How I plan in my PhD/Organise my desk

In this post I thought I would share how I plan my days/weeks in my PhD. This process evolved over time for me, and is the culmination of workshops/googling/other blogs.

Gantt chart

Personally, I actually hate Gantt charts! Yes, I do think they are good for long term planning. Yet, a lot of people have them and don’t actually do anything with them! Usually every candidate tends to have a gantt chart, but doesn’t actually use it to make smaller, achievable chunks. So I use mine to plan my weeks.

Long term weekly planning

I use my Gantt chart every 2-3 months to make a weekly plan. This weekly plan fits on an A4 piece of paper, and I quickly type it up a few weeks before my last one expires. It basically contains a list of the next 10-12 weeks, with my set in stone commitments and my ‘focus’ for that week. The ‘focus’ tasks come straight from my Gantt chart. It looks something like this:Screen Shot 2019-06-09 at 9.53.47 pm

I use the ‘focus’ to determine my weekly tasks.

Weekly Planning

Every Friday afternoon I have time allocated to plan my week and to clean my desk. On this Friday afternoon I plan the next week. I usually put in my commitments first (I use outlook to track meetings and appointments), schedule time for reading and then look at my focus for the week and add tasks to achieve that. Here is what it looks like (note: all names are pseudonyms) :


So my weekly planning is also daily planning, as I have allocated segments for each day. I have a set lunch break, and try to follow the 15 minute breaks in the middle segments. I’ve found that a large part of having success with this method is being strict with yourself. You have allocated these times for you to work, so work! Don’t pick up your phone unless it is in your allocated break. The same goes for Youtube, Twitter, Facebook etc. I treat my PhD like a full time job so I try to only work 8am-5pm, Monday-Friday. This doesn’t always happen, but I have found that it has given me less stress, and I value my time at my desk more. If you don’t set yourself hours it is easy to be unproductive as you can see the whole morning, day, then night stretch before you. If you know you only have until 5pm, you want to use all your time as productively as you can!

You also need to know what works for you, and when. For example, don’t schedule reading time in the morning if you know you hate reading in the morning! Try and be realistic about the tasks you can achieve, so you are setting yourself realistic goals. I have also found I am much better now at assessing how long a task will take, as I have practise at scheduling my time.

For those interested as to why I have ‘code article’ on my planning, this is because I use Nvivo for my literature review. Unfortunately when I had a computer malfunction, I lost some of my Nvivo file, so when I say ‘code article’ it really just means quickly grab the key quotes and fix them up in my Nvivo file.

Random things that pop up

One thing I found when I first started my PhD was that I had an ever growing to do list, and I had many suggestions from my supervisors of who to read, things to search for etc. I found the easiest solution for this was a visual to do list. I use post-it notes (cheap ones do not work – they fall off the wall) and have three columns, ‘to do’ ‘in progress’ and ‘done’.


Sorry for the dreadful picture – my iPhone was trying to be arty by ‘focusing’ on one side and blurring the other. This list is different to my ‘monthly’ planning list. It is usually things that aren’t urgent, but I want to be able to remember for the future. I only have 1-3 items in the ‘in progress’ section at a time. This allows me to truly focus on the task at hand.

My desk as a whole


This is my desk overall. As you can see it isn’t super tidy, but I do like to keep some sort of order to it. To the right, I have my Gantt chart and my weekly tasks on the divider between my desk and the person next to me. The trays are for my printed articles, spare paper for notes, my de-identified transcripts, and papers that need to be filed on Friday. On the left, I have all of my printed articles sorted by subject. I keep most of my stationery in the drawers.


Below the magazine holders, I have folders. These are mainly filled with readings for courses I have taught and notes from workshops I have attended.

My calendar

I use my electronic calendar in Outlook as a way of managing my meetings and appointments. I do not schedule my tasks in the electronic calendar. It is only a tool to manage appointments/meetings. I have found this to be the most effective method for me, as I always generally have my phone with me. Paper planners (for me), always get left behind and I have a dreadful memory, so need something that I can quickly refer to.

Electronic organisation

People often ask me how I organise my files. For me this is simple.

  • I have a folder for each potential chapter in my thesis, and organise drafts in here by date. Within each folder is a folder for feedback from my supervisors. Every time I open a document to write/edit, I ‘save as’ with a new date, to help track versions and eliminate any problems with file corruption (as I can always open the last saved file if a file corrupts)
  • I have a folder for meeting notes. You should be planning your meeting with your supervisors, and I usually print an agenda prior to the meeting. I keep these here.
  • I have a folder for ‘planning’. This includes my Gantt chart and my weekly lists.
  • My PDFs are all organised in Nvivo, and I have a copy in Endnote. I simply save PDFs to my downloads – I do not need to organise them in another way on my computer.
  • All my files are saved to my OneDrive. Except my Nvivo and Endnote files. The Nvivo file is constantly editing as you work in it, and cloud storage doesn’t like this. I save a back up to my cloud storage every time I close Nvivo. Endnote files will corrupt if they are saved on cloud/or USB storage. I use the ‘endnote’ online service to backup my Endnote.
  • My notes and annotated bibliography are all in Scrivener ( see this post: The way I take notes for my PhD).

For more tips, check out this tweet:

I hope this has helped you in some way! What are your tools for planning/organising?

5 thoughts on “How I plan in my PhD/Organise my desk

  1. Pingback: Visualising tools in your PhD – Adventures of a PhD candidate

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  3. Pingback: Six things you should know about the final year of the PhD journey! – Adventures of a PhD candidate

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