Being busy: four tips for time budgeting during your PhD

I thought I’d write about time budgeting, mainly because I’ve just reached the end of an incredibly busy period and am facing into the storm of another one (fieldwork, argh!). In this very welcome breathing space, I’ve been thinking how various strategies have helped me to stay afloat and have tried to put together some useful resources and tips in this blog.

As PhDs, we have what seems like a million demands on our time. There’s the ever-present pressure to publish, the never-ending always-growing reading list, lab work, fieldwork, data analysis, teaching, marking, conferences, research dissemination, public engagement activities, volunteer management, and the need to look after your ‘parallel career path’ in case putting your whole heart and energy into your academic career, in the end, isn’t quite enough. On top of all this, there are personal commitments to consider; I’m in endless admiration of PhD students who are parents, the topic of one of last year’s Hive Doctoral Discussions. Hopefully some of these tips on time management will help, and please do let us know if there’s anything you would like to add!

  1. Calendar, diary, lab book

Planning and organisation are key! Keep track of everything you’re doing with some form of calendar or diary. A friend of mine has an indexed, colour-coded lab book with daily records of all her data collection and methods, as well as meetings, seminars, application deadlines, bloom dates of certain wildflowers, you name it, it’s in the book. If she needs to look back on anything, she just checks the index and can find it in a second. Another friend sticks up a wall planner for each month and writes everything on there so it’s in eye view from his desk, then keeps them in a folder to look back on. Whatever works for you – but keeping a neatly organised record will both save you time in itself, and help you budget the time you have.

The library has been running a series of Digital Skills workshops this Spring – book onto ‘Digital tools and tips for time management on 1st May for practical advice on digital approaches to help with time management.

My not-necessarily-inspirational lab book system…
  1. Prioritise

I can’t count the number of times I’ve found myself on the wrong end of prioritisation. If you find yourself battling with the University’s finance system five minutes before leading a tutorial, running late for an important meeting because you had to rescue all your plants from overheating, or proof-reading your sister’s dissertation when you should be working on a presentation for the following day, you need to step back and make a “To Do” list. *Star the important actions and **double star the really crucial ones. Do those ones first.

Have a daily routine for things like plants, which really will die if you just leave them un-watered; lab organisms are often a top priority, so, make a regular time slot to check up on them, and stick to it.

  1. It’s ok to say no!

It’s absolutely ok and sometimes definitely best to say no. Perhaps you’ve been offered the opportunity to co-organise a great public engagement activity, asked to help a colleague with some extra marking, or allocated an extra project student. If you’re like me, I say yes to most things straight away, without considering my existing workload and how ‘future me’ will manage, which is not a tactic I’d advise!

This year I’ve learned to think things through before committing myself, and although this might seem obvious, it’s probably one of my main recommendations for time budgeting. You might feel like you’re missing out on an interesting, fun, and/or CV-boosting experience, or even feel bad for not helping out a friend – but if you simply have too much on, say no this time. There will always be more opportunities, the friend will manage, and you’ll save yourself a lot of stress further down the line.

  1. Distraction sickness

There’s nothing worse for productivity than your phone! Smartphones have been shown to have a negative impact on attention, cognitive performance, memory and rest (see here for an interesting Open Access review in Frontiers in Psychology). As well as disrupting your flow, the interruption of a text or call (even if you don’t answer) can also cause ‘resumption errors’ meaning you spend even more time correcting mistakes, or worse, don’t notice potentially critical errors. When you can, turn it off and leave it on the other side of the room – your focus and efficiency might well skyrocket.

phone at work
How much time do you spend on your phone?

Being busy can be a great thing, allowing you to enjoy the amazing variety of PhD life. However, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, there are places to turn. Firstly, if you can, speak to your supervisor or co-supervisor about your workload; perhaps they can help you to prioritise, and may set your mind at rest on some counts. There are lots of helpful resources on Sussex’s Skills Hub, and in Support for Students – this includes advice on Studying Well. I would also recommend making an appointment with an advisor in the Student Life Centre, by emailing

We all employ different strategies to stay on top of things, and while I hope these have been useful to some of you, I’d love to add more to the list! Get in touch if you’d like to share something you’ve found particularly helpful, either via email ( ), Twitter (@sussexreshive) or in the Comments below.

Stay afloat 🙂


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