The Secret PhD Productivity Strategy: Do Deep Work In Less Hours

The worst PhD productivity advice is to work long hours.

This advice is shared by successful people in Academia, so it should be good advice,  shouldn’t it?

They think they became successful thanks to hard work. I say they became successful despite their hard work.

These people propose a brute force approach to PhD productivity.

Brute force productivity is a waste of resources, in this case your time, health and happiness.

Why should you work in your PhD 24/7 till exhaustion if there is a more effective and efficient way?

I want to present you a PhD productivity strategy that is the secret weapon to eliminate working crazy hours during your PhD.

Secret PhD productivity strategy: do deep work in less hours

Let me first tell you something that happened to me.

When I was one year into my PhD, my colleague who just started was leaving the lab at 5pm.

He walked past the fume hood where I was pipetting my hand numb and asked if I’ll be staying late.

I told him that I had at least several more hours to go, to which he said: ‘You’re all working so hard and I get to leave already, not feeling like a real PhD yet’.

There was a mix of regret and guilt in his voice.

I told him, ‘wait for it, you’ll be staying late soon enough’.

It was meant as a joke… but was it really?

See if any of the below sound familiar:

  • ‘To be successful in your PhD you have to do over-hours.’
  • ‘It’s normal to work through the evenings and weekends.’
  • ‘Reading articles and writing is something you do in your free time.’

These are the unspoken PhD rules.

Whether this is the mindset with which you enter your PhD or something that grows on you while you’re doing the academic grind, you learn to accept it.

We start our PhD as an undefined trajectory of four plus years at the end of which you get to shape the generated data into a thesis (if you’re lucky).

In the beginning of our PhD we’re fully dependent on our supervisors for guidance.

Unfortunately supervisors don’t always have our best interests in mind. This is why there are so many ugly PhD stories featuring years of hard work with nothing to show for it.

Maybe you’re expecting me to share a success story in which I graced over my PhD, not working long hours and had my defense exactly on the four year mark.

Sorry, I’ll have to disappoint you.

All of my prior working experience was in the academic environment where I was surrounded by PhDs and Postdocs who were working crazy long hours and wearing it as a badge of honor.

So I followed their lead.

In the end, I had weeks of unused holidays. Moreover, I still worked on writing my thesis for over a year after my deadline while starting on my new job.

The worst of it is that I know that I’m not an exception.

Do these overworked days mean that four years is too short for a PhD?

Would we benefit from more time?

Or are there other factors that we’re not aware of?

The Best PhD Productivity Strategy

Enter Deep Work …

When I came across Cal Newport’s book ‘Deep work’ I was in shock.

I felt like he laid out the way of working that enables to use time most effectively in a setting that requires a lot of thinking, so perfect for the academia.

To give some background, Cal Newport is an Associate Professor of Computer Science, who works regular hours and yet manages to stay ahead of the game. After all, aside from driving his research and publishing consistently he also manages to write books and run a blog.

To put the practice of deep work into the PhD perspective, I’ve made a list of concepts discussed in the book that will help you to accelerate your PhD without eating away at your free time and costing you stress.

Deep work, what’s new?

According to Cal Newport, deep work is ‘Distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capacities to their limit’.

Sounds good you’ll say, but what’s new about this? We’re in academia after all, isn’t this the definition of deep work?

True, academia requires more deep work than an average job and in general academic setting also aids the practice of deep work. As a PhD your day won’t be broken up by many meetings and replying to constant flow of emails doesn’t diminish your attention span.

So aren’t you already ahead of the game?

To answer this let me set up a scene.

The deadline of submitting an article, preparing presentation for a congress or something else significant that has been luring in the distance, has finally caught up.

With your back up against the wall you end up working through the night armed with determination and sufficient coffee supply.

Have you ever wondered how productive these several hours under pressure turn out to be?

In many cases you’ll finish projects you couldn’t complete in weeks and outperform yourself. These kinds of spurs usually happen in sporadic manner fuelled by approaching deadlines that you can’t push back.

What if you could embed this kind of performance into your PhD on a more regular basis and achieve comparable results every week? And no, I don’t mean pulling weekly all-nighters with stress and caffeine overdose.

Instead, you can use the power of deep work to boost your PhD productivity.

How to apply deep work in your PhD: 8 PhD Productivity Strategies

So let’s take a look at how to master the skill of deep work and apply it to your PhD.

#1 Train your brain muscle

Deep work is a skill and it shouldn’t be confused with a habit.

For example, getting into the habit of flossing your teeth daily before bed is a matter of sticking to it as the action itself is not challenging and doesn’t require you to push your limits.

