Work Life Balance: What if I told you doing insane hours is not the same as doing your PhD?


And so today I am here to talk about work-life balance in your PhD. Work-life balance is one of the ‘seven deadly sins’ of academe. The PhD is the worst kind of study for work-life balance. More than any other form of study, the PhD requires hard work without direction and hard work without deadlines. Now let me be clear, in case you haven’t figured it out yet, your PhD is hard work. Yet, I want to tell you today that hard work… is not your PhD. Just as it’s not possible to get your PhD without hard work, it isn’t possible to ‘just’ do lots of hard work and get a PhD. It needs to be the right kind of hard work.


If we read the glossy magazines, we find that clearly this is a question of balance. It must be the case, right? Usually these articles are accompanied by pictures of women doing yoga on the beach, mothers playing happily with their children in a meadow, or some vapid quotes from people who had publicists once upon a time. These articles tell us if we can just balance work and life and our other commitments we will be very happy.



If we balance everything, what we will be is happy and contented people who don’t have their PhD. The PhD is the Australian Institute of Sports for Smart People.


At a conference I spoke at once, the keynote speaker was Brennon Dowrick, a gymnast. You want to see a lack of balance? Try gymnastics. He moved away from home at the age of 12 to live at the AIS and trained twelve hours a day, every day. For sixteen years. He represented Australia at Commonwealth and Olympic levels.

I’d never heard of him.  Embarrassment!


Try Casey Stoner who won the moto gp at Phillip Island yesterday with a mostly-broken ankle on his Honda. Now if ever there was a reason to call in sick, it’s a broken ankle. By all accounts, he’s a little intense. Nobody tells him to lighten up.


So what’s the problem? Well, even if – or perhaps especially if – you’re a world-class gymnast or a moto gp rider, balance is still very important for you. There are rules around what you’re doing. If you come first, you’re good. If you come at the back of the pack – well, time to go home. There’s an off-season for it. One of the difficulties with the PhD is that no-one understands exactly what ‘it’ is. Not really, and not least of all yourself.


Your friends think you spend all day sitting in a library reading books about… something. Your parents think you are a professional student and want you to get a real job (at least they do when you take on the PhD when you’re 42). Society thinks you must do something important – but doesn’t understand it and generally ignores you as best they can. Your supervisor thinks you’re wet behind the ears and can’t understand why a simple essay on the relationship between the concepts of absorptive capacity and research design has taken you three weeks to do this terrible a job (hello! I’m tutoring!). You might personally think you’re the organised overlord of all you survey – but the reality is that you really spend most of your time tearing your hair out with Red bull and pizza desperately trying to retrieve version 20120601b of your research data before you corrupted it.

Another thing is that you can never put a line under it and say, “that’s done”. There’s always a bit of tweaking to be done to make it ‘more perfect’ and ‘more correct’. Unlike Brennon and Casey, there is no ‘second place’. We work and work and work on something, crafting it up to be something better every time. All our time could be spent working on the PhD – but would it improve the PhD?


The scope of the PhD is the problem. It can be as big and tough as we make it. We are perfectionists – it is what we do. And what we have to create has to be very, very good. But does everything we do need to be perfect? Or can we recognise that what we do remains an ‘interim struggle’ (Weick, 1995) and aim to work a little smarter, not harder? The end game is what matters here and the PhD is a life-long marathon. Although the short-term race is to the one that works the hardest, that’s only getting us out of the stadium. Now I am saying that the vision of happy-and-contented PhD students is horse-hockey. You do need to have a lack of balance. You will need to burn the midnight oil, and you will need to re-do work. But not all the time – you also need to still be standing when the whistle blows. And that whistle is some time off. I want to give some tips that may help you balance the extreme of the PhD with the need to build healthy habits.


Like all good researchers, I am starting from first principles. Firstly, a good PhD is a done PhD. A perfect PhD that is never done is not a good PhD. This is about your long-term career, whether academic or professional. You are learning to balance your long-term projects with the short-term goals – the academic manages a pipeline of long-term papers against short-term teaching and work commitments. And the same can be said for the professional. It’s a bad habit to learn that if you just throw time at the issue it will go around. It works OK when your time is your own, but it isn’t a solution when you have other commitments (or you are charged out at $400 an hour). These tips are designed to build good habits for your long-term career. Avoid the ‘busy-work’ that stops you from achieving your goals.


