The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective PhD Students

I have lost a lot of time during my PhD. On the one hand I was wasting some time like everybody does, on the other hand, I was wasting time searching for the best tool to organize my time.

Initially I thought that I was not using the right tools to manage my projects, tasks, and time. Therefore, I tried all sorts of analog and digital tools, like a Moleskine, the GTD methodology, the pomodoro technique, Wunderlist, Remember The Milk, Google Tasks, Evernote … you name it.

So much wasted time searching for the tools, implementing them in my workflow, and testing them. Can you imagine all I could have achieved I had instead just, well, worked?

But there was something not feeling right. Once the new system was implemented I would not stick to it by not creating the habit of using  the tool and being effective. I would move on the next tool and start all over again.

I had to change myself.

I realized there was something deeper that needed to be changed, something within me. But all those time management books were talking about externalities that after hard experimentation, were far from my control.

Then The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People came along my way. This book goes further than time management. It is about defining who you are and who you want to be.

It presents the tools you need to define the rules you want your life to be based on. Although it is not aimed at PhD students, it should be included in the Top 42 Books For PhD Students.

I found out that these general principles from The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People could help me to be more effective during my PhD.

Independence or Self-Mastery

Start with yourself, go from being dependent on others to being independent.

Habit 1: Be Proactive

Of all the thing that occur daily, some affect you. They form the Circle of Concern. Within them, there is a smaller set about which you can do something, this is your Circle of Influence.

If you spend time focusing on what occurs outside your Circle of Influence, you are being ineffective and reactive.

Being proactive means focusing on what lies inside your Circle of Influence. As a consequence, you gain a sense of control and you expand your Circle of Influence to areas that were outside your reach previously.

For your PhD: Do you think you and your colleagues don’t read enough papers? Start reading a paper a day and soon after organize a journal club, even if it is with only one buddy.

If you stick to it, you will see that others will follow. 

Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind

So now you are focusing on your Circle of Influence. How do you stick to it?

You would continue doing it if you feel that you don’t have to but you want to. It will help if those actions will be part of a mission that you decided to start.

You need to discover your personal values under which you want to operate. Write them down in the form of a mission statement, where you define also your long-term goals.

When faced with a decision ask yourself Is it in accordance with my core values and does to get me closer to my ultimate goals?

For your PhD: When you die, how do you want others to remind you as a scientist? Those definitions will form your mission statement as a PhD student.

Write them down, they will come in handy later on.  

It could say something like: “I want to be remembered as a PhD who finished on time and who wanted  to improve society by doing research in an ethical way. As a colleague that enabled his students and peers to do better science…”.

Habit 3: Put First Things First

Depending on urgency and importance we categorize tasks in 4 groups:

  • non-urgent non-important
  • urgent non-important
  • on-urgent important
  • urgent important

On which should you focus? Sure? Think twice.

You should focus on important things that are not urgent. One might think that urgent and important should be the chosen combination, but this combination brings stress.

You should plan your weekly agenda so you allocate enough time for important non-urgent tasks, since these will get you closer to your long-term goals.

For your PhD: Preparing a new poster for a meeting next week might be urgent, but not important if the meeting is not relevant for your core values (ehem, you anticipate it is a useless meeting and you go because it is mandatory, ehem).

Therefore, present an old poster and spend the time reading those papers that will help you understand your field and do better science.

Allocate time every week to supervise your students or if they do not ask for the meeting, brainstorm new ideas for their projects. 


Now that you control yourself, start working with other people and get the most of it. How can we collaborate? How can we convince them to join us?

Habit 4: Think Win-Win

This sounds a bit business-like. You should seek for partnerships that are mutually beneficial, where both parties come ahead after the interaction.

If no win/win can be achieved, realize that a no-deal is a perfect compromise.

For your PhD: Are you a theoretician? Seek for an experimentalist and propose to collaborate on a project (and agree on the other of authorship in related publications).

See it as a project that without the other person could not be performed. 

Does somebody want you to process a lot of data and do some statistics? And they don’t plan to add you as coauthor? This is a win/lose situation that you must answer with a “no-deal”.

Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood

This chapter is not only about listening, but to listen using empathy.

Do not rush into offer solutions when somebody is presenting a problem. Let them finish, make the effort to understand the problem at hand.

If you do so, they will reciprocate with you.

Using empathy means putting ourselves in the perspective of the other person. Do not try to filter what they say with your own assumptions and way of thinking.

For your PhD: Coming again to collaborations between theoreticians and experimentalists. Try to understand how the other person’s thoughts compare to yours in key topics.

You approach to science might be different. Your tempos as well.

Maybe you would care more about interpretation of results while the other person cares more about describing a solid methodology. You might be data-driven and the other person hypothesis-driven.

In any case, see what are the other person’s fears and hopes before exposing yours. 

Habit 6: Synergize

Use trust and understanding to maximize the output of a group. With careful communication, leverage the differences of the individuals in the group, so the product is much larger than the sum of the individuals.

Identify in others what’s in them that is beneficial for the group. As well, you should detect what sets you back in them so you can work on adapting yourself to that.

For your PhD: In a large collaborative project you might find young motivated PhDs, busy supervisors, retired experts, and other people.

Instead of getting frustrated, maximize what they offer: like the energy of the PhD students, the network amplification the supervisors, or the experience of the retired guru. 

Next, use your empathy skills to minimize the effect on the team of what you don’t like: the chaos of the graduate student, the busyness of the supervisor, and the same old stories by the retired expert.

Self Renewal

Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw

In here, the author makes reference to habit 3 and encourages you to identify  those things that might be keeping us from our goals.

Step back, take a break, and decide what to do to renew yourself. It might be getting healthier by doing some exercise, meditating to clear your thoughts, or even re-write your mission statement.

In any case, schedule time to perform those activities that will keep your whole system running in the right direction.

For your PhD: Senior scientists the sabbaticals. Since you are a PhD it might still be early for this. What you can do is to join a short side project, in order to try something new, recharge your motivation batteries, and collect new ideas. 

You might want to to allocate some minutes a day to just think. What? Yes, thinking, aren’t you paid to think?

Spend time generating (and writing) ideas for future projects, grant applications, daydreaming, or simply to help others.


The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People is a bit a philosophical book, sometimes even religious. Despite this, you can apply these habits in many areas of life and definitely, they will you, dear PhD student, to get better organized.

If used correctly, the learnings in this book can help you to be more effective and motivated. At the end, you will create new habits, in a natural way.

Do you want to be better at Academic Writing?

Is “Write Better Scientific Papers” one of your goals? Do you have trouble writing your PhD thesis?

If the answer is yes, I have something good for you. Keep reading..

Marialuisa Aliotta is a scientist, blogger and creator of the course  Hands On Writing: How To Master Academic Writing In The Sciences.

She has helped hundreds of scientists to write better, specially PhD students. She knows exactly where you are struggling with your academic writing.

With this course you will be able to:

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The response from everyone has been incredible. This is the course I wish I had followed at the beginning of my PhD.

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About Julio Peironcely

Julio Peironcely, PhD is the founder of Next Scientist and a PhD by Leiden University. He helps PhD students to stay motivated, be more productive and finish their PhDs. Follow him on Twitter (@peyron) or read more from him on