How to Keep Sane during your Ph.D. 🧠 - Part 1

Moderate Multitasking as an Option

Published on October 30, 2020 by

personal academic

6 min READ

Hello All 👋,

Some people say Ph.D. students work A LOT, sometimes sacrificing their health pursuing the same degree. Sometimes I related to that, as I am involved in some projects that require a fair part of my time. My advisor once said that my multitasking capabilities are infinite, a compliment I took, although I don’t believe in multitasking.

In fact, I do not believe in multitasking, as the overhead of changing tasks is sometimes too significant. But I try to make “multitasking” a friend and not a foe, and it is one of the things that keeps me sane during my Ph.D. If I do not have variety, I would be likely to be stuck often. I need fresh air when stuck in a problem.

Some examples of projects

All projects I participate are contributing directly or indirectly to my Ph.D. Some projects include:

  • University courses I have to attend at Uni
  • Teaching (MSc course + advising theses)
  • Blockchain Interoperability Work @ Hyperledger Cactus
  • Blockchain Interoperability Work @ Hyperledger, as a mentor
  • Blockchain Interoperability Work @ IETF
  • Internship at the Linux Foundation
  • Qualichain Project - blockchain for education

That is a lot of different stuff, as you can see, but they are related, and we can leverage interactions between them. For instance, the experience I get from the projects I participate in is applied to advising theses. On its turn, these sparkle new ideas for research.

All of those help the degree, which aims to teach me how to produce meaningful research and be a competent researcher. For that, two main tasks need to be performed from day one:

  • Reading Papers - learning part
  • Writing Papers - application of the knowledge obtained, creating new knowledge

Project multitasking, allied to reading and writting may help keeping your creative mind operational: sometimes a solution in one project triggers the answer in another. Synergies are developed, and thus high productivity is possible without sacrificing quality significantly. Now, how to manage this apparent complex multitasking?

Action Points to Deal With Several Projects:

  • Allocate time per project for your week - and then come up with a daily plan. Try to work in a focused and interruption-free environment.

It is better to work a couple of hours per week on a specific topic than dividing it throughout the week. When you have many tasks that require a high cognitive load, distractions and switching activities are not helping.

  • Track your time

Related to the previous one, but deserves its own bullet point. When you track your time, you have the power to effectively make decisions on how should you organize your projects. If you don’t track time spent, your intuition will be likely guiding you - and intuition fails. For instance, I discovered that I’m spending a lot of time teaching - and that’s normal - I have to prepare classes, deliver them, clarify doubts, and help my mentees with their master theses. That takes time and effort, but it is very fulfilling and helps my research.

  • Try to explore synergies. This one is something I am particularly fond of.

Often, you can explore exciting synergies between projects. For instance, I gave a guest lecture on blockchain interoperability - the theme of my Ph.D. - and reused the presentation I made to a Spanish Bank earlier this year on the same topic. Another example - I participated in a podcast about cryptocurrencies. I talked about blockchain interoperability and JusticeChain - the subject of my master thesis. I use the materials from my articles, papers, and thesis to the university course I am developing upon proper adaptations. Every project I do is a potential blog post. This is something that I invite you to explore deeply - anything you do, anything you produce can leverage increasingly exciting projects.

  • Quality over Quantity

Careful about over-committing! I did this some years ago and it does not feel nice to realize that you have failed your responsibilities. Thus, put the maximum priority on projects in which people depend on you. For instance, teaching is one of my top-most priorities and the Qualichain project, that supports my research. My responsibilities at Hyperledger come next, along with trying to keep my advisors happy with sound research and novel opportunities. If I produce 10 papers instead of 12 at the end of my studies, I don’t think that is the end of the world - especially if we consider that those 10 papers are good research. So, short term priorities are your immediate responsibilities - makes sense, right?

Then, given that your work priorities are established, the trick is to manage your personal life preferences. Consider that you allocate 12 hours per day to work. If you do this, you might start becoming Elon Musk, but you will not be able to have dinner with your friends, chat with your girlfriend, go for a run, or even write blog posts. Try to take it easy, but be mindful of the consequences of your actions. There are trade-offs. By the way, and I almost forgot this - to take the most out of a project, include people you trust, or at least people you have a good feeling about. Not only it makes work more fun, but it also raises the bar and pushes you forward.

  • Periodically Review Your Goals

Every year on my birthday, I review what I’ve learned. For some reason, people like to do this around the New Years’ celebration, but I find it much more inspiring to do it on the day that signals one year closer to your death. A bit gruesome, but this exercise pushes you to pursue what you ultimately want - and kind of clears the clutter. After separating the wheat from the chaff, I also write a letter to my future self - something I might talk about in the future. I keep a backlog of tasks tailored for the week, which I address from Monday to Sunday. Yes, I typically work every day, but it is a big but - I usually don’t work too much each day. And I may also cheat because I consider blogging work, although it is mostly for my personal satisfaction.

Key Takeaways

  1. Do several interesting projects that go in the same ultimate direction.

  2. Synergies, quality over quantity, and have fun doing what you need to do.

Cheers ✌️,