My biggest challenge as a PhD student is best summarized by the following from PHD Comics:

"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com enter image description here

A consequence of working in research is that the end is never in sight - unlike other jobs, there is always more work for you to do.

I am pretty good at making sure to take care of myself, because I know it's important. I can force myself to go for a run, get something to eat, participate in a regular activity that's not related to academia. But I can't turn off the voice in my head that keeps nagging me about the work that's waiting for me back at the office.

This is especially true when there are deadlines and people relying on me to meet them. On top of my research, I have mentees I should be spending more time with, students we won't be able to hire if I don't get my grant-writing act together, collaborators who keep asking when I'm going to write up that work we did together last summer. If I don't do this, nobody else will; it's not like a normal workplace, where your boss can reassign an important task if you are too overloaded to handle it.

So, my question is:

How do you avoid feeling guilty about all the unfinished (and unfinishable) work in academia?

I am looking for specific, practical techniques based on research and/or personal experience, not suggestions that you just thought of but have never tried.

One technique I've tried with limited success is to make a daily to-do list that is limited to three items, and tell myself that I'm not allowed to feel guilty about not doing things that aren't on the list. It works when I'm not terribly busy... but most of the time it doesn't.

Related questions:

How to avoid thinking about research in your free time is related, but I'm not trying to avoid thinking about research in my free time. I'm just trying to avoid feeling guilty about research in my free time.

Also related is How should I deal with discouragement as a graduate student? but those answers seem to address how to convince yourself that your efforts are worthwhile. I (usually) realize that my efforts are worthwhile, I don't know how to convince myself that I'm putting in "enough" effort (whatever that means).

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    "it's not like a normal workplace, where your boss can reassign an important task if you are too overloaded to handle it." I think you have a very idealized image of non-academic workplaces if you think this is the rule. I'm not saying it doesn't happen, but if something has to be done, it has to be done, no matter how "overloaded" you are. Like one of my former bosses used to say: if 24h are not enough, you have to work through the night ;-) This is just a bit of perspective from an applied research, but non-academic, context.
    – user12932
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 10:10
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    "A consequence of working in research is that the end is never in sight - unlike other jobs, there is always more work for you to do. " -> As Christina said, your view is very idealized. There is not much of a difference regarding the "State of Done" between project based work and academia. A lot of people do week- or even year-long project work; nothing special about your job in that regard ;) My knowledge of human nature says you are about 25 years old right? This is the age I observed many people seeing themselves in a very special situation (me too) that really isn't. Time will tell you:)
    – phresnel
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 10:41
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    @rocinante There is nothing much to be done about your feelings - I really don't think that's true, either
    – ff524
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 15:17
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    I'm not sure if this question can really be answered here; the source of guilt can be very straightforward or very deep-rooted and varies greatly from person to person, and dealing with those feelings can range from simple self-reassurance all the way to identifying underlying causes through possible therapy. You're touching on potentially deep psychological behaviors. Personally, I suggest taking the "little-kid-asking-why" self-examination approach: Why do you feel guilty? Why? Why? Once you get deep enough and hit a wall coming up with answers, you know you've gotten to the good stuff!
    – Jason C
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 18:24
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    Unlike other jobs? Maybe you need to reconsider this. Most jobs are never-ending, and many are even completely unrewarding. Imagine retail. You will never "finish" retail. There aren't even nice sub-tasks to finish... Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 20:48

9 Answers 9


tl;dr: Keep forgiving yourself and keep working.

I am having the same problem, and only recently it got better. I have it only for open-ended work (scientific projects, other personal projects - everything which is of type "I should have it done" and the same time it is not closed; even worse when others are waiting for results). It seems to be very different from "normal" work (when someone gives me a particular task) and work with an expiry date.

The wisest (and most successful) piece of advice I found is this one (from Smart Guy Productivity Pitfalls - Book of Hook, which has more good points and is definitely worth reading):

6. Do not overpromise to make up for poor productivity. There's a tendency when we're falling behind to try to overcompensate with future promises. "When I'm done, it'll be AWESOME" or "I know I'm late, but I'm positive I'll be done by Monday". By doing those things we just build more debt we can't pay off, and that will eventually lead to a catastrophic melt down when the super final absolutely last deadline date shows up. Just get shit done, don't talk about how you're going to get shit done.

