Productivity, achieving goals, overcoming obstacles and handling rejection.

Those four concepts in the title of this blog are talked about and experienced regularly in academia and during a PhD. Sometimes these skills are assumed of PhD students, sometimes they’re learnt along the way. But these are some of the most important skills that are not easily taught that you need to complete a PhD whilst maintaining good mental/physical/emotional health. For this reason, I applied for a funding opportunity which requires that you give a workshop to fellow post-grad students and early career researchers at my centre – the Evolution and Ecology Research Centre at UNSW. I was very lucky to be granted to the funding and my workshop took the vague concepts of productivity, achieving goals and staying motivated and put them into practice in a clear and sustainable way. I now want to share what I taught, and what others contributed and shared about their work or study processes in that workshop. I hope that it helps you if you are struggling, even if it’s just one tip that seems like it will be beneficial, and if you’re already super productive and motivated, I hope it encourages you (and I’d love to hear what works for you in the comments section too!).

Here’s the workshop, broken down into six sections:

Part 1 – Introducing Productivity

I set the workshop up by defining productivity and how it is more about achieving goals and ticking off tasks in a “timely manner” rather than overworking or working all week.

I also always like to remind people that when it comes to producitivity or success that discipline and consistency always trump motivation! If you only work when you feel motivated you may barely get anything done, but if you keep chipping away at tasks and goals, day-by-day, eventually you will get them done and create healthy work habits along the way.

We saw that two big hindrances to being productive and getting work done were procrastination (filling our time with things that are uncessary such as social media, twitter, doing chores while we’re working from home) and “workcrastination” – this made-up word describes all the easy tasks at work such as checking emails, marking undergrad work, doing admin etc. that you have to do, but shouldn’t fill ALL of your time with.

I then suggested that there were 3 steps to overcoming procrastination and workcrastination and achieving a productive work process:

  1. Removing distractions – turn of phone, emails, partition your chores in another room or schedule them later.
  2. Goal setting (see part 2 of this post).
  3. Time management (see part 3 of this post).

I also suggested two fantastic books by author Professor Cal Newport – Digital Minimalism and Deep Work.

Part 2 – Goal setting

I shared with the workshop that the best way to set goals is to work backwards – start with a big picture and then work your way up to shorter time frames to the present:

That first concept of a personal vision or mission statement is just a brief paragraph or list of things you want to do, achieve, or stick to across your career.

Then, it’s helpful to map out your whole PhD (or few years, or project/grant length) for example, my PhD plan:

Finally, write a six-month plan every six months, come back to it regularly and tick off what you’ve achieved. We do this as a lab, my supervisory Angela Moles has been doing this for years! It’s a fun lunchtime six-month planning session where we eat delicious food, chat about what we’ve achieved and what we plan to achieve. For example:

Part 3 – Time management

To go from this big mission statements/plans/goals it is important that we manage our week-to-week and daily processes and work schedules. I do this by mapping out my week and planning my time on a Sunday afternoon before the week has become. I follow three simple steps:

  1. Time – I fill my calender with non-negotiable meetings, events, presentations etc.
  2. Tasks – I write down all the tasks I need to work on or finish that week (I love using the app “Todoist” for this)
  3. Tasks to Time – I allot time for all the tasks that I need to do, making sure I prioritise the important ones, such as writing, before the easy/trivial tasks.

Once I have that plan, I try and stick to it (but allow a little bit of flexibility because life happens!) and I find I achieve way more, I feel less guilty and I have a better work-life balance.

Part 4 – Overcoming obstacles

I then discusses overcoming obstacles, they will always happen in a PhD and more generally in any career. I shared my own personal obstacles, like the glasshouse lighting on fire with my plants in them (thankfully they didn’t die!) AND a drying oven catching on fire when my samples were in it (sadly, I lost them).

This was a real message I recieved about my plants when I had JUST left on fieldwork

We talked about overcoming self-esteem and worrying less about others, focusing on achieving our own goals and improving our own productivity and trying to overcome imposter syndrome.

Participants then shared their personal obstacles in the field, the lab, in life and how they overcame them. We concluded that it’s so important to be adaptable and resilient in all sitatuations and always have a back up plan!

Part 5 – Writing as a case study for productivity

I then focused in on writing and the processes of writing and how we could be productive and achieve goals in our writing. I started by sharing four fantastic books for science writing, particularly as they help with the behaviours and process of writing (not just the style and task of writing) – Turbocharge Your Writing by Maria Gardiner and Hugh Kearns, How to Write a Lot by Paul Silvia, Writing Science by Joshua Schimel and my personal favourite The Scientist’s Guide to Writing by Stephen B. Heard.

I gave everyone three tips for writing productively and then discussed them further

  1. Read with an eye to write
  2. Reflect and improve on how you write
  3. Just WRITE!

1. Read with an eye to write

Always be reading journal articles, newspapers, blogs, books but make sure you’re not going down weird rabbit holes and not taking any information in, take notes as you go, not just on the content but also on the writing style- what was successful about the paper, what was unsucessful?

