Grad School Means Being Asked to Do A Lot With A Little: Tips for Time Management

Ever get that feeling that you have so many things on your to-do list that you can’t do well at any one of them? Grad school is riddled with these moments and, darn it, they are frustrating!

Today alone you are probably juggling a host of demands and to-dos: read a book for seminar, review feedback on a paper or dissertation chapter, prepare for TAing, respond to emails, register and make travel arrangements for an upcoming conference, attend a meeting for a grad school committee, compose a teaching statement for the job market. And, that’s just your professional life! (Heaven forbid you have a to-do list for your personal life!) No matter your institution or the phase of your career, there are always going to be far more tasks on your to-do list than hours in the day.

Becky Wetherington BLW Photography on Flickr,

So how are we supposed to keep up, handle this pressure, and do our best work? Time management, time management, time management. Sounds simple, right? But simple does not mean effortless.

Here are some useful tips and strategies for time management.  

First and foremost, remember your priorities:

  • Make time for things you value – things that make you feel like yourself. In graduate school faculty are working to mold and shape you into their idea of a what “good scholar” looks like. And that’s what they are supposed to do. But in the process don’t lose sight of what you value or stop doing the things that make you feel like you. For instance, when I became stressed about the minute details of the texts during my comprehensive exams, I repeated this mantra to myself: “I study history because I believe above all else people matter and their lives are important.” And, after my exams, I made sure to spend at least an hour a week painting and going ice skating because both are hobbies that make me feel like me, they’re things I value that make me unique. 
  • Organize your professional and personal goals by writing out your obligations and creating a to-do list of short- and long-term tasks. Be sure that the items on your list are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attractive, Realistic, and Time-framed Goals.

Next up, some specific, logistical tips to get you through the day:

  • Calendar—Even if you have one of those brains that can easily recall due dates and meeting times, it can be helpful to keep a calendar so you don’t have to clutter your mind with details. Think of it as your own personal syllabus for coursework and your personal life—merge all of your professional and personal obligations into one location so that all the info you need to know is easily accessible and in one place.
  • Timers—time yourself and track your progress so you have a good idea of how long things are taking you and how to plot out realistic future deadlines. Psychological research on planning fallacy has found that a task will always take roughly twice as long as you expect it to and that measuring your time usage can help you be more efficient. So, be intentional! Find a system to measure and manage your time that works for you and stick with it, even when it becomes second nature.
  • Plan How to Use Your Work Time—Your time is the most precious resource you have. Protect it and treat the time you spend on your coursework or professional obligations like a job – as though it is non-negotiable. Don’t, for example, start reading a book for seminar at 10:15 am if you scheduled yourself to start reading it at 10am. You wouldn’t show up 15 minutes late to a class or to a job, and your study time is no different. But—and this is an important one—if you are late for one reason or another and you mess up your plan, don’t use that as an excuse to write off and blow off the rest of the day. Every great paper starts with a terrible first draft and five pages read is always better than zero pages read.
  • Create a Routine that Helps you Meet Your Goals—if you know that your mind is sharpest in the morning, then plan out blocks of time in the morning to do your most intellectually challenging work. Use the blocks of time when you know your brain will be sluggish to do tasks that don’t require as much brain power or are lower-stakes (such as planning TA lessons, grading papers, or answering low-stakes emails). Create a routine that will ensure that you know what to expect when and that you minimize the anxiousness that comes from having too much to do and too little time to do it.
  • Schedule Personal Time—allot personal time for things you enjoy besides school work. It sounds counterintuitive to take time to enjoy your personal life if you’re behind on your work but our brains need to rest, and you will be more effective during your work time if you have breaks to look forward to and personal time to recoup your mental energy.
  • Learn to say “No”—which is so much easier said than done! As graduate students, we are cheap labor and we will always be pulled in a thousand different directions and asked to do more with less. It may be tempting to volunteer for professional committees or outside work to improve your CV. And you may want to do extra things because you really care about being a great teacher or student. But remember your priorities. There are only so many hours in a week, so even if you personally value education and helping others learn, you still need to protect your time and remember your end goal (finishing graduate school!). For instance, don’t offer to read every draft your student writes and don’t agree to meet with a student when you wouldn’t otherwise be on campus. It is ok to say “no” or to offer an alternative time that is more convenient for you. It takes time to commute to and from campus and it is ok to say “no” if saying “yes” means you are sacrificing time that should be spent elsewhere.
  • Use your resources—you have an arsenal of resources available to you! And, most importantly you have colleagues.
    • Colleagues: Divide up TA labor when you can. For example, split up the identification terms on the exam study guide to create an answer key for grading. If you’re not sure how to do something, ask your peers to share an example or to read over your work. I can’t count the number of people who have read drafts of my conference proposals, papers, and fellowship applications in the last six years or whose drafts I have read! Relying on your colleagues is part of building a collaborative, intellectually productive community. And – this is important – don’t keep score; that is a recipe for resentment and feeling unappreciated. Give your colleagues the benefit of the doubt and keep in mind that, ultimately, we are all on Team History!
    • Campus: It is ok to send students to the writing center, counseling center, testing center, disabilities office, etc. and to use those services yourself. There is a plethora of resources available on your university campus, so take advantage of their expertise. That is what they are there for! 

Finally, some self-care tips to find fulfillment despite your unfulfilled and never-ending to-do list:

The Scream by Edvard Munch, 1893.
  • Abandon the idea of perfection—for the rest of your career, you will be asked to do a lot with a little, so let go of the idea that you’re going to perform your best all of the time. We can’t give everything to everything at all times; there just isn’t enough to go around. Doing your best at everything can sometimes mean doing just ok at each individual task. You’re going to have good weeks when you get everything done as planned and you’re going to have bad weeks when you’re barely keeping your head above water. And that is totally ok! The goal is to have more good weeks than bad weeks—there is no such thing as perfect. When you feel like you’re just doing so-so or having a bad week, be aware of how you’re talking to yourself, what you’re saying about yourself to yourself. Don’t be harder on yourself than you would be on others! Instead, look at your feelings about doing so-so on one project in the context of what you’ve accomplished on the whole. And remember to be kind to yourself! Let go of past mistakes or frustrations and look ahead to future goals and tasks that you can still change.
  • Reward Yourself—Yes, I mean tangibly! Pavlov wasn’t too far off when he discovered dogs would learn a behavior and repeat tasks when given rewards in the form of food. Plan rewards, big and small, that will help you to refresh your mind and give you a sense of accomplishment. For example, I am very food- and tea-motivated, so in writing this post I gave myself benchmarks. When I finished the intro, I made myself lunch. After I drafted the priorities section, I made myself a cup of oolong tea. And when I finish this list, I’ve decided to take my dog Lady on a walk. While our brains aren’t exactly like Pavlov’s dogs, they are motivated by tangible rewards that can help us feel a sense of accomplishment. Celebrate the small victories you have each day—even if they are as small as “Yay, I read ten pages of my book for seminar!”—and use commensurate rewards as a way to keep yourself motivated! Engage in self-care and self-compassion because with a little planning and organization you can and will get through what can seem like a never-ending to-do list. Stay positive—you’ve got this!

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