Also, somewhat related is forgiving yourself for being not productive enough (constantly feeling guilty does not help; not only for me, but it seems it does not work for most of people):

The key finding was that students who'd forgiven themselves for their initial bout of procrastination subsequently showed less negative affect in the intermediate period between exams and were less likely to procrastinate before the second round of exams. Crucially, self-forgiveness wasn't related to performance in the first set of exams but it did predict better performance in the second set.

And from a bit different angle, from Elizabeth Gibert's TED talk on genius (it's about treating inspiration, but it is similar for everything - no matter how good you are, you won't do everything; so why should you be bothered by missing a few things?):

And [Tom Waits]'s speeding along, and all of a sudden he hears this little fragment of melody, that comes into his head as inspiration often comes, elusive and tantalizing, and he wants it, you know, it's gorgeous, and he longs for it, but he has no way to get it. He doesn't have a piece of paper, he doesn't have a pencil, he doesn't have a tape recorder.

So he starts to feel all of that old anxiety start to rise in him like, "I'm going to lose this thing, and then I'm going to be haunted by this song forever. I'm not good enough, and I can't do it." And instead of panicking, he just stopped. He just stopped that whole mental process and he did something completely novel. He just looked up at the sky, and he said, "Excuse me, can you not see that I'm driving?" (Laughter) "Do I look like I can write down a song right now? If you really want to exist, come back at a more opportune moment when I can take care of you. Otherwise, go bother somebody else today. Go bother Leonard Cohen."

And from my personal stuff (I mean things that I found helpful):

  • using to-do list only for task (i.e. things I know I can do in a few hour max), not projects (it's depressing to have "finish this paper" on the same list for long months, cf. relevant PhD Comics strip),
  • underpromise and overdeliver to oneself; i.e. committing to do each day less task than expected (this way, with the same results, it's "wow, I did things from the list plus 2 extra" instead of "I only made almost half of the first point out of 7"; extrapolating one's maximal efficiency does not work...).
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    Thanks for an answer that isn't about time management, I think I had enough of those :)
    – ff524
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 15:03
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    The key point in that is those students were feeling guilty because they procrastinated, i.e. were not working. They weren't feeling guilty because they were working too hard. Sorry, but that's just ridiculous. And sounds just as pretentious as those people who brag that they work 100-hour weeks when in fact they spend about half that time "feeling guilty" and wasting time on the Internet.
    – user10433
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 15:13
  • Unless you're working on something ethically questionable like drones (or something similar) there is nothing to feel guilty about working too hard. You might as well say that you're worried your work is just too good and fabulous because it makes everyone else look bad. Sorry, but it sounds just like one of the many questions here seeking praise and validation for efforts, not a genuine problem in need of a solution.
    – user10433
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 15:35
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    @rocinante The guilt is not for working too hard, it's despite working hard enough (by all objective and subjective measures). It's not rational, but people often feel things that are not rational.
    – ff524
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 15:41
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    There were several very helpful answers, I am accepting this one because it gives a helpful answer and suggests some really interesting further reading/viewing.
    – ff524
    Commented Mar 11, 2014 at 17:52

There are two threads in answers here that I'd like to respond to:

Research is just like any other job. The tools needed to manage guilt are no different.

Yes. and no.

The nitty-gritty of work - deadlines, working in groups, answering to a 'boss' - are the same. That is indeed true. What's different about research work that I think ff524 is alluding to is the "freedom trap". Because research work involves more freedom and more unstructured effort, and there's a direct correlation between output and success (not effort and success of course), the anxiety is not external ("my boss needs this done", or "I can't let my team down") but extremely internal ("I am an inferior researcher if I'm not working all the time" or "someone else is getting ahead in their career while I'm slacking off").

And this is incessant. Every minute spent not working is tied up in internal accusations. And it's exhausting. And that's what we'd like to be free of.

