Managing Multitasking

“Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing. ”

Ron Swanson, Parks and Recreation

A PhD is not just the thesis. Ask any PhD student at any stage – except, perhaps, for the month or so leading up to their viva – and they’ll tell you that they’d love to spend more time writing the thesis, but they’ve got an article to finish, a conference paper to check, a book review to complete, and they’re behind on their teaching hours. Sure, at the end of three years of intensive work you’ll be handed your doctorate even if you don’t do all these extra things, but what then? For those of us who are in the preliminary stages of preparing for an academic career it’s simply not an option to not add as many strings to your bow as you can. Everyone has got at least one “extra” thing that they’re worried they don’t do enough, when really what we should be worried about is the centrepiece of it all: the thesis.

For me, it’s publishing. Over the last two years I’ve racked up a few publications in various mediums, and although I’m proud of that work, I’m worried that I’ve published in the wrong place and that I should have focussed more at the early stage on publishing in journals. On the other hand, I’ve been to great conferences, I’ve taught loads, and I’ve curated a funded literature festival, so it should be clear to my prospective employers that I can get a variety of stuff done and do it well.

One of the most valuable things I’ve learned during this process is that “No” is a complete sentence.

But the reality of multitasking is that at some point, something’s got to give. It’s not tenable for us to commit full-time hours to writing our thesis while also taking on the myriad other projects we’re expected to do in order to continue researching or teaching professionally after we’re done, especially not for students who have family commitments and/or need to take on external work in order to afford rent and tuition. I’m lucky enough to be in receipt of a scholarship and to have no dependents at this time, and I struggle at times with the management of so many projects at once; I shudder to think what the schedules of my colleagues with part-time jobs or children look like. What’s more, research has suggested that multitasking is an ineffective way of managing your time at work, making us unproductive, slow, and more error-prone.

One of the most valuable things I’ve learned during this process is that “No” is a complete sentence. I’m an overachiever with a need to please people, and I have a tendency to stretch myself far too thin to keep up with where I think I need to be. I’ve always created pressures for myself where none existed, and one of those pressures was to grab every single opportunity that came my way… indiscriminately. As a result I’ve spent (okay, wasted) a lot of time during my academic career doing nonsense that I didn’t enjoy, learn from, or use in future. Attending conferences barely tangentially related to my field or other interests. Reading whole books when all the information I needed was in one chapter. Taking leadership roles in organisations that I wasn’t even really interested in being a member of. The first stop to saying “no” to something is asking yourself “Is this something I want to say yes to? Why?” If you haven’t got a good answer for this, you should probably say no. (I checked with my supervisor and the answer “It wouldn’t necessarily be a useful conference but it is in Cologne,” is not a good reason to say yes.) It’s astonishing how quickly your workload goes down once you start turning down the inevitable offers for things you won’t enjoy, or you might enjoy but you don’t have time for, or you won’t enjoy and you won’t benefit from. And it makes it all the more enjoyable when you’re able to say “Yes! I would love to contribute to your zine/blog/conference/help with your proposal/volunteer at your exhibition.”

When an estimated one third of PhD students never complete, it feels so important for me to keep my eyes on the prize. For those of us who are addicted to busy, saying “No” to multitasking might be the only way to be in the two-thirds that do.


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