4: Planning and time management

Writing a dissertation, research report, or thesis can be challenging enough when it comes to making sure you plan the most appropriate time to make it a success. But, when you add in other factors that most of you surely have in your life - family, friends, work and leisure time - figuring out how to do it all becomes even more challenging. It can be done when you apply effective time management practices to your daily life.

Those who are most successful in life do tend to be the multi-taskers. They seem to know how to focus on the right tasks and work quickly to get it done right within the right amount of time. What they have been able to master is the fine art of time management so they know what takes priority and how much time to spend on it. As a student, you may not have yet mastered this but it is a good time to start doing it, especially if you already have a family to take care of as well as maybe even a job that needs your attention. Even if you do not have these extra responsibilities, as a student, you still need to know how to balance your time, including when to study and when to have some leisure time to unwind and relax that brain.

Those students that are not known to excel at time management typically fall into these categories:

  • The late-nighter who likes to burn the midnight oil to get their work done at the last minute;
  • The extension-requester who often spends more effort and time rationalising how to get an extension rather than getting the work done;
  • The last-minuter who is motivated only when they realise they are running out of time and seem to thrive off of the chaos;
  • The know-it-all who believes they are in control and will get it done because they are already smart enough to get the great marks; or
  • The perfectionist who never knows when to leave a project alone but most continually make changes or work to get things right as they go and then end up being short on time to finish the project.

If any of you recognize themselves in these descriptions, then this chapter is definitely for you! You need to work on your time management skills to get past these types of personality quirks.

This chapter provides you with a way to start honing your time management skills. It will cover some key topics around how to organise your activities and stay focused on the reading, researching, and writing phases associated with your thesis, research report, or dissertation. The key topics in this chapter on planning and time management include:

  • How to create a timetable, planner, and diary of all your activities;
  • The benefits of making lists and prioritising your activities;
  • The value of creating routines and good work habits; and
  • What to do if you get stuck or cannot finish a project within the time allotted.

The second part of the chapter also delves into specific planning strategies for dissertations and theses as well as for research projects.

Time to get started on time management skills!

Chapter 4 contents:

4.1: Writing and mapping your time management

One of the best ways to undertake effective time management practices is to put your time on paper to see where it is going and how to change those areas that are out of balance. There are a number of ways to put your time into writing, including a diary, a timetable, and a wall planner. This section will discuss each of these written time management strategies so you can decide which one works best for your life, needs, and personality.

Diary

A diary covers the entire calendar year and often has numbered weeks where you can write information down for each day of the year. A diary works well for keeping track of daily activities across school, work, and personal life. Here is how you can use a diary for time management related to your dissertation, research report, or thesis:

  • List submission dates for all university work.
  • Put down key milestones that you need to meet, including submit first draft or meet with supervisor.
  • Continually look at your diary to keep on track with your daily or weekly plans. This will get you in the habit of looking ahead. If you pick a diary that has a week to week view, you can start to think ahead to the next week and get your head wrapped around what you have coming up that needs your attention.

Timetable

The timetable is specifically for your thesis, dissertation, or research report so it should only contain the activities that you need to complete for that project alone. You can use another timetable for personal appointments or one for regular coursework. Here is what you should do with the timetable:

  • All tasks broken down into the smallest components possible;
  • Space between each of the components that allows for any potential extra work that may need to be completed; and
  • Placement of activities when you feel the most intellectually active;

Do not be afraid to go through and cross these items off as you complete them. This provides greater enthusiasm to keep it going as you have a visual on your progress.

Wall Planner

A wall planner is a way to get your timetable and even other of life's activities in front of you at all times. It is big and bold and that size often means you cannot help but see what you should be doing and when. It helps you chart out all your time and gives you an even stronger visual to work with to keep you on task and on target with your time.

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4.1.1: Creating lists for prioritising tasks

Staying organised is an integral part of time management. If you organise your time effectively, you can realise the following benefits:

  • Keeps you on schedule to meet your deadlines;
  • Takes the pressure and stress off of you because you are not off schedule;
  • Helps you produce a better project;
  • Builds your confidence; and
  • Helps you multi-task to get more done in less time so you can squeeze in leisure time rather than work all the time!

As part of a strategy for getting organized, you can focus on creating lists and prioritising activities.

When you are busy with school, work, and personal life, you may feel like you have so many things to do that it becomes overwhelming. The first step to remove that sense of panic is to take a step back, get a pen and paper (or do it digitally by storing it on your smart-phone, tablet, or computer), and start making a list of what you need to do that day. Besides taking some of the stress off, this can also help you to not forget any task that must get done that day.

Once you have your list, then it is onto prioritising that list, which means that you will need to rank those tasks by order of importance or urgency. These relate to the goals you have set as well as the key deadlines that should be listed in your diary, timetable, and/or wall planner.

