By Bart Bussmann (imec)

Doing a PhD is challenging. Doing a PhD in a new country is difficult. Doing a PhD in a new country during a world-wide pandemic is seriously hardcore.

PhD students are prone to procrastination? Why not try working from home where distractions and things to do are abundant? It is hard to maintain a work-life balance during a PhD? What if you spend your working hours at the same table as your free time? Doing a PhD can be a lonely endeavor? What about living in a new country when meeting new people outside your ‘bubble’ is not allowed?

With the exception of a few days in July and August, I have been working from home for 8 months now. It has not always been easy, but during this time I have found and used some tools that have helped me to stay somewhat sane and productive. As these tools helped me, I thought I would share them as they might help others, even though they might be heavily tailored towards my personality and habits.

Focusmate

Soon in the first lockdown, I noticed that I not only missed my colleagues for fun coffee breaks and interesting discussions but also as a form of social pressure. Here the online coworking platform FocusMate (focusmate.com) helped me a lot. You schedule a 50-minute working session in advance and are paired with a stranger on the internet. At the appointed time, you both show up, tell each other what you’ll do, and work in silence. 50 minutes later, the bell rings and you share how it went.

Sure, the first few times it is a somewhat awkward experience, but it turns out that the thought of admitting to a stranger that I wasn’t focused on work really helps me. Furthermore, since I schedule my working sessions in advance, I commit to a set schedule. As I don’t want to disappoint my working partner by not showing up, I have a strong incentive to keep my schedule. By some trial and error, I have found a daily schedule that is both productive and sustainable.

Beeminder

In a pandemic, it is both extra important and extra hard to take good care of yourself. In the beginning, as the gyms closed, I noticed that I hardly moved anymore and started to gain some weight. Then I started using Beeminder. Beeminder works as follows: you commit to a goal, such as at least 50 push-ups per week. You use the website to track your progress. However, if you don’t do enough push-ups, they will charge you a few dollars! Of course, you can change your target, but your new target will only start in a week. This means that you still need to do your 50 push-ups this week. For me, this is surprisingly effective. A notification in the morning saying that I will need to do at least 12 push-ups today or they will charge me 5$ is apparently enough motivation to get off my ass.

Cold Turkey/Pluckeye/StayFocusd

Although these tools are normally used to block distractive websites, I use them the other way around: I block productive websites! As I missed the end-of-the-day-packing-your-stuff-and-leaving-the-office-ritual, I noticed that I had trouble to stop working at the end of the day. When this started impacting my sleep, I decided to enforce a clear rule: no work after 19:00! Therefore, I noted down all websites and programs that I usually use for work, and blocked all of them after 19:00. It is very relaxing to know that you literally can’t work anymore, and so can open Netflix without any feeling of guilt.

To conclude

These tools have helped me to get through 2020. Check them out and see if they can help you get through the start of 2021. Finally, let’s hope that later this year we will not have to resort to all these  tools anymore, and instead we will have access to our colleagues, offices, and in-person social life’s again!