So the first tip is to embrace wrongness. Plan to be wrong. It’s good to be wrong. That’s how we learn. This means we don’t mind asking the ‘wrong’ questions in seminars. Heck, ask away. Presenters love an opportunity for a good smack down if you’re really wrong! And you and your colleagues all learn from that. Submit something that’s not fully formed – this means get advice early and often. Frequently we labour away on something to achieve ‘perfection’ only to discover it’s not. Let your ideas evolve through discussion with your advisor – and don’t spend forever re-framing them a dozen times before the supervisor has seen them. Your PhD can’t be second-rate of course – but it will improve the more ‘wrong’ you are. Sometimes ‘good enough’ is ‘good enough’.

My second tip: Work on what matters. Some things you say ‘yes’ to help your PhD. Others fall into the category of ‘a good idea at the time’. Here’s the thing: you already have something to do. So if it’s not a task that will advance the PhD, or your immediate career, have a Bex and a good lie down before you agree. I’m talking here about presentations, book chapters, and extra tutoring. If it helps, set out a goal plan of what you want to do and what you need to do. If the extra work blocks that, it’s a blockage and needs to be ditched! I am wary of telling you to write a plan because that will be another thing for you to procrastinate for the nation with, but a one-page plan may be a great help for you. If you write that one-page plan – review it weekly to see your progress. Focus on that end game; we have a small ‘study buddy’ group of people that we use to try and keep focussed on the task at hand – and discuss what achievements, goals, and blockages we might have each week. As well as cake.

My third tip: Focus when working hard. If I may be so bold, because there’s no active deadline we tend to let matters drift. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter can, ahem, take time away. And here’s the thing? Facebooking looks almost exactly like working. Until it comes time to assess the results. Don’t drift when you are writing. It is so easy to become distracted and lose a day, a week, a month or a year to timesinks that produce little. Like researching memes to put into a 10 minute powerpoint presentation. Ahem. A good solution that I have found is to use the Pomodoro technique: 25 minutes of working on achieving one thing, then take a 5 minute break to walk around, Facebook, coffee or chat. Dave Allan’s GTD (Getting Things Done) approach may also help you maintain your to-do lists and balance your competing projects. Now, we all know there will be deadlines and late nights involved. But don’t count on them all the time – 2am should not be a regular thing in the Zone.

My fourth tip: Know your tools. You are a writer. There are many tools available to help the writer do what they need to do, from organise your research such as EndNote and EverNote to writing tools such as LaTex or Scrivener on the Mac. Also try DevonThink Pro.  Use RSS newsfeeds and emails to keep abreast of your topic area. The world has moved on from the days of hard copy journals. When I wrote my Honours thesis I had three lever arch folders of papers that were relevant. Today I have a DevonThink Pro database with over 1000 papers in it. Think about how you organise your notes and annotated bibliography. You are creating a toolset that you will use for your career to deal with information overload. Oh… and this includes making a backup! No USB sticks!

The fifth tip is to watch your health. Sitting down for hours on end in the PhD zone is a sure-fire recipe for depression and a beer belly. Take up an outside interest that exercises your muscles, or you’ll find yourself a very smart unhealthy person. Smart people sweat. It makes you think better and keeps you focussed. If you don’t have exercise you like then it’s probably a bad habit you’ve fallen into. Sign up for a personal trainer, or build it into your day. Ride to work if you can. You’ll feel better for it and you’ll think better for it.

My final tip reflects the whole lot: Forget the Flipping PhD. It is so difficult, because at all times we know we could – and thus should – be working on the PhD. Allow yourself the luxury of downtime without guilt. I have spent so much of my working life taking a laptop away on holiday and then never turning it on (but still feeling guilty) or taking the laptop and answering emails in the carpark of the Big Pineapple. True story. Be there when you are with your loved ones – don’t answer those emails as soon as they come in, answer those emails in the morning and spend time with your loved one tonight.


Now, just a reminder. Balance is horse-hockey. The PhD is hard work, and we mustn’t forget that. But achieving well in the PhD requires that you step back from the brink before you over-balance. Hard work is not your PhD, and the focus should be on building habits for life, not just now.

Less is more. Remember: Red Bull does not give you wings. You are what you eat. And the athlete builds to a pinnacle, trains, and executes.

The above was written for the University of Queensland Business School RHD Association PhD Camp on Stradbroke Island. Warning:  no-one attending the camp actually drank all that Mother energy drink.  That person was presumably off having his stomach pumped.  You may download the Powerpoint itself at SlideShare.

DevonThink Pro for PhD

Well I have been promising for a while to write a blog post on DevonThink.  On the details on how to use it and manage information.

This… is not that blog post.  This is an interim short post on DevonThink and why I replaced Evernote with DevonThink on the Mac.

But just a quick note to say that I do use DevonThink a lot in managing my phd research.  

