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Feeling overwhelmed during PhD?

Aktualisiert: 31. Aug. 2023

Learn how to better plan your daily tasks and time

Doing a PhD can feel very overwhelming. Especially when you look at the long list of tasks to be done, which gets longer and longer as you go. There is always something to do. There is literature to review, data to collect and analyse, texts to write, funds to apply for and lectures to give. On top of that, there is usually a part-time job or other work at your university. And if it's not related to your PhD or your job, your flat is waiting to be thoroughly cleaned, your fridge is waiting for new groceries and your friends are queuing up to go out with you.

Overwhelm during PhD

Looking at the to-do list, the uneasy feeling increases that you are simply not up to it all. How are you supposed to do all these tasks? It's just impossible. You feel frustrated, stressed, and totally exhausted. But let me reassure you. You are not alone. We all know these feelings of being overwhelmed and stressed. And the great thing is, there are ways and strategies you can learn to feel less overwhelmed and stressed. You can learn to do your tasks more effectively and go through the day with more ease and joy. I introduce you to four strategies to better manage your tasks - during your PhD, at work and in your private life.

1. Prioritise your tasks

It is impossible to do everything at once. Multitasking may seem like a way to get more done in less time, but it can actually reduce your productivity and effectiveness. It is often more efficient and beneficial to prioritise tasks. This allows you to focus on one task at a time, giving each task the attention it deserves before moving on to the next. On the other hand, when we switch back and forth between tasks, this transition comes at a cognitive cost, known as a "switching cost". Our brains then need time to refocus and redirect attention, which can lead to lower efficiency and a higher error rate. Research has shown that multitasking can reduce productivity and lead to lower quality work than focusing on one task at a time.

With the Eisenhower Matrix, you can learn a simple and effective way to prioritise your appointments and tasks more easily and combat time-wasters.

Divide your appointments and tasks according to importance and urgency using the matrix below.

Eisenhower Matrix

A-tasks you should tackle immediately. They are particularly urgent and important and therefore have the highest priority. B-tasks are also of high importance. However, these can be planned and scheduled in good time. C-tasks that are urgent but not very important can be reduced or eliminated simply by saying "no" to them or delegating them to other people.

Tasks that are not important and not urgent can be put in the rubbish bin. Trash tasks are not needed and can be avoided altogether.

2. Break tasks down

Tasks that are too big quickly seem overwhelming and unachievable to us. Therefore, we tend to put them off. On the other hand, we find it easier to motivate ourselves for smaller and simpler tasks. By breaking down your goals and tasks into smaller tasks and assigning them a deadline, you will find it easier to tackle them. Your tasks become less complex and appear easier to achieve.

The Salami Technique is a technique that can help you do this.

Salami Technique

Divide tasks into smaller subtasks and set deadlines for them. This will make it easier for you to start and complete tasks. You should plan 20-30 minutes per subtask.

This is based on the Pomodoro technique, where tasks are divided into 20- to 30-minute intervals, followed by a 5-minute break. This helps to improve concentration and avoid procrastination.

You can find Pomodoro timers on the internet that allow you to set suitable time intervals.

3. Set time blocks

Especially when we have many tasks to do, we find it difficult to plan our time realistically. It can happen that we spend unnecessary time planning our schedule for the day or the week instead of tackling our tasks.

Time-boxing therefore seems to be a suitable way to plan your time faster and more efficiently.


Divide your days into blocks of time to which you assign a specific task or goal and time. It is a good idea to group similar tasks together in one unit of time (also called "batching"). This avoids constant switching back and forth between different contexts and promotes productivity and concentration. (-> We already know that multitasking simply doesn't work in most cases.)

So, for example, block out a block of time for writing emails or a block of time for your literature research. Always try to divide your whole day into blocks. Keep a block of time free to act as a buffer in case unexpected tasks come up or you need more time for one task.

Kiss the frog first

Following the principle of "kiss the frog first", I also recommend that you tackle difficult, unpleasant tasks first. As we all know, we like to put them off. By completing difficult tasks right at the beginning, you can already look at small successes at the start of the day, which motivates, lifts your mood and gives you satisfaction.

4. Take breaks and prioritise self-care

Especially in stressful times when we are under a lot of pressure, it is important to take enough breaks to give our mind and body time to recover and recharge.

Self-care can act as a brake when we find ourselves in a state of alert and stress. It can help us enter a state of calm and relaxation to increase our focus, concentration and productivity.

Self-care is not selfish and is not limited to care products and wellness treatments. Self-care encompasses all the actions that bring you joy, happiness, relaxation and calm. This includes meditation, yoga, exercise, time with friends and family, a walk in nature, conscious and deep breathing, whole foods, laughter, sleep - simply doing what makes you happy.

Take a break

Try to build enough breaks and moments of self-care into your day to increase your well-being and productivity at the same time. It's your right to take care of yourself. You don't have to earn it through hard work. It's your birthright and it should always be a priority for you in your daily life.


You can easily integrate all four strategies into your daily routine with my DAILY PLANNER.

Download the free daily planner template, print it out (or open it on your PC) and use it to prioritise your tasks, break tasks down, set time blocks and make self-care a daily habit.

Daily Planner

Let's start planning your daily tasks and time better!



Daily Planner
PDF herunterladen • 124KB

Daily Planner_fillable
PDF herunterladen • 112KB



  • Crenshaw, D. (2008). The Myth of Multitasking: How "Doing It All" Gets Nothing Done. Jossey-Bass

  • Madore, K. P. & Wagner, A. D. (2019). Multicosts of Multitasking. Cerebrum. URL:

  • Nahrstedt, H. (2020). Skills + Tools. Selbstmanagement mit PC und Office. Springer.

  • Rubinstein, J. S., Meyer, D. E. & Evans, J. E. (2001). Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 27, 763-797.

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