Troubleshooting Productivity As A PhD Student During The Pandemic

Klotho is a membrane enzyme that is associated with life expectancy. The protein takes its name from one of the three Fates, forever destined to weave people’s lives together and cut the threads when their time comes.

We are all weaved together, in this coronavirus recent past, present, and in its future. This is an indisputable fact. Our health, well-being, and livelihood depend on the outcome of our shared circumstance and, most likely, so does our life expectancy. 

While we are waiting for a vaccine to help spin the threads of our human lives a bit farther, we have to stay calm and productive and most of all, we have to stay true to our uniqueness.

The protocol

A myriad of articles like this and webinars like this popped up in my feed and I did my best, as a PhD student, to listen to expert advice and follow protocols of “how to be productive while working from home” but with little success. In this “experiment”, I define “success” by a singular readout: how well did I do compared to life before the lockdown. The experiment was a flop. 

“Set up a daily routine, have a designated workspace in your house, be positive, start small and find out what motivates you”, the article states. These are just some of the great pieces of advice mentioned in the article. I love all of them! I tried all of them. I can argue that they sum up key ingredients for success not just during a pandemic but, rather, during one’s entire career.


So, how do I troubleshoot my self-professed failure in this “working from home” experiment? And to make things broader: how can PhD students use this time to identify their individual behavioral self-management patterns and improve? 

I have found three things helpful in this primarily introspective quest:

  1. use time to your benefit
  2. trust the experts
  3. invest in your hobbies

Time can be your friend

I weave the concept of “time” in my newly adjusted productivity routine. I have been using the Pomodoro technique for the past month for great results. If only I had known about its well-documented benefits in March. But the technique only allows me 5 minutes to sulk in this regret. And that’s the point. Make a plan to focus on one thing at a time, block this time off, take short breaks, and get the job done. No excuses. A clock is the only aid you need, and it works like a charm. And when it doesn’t work for more than a few hours, you are still more productive than you’d have otherwise been. 

We are all worried about potentially contracting the virus or how well will our loved ones fare this pandemic, but this is not an immediate problem for the next 20 minutes.  And if it is, then productivity should not even be on the radar, to begin with, and one should focus on self-care rather than productivity, as advised here.

Look close to home for expert advice

As PhD students, we are all aware of how important it is to follow expert advice. So, why should this be any different? Start by focusing on your immediate environment. Luckily, as a student in Boston, I am never short of experts around me. I found myself gravitating towards their advice on how to deal with my day-to-day approach during the pandemic. How do they stay productive? How do they deal with at least quadruple my workload without giving up? How do they stay accountable? I asked them and now I am sorting through what works for me and what doesn’t. Trial and error are essential steps in troubleshooting one’s productivity, ALWAYS. Weave your thread with that of your dean, your advisor, your postdoc. Remember that we are all in this together and they are here to help you succeed. 

Hobbies for the win!

The most interesting activities helping me be more productive recently are the ones linked to my hobbies. Throwing myself to my hobbies happily and immediacy was easy at first. I have 3 single-spaced pages worth of hobbies and ideas I want to explore but never find time for. Go back to learning the accordion, practice portrait photography settings with my yet-to-be-used 50mm lens, revise that screenplay I hastily drafted on a bet a year ago, finish that Coursera course. The list goes on and on. During the lockdown, I felt I wasted a lot of time not being productive because I spent a lot of time in my hobbies. And other PhD students feel the same. But, expanding one’s hobbies is so beneficial in advancing productivity because hobbies help PhD students be more balanced and satisfied individuals, which has a ripple effect on every other aspect of their lives.

Productivity in the days to come

As articles of bleak financial futures for PhD students and job losses for all start dominating the news cycles, it is in our best interest to look at what is within our control to learn how to work better while being happy. 

We all deserve our life’s thread to be less tangled than it currently is but that is largely beyond our control. What we can do is fight to become stronger, embrace our uniqueness and our resilience. That, we can do. It is not too late to start in July. This thread is long and detangling it requires a set of skills some of us are only now beginning to develop. I am grateful for a chance to do that for as long as Klotho allows me!

We talk about how to deal with everything and how to work together at free virtual hangouts for trainees, sponsored by ASIP.


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