focus and reduced interruptions
  • Deep work requires preparation and inputs
  • Flow can be cultivated through practices
  • Deep work requires recovery time

Some deep work resources

  • Bar, M. (2022). Mind wandering: how your constant mental drift can improve your mood and boost your creativity. Bloosmbury.
  • Greater good: how mind wandering may be good for you
  • Mikics, David. (2013). Slow Reading in a Hurried Age. Harvard University Press.
  • Throwntogetherness: How to do slow reading.
  • Bolker, J. (1998). Writing your dissertation in fifteen minutes a day: A guide to starting, revising, and finishing your doctoral thesis. Holt Paperbacks.

More posts coming: see getting your PhD back on track 2: other tasks, and getting your PhD back on track 3: getting the right kind of feedback.

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