This guest post is from Linda Kirkman who has taught secondary health education, lectured in education and public health, and worked in women’s health promotion and community development. Currently Linda is a PhD candidate in Health Science at La Trobe University, researching baby boomers in ‘friends with benefits relationships’. Linda sent me this post in response to a request for feedback on my ‘writing 1000 words a day’ post. I liked it so much I asked her if I could publish it.

I have given a lot of thought to how I manage my time and what works best. I was going to write, ‘what works’ but have to reluctantly acknowledge that I have yet to find anything that works really well.

The PhD journey is a personal one as much as an academic one, and I’m discovering that self discipline and time management are part of the things I have to learn. Every day I set goals, write lists, resolve to do better than yesterday, and every day I criticise myself for not getting done what I planned. If I have a productive time I tell everyone and celebrate it, but hate being asked ‘How’s the thesis going?’ because rarely can I honestly say, “Really well’. I’m a literalist: I take people’s interest at face value, and can’t lie.

Motivational speakers and high achieving people have inspired me to resolve to get up early every day and pack as much in as I can. What I’ve learned from that is that I need eight hours sleep and am not an early morning person. Attempts to be up early have brought short term smugness, and poorly productive fatigue for the rest of the day. I’ll never be the kind of grown-up who does everything to a conventional routine, which is probably why this cartoon by Hyperbole and a half really struck a chord with me. I’ve also realised that forcing intellectual things doesn’t produce a good outcome. An idea needs time to percolate and, when it is ready, the conclusion and writing are good. I freely acknowledge the luxury and privilege I have as a PhD student to take this time to get my ideas right – I wish major decision makers, like politicians, were able to do the same.

In my non-PhD life (if such a thing exists, it’s in my head all the time) I’m a carer and a casual university tutor and lecturer. Aside from random medical appointments and timetabled classes, my time is my own to manage. A sort of routine has evolved, with social networking and physical activity being the main markers. When I wake up I check my Twitter feed and Facebook. Twitter is my ongoing professional development. There are lots of links to read, usually about intellectual things: how to manage time effectively; great library sites; what’s new in sexuality education and research; or new software. Some I email to myself to follow up later. Facebook is much more social, and I love the buzz when a notification comes that someone has responded to one of my posts.

Next I deliver tea and the paper to the person I care for, eat breakfast, and go for a four kilometre walk, setting out between eight and nine, then shower, dress and head off to the post grad lab at uni or my study at home. Once at my computer the carefully planned lists are forgotten about, and I follow up the emails I sent myself, research new articles for my lit review, plan a lecture, have coffee, and troubleshoot the IT problems of others in the lab. By about four I’m often getting into my stride, and working more effectively, but somehow it doesn’t often produce actual writing. I hate having to leave at the end of the day, either because I’m going to be locked into the building (swipe card problems) or because I have to go home and cook dinner. The end of the day, just before sleep, I check the Twitter and Facebook feeds again.

Conversations with other PhD students have revealed that I’m not the only one who takes a while to get going, and often have a burst of things coming together later in the afternoon, even if I’ve been at my desk since morning. It’s been reassuring to talk to other students, and follow the Twitter hashtag of #phdchat, and know that I’m not alone in the struggle to take control of myself and my life in the PhD journey.

So it made sense when @thesiswhisperer tweeted a link to her post “How to write 1000 words a day (and not go bat shit crazy)“, and recommended spending less time at the desk, reminding us of the two hour rule. You will probably only have “two really good, creative writing hours in the day – two hours in which new ‘substantive’ ideas will make their way onto the page”. I misread the post as writing being the first thing you do in the day, not as being the first thing you do when “Mr or Ms Bottom makes a trip to Chair Town”. When I really tried to make writing the first thing I did in the day, and did manage some output. But my exercise routine got lost, and I found myself at my desk, still in my nightie, at 11.30 am, waiting to shower after the walk, then worrying about the heat, and stronger sun exposure of walking later, so didn’t walk at all.

As it happens, this post has been written when “Ms Bottom makes a trip to Chair Town”, but after my walk and dressing for the day. The ideas were developed while I was walking, and the podcast coming through my headphones was largely ignored. I stopped on the way to write notes on my iPhone. I had the insight that my approach to time management, with no definite answers, is a reflection on my life: with the conclusion that I’m random, full of enthusiasm, but still not entirely sure where I’m headed.

But, @thesiswhisperer, I have found today that following my usual patterns, but changing them to do the substantive writing when first sitting down, not just first of all before anything, has meant I’ve produced this response to your request for feedback. I’ll try the same technique tomorrow. Thank you for prompting me to reflect, it has been really interesting, and also got me to re-read your original post and get the suggestions right. By the way, this 1,000 words took about 70 minutes. Now, I have washing to hang out, marking to do and a PhD to attend to.

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