Managing a Cross-disciplinary Life

One of the biggest things I have been learning in the process of completing my PhD is how best to manage a schedule that covers multiple disciplines. As a researcher, practicing artist and creative business person, this means that I am always looking for ways to make my routine easy and productive.

My routine currently includes academic work (reading/writing/conferences/undergraduate teaching etc.), practice on my instruments (at the moment I am experimenting with historical keyboards and baroque violin), music teaching (piano), theatre practice (sound design and dramaturgy) and not-for-profit governance (for my independent theatre company, Matriark Theatre).

This might sound like a very full and broad set of focuses. I'd be dishonest if I said it's not draining at times, but the reward that comes with my involvement in these areas is worth it and it's extremely beneficial to my professional development overall. As a PhD student, my priority in all of this really has to remain on my research, but I still like to ensure that I am keeping up to a standard as a musician and theatre practitioner.

Following are four things I have learned about managing a cross-disciplinary schedule. Thoughts and sharing of experiences are welcome in the comments!

1. Create Space in Your Day

With my kind of schedule, one of the most important things for my wellbeing is actually to create space in the day to relax. For me this happens to be very early in the morning. At least three days a week I prioritise getting out to the beach and going for a brisk walk along the shoreline. My favourite beach in Sydney is definitely Bondi. I know that's stereotypical, but I have lived there for the majority of time I have been in this city and it remains my resting place. I also teach piano in the area, often before school begins at 9am so you'll see that my instagram (@bardology) regularly features pictures of the Bondi sunrise. What's not to love about this view?!

Getting out and enjoying a walk at sunrise down at Bondi beach in Sydney leaves me feeling refreshed and ready for the day.

Getting out and enjoying a walk at sunrise down at Bondi beach in Sydney leaves me feeling refreshed and ready for the day.

Another way I create space in my day is in my choice of transport to university. I usually opt for the bicycle so that I can combine some exercise with my travel. I got into the habit of cycling to university when I was studying my Masters degree in London, but now that I am back in Sydney, I have found the least hilly routes to both the University of Sydney main campus and Sydney Conservatorium of Music, where I spend most of my time.

2. Keep Track of your Achievements

In the process of PhD it is all-too-easy to get bogged down in small details and lose sight of the bigger picture. Even more so when you are juggling a lot of things around the PhD. For me those other things are teaching, instrument practice, board meetings, rehearsals and more.

The main thing for me has simply been to keep track of how many hours I am spending on each aspect of what I do, especially on the PhD. Since making sufficient progress with my research is the big focus of my life at the moment, this means that everything else needs to fit around my PhD work if I am to succeed.

One of my creative business advisors, Monica Davidson got me onto a great tech site called Toggl which enables you to set up projects. You can see a screenshot from earlier today below:

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The great thing about Toggl is that it sends you a weekly summary of what you have been spending time on. If you find you have not spent enough time on the most important thing (for me, the PhD), you can make adjustments to your schedule for the following week. It also allows you to see the bigger picture as you finish a task. For example, when I finished my first chapter of my PhD, I was able to see the number of hours I had spent on the work to get to a stage where I was happy with it, and this gave me a sense of achievement.

Another way I keep track of my achievements is to make to-do lists in a paper notebook on particularly busy days, so that when it feels like my schedule has almost flown off the handle, I can look back at my to-do list and see that I did in fact achieve most things or everything I set out to do that day. You can watch a video about bullet journalling below, and see if it's right for you.

3. Stay Focused on the Important Things

When your mind is stretched between multiple high-level activities, it can sometimes be hard to focus on the task at hand. A simple strategy for avoiding distractions is to put the phone aside, close all other applications and get to work with research. Or in the case of a rehearsal/practice session, don't stress about not answering an email from a supervisor immediately.

I sometimes put myself under too much pressure to be highly professional and quick to respond to everything, but in reality this is not always going to help your productivity. Again coming back to Toggl, I usually put on a timer, and then I am dedicated solely to a particular task. Without focus I find myself quickly becoming stressed and overwhelmed with how much I need to get done. Instead, I need to feel like I have a manageable task in front of me, which I can achieve and tick off my list of to-do's.

4. Avoid the Comparison Game

One of the problems with collegiality amongst PhD students is that each project is so unique. For this reason it is nearly impossible to draw comparisons between your own work routine and another students' routine. Despite being aware of this, I need to remind myself sometimes that I don't need to be the same as other PhD students. My work requires me to travel between two of the university's campuses on almost a daily basis, for example, but that is just part and parcel with the cross-disciplinary project that I am undertaking with support from two faculties at the university.

In order to succeed at PhD, it is important to recognise that your project is what it is and will not look anything like the next person's. That is ok - it means that your work takes on an element of your personality and this will shine through in your publications.

Have you got any insights to share about cross-disciplinary research? Comment below!

Thanks for reading,