2. Reflect and improve on how you write

Think about your habits and the psychology of your writing, are you writing in short bouts? Is that working? Do you take lots of breaks to check your phone when you can’t think of what to write or do you get some fresh air to think deeply? Are you rewarding yourself along the way? Does that work?

Always encourage behavioural self-awareness. Rather than worrying about what other people are writing, publishing or achieving, work on improving your writing and your productivity. Have a “writing diary” where you wrote how you felt, what worked and what didn’t work whilst you were writing. Write with a friend for accountability and see what habits you get rid of when you are writing with someone else.

Finally, have a writing “word audit” where you break your pieces of writing down into chunks that are manageable and achievable and tick them off as you go. This will allow you to see where you are and how far you have to go, it will also be super helpful when you are doing your six-month plans or mapping out your weekly tasks. Here’s an example template I use for my writing word audits:

3. Just WRITE!

Seems easier said than done…

I discussed five big problems that get in the way of “just writing” and writing productively:

  1. Avoidance – we tend to avoid writing, it can be difficult and time consuming. However, it is so important that we fill in time for writing in our time management (see above). Schedule writing time for an achievable task or chunk of writing, stick to it and you will find you are creating excellent writing habits. Some people also avoid writing because they “don’t have enough time” but there is evidence to suggest that “snack writing” or short (30-90min) chunks of writing are just as productive as long “binge writing” time.
  2. Distraction – it is so easy to be distracted by messages, social media, chores at home (if you’re WFH). Once you have scheduled a specific writing time slot (no matter how long or short), close your emails, ask your co-workers for a communal “quiet-time”, turn off your phone notifications, put on a playlife that helps with concentration and just WRITE!
  3. Feeling stuck – it can be hard to keep writing a difficult paper when we don’t know what to write next or where to start. To overcome feeling stuck it is so important to break your work down into manageable chunks (just like in the word audit above). Set clear goals with achievable shorter term results. E.g. “this week, all I have to do is write two paragraphs on plant physical defenses”. It’s as simple as that!
  4. Perfectionism – when I started in research the year before my PhD I was the WORST offender of always trying to perfect every sentence as I wrote. I would write a sentence, edit it reference it perfectly and then move to the next one. This was a terrible idea. My paragraphs were poorly structured and all those perfect sentences that took SO long to write would be deleted by my supervisor because they weren’t relevant or missed the mark. I think the best way to start writing is to do a bad first draft or as the author Anne Lamott puts it – a “shitty first draft“. Utilise the deep thinking, intelligent, creative side of your brain to write a first draft paragraph or section that is free-flowing, ideas centered and not perfect. Come back to it later for editing! You’ll find some of your best writing and ideas come out in those free-flowing moments.
  5. Fear of criticism – It is very easy to be worried and hindered to write when you are afraid of criticism, especially for early career researchers. Don’t worry about criticism! Tell your supervisor/mentor that it is a first, rough draft and let them iron out the structural or big-picture issues. Then send them a more edited version and you’ll find there’s a lot less editing needed. Also, never take criticism personally, if it is personal, there is a problem in the supervisor-student relationship that needs to be addressed. But manuscript editing is not personal, its about your work! Use it to improve your writing rather than letting it make you feel bad about yourself.

Part 6 – Handling rejection

We finished the workshop discussing rejection – an inevitable part of a PhD, academia and other careers too.

I encouraged everyone to “control what you can control and worry less about what you can’t control” – you can control how many manuscripts you write and how well they are written so work hard at that, but you cannot control peer reviewers opinions (wouldn’t that be nice!) so worry less about what is out of your hands and focus on what you can work on.

I also established five steps for dealing with rejection, adapted from this excellent post.

  1. Don’t panic – rejection can be really hard at first, but don’t panic, it’s usually not life-changing or career ending. Also, don’t take it personally (and if the grant/paper/job application process was not anonymous and if the reviews or feedback were personal, there is a problem that should be reported).
  2. Don’t do anything big straight away – don’t make any big decisions, sometimes it’s best ot take a few days away from the rejection, if you have time, let acceptance come and then process the rejection later.
  3. Remember you are in good company – everyone gets rejected, look at other peoples “CV of failures” and share your failures too!
  4. Reflect on the rejection – take time to reflect objectively on the rejection. Work out if there were common points that both reviewers/panel members saw in the paper/grant/job application and how you can improve them. Strategise a plan for what’s next: can you resubmit with minor edits (which journal or job next) or should you step back and take a new approach?
  5. Take care of yourself – our studies and our jobs/careers are cut-throat and come with a lot of rejection. We need to look after ourselves. Our careers are marathons, not 100m sprints and we want to make it through them without compromising our health! Socialise, exercise, hug your dog, do things that you love that may not be science, work out your coping strategies.

That was all of the information that we covered, it was a fantastic workshop and I am so grateful to the people that came and participated!

Thanks also to my wonderful university centre – the E&ERC, particularly the post-grad committee and Jess McConkey who financially and administratively made this workshop happen!


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