Here is a good plan of attack for these lists of priorities:

  • Try to complete as many things on your list as possible, so this is where you will want to think realistically when you created the list in the first place to ensure you succeed.
  • Cross those things off the list as you finish them because this will give you personal satisfaction and confidence as well as help to keep you motivated to keep going.
  • Take the uncompleted tasks and add them to the list you make for the next day as well as add new ones. Just be sure to start with the uncompleted tasks from the day before as these most likely now have more urgency or importance than they had previously.
  • Apply this same process to each stage of your academic writing project, including research and writing.
  • Keep lists of other tasks not related to your academic responsibilities to ensure you balance out all your life's tasks.

Even if you make lists and learn some semblance of prioritization, it will all go to waste if you do not develop a routine and good work habits that keep you focused on these lists.

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4.1.2: Developing a routine and good work habits

When it comes to getting things done, no one knows you better than you - so you will know what works for your personality. For instance, some people find that doing certain tasks at a certain point in the day keeps them on track whether this is someone who exercises every morning or studies or reads during the mid-day or has a specific day to clean their house or do their shopping. It is a routine and it is what makes many of us tick and succeed at what we do.

When it comes to your academic writing responsibilities, setting a routine is a great idea. For instance, is there a particular day and time you feel is conducive to study at the library or a good time for writing where there will be no distractions? Put this on your schedule and turn it into part of your routine.

Beyond a routine is also the idea of good work habits that can help enhance your time management skills. Here are some tips on developing these good work habits if you feel like this is an area that could use a little work:

  • Focus on the most important work when you are feeling the most productive, mentally and physically. This is when you feel the most awake. For some of you, this might be mid-morning while others work better in the early evenings. Then, save other activities that require less brain power for those times of the day where you do not feel as productive. Make this part of your routine and align it with your personality - only you know if you are a morning person or a night owl.
  • Use all periods of time wisely even if they are short bursts of 15 minutes to a half hour of free time. You can use this to jot down ideas, read an article, edit a few pages of writing or even update your diary or timetable. All time can be used for something valuable even if it means taking that half hour to go for a walk or take a power nap.
  • Make sure all your key documents are kept in order and filed appropriately so you can find what you need quickly. If you have to take more time just to find what you are looking for, then you are losing out on the lack of order. This would be time you could be using for something productive related to your dissertation, thesis, or research report or any of your other responsibilities.
  • Have a plan and stick to it so you can have something to fall back on when you feel like you are getting off track. This plan is a way to put your responsibilities right in front of you. This is where your diary, timetable, or wall planner really comes in handy.
  • Lengthen your work day so you can fit it all in. While it is nice to sleep in or end early, when you have extra projects like a dissertation, research report, or thesis, there is more to do. In order to fit it all in, you may have to get up an hour earlier or extend the day a few more hours just while you have this extra work.

All of these tactics are ways to help you stay organized, improve your work habits, and enhance your time management skills. But, what happens when the unexpected rises or you get off track due to procrastination? The next section helps you know what to do when you lose the plot.

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4.1.3: What to do when you lose the plot

As we said in the front of this book, one of the hardest things to do with big projects like a research report, dissertation, or thesis is to get started. Procrastination - the fine art of putting things off and giving into laziness - or the unexpected can often lead to you losing the plot on your critical project. Do these scenarios sound familiar:

  • Do you tell yourself that other work that is actually low on the priority list is more important or you prefer doing it?
  • Do you switch between tasks often and end up not making progress on any of them?
  • Do you talk or complain about your work versus actually doing it?
  • Do you spend more planning than working?
  • Do you get lost in the details of the work like the formatting rather than focusing on the content?
  • Do you get distracted by socialising, the computer, the television or texting?

If any of these scenarios sound like they hit home, you may be procrastinating and then will end up losing the plot and not completing your academic writing project on time or do well at it.

Knowing you do things may be one way to get you back on track, but you may need to do more than that in order to change your ways and more effectively manage your time on projects like your dissertation, research report, or thesis. The next section can provide perfectionists, those with short-term attention spans, and those that may have a wee bit of laziness inside of them to focus on the most important tasks and get them completed on time.

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4.1.4: Practical tips for time management

When we decided to put together a section that offered the best tips for time management, we consulted a number of our top researchers to see how they are able to complete thousands of words and multiple assignments while still balancing their time for leisure, family, and other work. Here are their top ten tips for managing time that they have found has helped them to be more productive:

