FIVE TIPS THAT HELPED ME IN MY PHD COMPREHENSIVE EXAMS
December 26, 2016

 Cal Newport's  Deep Work.

Cal Newport's Deep Work.

I completed my PhD Comprehensive Exams (“Qualifying Exams”) this month. The process involved reading widely over five-six months and completing three 12000-14000-word exams, or papers—one for each of my three areas of specialization, or future work. For those entering a similar process as mine, I’m going to share some practices that helped me the most. Throughout, I relied on Cal Newport’s (2016) concept of Deep Work, or a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes one’s cognitive capabilities to develop a qualitatively different understanding (e.g. of a journal article), or product (e.g. of a paper) than might be possible in an environment conducive to (self)-distraction. Chapters 1-3 in Newport’s book provide a strong primer on the concept. The following five tips below emerge implicitly or explicitly from his ideas (but also from my own past experiences in corporate work, consulting, and academic research). 

1. Set a Long-Term Schedule and Measurable Indicators: The task of reading well over 100 reading units and writing close to 40,000 words can be overwhelming. What was helpful for me was breaking this up into multiple manageable and digestible parts, using nested one-week blocks to schedule activities to reach the end-goal. For example, for each paper and set of readings (1-month timeframes), I listed the number of articles I needed to read per week, and the writing goals needing to be completed. This then allowed me to set daily goals to keep myself on-track (e.g. read 5 articles this morning, write 800 words, or finish “Section 4” today). From here, a long-term schedule and measurable indicators to achieve the goal became much clearer. The point of a daily or bi-daily schedule was not to fix each minute of my day as Newport sheds light on, but to be thoughtful, and to ask, What can I do today that will help me achieve a specific set of goals or indicators required to reach my overall objective?

2. Reduce Distractions to Deep Work: “Self-created” distractions, such as frequent e-mail checking, social media use, and administrative or logistical tasks harm deep work and its benefits. They reduce our finite daily reservoir of concentration capacity, detract from habits and muscle memory of concentration, and carry attention residue—reducing our capability to return focus to a task at hand. Scheduling (as above) and use of applications—such as Tomato Timer (45 minute concentration blocks), internet-free periods, and scheduled logistical “breaks”—were important for me, not for purging these forms of “Shallow Work” but in organizing them around your deep work goals.

3. Set Consistent Work Hours: I often worked from 9:00 or 9:30 AM—6:30 PM Monday to Friday. After these hours, I (mostly) didn’t touch my computer for work-related purposes. Within each day, I often tried to accomplish six or seven 40-minute blocks of concentration, giving myself 10-15 minutes in between for “shallow work”, or breaks. Fixed times forced me to get what I needed to get done in that amount of time because I knew I will not be working after hours. I found this dramatically improved my productivity and efficiency and created some distance to return recharged the following day [1].

4. Note Keeping and Idea Mapping: It is important to keep organized hundreds of articles, their key ideas, and highlights. I kept an extensive file, leaving one page or less or each paper summarized by main headers of “Main Argument”, “Key Points/Sub-Arguments”, and “Keywords”. Equally important is knowing who is arguing what—as a visual learner, diagrams on large poster stock or large sheets of paper were helpful to group names and synthesize ideas around select topics and were instructive in targeting key gaps for intervention.

5. Take Breaks and Reward Yourself: While the last year was the most academically stimulating and busiest it remained one where my daily routines, outings, and social activities saw little change. I attribute a lot of this to the thoughtful scheduling and efficiency of the workflow ideas above. But, setting up planned activities, going out for a glass of wine, seeing a movie, working out, and cooking dinner for friends were fantastic rewards for a hard day of work, helped me recharge, and set something to look forward to in the days or weeks ahead.

All of this all goes without saying, this is one time in your life where you can read widely and write about topics you enjoy very much. Have fun with it, dedicate yourself, and trust in the process, and good things will surely follow.

Resources:
Newport, C. (2016). Deep work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world. Hachette Book Group: United Kingdom.
McChesney, C., Covey, S., & Huling, J. (2012). The 4 disciplines of execution: Achieving your wildly important goals. Simon and Schuster Inc: New York.
Covey, S. R. (1991). The 7 habits of highly effective people. Simon & Schuster Inc: New York.

[1] If one is so inclined, a lot of empirical work exists to support Attention Restoration Theory (see works from Gary Felsten or Stephen Kaplan).