Distractions and solutions



18 minutes

This blog is inspired by a comment made by one of the participants in the PhD buddy group to which I belong. The comment was about how easily they got distracted when they are trying to write their academic work. It prompted a response from another participant in the form of a book review of a book that inspired their own time management: Bregman’s 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done <http://www.amazon.com/18-Minutes-Master-Distraction-Things/dp/0446583413&gt; .

In his award-winning bestseller Peter Bregman offers a simple system for staying on track at the office. My colleague suggested that it applies just as well to the workplace for the PhD student. They highlighted five of the strategies which they believe are particularly beneficial.

Getting the Right Things Done

First, you need to give up on getting it all done, as some time management systems attempt to do. That means staying focused. Even when we know better, distractions have a mysterious magnetic effect on us, pulling us away from our best laid plans.

Decide What Really Matters

The best way to enhance your immunity to distraction is to know what really matters. Without that, you are at the mercy of every shiny thing that gets your attention. Identifying your top priorities does require some reflection. Before you balk at spending the time, consider all the wasted hours (or days!) that this will save you. Once you know what matters most, you know what to say “yes” to. More importantly, you will be clear on what you must to say “no” to. The trick, of course, will be remembering those priorities when temptation comes your way–and Bregman has an answer for that too.

Identify Your Five Goals for the Year

Bregman says that thriving at life is like going through a buffet: The secret is to choose fewer things, but do it strategically. Through trial and error, he discovered that in any given year, he could concentrate on five major areas of focus. He noted that someone else might come up with three or seven, whatever keeps you moving forward without feeling overwhelmed.

In his top five list, Bregman has two work related goals and two personal goals: “Do great work with current clients; attract future clients, write and speak about my ideas; be present with family and friends; have fun and take care of myself.” My colleague nominated a possible five priorities in:

  1. Get my PhD to Mid Candidature Review stage (because that is where I should be by the end of the year)
  2. Grow things with her partner.
  3. Build up means for future (post PhD) career.
  4. Take care of myself so I can be at my best.
  5. Take care of family and have fun with friends.

…and noted that if your dissertation does not make your “Top Five Priorities” list, consider abandoning it entirely and investing your time in what you really do care about.

Bregman advised spending 95% of your time on those five things–and only 5% on all the rest. That’s right, just 5% for paying the bills, getting repairs, washing clothes, getting a new printer ribbon. What hits most people right away is that this leaves very little time for a lot of those things that crop up during the day. How can you keep focused on your top five priorities on a day-to-day basis with so many distractions lurking nearby?

Make Each Day Count

The secret to translating priorities into daily action is Bregman’s own little invention: the “Six-Box To Do List.”

To make one, take a sheet of paper and making six large boxes (a 2×3 grid works well). Five will be for listing your top five priorities and the sixth becomes your “everything else” box. Put each of your tasks into those boxes. (You can also download a free template<http://peterbregman.com/18-minutes/&gt; that Bregman offers.)

An interesting and helpful side effect of all this is that you quickly become aware of imbalance across priorities. Are you putting lots of tasks (and time) into the box for your current job and social connections, while leaving the boxes for dissertation and self-care blank day after day? Reflect on that and take the necessary actions!

The Power of When and Where

As has been noted in the All But the Dissetation Survival Guide, <http://www.abdsurvivalguide.com/archives/2012-01-06.htm&gt; simply stating when and where you will do a task doubles the chances that you’ll actually do it. While a ‘To Do’ list does a great job of collecting the tasks, to keep on track, Bregman recommends a calendar to guide your daily actions.

De-clutter your schedule for maximum focus by following Bregman’s “Three-Day Rule.” If a task has been on your To Do list or more than three days, you have four choices: do it immediately, schedule it, let it go, or put it on a “someday/maybe” list (where it usually dies a slow death).

Create Your 18-Minute Daily Ritual

Even with your priorities clear and your tasks defined, distractions can still entice you from those carefully designed plans. Here’s where those 18 minutes a day can help you stay on track.

STEP 1: (5 minutes) Your Morning Minutes. Before turning your computer on, plan which of the tasks from your Six-Box To Do list will make you feel most productive and schedule them into your calendar. Apply the “Three-Day Rule” to any lingering items.

STEP 2: (1 minute every hour) Refocus. Set your watch, phone, or computer to ring, beep, or chime every hour and start working your list. At the beep or chime, breathe deeply and then review your productivity. Check your calendar and be intentional about how you use the next hour. Continue to manage your day, hour by hour.

STEP 3: (1 minute) Your Evening Minutes. At the end of your workday, turn off the computer and review your day: “How did the day go? What did I learn about myself? Is there anyone or anything that I need to update?”

“Just 18 minutes a day can save you hours of inefficiency. The trick is to choose your focus deliberately and wisely, and then consistently remind yourself of that focus throughout the day.” ~ Peter Bregman.

For supervisors/advisors

A student procrastinating raises a range of questions about ‘whose research is this?’, however a failure to complete, for which the procrastination may be an early sign, becomes a problem for you and for the university. That is a way of looking at student’s procrastination that may prompt some interventions. Ahead of interventions is actually recognising that a student is procrastinating as many of the signs appear to simply be time-management problems, or may coincide with your own busy ness and hence may be providing you with much needed valuable hours.
The value of this blog is perhaps in proposing a suitable recommendation that can be made to a student who appears to be procrastinating. It may even prompt you to challenge your students about where tutoring, teaching and marking fits into their priorities.
It is not only research students who procrastinate. You may even ask yourself ‘where does supervising your students fit into my own priorities? ‘
….how much time are you making for them?


About the (research) supervisor's friend

I work at a university helping university academics who are supervising research students. I am a research supervisor myself and also work as a research coach for people undertaking their research I was originally in a Management Faculty and when I completed my doctoral studies on 'doing a doctorate' I started working with research supervisors to help them improve their practice.
This entry was posted in The conversations with research students. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Distractions and solutions

  1. Shari Walsh says:

    wow – I love this idea. 18 minutes is so manageable and enough time to enable a result to be seen.

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