Do I have an answer ? Not really. It's a slow process of realizing that

  • feeling guilty about work is a meta-worry that doesn't lead anywhere constructive (this realization only works in flashes :))
  • all the other people racing ahead will also need to rest at some point.
  • a guilt-free mind is clear and prepared for research (whether it's leisure time or not: as ff524 says, this is not necessarily about partitioning work and free time so much as not feeling guilty when not thinking about work. Indeed, one of the pleasures of being a researcher is that I can think about my work whenever I like, even when day dreaming on a bus to work (ahem).

In that respect, Piotr Migdal's answer about

forgiving yourself and working

is spot on. Guilt is rarely a constructive force, and it can lead you to make bad decisions to compensate. Blowing off that paper deadline ? it's ok. Dropping a fascinating research project because you're overcommitted ? that's ok too. Not spending enough time with students ? Hard to wave off, but it's ok.

But forgiving yourself only works if you trust yourself,

and again the Tom Waits analogy is brilliant. You have to trust that blowing off one paper deadline won't make you a lazy git who doesn't write any papers. That missing one student meeting doesn't make you an abusive advisor. That ignoring a collaboration doesn't make you a toxic personality. That if you can learn to trust in your own research instincts and drive that you'll be able to pick up and go full steam ahead, but this time with less guilt than before.

This is not a time-management answer, and you didn't want one ! So all that I can say is that reducing guilt is a slow process (I haven't figured it out yet), and you have to keep reminding yourself to forgive and trust.

  • +1 Thanks for expressing my question so much better than I could
    – ff524
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 15:35

To answer your specific question:

How do you avoid feeling guilty about all the unfinished (and unfinishable) work in academia?

You try to come to the understanding that there is always more work to be done, and that this is the way it is, not just in academia, but also in almost every other walk of professional life.

Disentangle the feelings of guilt and anxiety. There is work that you should have done/be doing (e.g. to test an idea fully, rather than assume the result; meeting deadlines) and there is work you could have done/or be doing (e.g. new ideas/extensions).

Concentrate on completing all the work that you know must be done. Set yourself practical goals and list them, marking them off when achieved.

Set out time for the other tasks you know need to be completed. e.g. 2 hours a week for meeting student A, 1 hour for student B, 2 hours for grant writing. Stick to those arrangements. Now add in time for "fun" work stuff - perhaps not directly related to your main goals, but perhaps which interest you at the moment.

Keeping a track of how much time you are spending on different types of task, and seeing how you are progressing in each activity, will allow you to fine-tune your time-management.

Having time set aside for each activity type - and sticking to your timetable - allows you to feel less anxious about the work you should be doing, because you know that you've boxed off time in your schedule to set to work on them. It gives you the confidence to say, okay, I'm not doing mission-critical stuff right now, but it's the time of the week for reading/meeting people/setting up webpage and I know that I'll be back on that task when I've the time allocated for it.

  • Is this what you do (set aside time for each activity)? It sounds like the kind of thing that is nice in theory, but my actual work is much too messy and unpredictable for.
    – ff524
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 3:28
  • @ff524: I think my suggestion goes a little further than your daily list. As you say, your list works to get you through day-by-day, However, you are looking for a longer-term solution, some structure that helps you avoid anxiety when some activities perforce have to be missed. And yes, this is how I run my professional time. I have "default" activities - Research/Teaching/Reading/Lunch with which I block out most of my days. Activities come up randomly, and they are assigned time, overwriting one of the above, based on urgency or workload on the other activities.
    – Nicholas
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 3:31
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    @ff524: Lunch is important.
    – Nicholas
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 3:32
  • I think I have too much going on for this to work for me - when I'm not too busy and can fit in all the "have-to-dos" the list works for me. When I am too busy to fit it all in, the list (or schedule, or whatever) goes out the window and the guilt starts. I think I'm looking more for mental tricks than better time management and prioritization.
    – ff524
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 3:36
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    "Disentangle the feelings of guilt and anxiety." - This is about the first thing I did as a grad student
    – James
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 5:10

I am currently a sort-of-senior-ish postdoc, and hence in the somewhat awkward career phase where basically everything that does not have a clear other responsible seems to end up in my inbox. The process I use to not get overwhelmed with the sheer amount of wacky tasks that end up in my inbox is rather similar to what Nicolas does. It works for me (most of the time), it may work for you as well.

