Tuesday, February 20, 2018

I am Olga Degtyareva and This is How I Work

Today, I am welcoming Olga Degtyareva to the "How I Work" series. Olga is Productivity Mentor for Scientists and president and founder of the Productivity for Scientists Ltd. She helps scientists around the world to overcome overwhelm, become more productive, get in charge of their day while feeling happier in their life. Olga teaches through workshops, lectures, online courses as well as private and group coaching programs. Over the past 7 years she worked with 100's of scientists personally and 1000's benefited from her online lectures and resources. Prior to this Olga has had a successful research career in science, having studied and worked for 15 years in the area of high-pressure physics and crystallography. She is a recipient of an international prize for her high-pressure physics research and an author and co-author of 38 scientific papers. She is also a mother of three children whom she unschools together with her husband. Olga shares her experience on "how to manage it all" in her Productivity for Scientists blog (http://olgadegtyareva.com). Start your journey to peaceful productivity with Olga's 5 tops tips to overcome overwhelm and her 126 ways to become more productive which you can find at the top of her website.

: I had 15 years successful career as a scientist in the area of high pressure physics and crystallography, going through the Masters, PhD, two postdocs and a personal Fellowship from the Royal Society. Since then I've transitioned to being a productivity coach for scientists and founded my own company Productivity for Scientists Ltd. I am also a mom of three.
Current Job: Productivity Coach at the Productivity for Scientists Ltd
Current Location: Scottish Borders (near Edinburgh), Scotland, UK
Current mobile device: Samsung smartphone
Current computer: ASUS laptop

Can you briefly explain your current situation and research to us?
I've been a scientist in the area of high-pressure physics and crystallography, for about 15 years in total. I went through Masters degree, PhD degree, two consecutive postdocs and I also held a personal Fellowship from the Royal Society. I studied phase transitions and crystal structure of pure elements from the Periodic Table. We would order an element from a Chemical company, to make sure it is absolutely pure, and then we would put it in a special device that would generate very high pressures by squeezing the sample between two parallel diamonds. We would also change the temperature to very high and very low temperatures. We would then study the change in crystal structure of the element due to phase transitions which would then allow us to understand the change in properties of the material. In particular, I studied the crystal structures of Bi, Sb, As, Ga, S, Se and Na under high pressure.

It was exciting to work in this field, as every other experiment yielded new phase transitions and new crystal structures to solve. It was due to a revolution in technology and equipment that happened just before I started my PhD, so as the result of using new synchrotrons and detectors in combination with high pressure we could solve many enigmas and also study the elements at the conditions where no one else looked before. My career was full of new findings, great collaborations, high-profile papers, and many presentations at the conference. As the result, I am the author and co-author on 38 research papers and I am a recipient of an international prize for my contributions into the high-pressure physics.

The career, although exciting, was not without challenges. I often felt overwhelmed and tired, and cried myself to sleep asking myself "Why does it need to be so hard?" It was during my first postdoc when my career seemed to be going well, that I hit the rock bottom hard nearly giving up on everything. At that point I reached out for help and started to work with a therapist, then a coach, and got into self-help books and seminars. I focused on finding an answer to the question: "How to be successful AND happy at the same time?" In a few years time this led me to starting my own blog where I began to share productivity techniques, and how I manage to combine my family (by then I had 2 children), doing cutting-edge research and feeling fulfilled in my life. This grew into a coaching practice and my own company Productivity for Scientists Ltd. I have now fully transitioned from doing research to being a coach full time, and now work from home coaching scientists around the world via skype, and also publishing lots of free productivity resources online. I now have 3 children whom we home-educate. My primary focus is helping scientists and researchers to overcome procrastination and get their long-overdue papers and thesis written. I am also passionate about working with women scientists to help them become more confident, create their own work/life balance that works for them, become more productive and feel more in charge of their day.

What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow?
Skype is the most essential, as this is how I talk with my private clients; I also do my group coaching calls via skype using the "group call". If someone is interested in my services and would like to share their situation to see if I can help them, we would arrange a free Getting Acquainted Conversation, also via skype. I use a private membership platform called JigSawBox, for my clients to track their progress, to study the lessons and Modules and to write their notes. TimeTrade is what I use for people to book appointments with me. Facebook is also pretty central, as I use it to create groups for my courses and programs for the participants to communicate with each other.

What does your workspace setup look like?

As I work from home, I have a home office set up. Here is the picture of my office with the book shelf that got recently decluttered, and the two new paintings that I got from a friend. I love this new look of my office! My office and the whole house (with 3 children being at home a lot of the time) constantly gets cluttered and messy, so decluttering and tidying is an ongoing process. This year I took it more seriously and started 1 year long project to declutter and simplify my whole household and the office, with a help of a friend: we've been doing a lot of sorting, putting into charity, putting into recycling or trash and even burning old papers in a fire, once a month for the whole weekend. As the result, there are less things around, more space, easier to tidy, and easier to manage. It feels like I can breathe easier, it was definitely worth the effort so far!

