Graduate School Time Management
This spring marks my final semester of graduate school and the process of completing my degree has certainly been a learning curve. Since moving out, starting grad school and assuming adult responsibilities, I’ve had to learn to juggle multiple jobs, a full-time academic schedule, apartment responsibilities and pet ownership. All of a sudden, I had multiple things to do that all demanded significant portions of my time and I was experiencing an academic work load that required more time than I had ever needed to invest before. As if that weren’t enough, during the fall semester I was confronted with a family emergency. I had to put everything on hold in order to help take care of my family. When things finally began to even out, I realized I had run myself too hard helping take care of everyone and was subsequently sick for over a week. Now I had a full plate and a lot of make up work to do. Fortunately, I was able to make up the work that I had missed (including additional work that had been added to the pile in the normal series of mini-emergencies that life is so good at dishing out) and complete the semester on time, ultimately writing over 30 pages in a 10 day period with the resulting average grade of 90%. These same practices are helping me write up to 10 pages of rough thesis material PER DAY. Here’s how I did it.
First, I rely on a time management technique called the Pomodoro Technique. In this system, time is divided into working units of 25 minutes. For each pomodoro worked, you break for 5 minutes. 25 on, 5 off. After four rounds, you get 10 minutes off. Each unit is indivisibly and can be devoted to only one task. The benefit of this method is that it forces you to focus on one very specific thing for a set period of time, rather than getting caught up in too much. The side benefit of this practice is that once daunting tasks (such as writing over 30 pages in a matter of days) are instead much more manageable. You don’t have to finish an entire project, just devote a minimum of 25 minutes to it. These units are also readily trackable, allowing you to schedule your time around what needs to be done. I have a little app that runs in my menu bar allowing me to keep track of my pomodoros.
Because the technique hinges on the breaks being fixed, I often find myself entering the break cycle mid-thought. This is fine. I discovered that, somewhat counter-intuitively, it was actually easier to jump back into what I was writing when I was finishing a sentence, rather than rehashing where I was and where I needed to go.
Teaching my fellow students about the Pomodoro Technique often proved sufficient to help them complete their work more efficiently, but sometimes distractions can be just too tempting. When that happens, that’s when I bust out the big guns. Freedom is a neat little WYSIWYG app that disables your internet for a set interval of time. Seriously, this thing is evil. Once engaged, you can’t turn it off. You have to instead shut down your computer. Except it prevents you from doing anything but a hard restart. Yup, this program is ruthless about cutting away distracting internet.
Need the internet but don’t want to be distracted, check out Freedom’s sibling program Anti-Social. It’s just as evil as it’s siblings (you can’t quit and you have to hard restart if you want your social media back) and you can customize the sites that you want to block. By default, it blocks social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace but it can also be customized to block your particular productivity kryptonite. My weaknesses are Hulu and Netflix. Good for background noise while working on tedious stuff, but not so much if you’re trying to focus. Unfortunately for the time being it’s Mac only.
As an alternative, WriteorDie.com relies on the benefits of having someone besides yourself to keep you honest, as it were. Enter your desired word count or writing interval and Write or Die lets you share sessions with a friend, writing head to head, or else the program will enforce the goals you set. The program will totally let you have it (at a set level) if you shirk or get distracted. I found this a program to be too stressful because some days are just slow days for me and I want the versatility of writing in whatever word processor I want. A friend who recently completely her doctoral dissertation, however, raved about it so it seems to work for some people.
Even with the best time management, there are only so many hours in a day and eventually something has to give. For me, I had to recognize that there would simply be some things I couldn’t do while playing catch-up. Big, complex meals–among other things–fell by the wayside as I buckled down to write. It was simply more important to complete my semester than it was to indulge in activities that didn’t lead directly to paying bills or graduating on time. If you are prone to distraction on your computer even without the internet, consider minimalist writing programs such as WYSIWYG app Om Writer.
Despite what I just said about focusing only on bills and graduation, it is also important to practice good self-care even if you do it just as preventative medicine. Had I engaged in better self-care during my family emergency, I wouldn’t have run myself down to the point of getting sick and as a result would have had that much less work to make up. In prioritizing, I cut indulgences like big dinners and long, leisurely meals with friends in favor of briefer, more intentional get-togethers. Rather than go to my campus dining hall and sit for hours seeing who I could socialize with, I made intentional dates with friends to have tea or go for hikes. I was still getting social interaction and maintaining my community but it shifted to become much more intentional and as a result required less time overall. Because the connections experienced during these intervals were often more intimate than more commonplace public conversations, not only did I not find my social interactions lacking, but I actually found that some connections deepened by shifting focus.
Additionally, though my dog won’t let me slack on his exercise regimes of regular walks, if you don’t have a pet keeping you honest it’s important to keep up regular exercise patterns, whatever they may be. Though I often have to force myself to do so, I am always reminded that even just getting up to stretch for several minutes is enough to replenish creative juices. Burning out after short, intense spurts is counterproductive. Big projects are marathons, not sprints. So go finish that paper/novel/epic project you’ve been working on.