Basically, every few days, I take an hour to sit down with my calendar and my TODO list and plan. For each task taking more than say 15 mins to execute, I reserve a slot on my calendar. I try to arrange so that each task meets its deadline, and keep some free space for incoming urgent things and some lump time for short administrative tasks not worth mentioning explicitly. When I see that there simply is no way to plan everything so that all tasks meet their deadline, I make compromises, i.e., drop or delay tasks, and (and this is the difficult part) do not feel guilty at all about that. It works for me, because I know from my calendar that there simply was no time to, say, write the paper for this medium-level conference and at the same time write this super-important grant application. The difference here is the certainty from your planning that everything simply could not be done at the same time. There is no point in feeling guilty about something that you ultimately know you could not change.

However, if that happens all the time, you have a different problem. Then your problem is not that you should not feel guilty about not getting your work done, but that you should not bite off more than you can chew (== commit to more than what you can deliver). You say in a comment that your second-biggest challenge as a PhD student is that you are over-committed. It seems like your "second-biggest" challenge causes the "biggest" challenge - you commit to things you cannot do, and hence feel guilty. The fix for that is, again, to plan, and not commit to things you know you cannot do in the first place.

  • I would also like to stress that pretty much nothing in your situation is particular to academia. In most jobs, it is an illusion that, if you cannot do all your tasks, somebody else will swoop in and have you covered.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 13:24
  • Just extrapolating from my own experience. In other places I've worked, the "boss" spreads the work around so it's manageable, or else you're advised to find a new job because your boss has unreasonable expectations. Doesn't work when I'm the boss of me :(
    – ff524
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 14:32
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    @ff524 Depends on your job / level. Most jobs outside of academia that people with a PhD would do do not work like that, I suppose. EDIT: see for instance the high burn-out rates.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 14:35

Stop saying "I have too much going on, and nothing will work."

Stop self-defeating is the probably the first step. Of course we have "too much going on," that's what we say when we lose control. Do realize that "too busy" can be a cause, but most of the time, "too busy" is more of a symptom.

Realizing that no one can drink up a whole river

Be it work, research, and teaching, they all work like a giant wheel or river that keep moving. No one can take the whole activity and "finish" it. Once I have realized that I am just moving things along from less to more refined shapes. It's noble to be a more responsible researcher/teacher, but the mindset has to be correctly set before burning one self out.

Use an urgency and importance matrix

Whenever I got a task I mentally assigned it into a quadrant of the the urgency vs. importance matrix. Then when I plan my weeks, I make sure to distribute 2/3 of available time to all the high impact activities. For the rest 1/3, I use it to deal with urgent and low-impact items or emerging items.

Avoid paper-based To-Do list

To-do list can be a confusing way to manage time because the whole process is high maintenance (keeping a list, some sub-lists, and constant correction and update) and frustrating (the list keeps growing, and yes, crossing out tasks feels great, but then you have a messy list.)

I just use EverNote to document my projects and tasks. When they are done, I move the whole index thread to "Archive." Index cards are a also a better alternative to a to-do list. When I am in a meeting or walking around, I put all strayed thoughts onto an inexpensive composition book.

As a side note, capturing strayed thoughts has a side effect on me as well. Most of the time, I kept mentally regurgitating works that I need to do and the long chain of tasks really bothered me. Once I spilled them out onto a piece of paper, then I stopped thinking about them for a while. When I have access to a computer, I change the thoughts into EverNote note page. This simple step empties up my mind to do some other more useful thinking.

Say no, say it a lot!

What about the urgent and low-impact? I just say no. This includes, but not limited to: grant proposal invitation sent to me when the grant is due in 5 days, meetings that really do not need me to be there (but I always attend the monthly staff meeting and faculty research meeting, just to be collegial), etc.