On the other hand, if you want to start doing a 10 km run every day without any prior preparation, your first attempt will probably not be very successful. You’ll find that you will need to slowly build up your condition until reaching your target.

In the case of deep work, you’re using your brain as a muscle and doing long stretches of uninterrupted deep work is like an intense work out requiring top condition.

You must train your deep work muscle to improve yourP PhD productivity

Our first deep work sessions may not be as productive as we would hope. The challenge is not to get demotivated and claim that this is not the right way for you, but instead consistently build up the skill until mastery.

For your PhD

PhD requires a lot of deep work. You do ambitious research and it is not clear how to succeed.

Think of reading scientific literature, analyzing complex data and writing articles. You’ll probably notice how this gets easier as your PhD time goes by.

We usually tend to account this to learning more about the field and overlook the fact of gaining more deep work experience the further we get into our PhD.

In other words, you’re unknowingly training your deep work skill due to the nature of the PhD work.

Just picture how good you’ll get doing it intentionally.

One of the practices to enhance the deep work skill mentioned in the book is ‘productive meditation’.

In productive meditation you use stretches of time when you’re physically occupied but not engaged mentally (e.g. jogging or commuting) to focus on solving a specific work-related problem which requires deep thinking.

Every time you catch your mind wandering off, bring it back to this single task.

 #2 Establish routine and don’t rely on deadline pressure

Deep work means working to the limit of your cognitive capacity, which is uncomfortable just like forcing yourself to do the additional ten push-ups or run that extra mile.

Inner resistance kicks in and you need to break through the mental barriers to go through with it. The higher these barriers are, the more difficult it will be to overcome them and the more energy and mental capacity you’ll be wasting.

Setting up routine to get you into deep work helps. You must allocate several hours for deep work into your daily schedule.

PhD productivity: have a routine

Try using one day per week for deep work, or a whole week in a month. You’ll need to find what works best for you and your project.

For your PhD

“I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.”

William Faulkner

Why do we put off writing articles, reading literature and other tasks important for our end goal until last minute?

You hear people talk about being ‘effective under pressure’, giving this a positive twist when actually we’re just being shameless procrastinators.

We fill our days with urgent but shallow tasks and will only start acting on the difficult tasks when we’re cornered by deadlines.

Rather than leaving your deep work sessions to be determined by random deadlines, integrate them into your days.

If you leave your deep work sessions to chance, trying to skim in some intense thinking into the gaps of your agenda, you will not get far.

You know how when you’re starting to write an article and spend the next several hours fighting off the procrastination (checking your email, cleaning your lab bench, and updating your lab journal) only to start writing by the time you need to stop.

Commit to doing deep work at specific times of the day and in specific surroundings. It will be easier to follow through as you condition yourself to get into deep work and there is less space for mental sabotage.

You’ll also quickly see that getting writing done doesn’t require waiting for inspiration.

#3 Eliminate the distractions

One of the core elements of deep work is ‘distraction free concentration’.

Distractions give you escape routes from focusing on the important task, diminishing the power of deep work.

If you are all the time distracted you will make little progress and your PhD motivation will go down.

It’s not a coincidence that the times you’re most productive are in the very late or early hours when you’re left to yourself.

PhD productivity: avoid distractions

For your PhD

Very few PhDs have the luxury of an individual office. Usually the working area is more like a can of sardines with PhDs almost sitting on each other’s lap.

Finding solitude to concentrate in such environment will be challenging but don’t let that stop you.

Figure out if there are times when the work area is empty. Early mornings tend to be an unpopular stretch of time.

Yes, get really early out of bed to work on your thesis. I know it’s not very exciting, but contemplate the benefits:

  • if you get working at that time, you’ll make sure that it was worth the effort.
  • with no distractions it will be that much easier.

You could also choose to practice deep work on an outside location, like the library or your home. They key is to be creative and find the option that works for you.

#4 Pre-define your destination

Once you get yourself to sit and fully focus, it helps to know what you are striving to achieve, so that your deep work is intentional.

You have to define the outcome you want to achieve and be specific if you want your deep work sessions to have the maximum effectiveness.

For your PhD

In the case of an approaching deadline you know exactly what your end goal is. This is why last minute work is so productive since you simply don’t have the time to side track.

To reproduce this outcome without the actual deadline stress, specifically define what you will spend your deep working session on prior to starting.

Remember that decisions and planning take up mental energy and you want to use it all on the actual thinking process.

#5 Cut down on fast-food for your brain

Let’s go further with the analogy of deep work being an intensive workout.

You know that you want to be in good shape you need to take care of your diet.

