Measuring Time and Work

I started yesterday by estimating how long I spent on my PhD. I want to spend the next three days reflecting on three topics to see ideas come up. As I go along, it would be great to hear from you in the comments to see what you think; if I have time on Friday and there is significant discussion I’ll see if I can gather discussion in another post.

First Topic: How do you measure time and work for the PhD?

Simply counting hours is fun, but not a great measure. Is an hour’s time spent on email as valuable as an hour spent formulating equations? One could be seen as more valuable than the other – the equation hour – while the other could been seen as more busy than the other – emails. Which is more productive? There’s an element of perspective here.

Recently I came across a couple of terms I have been turning over in my head: shallow and deep work. Email, red tape and meetings would all come under the heading of shallow work – things that you have to do, but which don’t actively advance projects you are working on. Tasks within those categories could be needed, but they are not the meat of the project. When you create things, do experiments, extract useful information from papers or ask and answer questions to advance your research you’re doing deep work.

(I can’t find the article where I came across shallow and deep work but here is a simple overview)

Shallow work needs to be done, but it doesn’t need to be the focus of attention and effort. Deep work needs to be done, but by the nature of it we need to maintain energy levels and momentum. One strategy might be to do all we can to minimise time spent on shallow work (while getting the greatest benefit from it), and schedule the time for deep work carefully so as to be as effective in those times as possible. I’ll come back to this tomorrow I’m sure.

Shallow/Deep, Efficient/Effective

I want to mention efficient and effective before I finish. In August, my wife gave me Tim Ferriss‘s “The 4-Hour Chef” which is about developing as a cook, but also about developing as a learner. Efficient and effective are discussed early on, and it made me realise that I had often focused on one or the other, but not both qualities combined. Sometimes I have mistaken one for the other. For example, when I deliver a workshop I take pictures of flipcharts and create a pdf afterwards for participants; an effective way of capturing and sharing, but it adds 30 minutes of work for me, and also time for my contact at a university. Are my actions efficient? Could I do something differently?

I’ve not answered the question I asked about measuring time and work for the PhD. I said yesterday that would be a possibility. These posts are a work in progress. How do YOU measure time and work? “I was in the office for eight hours” is less satisfying than “I worked for four hours” – the latter is perhaps not as useful as saying what was done in that time. Some universities ask postgraduate researchers to account for their time by keeping a timesheet; this makes me grimace (according to my preferences!), and at the same time I see a lot of wisdom in recording what one does for one’s own sake – as an aid to review, reflection and improvement.

Coming up

I’ll return to some of these themes and ideas in the next two posts. I hope you’ll return to read them as I expand on these ideas, and hopefully converge on some solid thoughts. In tomorrow’s post I’ll be thinking about productivity – in terms of focus and habits, and how they intersect with the ideas in today’s post. On Thursday I’ll try to bring ideas together, and home in on those aspects of review and reflection – in particular how they might apply to work-life balance.

Thanks for reading – and please comment!

Nathan (@DrRyder and @VivaSurvivors)

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