I used to suck at saying no, now I have a lot of elaborated ways to put it. And what's my elaborated way? Just say, "Thanks for the invitation/thinking of me. I am sorry that I can't help this round." And leave it like that.

One great trick for those who cannot say no is: you do not have to answer right there and right at that moment. Tell the people that you'll give it a good thought, and then say no afterwards.

Block your time in your calendar way ahead

Don't start filling in the calendar passively. Reserve your own time many weeks ahead. I fill them up with protected writing time slots. I write the best in the morning and love to do coding in the afternoon so I sprinkle all these little 30-, 60- or 90-minute slots across my calendar.

And I agree with @Nicholas' answer that this is a very useful technique. And this is not something that "sounds like the kind of thing that is nice in theory." I use this and Nicholas probably does too, and it really works. The harder you guard your time slots, the better it works.

No more, just three tasks a day

Leo Babauta's Zen to Done is an inspiring read and I'd recommend to people who think they have no time. I have adopted the idea of doing three Most Important Tasks per day. There are days that I barely got one done, there are days that I finished three by 1:00 pm and then spent the rest reading or learning new stuff.

Become a time freak

I time my tasks with a kitchen timer. I don't strictly follow pomodoro technique but I adopted the spirit of it. The way I operate is that I dedicated a chunk of time to a project, move it forward as much as I can, and when time's up, I consider my job for that project on that day is done. I do not binge work, because binge working is very prone to errors.

One very interesting side story. A colleague was chit chatting in my office and sudden the timer went off! The colleague jokingly asked me if her time is up. I explained to her my system. And oddly... since then whenever she visits me, she would add this question "Can I have __ minutes of your time?" before talking to me. Now everyone does that to me; and I do the same to everyone else.

Time to time, chaos and mess happen to us because we have developed an image of being easy going and flexible, two major magnets for chaotic and messy people. In fact, we don't have to. A good dose of rigidity gets you off a lot of ad hoc committees, "emergency" meetings, etc.

Identify what manifests the guilt

This is very important because the source of the guilt dictates how you resolve it. For me, the major source is fearing that I have upset the collaborators. I once dropped the ball on a secondary analysis and delayed it for half a year. Then this job gradually became low-impact/low-urgency. I decided instead of feeling awkward, I just went up to her after a meeting and apologize for not being able to finish the project. In fact, she didn't care as much as I expected; I felt a lot better having told her my thought.

Another fear is that people may think I am incompetent or chaotic. And for that, I have come to be very comfortable with myself. I resolved this issue simply for two facts: i) I am probably the person who cares the most what I look like in other people's mind. And ii) All other people are also busily caring how they look like in others' mind.

Practicing being mindful has many positive impacts on how I deal with these negative emotions. Now whenever I feel bad/good, I emotionally zoom out and look at the big picture, trace the connections, and examine the dynamics. I feel having this little slight detachment with emotion allows me to better tackle (either to avoid or to exploit) these emotions. Don't just feel guilty, ask why, why, why, why, and why. Yes, ask five times. Usually for me, three to four associations usually get me to the root cause, just like how they can get Toyota to their problems' cause.

Closing remark

I guess none of what I said is new. When it comes to time management there isn't really a silver bullet. From my experience, so far I have boiled down to only one truth: All time management techniques work if you use it regularly and seriously.

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    @ff524, nope, it's not. I just shoved a time-management answer to your question on dealing with guilt because of competing interests and lack of productivity. I guess your to-do list example had made me changed how I answered this question. Instead of lamenting how we deal with guilt, I'd rather suggest a more proactive approach to minimize guilt. Anyhow, I wish at least some of the answer will help you. Best of luck. Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 14:52
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    It can't be interpreted as anything other than a time-management question. If your problem is that you want to feel differently, then you're likely not busy enough immersed in your work. People immersed in their work don't have time to pontificate feeling guilt about not working hard enough.
    – user10433
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 14:53
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    @rocinante People immersed in their work don't have time to pontificate feeling guilt about not working hard enough. - I really don't think that's true
    – ff524
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 15:01
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    @Penguin_Knight I really agree with your "mindfulness". Whenever I feel overwhelmed with guilt, or anxiety or stress or some other negative emotion, then I take the time out to start writing what I am feeling and why. It helps me process my feelings and I am usually able to gain some perspective. I have never done this for positive emotions like you suggested. I'm gonna try it. Thanks.
    – Amatya
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 15:13
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    @rocinante at the moment of immersion, maybe not. But certainly around it. And pontificate is a harsh term to use for a question that I personally would love to have an answer to, even after many years of being in this 'business'.
    – Suresh
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 15:13

How do you avoid feeling guilty about all the unfinished (and unfinishable) work in academia?