  1. Organize your work environment: While you do not have to get fancy with your organisation, you do have to keep your work and study area somewhat neat and tidy so you can find what you need. Those that do keep things in order also report that it makes them mentally relaxed to see things in a certain order rather than clutter, which can often lead to feelings of stress when they see a mess. Additionally, consider reducing noise around you, including enjoying silence so you can focus on your reading material or thinking. It also does not hurt to change locations and not always do all your work in the same place. Take it out of a room in your house and go to the library or, if you are lucky to have nice weather, take it outside!
  2. Avoid distractions at all costs: Many of the things mentioned in number one also can serve as distractions - music, noise, and clutter. Other distractions are friends, your mobile, and your social media accounts. Put your friends and family on notice when you plan to study. You can seek them out on a break and enjoy their company or social interaction then to rest your brain from studying, reading, or writing.
  3. Work in short bursts: Working for hours on end is not necessarily productive as your mind begins to check out after a period of time. It is a muscle and when any muscle is overworked, it gets tired and does not perform to its full potential. So, it has been found that it is better to work in short bursts with frequent short breaks. You could get up and take a quick walk or do something else to stretch your body and rest your brain and then come back to do more.
  4. Just get started: So many people believe that when they work on a writing project that every sentence has to be perfect. They do not. Instead, it is better to just start typing what comes to mind and going back later to put it in order and revise it. This will help you  to get started and keep it going rather than getting hung up on getting it right and wasting a lot of  time.
  5. Be positive: There are very few of you out there that will find these types of academic writing fun or get excited by the prospect of writing 30-100 pages, but you can keep a positive frame of mind to keep the motivation flowing and reach that finish line. Think about the parts of the project that do interest you or that you do feel confident about rather than fixating on what makes you anxious. Crossing off tasks completed is another way to stay positive.
  6. Don't be linear: Although there is a roadmap to these types of academic writing projects does not mean you have to start with the first sentence of the first chapter and write in that order all the way to the end. Every researcher we have will tell you that they do not find that writing in a linear fashion serves them well. Start on those sections that you feel will help you organise your thoughts on the other sections, such as the literature review or results section. Often, the introduction chapter is written last on these projects by our researchers as they feel this enables them to write a stronger opening.
  7. Divide up large tasks: When you only look at the larger tasks, it only makes sense that you will feel overwhelmed. Instead, create smaller chunks out of these bigger tasks that seem more digestible to you. This will help you achieve more on a faster basis, which can up the confidence and motivation factors to keep you going. The momentum you gain from the smaller tasks will get you to the finish line in time with even a little to spare.
  8. Work together: While we talked about squirrelling yourself away from distractions, including other people, there can be some merit to working together or alongside others on certain tasks related to your dissertation, thesis, or research project. This can be encouraging as well as helpful if you are hitting a barrier in your research or you need some feedback on what you have completed so far.
  9. Don't be afraid to ask for help: If you are lacking in a certain area, there is nothing wrong with getting some assistance from someone who may excel at that area. For example, if you have not worked with statistical analysis software before, perhaps you could consult with someone who has used it many times so that they could give you tips and tricks that save you time. This is, of course, not to be used to have them do the work for you but just to minimise your time struggling to work on that area. There is no point in suffering and struggling when you can get help, get back on track, and maintain your timetable.
  10. Don't give into perfectionism: You want to do well, but you do not want to become so engrossed in having the perfect word and format that you spend so much time that other areas then suffer. You can also finesse something to the point of making it go from sounding pretty good to sounding bad. Just remember that any type of writing can always be improved at some point when more research is discovered, but you only have a certain amount of time. So, do not give into perfectionism but simply do the best you can on a task and move onto the next one on the list.

Along with these top ten tips on time management, here are a last few practical tips to managing your time more effectively:

  • Invest in things that can help you manage your time, including a smart-phone with diary or scheduling system, apps that help you plan for all tasks or that simplify those tasks, a wall planner and an alarm clock.
  • Do a time-sheet that covers what you did in a week to see where you could make specific improvements. Seeing everything you do on a page can show you where you may have wasted time. You will be surprised. It is similar to those that track their calories on what they eat; the results are eye-opening and can help change bad habits.
  • Set false deadlines that are ahead of the actual due date to psych yourself into getting done sooner than later as well as provides a way to build in more time in case anything goes wrong or turns up unexpectedly. If nothing comes up, then the extra time can be used to review your writing, fix errors, get feedback and generally enhance what you have done so far.
  • Add further flexibility into your schedule and planning so that you can create contingencies, if necessary, so that you can remain on time with certain tasks. For instance, if the survey results are thin or it turns out very few people are willing to be interviewed for primary research, you have time to do other types of research and still hit your deadline.
  • Seriously assess your lifestyle to see if you need to make some changes to make sure your University studies come first at least while you have such a significant project like a thesis, dissertation, or research project. Socialising, travelling, and certain other of life's experiences can wait until you finish your degree. By putting these things to the side or back burner, you are de-cluttering your life so that you focus on your academics as the priority. Of course, if you have a family and a full or part-time job, these must be considered important and balanced alongside your academic objectives.
  • Analyse the type of time management personality you have to see if you have any particular traits that are serving as a barrier to becoming more productive and efficient in what you can accomplish as a student.

Now that we have tackled time management skills, it is time to move onto some specific planning processes for dissertations and theses followed by planning processes for research reports.

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