For deep work you also need a ‘brain diet ’.

Just as we crave for a piece of cake our brain craves for novel stimuli.

Putting it bluntly, we don’t like being bored and in modern society we almost never have to be.

When was the last time that you were bored waiting in line?

With smartphones and Wi-Fi we rarely have those moments of downtime. Mindlessly scrolling through Facebook newsfeed, reading the recent tweets or checking out Instagram.

These are only few examples of the entertainment that lies readily in our palm.

As innocent as this may seem, these shallow habits directly deplete our capacity to practice deep work. Focusing intensely on a single task is per definition eliminating additional stimuli.

Think of it, if your brain is used to constant tickling of incoming information, it will scramble around looking for more entertainment refusing to stay focused on one task.

PhD productivity: information diet

For your PhD

Take care of your brain as athletes take care of their condition.

This holds for your free time as well as your working time.

The first step is to start noticing the bad habits.

For example, how often do you pick up your phone with no apparent reason?

If you catch yourself reaching for the phone too often try to have some periods of time without it. Same goes for other shallow but so addictive activities like web surfing, mindless TV watching, YouTube binging, etc…

#6 Give yourself a break

This may come over as crazy talking, but you should limit working extra hours so you get regular rest from work.

You must work less to produce more.

It’s not easy because for this you’ll need to drop the belief that working extra-long directly translates into higher PhD productivity.

But it really doesn’t. How many productive hours do you really have in a day?

Not so so hours. No. Hours of work where you think “oh, if only I would always work like in this last hour”.

You can count them with one hand.

PhD productivity: work less

This is caused by the fact that at one point our mental energy gets depleted . If you stay longer in the lab or do some evening work at home, you’ll not be working at your maximum capacity.

Even worse, you’ll be compromising the productivity of the next day by not allowing your mental resources to replenish.

For your PhD

This really boils down to planning your days so that you don’t spend most of you waking hours at work. Don’t you want to have a good work-life balance?

Of course there will be exceptions like intensive experimental set-ups or article submission sprint, but don’t make overworking a habit.

Limiting your time at work will also force you to spend your time carefully to complete the set goals for the day.

#7 Use your subconscious mind

Have you noticed how after spending a day on solving a challenging problem with no result, you would effortlessly find the solution the next day after having ‘slept on it’? 

We often account this to being rested or looking at a problem with ‘fresh eyes’ when in fact our mind could have been working on it intensely while we didn’t even realize it.

The collaboration between conscious and unconscious mind is discussed in the unconscious-thought theory (UTT) . One of the ideas being that the majority of our mental capacity is hidden in the subconscious depth of our mind.

Even more shocking is the idea that the subconscious part of our brain is better suited for solving complex problems.

PhD productivity: unconscious mind

Wait! Don’t knock yourself unconscious.

For your PhD

The key is to give your mind the space to work in the subconscious mode.

For this you should completely disengage your conscious mind from that particular task, which is easier said than done.

This comes back to the previous point of having down time completely free of work related thoughts.

Having a good sleep. A long shower. A walk in the woods.

All this helps you use the subconscious mind.

Less sleep means less PhD productivity

#8 Deep Work as a practice

Practicing deep work will give you small incremental steps of progress during individual session.

You must be consistent to achieve great results in the long run.

Human nature is weak for instant gratification and therefore often visions of tomorrow’s success are not sufficient to get you through the drudgery of today. This is very similar to sticking to a healthy diet or working out regularly.

One day of eating healthy or at a gym won’t make much of a difference, it’s the continuous effort that counts.

To stimulate yourself to stick through the hard times and not skip deep work time, keep a score of your progress.

Tally your deep work sessions in a way that you will see the growing chain (e.g. your desktop, sheet of paper on the wall, mobile app). The longer the chain gets the more effort you’ll put not to break it (psychological fact).

This approach works wonders and it’s not surprising that it’s popular among people willing to stick to healthy diet or exercise routine.

Deep work for further career

The great thing about cultivating the deep work skill during your PhD is that it will also give you a boost in your further career.

Deep work is both useful in academia and in industry. However, in industry it will be much harder to stick to it. With the open offices being common in the modern work space and the whole social media/email frenzy, it feels like our society and employers do everything to prevent us from deep work.

Master the deep work skill to succeed in your PhD.

Practice it consistently to boost your PhD productivity.

You will have a massive personal advantage over the majority stuck in the shallows.


About Olga Pougovkina

Olga joined the pharma industry after obtaining her PhD in Medical Biochemistry. While finishing her PhD she faced the challenges of making career choices and transitioning into industry. This inspired her to start, where she shares information on career development after a PhD.