I got an email from a friend asking me about time management during my studies, so I’m adding an extra post.  He noted that I mention the big picture–the 40 hrs per week–but how do you actually balance your time between reading and writing?  If you follow Mike Bird’s schedule, they’ll be no problem.  But for the rest of us mortals, it is an issue.

Like all projects, there is a need to balance research and writing in the thesis.  This is an especially difficult problem, because I found that I would much rather read than write.  In fact, deadlines were often the only motivator I had to actually force myself to start typing.  However, as it is often the case, once I started typing things usually began to flow because I learned that I write to think.  For short papers in seminary, I was able to bang out 5-10 pages based on basic research and what I already thought about issues.  But for longer, more complex issues and arguments, I found that I write to think.  That is, my thoughts become much sharper when I have to string them together on the page to make the argument flow.  Thus, I write first to think and then edit to communicate.  Talking through issues with others was also necessary for clarifying ideas as well.  Local dialogue partners are invaluable.

So how does that affect the actual writing?  I didn’t figure this out until after struggling to write my first full chapter (on Irenaeus).  This was the most difficult experience in the PhD for me.  I hadn’t settled in a study space, so I wasn’t putting in regular hours and so was scattered in my approach.  But importantly I also let the secondary research absorb too much time before I started writing and therefore was severely crunched for time when the deadline came close.  Here are a few ideas/habits that I did or wish I did:

  • Read and do your research on your primary texts first, and then write the draft of your chapter. That is, don’t engage with secondary material until after you get your ideas on paper.  This more than anything else will make your whole project easier and less stressful:
  1. You let your understanding of the text drive your discussion.  In a thesis you are required to detail all ancillary debates about issues.  If you do the secondary research first, your argument might get lost in these debates.  (I think this happened some in my Romans chapter.)
  2. This allows you figure out the parts of the text that need more thought, and thus it will help you better choose which secondary material to look at.
  3. This forces you to get the majority of your core writing done early.  You will thus have more time to edit and craft the flow than if you left the majority of the writing to the end.
  4. There are always unlimited amounts of secondary literature to read.  If you spend all your time reading, you won’t have time to craft your argument and your writing.  Clearly, there are issues that you will only learn about from secondary material, but let that come after writing the full piece based on the primary text.

If you do anything do that, but these are some other key aspects of getting things done:

  • Set out a timeline/schedule of your project, and give it to others to keep you accountable.  I had a chapter timeline, but each chapter ran at least a month longer than I planned.  I found that Barclay didn’t push me on timing and, in that way, allowed this to be my own project.  That is, I had to learn to set and meet deadlines.  Borrowing a practice I learned from Nijay, in my last few months I started setting weekly goals because I found it much more measurable and motivating than a huge ‘finish a chapter’ 3 months from now.
  • Schedule supervision meetings sooner than later.  These ended up being my hard deadlines for getting things done.  I often waited to schedule it once I was close to finishing, but this just let the timing for the chapter/section grow beyond its allotted time.
  • Plan to finish a week before the supervising meeting/deadline.  You’ll probably go over a day or two anyway, and you need to have time to proof read before submitting because you don’t want to waste supervision time with minor issues like spelling and grammar.

Those are some bigger picture aspects, here are some day-to-day practices:

  • Set aside the last (or the first) 30 minutes of every day to write 500 words.  If you did this you would have 90,000 words written in 180 working days (less than one year).  If you aren’t writing on your thesis, definitely write abstracts of what you read that day–thesis of the work, strengths, weaknesses, etc.  This 500 words could easily be a blog post.  Thus, you could get double benefit–summary/response to a work and some name recognition in the blogosphere.
  • Another aspect of daily time management relates to studying in community.  My time was greatly, immeasurably even, enhanced by my studying in the 37 N. Bailey office.  I had great discussions that sharpened my thinking, often by challenging my approach.  However, coffee breaks often went from 15 min to 45, or lunch from 1 hr to 1.5 hrs.  It takes discipline to walk away from fun conversations, but you can easily lose 1-2 hrs per day from too much chatting.  In my last 6 months I move to a different office, at first because of boiler work being done in 37, but I later stayed in my new digs because I needed the solitude that it offered to finish.  It’s a difficult balance, but most seem to do fine with it.  For those without kids they can make up reading at home, but for me 95% of my work was only during office hours, so I had to guard that time.

Daily time management and procrastination can be difficult problems for large projects with only generally defined deadlines.  Hopefully some of these ideas will be of help.