If I Had Known Just Half Of These Time Management Strategies I Could Have Graduated a Year Sooner
I made the same mistake as most of my peers in graduate school: I was an overachiever.
While I did not realize this at the time, being an overachiever led to poor time management and reduced productivity.
I set very ambitious goals, and when I did not meet my deadlines, I drove myself harder. I worked longer hours, sometimes to the point of complete exhaustion.
By my third year I had experienced several episodes of burnout.
I constantly felt guilty about not living up to my supervisor’s expectations, and I started to lose motivation.
I considered quitting graduate school because I did not see a way of out the dark tunnel I was in.
I decided to stay in my program and I got my Ph.D, but the long hours at work impacted both my mental and physical health.
In retrospect, I realize that, if I had simplified my life (instead of trying to do too much at once), it could have been a more fun, relaxed, and probably shorter journey.
Due to scheduling conflicts in my last year, I only had 20 days between my final committee meeting and my thesis defense.
This intense time-line forced me to change how I structured my days, because my old work habits did not work anymore.
I had to put my thesis writing on fast-track, so I did just the opposite of what I had done before: I slowed down, and I stopped trying to do everything perfectly.
The surprising result was that I felt more focused and I made tangible progress every day.
Most importantly, I finished my thesis on time.
The following time management strategies will help you to achieve your goals without having to give up sleep, meals or your social life.
Give yourself permission to make mistakes
Yep, you read that correctly.
Perfectionism will kill your creativity and productivity.
Unfortunately, as adults we are too scared to take action because we dread making mistakes.
Do you remember being a kid and just having fun in the mud without worrying about getting dirty?
In a famous team-building game called the marshmallow challenge (where the aim is to build the tallest structure with a marshmallow on top), kindergartners consistently outperform business students in building taller and more interesting structures.
The reason is that kids are not afraid of making mistakes – they are focused on having fun and they take action.
During the time-crunch of my last semester, I had to throw out perfectionism and just write.
As expected, I had to edit my first draft several times, but I met my graduation deadline and I authored three first-author publications.
After months of struggling, I overcame writer’s block by giving myself permission to put words on the paper, even if my sentences did not come out perfectly the first time.
Write in short sprints
I used to think it was great to have long stretches of time to write, and I set aside entire afternoons to work on progress reports or powerpoint presentations.
I did not have this luxury anymore in my last semester.
I had to improve my time management strategies, because in addition to writing my thesis, I was also running experiments.
To graduate on time I knew that I had to make progress every day.
Sometimes I only had 20 minutes between experimental timepoints, and during that period. I shut off my email and cell phone and started writing.
It is amazing how much you can accomplish in a short time when you are focused and uninterrupted.
In just 20 minutes, I was able to write an entire page of my thesis or review a whole journal article – tasks that would have taken me an hour or longer before.
Even if you have the luxury of long stretches of time, I encourage you to try “writing sprints” of 10-30 minutes each.
Focus on putting your ideas on paper, and do not worry about making mistakes.
Some students find it helpful to do their writing sprints first thing in the morning, before they get interrupted or need to start putting out fires.
Make sure your phone and email are turned off, so you can put your attention fully on writing for just 10-30 minutes.
Make a small spiral notebook your closest friend
Our minds are never at rest.
You might have noticed that ideas and errands pop into your head when you try to write.
Our natural urge is to act upon these chores right away.
The problem is that if you interrupt your writing to send an email or make a call, you will lose your train of thought – sometimes for the rest of the day.
If you try to resist the urge to act upon these to-do’s, the urge will just become stronger.
Your mind will not leave you alone until you do something about it.
But that does not mean that you have to send that email right away or make that phone call.
Why not capture the idea in a small spiral notebook that is always sitting next to you?
Instead of acting on urgent to-do’s right away, tuck them away safely in your little notebook, and attend to them after you have finished writing.
Surprisingly, most of your chores will not seem so urgent by the time you finish writing.
However, they will at least be out of your head and collected in one place, so you will feel on top of everything you need to attend to.
Don’t get email and social media out of the way
Do you automatically check your email as soon as you turn on your computer?
When you begin your day by reading messages, you are prioritizing other people’s requests before taking action towards your long-term goals.
Responding to emails can distract you from your priorities and interfere with your concentration for the rest of the day.
To make consistent progress, begin your day by doing the highest priority task, especially one that you have been putting off for a while.
Finish this task in the morning when your concentration is at its peak.
I used to think that I was productive by getting email out of the way first thing in the morning, and right after lunch.
Overall I probably spent 30-60 minutes a day reading and answering everyone’s emails.
Once I had to get my thesis done in 20 days, I only checked my email once a day in the late afternoon.
It only took 15 minutes a day to answer the most important emails!
This time management strategy saved me at least 30 minutes a day, and helped me to focus better early in the morning.
Stop trying to please your supervisor
There is a big difference between being productive, and bending over backwards just to please your supervisor.
Focus on the end result they desire, not on trying to please him or her.
For example, if your supervisor asks you to complete a task, it is more important that the assignment is done well, rather than quickly just to show that you are diligent (unless there is urgency).
Some supervisors have not done hands-on research for a while, or perhaps they are not an expert in your particular topic.
If this is the case, they may not have a good idea of how long an assignment will take.
