A reader asks by email:
I have a specific and simple question about work habits that I thought you might like to pose on my behalf to readers. As a grad student one thing I've really struggled with is having so much time! Lacking lectures and other commitments, one has whole days free to plan as one likes. I've found that I've ended up wasting a lot of time - without structure I can find myself wasting days to procrastination, email-writing, cooking ... the list is endless! So I've determined that I'm going to write myself a structure and force myself to stick to it. My question is: how much time per day should one spend on one's research? By research I just mean reading and writing (not all the other things that go around it: hunting for papers and books, emailing colleagues with questions, etc). My opinion is that quality and intensity over quantity is generally a good plan, and that aiming for perhaps 5-6 good hours per day is better than forcing oneself to do 8-9 bad ones, but I'd like to hear what others think. Is 5 hours a day not enough? After all, friends working regular jobs regularly work 10/11 hour days. And there's always that nagging feeling, an occupational hazard I suppose, that you could be doing more, and producing better/more work.
Any comments/tips you or others might have about enforcing structure on one's work habits would also be gratefully heard and acted upon.
Here are some of my thoughts (and I'm curious to see what others think!). I think the reader is more or less right about (A) setting a daily plan and sticking to it, (B) "quality over quantity", and (C) a 5-6 hour rule -- though I would offer the following amendment to (A): your daily plan should involve a daily requirement to draft X-number of written pages. Let me go into a bit more depth on each of point.
On (A): In my experience, not having good daily work habits is perhaps the single biggest problem grad students run into, and perhaps the single biggest reason that some never finish the PhD. Many grad students, once they finish their coursework, begin to "slack off." It usually begins innocently enough. It tends to start by considering reading alone to be sufficient for a good day's work. I've seen it happen time and again. Grad student finishes comps, grad students "reads" every day -- and, pretty soon, they haven't written a damn thing in two years, they have no dissertation prospectus, and they may never finish. Trust me, I know. I fell into this trap myself, and made it through to the PhD by the skin of my teeth. I learned, pretty much just before it was too late, precisely the lessons you suggest: it is crucial to set a daily plan and stick to it. Finally, for the reasons I just mentioned, it is crucial for that daily plan to involve committing to writing X numbers of draft pages of something or other. I know some have disagreed with this advice of mine before, but I've simply seen too many grad students go down precisely because they had no such daily requirement. In order to finish the PhD and be successful beyond it, you need to write, and write a lot. There is no better time to start than now. (Well, maybe yesterday, or the day before, etc.;)
On (B): quality trumps quantity every time (though quality does require time!). One piece of advice here: don't dilly-dally. If you're having trouble with a paper, turn to something else. The "solution" to your problem may pop into your head while you're working on that other thing. Or, alternatively, maybe you'll find out your new project is better than the old one. Don't waste 9 months on a paper that's going nowhere. Always try to keep moving forward -- whether it's reading something new or writing something new. Don't "tread water" with papers or ideas that aren't working.
On (C): I was once told by a professor in my grad program that 5 research hours per day is ideal, and I entirely agree. My experience, at least, is that I have about 5 really good hours per day in me. After that, the quality of my work takes a sharp nosedive, and all that >5 hours gives me is a headache, a bad mood, and a bad attitude the next day (when I'm exhausted from having worked so hard to such little effect the day before). As I've suggested before, one of the "secrets" I think I've discovered is that it's important to cultivate practices that maintain your day-to-day enthusiasm, and a 5-hour limit helps with this. It's better to work 5 good hours today and then look forward to working tomorrow (finishing whatever you had left off!) than work 9 hours today and despise working tomorrow.
Anyway, to the reader who asked, I hope you find this helpful -- and again, I'm curious to hear what others have to day!