First of all, recognize the difference between unfinished and unfinishable. Yes, you can always do more, but your duty is to do what you promised. This means that learning what your own capacities are and only committing to what you know you can do* will eliminate much future guilt. The guilt comes mainly from the unfinished work that you promised to do, not from not doing other work beyond that. (If you actually feel guilty about not doing things you never committed to, I think you need to reevaluate your worldview. You can feel regret about those things, but there should be no guilt.)

Secondly, the "to-do list." It feels great when a to-do list is cleared, but, the guilt only increases when you fail to clear it. It's really just another form of the failure to fulfil a commitment, but privately. So there are a couple of variations on the to-do list that eliminate that problem.

  • The "to-mostly-do list" this is a large list of small specific things you plan to do in a bit more than the next day, the point is to make it hard to actually clear the list in a day, but easy to progress through it. That way, since you know the list is more than a day's worth of work, you are more psychologically satisfied with your progress and less dissatisfied with the unfinished items. Also seeing at the end of one day some of the things you'll need to do the next day can help increase productivity the next day.

  • The timetable: break up your day into small periods of time for each task. You're promising yourself to "work on X for an hour" rather than to "finish X," and you can be satisfied even if you ran into problems and didn't finish X.

Thirdly, I think you're not taking free time seriously enough. It really takes a shift in attitude to think of your free time as time in which you're not supposed to work as opposed to time in which you're allowing yourself not to work. I don't know if anyone can tell you how to make that shift, though.

Of course, all of this breaks when there's a close external deadline (grant/paper submission). Then you just work, eat, sleep, and work until you're done (but no time to feel guilty there).

*Actually, it's more complicated than "only committing to do what you know you can do." Sometimes it pays off to take a risk and promise something that you aren't 100% sure about, but when you take a risk you need to know that it's a risk and be prepared to fail.

  • I know I'm overcommitted, that is my second-biggest challenge as a PhD student :(
    – ff524
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 5:53

What I found to work best for me is separating work from leisure time. I work in the office and I don't work at home (except for emails). If I have to work during the weekend or even until the morning for some deadline, I do that in the office (it's important that wherever you are this is possible, don't try to force your way in).

When I go to home I don't feel guilty because I don't have my computer (even if I have my files synchronized, just in case), and because I have learnt that if I don't rest properly (at some point, for some time) then I'm not productive and more time gets wasted, so it's better to simply forget about work and doing anything else (or nothing at all).

Everything else is done with two basic principles:

  1. prioritization of tasks. If some people depend on me for some task, I give a high priority to it. If something is unclear, it gets a low priority (it will get clear through time, probably), etc. Closest deadlines get higher priority, etc. It's similar to the important-urgent matrix, but you probably have some subconscious algorithm to assign priority to those things, basically try to imagine what would make you feel more anxious and do it first. Depending on your sources of anxiousness this method will work better or worse for your career, but it will reduce your anxiousness (if we don't consider how career progression would interfere with that).

  2. Don't bite (much) more than you can chew. Sometimes people feel work is just too much because it is too much. This really depends on how much you want to push your limits (of workaholism), but doing so for too long (or any amount of time) is usually a bad idea, unless you are willing to fully sacrifice everything for your work, reaching your top productivity for some time and then suiciding as a disposable researcher. Consider that if you stay healthy and focused you will probably be more productive, and you will be able to provide more value and do more work on each of your hours. So your health and leisure time is not interfering with your work, it's enabling it.

If all of the above fails, there is a last thing you can try. Finish PhD asap (before it kills you), get subordinates (e.g. PhD students) and focus on reading and forwarding mails so that they do all the work. You can do that from anywhere with your mobile phone, like a boss.