What is your best advice for productive academic work?

Well, since this is the topic that I mainly teach through my coaching, I allow myself to go here into more details and share some powerful and concrete strategies.

One of the huge challenges for the PhD students as well as for the postdocs and staff is the procrastination with academic papers and writing their thesis. Our work days as scientists are so busy, we find ourselves running around from the lab to the office to the meeting and to another meeting, and at the end of the day when we were hoping to get some writing done, we need to deal with the administrative stuff or reply to urgent e-mails. Then it is time to catch a plane to do the data collection, and then it is time for a conference. Week after week goes by, and sometimes months and years, and even if we want to sit down to write, for some reason it just does not happen: we are too busy!

Even when we manage to clear time and we do sit down to write, it is difficult to start writing. We sit in front of the computer and we don't know where to start, we get distracted by reading up on it, by checking for "useful information", or get sucked into the black whole of internet, checking the news and the social media... We start to doubt ourselves, whether our writing is going to be good enough, whether the supervisor is going to like it, whether we'll have enough time, or whether we are too slow and won't manage to meet the deadline at this speed anyway. As a result we stay distracted and don't write as much as we could or we find ourselves deleting more than we write. Then the time is up, and we get up from our desk frustrated realising that it would probably be another week or two before we can sit down to write again...

Now this picture may sound familiar. This is because many scientists struggle with it, so if you recognise yourself in it, you are not alone! Writing a paper is so challenging because papers often do not have deadlines, so everything else seems more urgent. Also a paper and especially the thesis can seem so overwhelmingly huge that you don't really know where to start and how to make a substantial progress in that one hour or one day that you carved out for writing. It seems like anything you would write would not be enough to make a visible progress. On top of that there are 100's of distractions that conspire to deflect our attention from writing: there is Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram, there is skype, e-mail and smartphone, there are news websites and there are colleagues and students who come in the office with a question precisely in the moment when you sat down to write.

So here is how to deal with this.

You need to define clearly WHAT are you going to be working on: one particular paper, or one concrete thesis chapter. Then you need to start breaking it down into smaller manageable tasks, those that you can do in 15 min, 30 min and one hour chunks. For example, create the figures, write figure captions, write one paragraph in the Introduction about this and that, type up references etc. Once you have this list you can start tackling your paper or thesis chapter in small focused chunks of time.

About those "small focused chunks of time"... we call them a "writing ritual" or a "writing session". And you need to start developing a routine for doing those sessions regularly. You've heard this advice before for sure, now it is time to start implementing it! It could be as little as one hour per week for busy postdocs and staff, or 2 hours daily for PhD students who need to write a lot but have been procrastinating. Start with two hours first thing in the morning, then add another 2 hours later in the day. For some of my clients we come up with the writing schedule that consists of 1 hour every day first thing in the morning. It is fairly individual, but it has to be a well defined FINITE time, and it needs to be regular, even if it is short. There is a saying: "You can write a book in 15 min a day". So start shifting how you feel about your writing from avoidance and resentment to befriending your writing and checking in with it on a regular basis, adding a bit of writing every time.

There is one particular aspect of this writing ritual, or writing session, that we need to discuss. You need to remove all the distractions for this hour. Close e-mail, Twitter and Facebook, put the smartphone into flight mode, change the status on skype to unavailable: it is just for one hour, you will survive and the world will survive without you, and for that you'll get to do one hour of focused work. During this hour you can type up as many as 300 to 500 words, produce a few figures or write figure captions for all your figures in the paper. Our brain has not evolved to deal with all the amount of information and all the technological distractions that we have now going through our head on a daily basis, so if you are struggling with it, it is not your fault, and it is not because you are not good enough, it is because... it's too much for our brain. Switch off everything for one hour and get your writing done.

The other plague for an academic is being constantly distracted by other people, be that your colleagues or students who come to your office to ask a question or ask for help, or someone talking loudly in your shared office. Again, if you are struggling with it, you are not alone, this problem exists for many academics, in different Universities, countries and continents. And you can deal with it by hiding from everything and everyone just for this one hour you are going to work on your paper. This could mean going to an empty class room, library, or a café, or writing at home first thing in the morning before coming to work. We even joke with my clients, that to be able to write your paper you need to become a master at hiding from everyone and everything!

There are a few other things that we discuss often with scientists regarding procrastination and writing: allowing yourself to write imperfectly, becoming aware of your negative thoughts and how they are getting in your way, challenging your limiting believes that are slowing you down, and finally the importance of measuring your progress and staying accountable. Check out my blog posts for more strategies in those aspects.

How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks?

I use two simple tools that might sound old fashioned but they work great for me! It's a year planner (a laminated paper version that you can stick to a wall in your office) and a week-to-view year calendar (also the paper version and it's A5 format).

