Planning and time management

"I was working on the proofs of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back in again." (Oscar Wilde)

Writing a thesis involves working with a significant degree of autonomy. You are required to manage large blocks of unstructured time, work independently to meet distant deadlines, and juggle short-and long-term commitments. Although liberating, this autonomy can also pose significant challenges.

Check your thesis submission deadline. Although it may seem like a long time away, you will need to manage your time effectively to get through each stage of your research project.


Make realistic long-term plans

Postgraduate research is a major undertaking that spans multiple years. It is therefore helpful to map exactly what needs be done over the course of your candidature and create a realistic plan for completing this work. It is useful to display this plan in visual form somewhere prominent (e.g. pinned above your desk) so that you can easily refer back to it.


Create a long-term research plan

Create a plan for your postgraduate research, perhaps using a multi-year calendar or Gantt chart.

  • Define your objectives – these need to be specific, measurable, and set within a specific time-frame.
  • Define the tasks you need to complete to achieve these objectives.
  • Set deadlines for these tasks (and keep to them!)
  • Build reporting requirements (e.g. confirmation report, yearly progress reports) into your long-term plan.
  • Monitor your progress and set new goals. If you don't meet a goal within the time you have set, don't be discouraged. Perhaps the time allotted was unrealistic, or the goal was not specific enough. Work out what went wrong, and adjust your future goals accordingly.
  • When allotting time, try to envisage possible obstacles and delays (e.g. survey distribution, visas for travel, equipment breakdowns or time restrictions).

If you confront a delay to candidature (for reasons such as family, health or employment) it may be a good idea to apply for official intermission of candidature to extend the expiry of candidature date.

Set clear and challenging short-term goals

Good time management also involves short-term (e.g. daily or weekly) planning. Short-term planning is especially important for providing structure for unstructured research time.

Effective short-term goals are clear; they should specify exactly what needs to be done to achieve the goal. This will often involve breaking down larger tasks into discrete tasks that can be completed in a single work session. They should also be challenging (but still attainable); ambitious goals can motivate us more effectively than goals which are easily met.


Set clear and challenging short-term goals

Complete important tasks, not just urgent ones

The Eisenhower matrix is a famous productivity tool named after Dwight Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States of America and former five-star general in the United States Army. He once remarked that “what is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important”. The Eisenhower matrix sorts tasks into four quadrants according to two factors: urgency and importance.

Urgency: Urgent tasks require immediate attention. They typically involve reacting to outside demands, such as an impending deadline.

Importance: Important tasks contribute to our long-term goals, such as successfully completing and submitting your thesis.


Prioritising tasks

Drag and drop the activities listed below into the correct quadrant in the Eisenhower matrix.

Focus on one task at a time

Flipping between different tasks is often an inefficient way to work. Examples include beginning to write one section of the thesis only to be distracted by an incoming email, or leaving a paper half-read in order to locate a source that it cites. It is often more difficult and time-consuming to complete the original task after flipping to another activity than it would have been otherwise.


The Pomodoro Technique (named after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer) is one way of minimising distractions and focusing on one task at a time. In its simplest form, the Pomodoro Technique involves setting a timer to 25 minutes, working exclusively on a specific task until the timer sounds, and then taking a short 3 to 5-minute break before setting another 25 minutes on the timer.