Some highlights for me include:

  • Tagging of documents (I tag by author, journal, year, keywords, and reference [James & Huntley 2009]).
  • Seamless working with Preview so I can immediately open up a PDF and annotate it (highlights) straight into the database (saves back to where Devonthink does
  • Full text indexing of the OCRd PDF (and the fact that you can then copy the OCR’d text out of the PDF into a separate ‘quotations’ folder.  This is a DevonThink Pro feature.
  • I use smart folders to search quickly for the tags etc that I want (created several smart folders that you just double-click and edit the search criteria e.g. tags).
  • I have two folders – one for the original PDF documents, and another for quotations (I copy the quotation out of the PDF with page and paragraph reference, and put that in a comment when I cite it in my phd thesis).
  • Oh – for quotations, I tag it with the original paper, tag the quotation with any relevant keywords, and put the page order/para order in the title of the quotation (e.g. “p299 para3 Jones & Huntley (2006) provide a theoretical basis for the anomalous findings of Blake & Waldron (1976).”  That way when you do your search if you have multiple quotations from the same source you can see them in order and, perhaps a little, context.
  • The magic-hat searching is quite useful once you build a bit of a database up of papers – click the magic hat and you’ll see papers and quotations the AI thinks are relevant inside your database.

I am also exploring the RSS feeds from journals more, but they do seem very useful as the magic-hat will tell you if there are new publications (within reason) related to your topic area.

So… not the full post on DevonThink that I intended to create but this is a good potted summary of what matters to me.

Only negatives:  data is only in one place (doesn’t sync to multiple devices like EverNote – and no DropBox doesn’t count).  And Mac only – I am concerned that if I move platforms I won’t have access to my DevonThink work any more (files can be easily moved but the tagging I’m not so sure about).

Sergeant Major eats Sugary Cookies


Ah.  Well.  About that title…

Back when I was a student – the first time around – I subscribed to Time magazine.  Wonderful little news magazine; I had visions of becoming a world leader, or at least someone who knew who Michael Dukakis was (well, someone has to) – instead I blog rather a bit.

I found Time magazine interesting, and engaging, and important.  Nevertheless, once I left university and could afford to buy my own beer, it became time to choose between, well, Time and time (OK, and beer).  And I let my subscription lapse.

Last week at the good old school dropoff, a fellow parent in drop-off purgatory said to me, “I know you’re a reader, you’re doing your phd so you must be.  I subscribe to Time magazine – would you like a copy?”.  Well, it was a bit hard to refuse as she had this enormous pink bag chock-full of magazines – including Marie Claire’s for my wife (I’m afraid I won’t even read Marie Claire for the articles, but L loves them). 

So going through Time magazine, two thoughts occurred to me: 

(1) It was a lot thinner and flimsier than I remembered;

(2) it was still just as engaging as ever it was.

And I soon found myself reading an article all about Sergeant Major Eats Sugar Cookies.  What’s that about?  Well, the story was about returned US veterans contributing to their communities, and one of the veterans mentioned this whole Sergeant Majors with a sweet tooth approach to planning.  Apparently it’s called an “operations order”, and it’s how the US marines plan an operation:

  • Situation:    What is the problem?
  • Mission:  What is the principal task at hand and purpose behind it?
  • Execution:  What strategy are we going to use to accomplish the task?
  • Service and Support:  What are the logistics?  How many people and resources will we need?
  • Command and Control:  What other groups (e.g. committees etc) should be involved and how will they communicate?

The Marines like to keep this all on a single page – dot points are your friend here.

Now, obviously this is designed for the army.  And I couldn’t be less an AJ if I tried – I could only run out of sight in a week if I fiddled with the calendar.  Nonetheless, I thought this was very relevant to anyone needing to communicate with a client, or write an internal memo – since many of the things we write for clients are about building new tihngs for clients and/or doing new things in our business, this is quite relevant.  You might for instance write an executive summary using this format, or indeed try to keep everything you do to this approach.  You wouldn’t need to keep these labels, and in fact you might want to just use it as a structure for emails that you send out to people.  But I think that as a way of keeping you focussed on the task at hand, and make sure everyone is singing from the same songsheet, this is an excellent tool.

I am adapting what I currently do for clients in terms of proposals (a “nice one-pager” is something just about everyone wants in business) and this structure could at least be the starting point to provide an overview.  Sure, you can have that 30-page project proposal in your back pocket – but the reality is most people don’t read the full thing, if ever.  Keep the 30-pager to support the one-page executive summary following the “Sergeant Major Eats Sugar Cookies” approach, and I think you’ll find your clients, your partners, and your subordinates thank you.  Just because we have word processors and computers that allow us to punch out multiple-page documents before breakfast doesn’t meant that we need to consider that a challenge to write more.