The week-to-view format really helps to be more focused and productive, as it gives you an overview over the whole week, and still gives you enough space to write down your daily appointments (including your writing!!) Some of us only do the daily to-do lists, missing out on the advantages provided by the weekly planning. Here is the tool I use in addition to the week-to-view calendar, I call it Weekly Summit, and you can read about it here and download it here.

Besides phone and computer, do you use other technological tools in work and daily life?

No I don't.

Which skill makes you stand out as an academic?

  • The ability to break down a big goal into small doable tasks.
  • Being imperfectionist, allowing myself to take small steps imperfectly and also to write an imperfect draft or create imperfect figures for discussion with colleagues or supervisor.
  • Ability to use small windows of time to get a few tasks done, being it writing a paper or any other priority that usually gets pushed to the back burner because we are "so busy and don't have time".
  • Having a victor mindset, and constantly working on my confidence and challenging limiting believes and rules that I've created for myself that are no longer serving me.
These skills helped me in my research career and made the last years of my career super productive allowing me to juggle it while looking after 2 young children: those years were marked by an award of an international prize for my contributions into the area of my research, publication of an extensive review article as a single author, and publication of several high profile papers with me as a co-author.

The same skills are now at the core of my career as a coach and help me balance working in my business, helping 1000's of people around the world and also remaining an involved mom for my three children.

What do you listen to when you work?
Nothing. I like to practice a complete focus.

What are you currently reading? How do you find time for reading?
I am into self-help books! So I just finished reading The dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner. A great insight into unhealthy patterns we get stuck in with our colleagues and parents. A very recommended book for all women in science! I've just picked the book called The big Leap by Gay Hendricks, I've read it a while ago, and I feel it is now time to re-read it.

I read for a bit every day when I get a quiet moment, for example when children play in the living room, they like me to be there, so I sit on the sofa and read and watch them play from time to time. Sometimes I get the time to lay in bed in quiet and read too. I also make sure I take the current book with me on my journeys, I'd read on the train or plane, and I get to read much more during holidays.

What's your sleep routine like?

12am to 7:30am most of the days, in addition most of the days I get to have a half an hour to an hour nap in the afternoon. I feel that 7-7.5 hours of sleep at night are just not enough. Ideally I'd like to sleep for 8 to 9 hours at night but with my current work arrangement (I do my client calls at 8am and 9am most mornings) and my children staying up late until nearly midnight, I only get 7-7.5 hours of sleep. So I need to be a bit more creative with catching up on sleep because of the work and the children's arrangements. I manage to clear time most of the days to have half an hour to an hour nap in the afternoon, which is a bit easier to do while working from home. Also once a week I'd sleep in in the morning until about 10am. Also once every week or two I'd go to bed early (8 or 9pm) asking my husband to look after the children and I'd sleep until morning. I take sleep seriously and it feels like these arrangements allow me to get the sleep I need.

I feel that many scientists have a sleep deprivation, and when you are a parent the situation can get even worth. The productivity and performance can really drop from the lack of sleep and there are also long term negative effects. The importance of sleep and how to make time for it is something we discuss often in my coaching calls with scientists.

What's your work routine like?

I value my morning hours and use them to get my creative work done. This is usually 8-11am. During this time I have 1 or 2 coaching calls with the clients and I also work on my writing and other creative projects. The rest of the day is less structured, and I schedule my work around my children's rhythms and activities. I'd usually get another 2 hours of work done, inserting a few focused sessions between spending time with the children at home, strolling by the sea, or driving them to their activities. My own physical activities such as a yoga session and running with my local running club are also non-negotiable.

The number of total hours is less than full time work, but I feel that by focusing on my work during short periods of time I can get more work done than in a full working day. Also, this is how I define my own work-life balance: spending 4-5 hours a day to work, and spending the rest of the time with my family, or doing other things I love. I know that the children will grown up soon, and I want to spend more time with them now when they are little. I believe that each person can define their own work/life balance and focus on what is important to them, and this is something I help scientists do as well.

What's the best advice you ever received?

Have a vision of what is that you want to create, have a dream and go for your dream! Even if right now you don't know all the details, or you can's see all the steps you'll need to take, start taking the steps before everything is aligned, and the resources and the opportunities will appear as you move along. It is important to know you WHAT, get clear on you WHY, and start taking steps without worrying too much about the HOW, the HOW will reveal itself as you progress.


  1. Hello Eva, thank you for posting this excellent "How I Work" article, featuring Olga Degtyareva. Really, there is so much to learn from the way she manages herself, and the three kids. At times, even with 1 school-going child, it seems like I find it hard to manage my time! I guess it's not about how much time one has, but how one is able to manage those 24 hours. Great article and it really helped!

    1. Dear Diptiman, I'm glad to read you found the interview useful!