Be sure to communicate clearly any unreasonable expectations or unexpected challenges, so you can get your work done.
When you focus on “looking smart”, rather than learning, you might not reach out for help when you need to and end up working longer hours or make unnecessary mistakes.
In the long run, you will end up frustrated and resentful, and perhaps not learn as much as you could have, if you had asked for help when you needed it.
Guilt-trip? Don’t buy the ticket
Most of my clients reach out to me because they want to be more productive.
There simply isn’t enough time in the day for them to get everything done.
When I ask my clients to describe their days, they list several commitments (social or family obligations) that they don’t want to do.
“Why do you do it?,” I usually ask.
They hesitate, and give an answer that is some version of “I feel obligated to bring a dish to this potluck party…” or “I really need to babysit my friend’s daughter this weekend…..”
Why would someone do something that they don’t want to do?
To summarize, they feel guilty disappointing their friends or family members.
In reality, a potluck party will survive without your special dish, and your friend can find another babysitter occasionally.
You don’t need to isolate yourself from your friends and stop volunteering, but to lessen your load during crunch time you might need to defer or completely eliminate some commitments.
If you feel guilty, think about what you would tell your best friend.
Would you understand if he or she had to turn down an invitation to a potluck or babysitting to finish their thesis?
Use worrying to your advantage
Did you ever have a well-meaning friend tell you to stop worrying?
It is usually not very helpful advice.
When you worry, there is a reason for it.
Your body and mind are telling you that there is an important issue that you need to attend to.
Worrying by running catastrophic scenarios through your head is not productive, but you can turn worrying into productive energy.
The biggest worries that graduate students have is that they will never graduate, or that they will be the last one in their class to graduate.
What is your body telling you when you have this fear?
Perhaps you have a gut feeling that your project is dead-end, or that you are falling behind on your timeline, or maybe that it is time to have the “talk” with your supervisor (i.e. what you need to do to graduate).
When you catch yourself worrying, do something about it.
According to Edward Hallowell, author of the book “Worry” , the best medicine for worrying is to “worry with someone else.”
Start by talking with a close friend, or perhaps someone in your field who can give you technical advice if your project is stuck.
Once you identify the exact cause of your worrying, make a plan to either get your research back on track or to talk to your supervisor about next steps.
Either way, use the “worry signal” from your body to take action towards your long-term goals.
Get an accountability buddy
Few things motivate us more than hard deadlines.
The problem is that there are few deadlines in graduate school and most of them are so far in the future (6-12 months), that it is tough to get motivated today.
An accountability buddy is someone who helps you to stay on track.
It is useful if the person is an expert in your field, but they don’t have to be.
Close friends who are non-judgmental can be very supportive and give you encouragement when you get stuck.
It is also important that the person is unbiased – they should not be affected at all by your graduation date.
Their primary role is to listen, so you can “think out loud” and actually solve most of your problems on your own.
For this reason spouses or significant others are probably not the best accountability buddies.
If your supervisor is available and willing to meet with you regularly, you can use those meetings to discuss the big picture and progress on milestones, not just the nitty-gritty details of your research.
Celebrate every day
We are so experienced at beating ourselves up, and feeling like failures if we don’t get through our to-do list or if we fall behind on our milestones.
How do you feel when you beat yourself up?
Do you feel depressed and unmotivated?
These feelings will certainly not make you productive – in fact they will rob you of your self-confidence and make you even less productive.
Beating yourself up leads to a vicious cycle of low productivity, followed by loss of self-esteem, which can eventually lead to complete loss of motivation and possibly even quitting graduate school.
If you find that beating yourself up leads to better performance, you can continue.
But if you are looking for an alternative solution that will help you to reach your goals sooner, listen to some advice from Oprah Winfrey who was born into poverty and is now worth nearly 3 billion dollars:
“The more you praise and celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate.”
The next time you don’t get through your to-do list, you can either beat yourself up and feel like a failure, or you can treat yourself to a little treat (exercise, walk, dinner with friends), to celebrate what you have done.
You are still hanging on there, working in the trenches, putting in the long hours to get your thesis done, and that’s enough reason celebrate.
It is your choice.
I can tell you from personal experience that you will reach your goals a lot faster if you acknowledge yourself every baby step, so why not start today?
This is my favorite time management tip.
We all procrastinate, so we might as well procrastinate wisely.
It is so easy to keep yourself busy – there are tons of emails in your inbox, infinite number of social media messages to respond to, a home that probably needs cleaning, and friends and family members asking you to do favors.
No matter how many hours you work, you will probably not be able to get through all your to-do’s. If somehow you do get through everything, most likely new to-do’s will pop-up.
To-do lists remind me of seven-headed dragons.
No matter how many heads you chop off, new ones will grow back instantly.
If you focus on getting through a to-do list and pleasing everyone, you will end up frustrated, not get everything (or anything) done, and you will certainly not please the people who are counting on you.
Give yourself a little room to breathe.
Let go of some of the projects that have been weighing down on you.
If a goal is not supporting you, your mission, or your loved ones, you are doing yourself and the world a big disservice by sinking time into it.
Make this the year when you focus on the most important goals and people in your life.
Everything else will take care of itself and you will feel a lot better too.