Time management is one of the most important skills to have in graduate school. The amount of intellectually challenging work to be done can be daunting, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. When we are overwhelmed, we tend to miss important details and deadlines and fall into the procrastination trap. So how can you avoid all that? One word: organize.
1. Clean up:
When I start to feel like my brain is tripping over itself and the amount of work to be done seems, well, insurmountable, it feels so good to clean up. There’s just something so calming about a clean house. Make your momma proud and clean your room (and the bathroom, kitchen, and rest of your apartment). Pay extra attention to your workspace – make a nice, neat place where you can sit down and be the genius your grad school career is grooming you to be. If you don’t have them already, get a desk and a bookshelf. And don’t forget the office supplies (remember how cool it was to get your school supplies as a kid — nothing better than new pens and blank notepads!). Your desk should always be cleared of clutter and the books and textbooks you need for the semester should be together on your bookshelf. Get a decent desk chair, too, so you don’t have the backache excuse to stop working.
2. Calendar everything:
There are all sorts of calendaring options on your computer, phone, etc., but I still believe a paper calendar is best — you can see all levels at once. But that’s just me. Find something that works for you, as long as you are able to enter both long-term and short-term schedules and deadlines. Here are the essentials for good calendaring:
- All deadlines, from now through next year. Yes, next year. For example, you know you will have to complete your FAFSA and apply for financial aid by a certain date next year — write it down in your calendar. The deadline to apply for graduation — kinda important. When do you need to apply to sit for the CPA? What are the start and end dates for the next few semesters and when do you need to register for classes? These are important deadlines to remember, and having them written down in your calendar now will save you the anxiety of trying to figure it out later, when you may not have enough time to prepare for it or end up in a mad rush to get it done.
- The deadlines and assignments for each of your classes. The beauty of syllabi — you already know what to do and when. Write it all down in your calendar. Having it all in one place enables you to see what your workload will be in the coming weeks and when assignments from different classes clash, so you can plan ahead and save yourself the stress of trying to get it all done at once. Plus, planning ahead will increase your chances of doing well on each assignment, rather than rushing to turn them in on time.
- Free time. You need to block out free time for yourself, so you don’t burn out. Be sure to give yourself a nice block of time to do things you love — movies, sports, video games, best sellers, lounging around, etc. When do the Blackhawks play? Write it down, so you see what work needs to be done ahead of time so you can actually enjoy the game guilt-free. You do still need to be a person, not just a brain, so tend to those needs, too.
3. Shake procrastination:
We procrastinate on tasks when we feel overwhelmed by them or we just plain find them boring. Calendaring, alone, will help you avoid procrastination by scheduling specific time for you to work on assignments, but sometimes we need a little more help to get it done.
- Baby steps: Break a large project into smaller tasks and put them on a “to do” list. For example, when I started writing my dissertation, I was so overwhelmed by the herculean effort required that I spent a few months in a daze, unsure how to start. Then a friend of mine suggested I forget about the completed product for a while and just do a tiny piece of a single section — something I could to do right then that would “count” as dissertation work. I had already found about 50 articles I needed to read and summarize, so I grouped them into topics and then took one group at a time. I made a list of the articles, read them, summarized them, and then checked them off the list one-by-one. Finishing the first group felt really good, and my momentum continued to build with each article I checked off.
- Incentives: Set a goal and then treat yourself to a reward when you reach it. I love that Aspen Leaf yogurt place, so I told myself that each time I finished a group of articles, I would take an afternoon off, grab a yogurt, and sit outside enjoying it. Create incentives for both small and large milestones. A good friend of mine had always wanted to go to Disney World. She decided that when she finally finished her dissertation, she would go (and she did!). Just as your allowance motivated you to do your chores as a kid, creating an incentive to complete a task will get you there (even if you whine a little while doing it).
Grad school is tough, especially when you’re just getting started, but if you take a little time to impose some order on your new, chaotic life, you will be surprised at how great you do.