For so many graduate students, this summer has already proven itself to be unlike any other they’ve encountered so far; and with ongoing global crisis, graduate students should feel no guilt for prioritizing their personal well-being over their productivity. That being said, summer has always been a time of free fall for graduate students — assistantships end, funding becomes unstable, precarity increases and the work structures that we rely on to keep us productive throughout the semester suddenly disappear. All the while we are expected to prepare for fall teaching, continue our own research, catch up on tasks that we shuffled off during the academic year and make real progress on a slew of tasks. Whether this summer has been particularly disruptive for you or whether summer always proves a time of uncertainty, here are some strategies for making progress in your work, however small.
Be Kind to Yourself
While it’s worth practicing self-compassion no matter the circumstances, this tip feels especially necessary now. As graduate students, we keep seemingly endless lists of tasks and goals, aspirations and to-dos. With so much on our plates at all times, it can be easy to slip into feelings of doubt, guilt, despair, stress and anxiety. However, as you may know from experience, such feelings are entirely counterproductive, serving only to paralyze us in the face of even small tasks. As a result, instead of holding yourself to incredibly high standards this summer, be realistic about where you’re at, where you’d like to be and what steps you’ll be able to take in the time that you have.
Setting huge goals for yourself (“I will write every single day!” “I will finish two chapters this summer!”) may feel good in the moment, but it can set you up for a work freeze if you fail to live up to those goals (“I missed writing yesterday. Why am I so terrible at this?” “I’ll never finish this chapter at this rate — why even bother?”). Instead of responding to inevitable setbacks with guilt, shame or frustration, treating yourself with care can make all the difference in your willingness and ability to bounce back.
Instead of judgmental self-talk, try to speak to yourself like you would a close friend, a loved one, one of your students or even a child. Whatever approach you need, responding to yourself with compassion and understanding will make you more willing to try (and potentially fail) later, making it easier to get back to work even after a setback.
Perhaps already a familiar strategy to those who have experience creating lesson plans, working backward from your intended goal to accurately plan the steps that will get you there is a powerful way to build your own structure and deadlines. Think about the goal that you’d like to reach and its ideal deadline.
For instance, if your goal is to take your comp exams by Oct. 1, but you know that your exam materials must be submitted two weeks prior to your exam, then your real deadline becomes Sept. 17. Then, you know that you want a good three weeks to write and revise each of the two essays required, which means that you’ll want to start drafting by July 21. Before that, though, you’ll want some time to finalize your bibliography, read and annotate your sources, and talk to your committee, all of which you can fill in as tentative deadlines on your calendar.
So, now, instead of Take Comp Exams by Oct. 1, you have June 10: Contact Committee, June 15: Compile Possible Sources, June 22-July 17: Read and Annotate, July 20: Finalize Bibliography, July 21: Begin Drafting First Essay, Aug. 11: Begin Drafting Second Essay, Sept. 17: Submit Materials to Committee, Oct. 1: Exam.
Thus, instead of setting large goals into your calendar, build in smaller deadlines by breaking the goal into its components (the topic of the following tip).
Set Actionable Tasks
Admittedly, there exists a page in my own planner that includes the task Write Chapter 3 — a worthwhile goal, perhaps, but not an actionable one. After all, it would be impossible to simply sit down and suddenly produce a complete and usable third chapter. In fact, the only way to eventually reach a finished Chapter 3 will be to first complete the reading, research, brainstorming, planning, drafting, revising and all of the other minute steps that make up the work of chapter writing.
As you think about working backward, and thus consider all of the small steps that make up much larger goals, think about how you can break large goals into even smaller actionable steps that you can realistically complete.
To use the example above, the July 21 goal of Begin Drafting First Essay will give you a clear deadline for your monthly calendar, but it isn’t yet at the more achievable level of daily to-do task. As you get closer to this deadline at the end of July, you’ll want some more clear direction. For instance, your to-do list for July 21 might include items as small as Create New Document for Essay 1, Title, Draft Rough Introductory Paragraph, Import Bibliography Into Document, Draft Bulleted Outline Beneath Introduction, etc.
The idea is that you first set realistic calendar deadlines by breaking a goal into smaller goals, but then you can further break those small goals into daily to-dos that allow you to make real progress each time you sit down to work and cross something off of your task list each day (instead of only getting the satisfaction of feeling “done” once the whole project is completed).
As scholars like Joan Bolker (Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day) and Helen Sword (Air & Light & Time & Space) make clear, the most successful academic writers are those who are the most consistent in doing work. While it can be tempting (or unavoidable, or necessary) to step away from work for extended amounts of time or to work in large, sudden blocks, working regularly, even in small sessions, ultimately produces larger amounts of usable work.
Breaking your goals into small, achievable tasks can help with your consistency. After all, it’s much easier to want to write each day if your goal is something like Write for Five Minutes or Add Transition to Final Paragraph instead of the imposing and seemingly unattainable Write Chapter 3.
Rewarding yourself with small treats or writing trackers (today’s final tip) can also be a great way to motivate yourself to want to work. Regardless of how you do it, however, the fact remains that small and consistent progress adds up much quicker than sporadic bursts of work. Consistency can help you become more compassionate with yourself as well, since you no longer have such large expectations for your working time. Instead, remember that any work done (no matter how seemingly insignificant) is still work done.
While other articles exist with ideas for how to reward yourself for your work, it’s simply important that you are getting some kind of regular payoff for your work to keep you moving forward. These should be (like your work itself) small and consistent rewards. That is, while you might be planning some way of celebrating completing your comp exams in October, you should also be including smaller-tier treats for finishing each step of the process that will get you there. You might even want a weekly or even daily reward for completing work — you know your needs best.
Even if they are small rewards like a new sticker for each day of work, a morning pastry with your coffee after every three consecutive workdays or an at-home spa day at the end of a full week, keeping yourself motivated with self-generated rewards is necessary to becoming more productive. Rewards keep you motivated and make you more likely to want to keep going. After all, the promise of a sticker might be the difference between sleeping in on Friday or shuffling out of bed to add a few sentences to a draft.
Even without external structures of work, colleagues, etc., you can still be self-starting — capable of caring for your needs and the reality of your situation, building your own deadlines, breaking your goals into achievable tasks, working consistently, and providing yourself with rewards and motivation for your hard work.