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Managing workflow


The ability to manage workflow is a vital component of completing a research thesis. As well as developing the ability to manage a project, it's necessary to manage time and resources effectively. This means making some important decisions about what to do and when. This section outlines some important and helpful principles of managing workflow during a PhD.

Time Management

Time management concepts are unhelpful when it comes to the PhD. PhD research requires a more responsible and independent approach to organising your time than simple time management techniques. As explored in the sections above, it is more helpful to think of the PhD as a series of projects or phases within which you have to manage the workflow. Unlike most Undergraduate and Master's programmes, the PhD rarely has fixed deadlines.

Managing workflow effectively is one of the most important skills learned as part of the PhD process. Acquiring that skill is crucial for the completion of the research degree, and all the other projects with which the thesis coincides. Workflow management is not about being busy, it is about working effectively, smartly and efficiently. Efforts therefore need to be concentrated on seeing the right results within a short period of time.

The Five Stages of Mastering Workflow

(adapted from David Allen, Getting Things Done)

  1. Collect things/information which commands our attention
  2. Process what they mean and what to do about them
  3. Organise the results
  4. Review the results as options for what we choose
  5. Do/Action

Stage One - Collect information which commands our attention

What tools/media generate workflow for research?

Here is a list of where information for research (and other projects) is typically sourced from:

Emails (and attachments) Memos Letters
Text messages Voicemails Blogs
Bulletins Websites Tweets
Social media Newspapers Lists
Calendar entries Meetings Conferences
Articles Books Reports
Theses Data Random ideas
Flyers Discussion In-tray/pigeon hole
Folders/files/boxes Archives Seminars
Events/visits Workshops Feedback sessions

Looking at the list above (which is not exhaustive), it is easy to see how researchers can become overwhelmed with all the information that they come across on a daily basis. The key here is to give serious thought to how you collect this information reading for processing. You need as few collection tools as you can get away with to ensure that the research workflow works efficiently.

Typical Collection Tools:

  • Notebooks
  • Email account
  • Calendar
  • In-tray
  • Mobile phone/iPad/Tablet
  • Computer 

Stage Two - Process what they mean and what to do about them

Once you have collected information you need to regularly process what the information means and what you are going to do about it. This is a decision making process.

  • What do you need to ask yourself about each item of information that comes your way?
  • What is it? Is it actionable?
  • What's the next action?

If it's related to a specific project, the outcome needs to be captured on a project list - eg literature review.

  • Undertake a weekly review of each project list
  • Make a decision immediately: Do it, delegate it or defer it - the two-minute rule. If it can be done within two minutes, do it now. If it can't, delegate or refer it to somebody else. 

Stage Three - Organise the results

Here you are tasked with making a decision about what is actionable or non actionable.

For non-actionable items - you have three options:

  1. trash
  2. incubation (for someday/maybe projects
  3. reference storage (items that need to be filed)

Actionable items - all actionable items have to go on one of the following (and you need access to all five):

  1. A list of projects
  2. Storage or files for project plans and materials
  3. A calendar
  4. A list of reminders of next actions
  5. A list of reminders of things you are waiting for 

Stage Four - Review the results as options for what you choose

You need to review your workflow system regularly. For the weekly review, gather and process all stuff (using the five stage approach). Review your system. Update your lists (projects, waiting for and actions). 

Stage Five - Do/Action

You have now reached the stage where you can take action on some of the information.

Making action choices - 4-criteria model

What you choose to do next will be dependent on the following:

  • Context - What's the context for this work?
  • Time Available - have you got enough time to do this now?
  • Energy Available - see section on the energy cycle
  • Priority - how urgent/important is the task?

If the workflow system is working well you will find yourself spending time much more efficiently - doing predefined work, having the ability to handle work as it shows up and defining work that needs to be done.

The Energy Cycle

To make full use of your time, you should be aware of your individual energy cycle. Your performance will have peaks and troughs during the day. Some people are at their prime in the morning and others in the afternoon or early evening.

Typical Energy Cycle

Graph showing energy cycle

This is the most common cycle. It is up to you to find out when your peak concentration times are. You can plot a similar graph by asking yourself the following questions:

  • When do I work most efficiently?
  • When do I usually hold meetings?
  • When to I arrive at the office/library? What time do I prefer to be in the office/library?
  • When am I at my most productive?
  • When do I like to be with other people?
  • When do I work alone?

Peak Time Help List

This help list will help to make the most productive use of your time. To do this:

  • Identify your energy cycle
  • Use your peak time for concentrating on your 'A' tasks
  • Use your 'trough' time for doing simple routine tasks
  • Remember that maximum performance tends to be in the morning
  • Be aware that after lunch there is a relatively relaxing (siesta) time
  • Remember that there is usually a secondary peak in the afternoon


Procrastination is an inevitable by-product of completing a research project and it is impossible to eradicate it completely.  The key is to manage procrastination and not let it affect the overall completion of the project.  Research has revealed that bright people are more likely to procrastinate. 

Jorge Cham, author of the PhD comics, has capitalised on the tendency of PhD researchers to procrastinate. The website Mind Tools has some excellent resources on beating procrastination.