Bridging the planning gap

Planning is one thing I am great at. I manage my PhD in Microsoft Project. I keep a yearly planner showing when I need to complete critical tasks. I know my big rocks for the month. I plan my work-day around a daily to-do list. I make sure nothing falls off my radar by maintaining a one-of-these-days to-do list. Less organised souls gaze wistfully at my wall planner. And yet, every now and then as I’m plodding along, my foot will unexpectedly hit a hole that’s so much more than a hole. A gaping cavern that feels like it will swallow me whole if I don’t quickly scramble my way out of it.

You see, in an attempt to not obsessively over-plan (ok, I realise it’s probably too late for that), I’m missing a middle step. The bridge between what the plan demands and how long the task will actually take. For example, if I know I need to have a document submitted by the end of the month, then I can work out that I’ll need to get a draft to my supervisor by the end of next week. And that will mean I’ll need to have drafted my introduction by xx\xx, the methods by yy/yy, results by zz\zz, etc… But how long will it actually take to draft an introduction? Is xx/xx an achievable timeframe?

In my case, it often appears that the answer is no, that’s a pretty unrealistic deadline.

But I manage. I push back the self-imposed deadline for my draft. I push hard when the solid deadline starts pressing in. I manage. Until I don’t.

As I get further into my PhD, my workload just gets heavier and heavier. I thought my first year was jam-packed – you should see my second year (what on earth will the third year bring!?!). I asked my supervisor how she gets things done when juggling so many top-priority, critically important tasks. Her response? “If you work that one out, tell me.”

So what’s the solution?

1. Know when to ease back on the perfectionism

Yes, I’m a perfectionist. I have the university medal to show for it. So tasks can take a long time. Writing the ideal paragraph. Balancing my research budget to the cent. Maintaining a comprehensive reference system. I need to be aware (earlier) of when time constraints demand that I ease back on getting things exactly right. “Good enough” really is good enough a lot of the time. I love the saying “a good PhD is a finished PhD”. More of a mantra really. Which leads us into the next point…

2. Ask: is this going to get the PhD DONE?

Be ruthless! When you’re really strapped, focus your energies into doing those things that will get your PhD done. Is that grant application going to be critical to the success of your PhD? Sure that article looks interesting, but is it likely to be central to the argument in your dissertation? Will your field work be able to proceed if you don’t take the time to go out, hunt around and buy that thingamajig?

3. Well…

I was going to add in a point 3 and even a point 4. But, well, you know how it is. I’m spending too much time on this post. Can I live with it being good enough as it is? And is spending more time on this really going to move me closer to finishing my PhD? So, I think I’ll leave it here for now. My PhD awaits.


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