Currently I’m working full time as a PhD student at the psychiatry department. I arrive at work around 9-ish, grab a cup of coffee and go sit at my desk. I have a bunch of meetings during the week, I do patients interviews/tests and analyse data. Furthermore, planning-wise I am on my own. Not unlike any other student.

Without a strict schedule it is easy to focus your work around the next upcoming flag, the next request. Answer questions, write emails and most of all ‘feel busy.’ But in our field this is not enough. You need to focus your work around core principles which you want to master. Obtain knowledge, learn techniques and learn how to break down hard subjects.

Now as I have to include patients, write up a new protocol (and find funding for this) and supervise students, how do I find this time? By coming up with ‘focus’ time. I am definitely not the first (or the best) person to write about this. Check out Cal Newport’s blog ‘Study Hacks‘, which is currently focused around deliberate practice – practicing your skill over and over again. If you want to learn more about this I highly recommend his book ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You.’

Building Your Routine

Whenever you find yourself in a situation where you cannot find the appropriate time to focus or to work for an hour or more on important projects, you need to experiment with other ways. As an example, for me a big problem was to find the right time to read (and understand) scientific articles related to my field.

I’ve been testing out a couple of different things the past 6 months, like reading articles in a completely different place (the swimming pool, love it), reading articles in the middle of the night and reading on¬†the train commute I do almost every week. Reading articles is an example, but it is the same with writing syntax in SPSS, writing and re-reading my own manuscripts. What I figured out was that I needed a clear place, without too many distractions.

For me, the morning is perfect for this. I made it clear to a couple of direct colleagues to not disturb me too much in the morning, and started working on this focused work for aorund 2 hours a day. This doesn’t seem like a lot, but time yourself and see how much work you get done during the week! The best thing: I push all my ‘busy’ tasks to the afternoon. Things like replying to emails, making a powerpoint, taking care of logistics in the study we are currently conducting and talking to other people.

The best thing is, the department I am working at seems at rest during the morning, between 9 and 12 there are some people at the coffee machine every once in a while, but they aren’t having that many meetings, the hallway doesn’t seem that crowdy. This changes after lunch, and that is exactly why it is working so good for me.

Thinking Slowly – and Acting Fast

Leo over at ZenHabits published a great article at the end of 2014 about your brain’s ‘Fast Mode.’ This is when your brain thinks fast, wants to switch tasks continuously and wants to check all your inboxes every 10 seconds. This hit home for me, as I felt like this was the case very often at work. And I don’t think I am the only student who feels like this.

Leo¬†advocates switching your brain to a ‘slow mode’, where you take your time, where you slow down and where you focus. Sounds easy, but really isn’t when you have all these distractions going on. That is why I love my mornings now. I wake up, take a shower and drink my pre-made shake-breakfast-thing (I don’t want to say it, but I have to call it by it’s name: it is overnight-oats. Yeah, I know). I try to put meditiation in this routine as well, which is not working out that good (although Headspace helps). The good thing – the mornings start slow. When I arrive at work I am still not thinking fast, still slow (not to confuse with sleepy).

In the afternoon I try to watch some YouTube clips, like the AskGaryVee show which pumps me up and makes my brain go in crazy-all-out-fast-mode. And the good thing is: my brain is allowed to in the afternoon. I can switch to every other inbox every 10 minutes, I can talk with other people and enjoy that time, because I already did so much important work in the morning. [Note that I still do important work, it’s not like I’m on Youtube all afternoon, but not the slow work which is hard to fit into your day.] A big advantage here is that because my brain goes in fast-mode in the afternoon is that I can execute faster. I make decisions faster, I ask for advice earlier and I create easier.

What does this mean? To me it feels like you need a slow-brain-mode to think. To brainstorm, to read and to generate (and understand) complex ideas. Slowing your brain down to do such work is essential for every student. But when it comes to execution, over-thinking is a big pitfall. Having a fast-brain-mode at your disposal is nice, because it enables you to *act fast.*

Now how to do this?

Find the best time for you to slow down. When are your surroundings at ease? When are you able to shut everything out and just focus? At what time are your friends not yet (or not anymore) messaging you every two minutes? Use that time to practice in slowing down.

When you found your slow-time, find your fast-time as well. Find out when your brain should get into fast-mode and use this by having your next action ready to execute.

One more thing: I love to use music for this as well. I use a playlist like ‘Help me Think’ (Spotify link) to slow down and use every kind of hiphop playlist or bluegrass playlist (like “I’m a Fly Motherf***er” (Spotify) or “Fresh Bluegrass” (Spotify)) to get fast.

The Index Card

Now I want to close of my posts with the index card of what you could have learned from this article. Here is the one for this post.

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