Anyway, if you like it I have created a template on my blog for anyone that wishes to have a template document (it’s plain-format, no logos or anything) – so you can download it directly if you wish.  Or not, it’s up to you.

And thanks Andrea, for reminding me that Time magazine is a wonderful subscription to have…

Analogue Organiser in a digital world

Yes I am still here and yes I still blog.

It’s been very busy since I passed confirmation; in the past month I’ve been to Perth, Canberra, Sydney, Brisbane (although that’s my home town) and Melbourne – all in the name of furthering my research.

I thought I’d document what I was doing for my organiser these days. I find my most personally productive time is when I keep lists of things and just keep crossing them off. Earlier in the year I had a to-do list book that I lived and died by – and that was very good. I was very productive, and it was just as well as I had to be.

However the book was a bit unwieldy. So I borrowed an idea from teh internetz and started to keep my to-dos on index cards. Yes it’s scratchy, yes it’s lots of pieces of paper and manually rewriting things, but it forces me to engage with my task list and deal with it instead of copy-dumping and getting 300 things that I am never going to do on it.

So let’s take a look at my analogue solution:

Notice how I bought a 2010 leatherette diary for about $10 and tossed away the ‘diary’ bit. A rubber band keeps everything in place.

In this photo you can see how I cleverly laminated my business card into the inside pocket (OK, it’s covered by sticky tape). In the pockets are yellow index cards (7 x 10cm or so). Yellow index cards are for projects, which is where tasks go when they aren’t scheduled for a specific bringup date. These cards go in the middle of the pile (there’s a someday/maybe card, an errands card, a reference card with some coded PINs – not financial ones!). The white cards are the bringup cards by date order, and I just write on a day when I need to do a task. When that day is done I cross items off the list or move it to the next card (or bringup date). As I have spare white cards I can do this wherever I like.

A benefit of analogue is no boot up time!

When I’ve finished with the tasks (they’re ‘completed’, ‘abandoned’, ‘delegated’ or ‘moved to another list’) I can tick both sides of the card and move it to the back of the pile. Every week I remove the previous week -1’s cards and put them in an index card holder. That way I have an analogue record of everything I’ve done and when I did it, and I have the previous week’s record of tasks done easily at hand – the prior work is all filed away chronologically. As project cards fill up or get completed, they go into the index box as well – alphabetically and by date completed.

The bulldog clip keeps the cards all together, and the benefit is I can have my pencil easily tucked away. Nobody’s laughed at this arrangement yet, at least not as much as they laugh when they see me reading Twilight…

In a pinch I can always take notes with a few of the index cards – they’re only a few dollars for 250 or so. So an instant folio.

The practice I am working on (but not being very successful at) is reviewing the buff index cards for my projects once a week and assigning them to bringups so I don’t forget them. But it’s getting better.

I have tried Thinking Rock quite a bit over the years, and it’s very good for reporting – excellent – and portability. However it encourages me to fiddle, because there’s so much tweaking to be done. And frankly I need to just do stuff. I don’t need more delaying tactics.

So what I use is a bastardisation of GTD, sure, but it generally works for me. However, it does tend to make you focus on the adrenaline rush of crossing something off the list rather than doing the important stuff, but at least stuff is being done and it usually makes it to a list if it’s important in my case. I still find that every now and again you have to ignore the to-dos and focus on the ‘big picture’ stuff if you want to achieve anything, so I try and schedule a block of the day to a major project (or even a whole day) and don’t do anything bar the barest minimum administrivia that I need to do.

So, that’s my blog post on how I keep my to-dos. Riveting, ain’t it.

Data management strategies

On 14th October 2009, I will be presenting at CPA Congress in Melbourne to the topic ‘Data Management Strategies’.  Apparently CPA Australia didn’t like my originally suggested title ‘The devil is in the detail – which is why the Lord of the Nine Hells should never be your DBA’, which I blogged about earlier.  I think the new title is rather bland, don’t you.

The session overview is below:

Micheal Axelsen FCPA Director
Applied Insights Pty Ltd

As accountants, we prepare the information that a business uses to make its important decisions. Sometimes though, the data we use seems to be impossible to track down – and when we do find it, who knows whether it’s actually useful or not?

In this entertaining presentation, Micheal looks at some of the practical pitfalls and case studies of working with data – from rampant spreadsheets to the DBA nightmare – that Micheal has seen, with practical advice you can use to help your business escape its database nightmare.

Anyway, it promises to be fun, although it would have been much more fun if I could have brought theology into the debate of DBAs vs rational people.

Image from Flickr User Lessio. Some Rights Reserved.