Research Hacks # 13: The power of planning your research project

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

Today I want to share one of the earliest research productivity hacks I ever learned, and one that has served me faithfully over many years. The principle behind it is simple: planning increases productivity, and things that get planned get done more often than things that don’t. By and large, and allowing for all necessary caveats, what you get done is what you plan to get done.

I first learned this lesson when I was taking my GCSE exams aged 16 in the UK. Mr Barlow, my wonderful history teacher at the time, ushered all the GCSE students into the school gym (I think it was) and gave us a lesson in planning our exam revision over the Christmas break.

  • He told us to break each day into three parts: 1) from after waking until lunch; 2) from lunch until dinner; 3) from dinner until bed.
  • He told us, where possible, to plan about four hours of revision for two of those three slots each day, and to write in a chart on the wall which subject(s) we would revise in which slot.
  • The unused slot each day was to be taken as time off.
  • Finally, he told us to draw a picture of a Christmas pudding in the three slots for December 25th.

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Mr Barlow’s system was simple but effective. I got up each morning knowing exactly which subjects I was going to revise that day, when I was going to revise them, and when I was going to have time off. It helped me to work hard while I was working and play hard when I wasn’t. I always knew how much time I had left in the day to work. I didn’t feel guilty about not working, and I didn’t overwork.

I’ve subsequently used versions of the Barlow plan for revising for A-levels and parts 1 and 2 of my university Tripos exams, for writing my PhD, for planning my last university OSP (Sabbatical leave), and for book projects.

For articles and books I break the task down into reading, writing and refining, and give each task a number of slots on the calendar. Sometimes, I drill down further and schedule time for reading specific books or writing specific sections. Although I use Outlook as my calendaring tool these days, I tend to keep the Barlow plans in a separate Excel spreadsheet and pin them up on the noticeboard in my office. That way I can track my progress daily and see whether I am behind or ahead of schedule.

Long gone is the time when I could unproblematically divide the day into Mr Barlow’s three neat periods, but even with complicated work and family responsibilities it is still possible to use a variation of his plan.

I have experience of writing both with and without a Barlow plan and I can testify that, without exception, planning has on every occasion made the process more productive and less stressful, has increased my motivation to push forward with the project (so that I meet the Barlow plan deadlines), and has yielded a greater sense of satisfaction at the end. It also helps me to see, in the planning stage, whether a project deadline is too ambitious, about right, or too slack.


How do you plan your projects?

CC Image courtesy of Erik bij de Vaate on Flickr.

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