Does this sound like a typical day for you?
You wake up thinking about all of the tasks you need to do for the day. Then you remember the thing you meant to do yesterday, but you forgot. So you spend most of your day working on the thing you should have worked on the day before. Therefore you don’t have enough time to complete the tasks you had planned for the day. Which means, that after dinner, at home, you try to do more work while you “relax” and watch tv. Then you go to bed just to do it all over again the next morning.
Or maybe this is you…
You’re invited to hang out with friends or do something that isn’t grad school related. You haven’t taken a break in while so you decide to go out. But the whole time you are out, you feel guilty. You have so much work to do and you feel like you aren’t spending your time wisely. Therefore, you can’t fully enjoy your break.
What about this?
You are working on your research and you get stuck on a problem. So you go read some papers to find inspiration. Next thing you know, it’s been 3 hours and you haven’t prepped for the classes you are teaching.
Do any of those scenarios sound familiar?
I recently interview four PhD students and they all told me that they struggle with time management, productivity, and organization in some kind of way. When I first started grad school, I was the same.
But then I discovered the key! The key to getting stuff done efficiently and still having time for myself at the end of the day without feeling guilty about it.
Would you like to know how I accomplished this impossible task? Okay, okay, I’ll tell you!
The Key to Productivity, Organization, and Having a Life in Grad School: Working 8-5
You have to treat grad school like a job. I know, it’s called school, not work. But this is what I did and I saw major improvement in my quality of life. I was able to sleep more and stress less! Here’s what I started to do my third year of grad school.
I’m a morning person, so waking up early allowed me to start working when my brain worked best. I would wake up early, have breakfast and be at school by 7:30 am. I would spend the first 30 minutes of my day checking and responding to emails and writing my daily to-do list.
Having a to-do list is key! Creating a to-do list lets you visualize all of the tasks you need to do in a day. You can always refer back to it throughout the day to see if you are using your time efficiently. Also, whenever you remember new tasks that you may have forgotten, you can just add them to the list.
There are pitfalls that you need to watch out for when creating your daily to-do lists:
Not being mindful of time. Not every task is created equal and will not take the same amount of time. Some things take 5 minutes, like writing an important email. And other things take hours, like writing up your research. So you should always be mindful about how much time your tasks take.
Creating an overwhelming to-do list. I think I read that psychologically, if you have more than 3-4 tasks on a to-do list, you can feel overwhelmed and actually get less work done. That’s why understanding how much time things take is super important. What I like to do is to add how much time I want to spend on each of my tasks and give myself a deadline.
Not prioritizing tasks: Sometimes it just doesn’t make sense to check off tasks on your to-do list in order. If there is something that needs to get done by the next day, try working on it before something that may not be due for a week. Also, if there is a task that you are dreading working on, try to work on that first to get it over with. Otherwise, you would just save it until the end of the day or perhaps never getting to it.
Homework: Create a checklist or a to-do list and write down all of your tasks for the day as well a how much time you want to spend on each task.
Complete your day with a plan
At the end of your work day (my suggestion would be to finish your day between 5-7 pm), go back to your to-do list and see what things still need to be done. If they aren’t urgent, add them to a new to-do list for the next day.
Once you get in the habit of things, you’ll find that planning your day becomes easier and easier. And you’ll no longer feel like you are forgetting things or not spending your time wisely. Then, at the end of the day, you are completely done and don’t have to worry about remembering things to do tomorrow. They are already on your list and you can enjoy the evenings for yourself.
While it is very nice to only work between the hours of 8-5, it’s not always feasible. There are times where you will have to work outside of those hours. In particular, those exceptions would include studying for tests, preparing for presentations, or grading hws and tests.
If you want to take the next step and start planning for the week, instead of day to day, checkout the Grad School Survival Workbook.