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    +1, though I feel you are in for a nasty surprise once you reach professor level.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 13:54
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    @xLeitix at this pace, I don't think I'll ever get to that level, unless life-extension technologies make some serious progress. Anyway, this depends a lot on the person and the institution, in some places all professors are tenured and some people relax a lot when they get tenured. It also depends on "[management and] delegation skills", which are not as easy as I may have implied (in a somewhat ludic tone) in my last paragraph, but I wanted to give hope as a last resource and hope takes its purest form on a carrot on a stick, doesn't it?
    – Trylks
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 14:01
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    I don't want to separate work from the rest of my life, I get the best ideas during "leisure" time
    – ff524
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 14:29
  • @ff524 I send a mail to myself when that happens, usually from my phone because the computer is off, because I'm not working. However that means your brain is working in the background, you should try to disconnect from work and focus on the people that are with you (or the person), the movie, the game or whatever. The fact that you get good ideas during "leisure" time means that when you are working you are too tired or stressed to have those ideas and you get them when your brain can "breathe", in short, you are doing it wrong, sorry. Get some rest, you will get better ideas during work.
    – Trylks
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 17:14
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    I don't believe that getting good ideas during leisure time means you're "doing it wrong". Ideas come when they come and don't necessarily respect your work/leisure schedule regardless of your rest/stress levels (at least in my experience). When an idea comes during leisure time I choose whether to play with it immediately or just write down enough that I'll remember it next time I sit down to work. I think what helps me not feel (too) guilty is allowing myself "leisure time" where there's no obligation to get any work done, not forbidding myself to think about work during that time.
    – Liana
    Commented Mar 10, 2014 at 22:56

Disclaimer: I don't have psychology background, I have only read the first two answers and skimmed the rest and comments, and I have no affiliation to any product.

I think, psychologically, the only way to stop your guilt is to actually see that you have worked productively. If you have satisfaction on your work, usually when you have a remarkable result, then you can take a rest for weeks feeling guilt-free. Of course, this is not always a case, so you have to find other remarkable points that you can rely on everyday. Ask yourself, what is the last time you feel guilt-free on your unfinished work?

You mention about workplace, so how do employees not feel guilty about their unfinished work, even when they don't ask their boss? They just simply stop working at 5. Can make sure that your work always start at 9 and stop at 5 everyday? If you can stick to a plan, you don't fell guilty anymore.

But leisure time is when new ideas come, and having a flexible time plan is a gift. This noon I studied a book and felt tired and sleepy after two hours. Though I had only worked for two hours today, I know that feeling tired = giving 100% concentration. I rewarded myself a snack, a nap, and an hour of distracting on Academia writing this answer. I know that relaxing = producing, so I'm happy for being in progress.

Once I have an urge to answer yours, I know that if I don't write it to the point of feeling satisfactory, no one will (literally!). So presuming that I will overspend time for unwanted activities today or this week, how can I compensate that tomorrow or next week? To really do that, you need to track and analyze your working time. I find Manic Time (for Windows) and Smarter Time (for Android) are both good apps for this. The latter uses wifi signal to track your room-level location and can improve it suggestion by learning your habit (though not always accurate).

Last word, you will always find yourself feeling guilty. That feeling is normal, don't feel guilty for feeling guilty. The point is to adjusting your plan, and let it be.


To grow your research trajectory, you need to prune your least-favorite projects.

In research, you're never, ever going to be able to finish everything (no matter how many holidays you work). You need to figure out how to cut out some of your projects, so that the best ones have enough time, energy, and resources to grow.

In practice, this means re-framing your unfinished projects as successful prioritization decisions.

  • You started a project, then thought of a better idea. You choose to leave the first project unfinished so you can dedicate your time to the more exciting idea.
  • You started a project, then found that it was unexpectedly hard. You choose to leave it unfinished, freeing up time for multiple easier projects.

If you make these decisions consciously and deliberately, you can spend more time on exciting projects - and less time on projects that you're only doing out of guilt.

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