I advise a small group of doctoral students. In addition to my one-on-one work with each of them, the whole group gets together a few times a semester to discuss academic life. In the past year we have explored issues related to writing, networking, and work/life balance. The students have also used these meetings to share work-in-progress.
All of the students are currently in the prelim exam or dissertation phase, so our recent conversation about unstructured time was especially, well, timely. I gave them a couple of articles that addressed the issue of how to create structure when your schedule doesn't necessarily create it for you. One of the articles was called "Keeping Your Research Alive" by Richard Reis of the Tomorrow's Professor listserv and blog. Though directed more toward faculty, the article offers a nice list of things to do to help you keep research on the front burner. The piece as a whole is useful, but the opening lines from a math professor really struck me:
I treat my research time the way I treat my class time. It is high priority and I don't cancel my research time unless I would cancel a class for the same reason.
Whoa. That's a hell of an analogy. How many of us can say we do the same? I sure can't. Things I allow to derail my research time? That list is shockingly, shamefully, embarrassingly long. Too many of us let go of the minutes or half-hours we have here and there, thinking we can't do much for our research in that time. And too many of us build up in our minds that one day a week where we can write uninterrupted, but when that day comes it's less than fulfilling. What I like about the "canceling a class" analogy is that it keeps things in perspective. It challenges me to think of research as just one of the many things I do in a day. In teaching I prep, I show up, I try to do it well, and then I move on to the other things I have to do that day. But, like teaching, ultimately it all boils down to the fact that you gotta show up.