Ah, grad school. Aka the years of your life where you’re learning how much you don’t know, pushing your personal and professional boundaries, and managing an outrageously busy schedule. Grad school schedules come with deadlines. Deadlines for abstract submissions, funding applications, and course work, on top of lab meetings, data collection, and social endeavours. Here are my top 5 tips to increase productivity, to maneuver these deadlines and actually get work done:
1. Make a list
This tip is probably the most cliché of all, but couldn’t be left off of this list. The fact is: it works. I find it much easier to prioritize my tasks when they’re all laid out in front of me. I can see what needs to be done, estimate how much time each item will take, and start working from there.
Make your list before you start doing any work. Include even the smallest tasks, because it’s a great feeling to check items off, and any progress is good progress!
2. Set a timeline and stick to it
When I’m working in the lab, I tend to pick a task to work on until lunch time, and then take my lunch break. Then, I pick another task (potentially the same one, if it’s larger), and work until the end of the day. I always have a time when I know I’ll be leaving the lab, and I stick to that timeline. This helps me set aside blocks of time for each task I need to complete in a day, and knowing how long I’m going to be working on something helps me stay focused and be more productive.
This tip is two-fold, in that it’s important to set aside time for working, but also for relaxation. If I know I want to exercise in the morning, I set aside an hour for exercise, and also enough time to get ready before going into the lab. If I need time to relax, I set aside a break time at the end of the day where I can do whatever I want, because relaxation and some time away from your work can oftentimes lead to increased productivity.
3. Focus – really focus – when you’re working
This one is easier said than done. There can be any number of distractions that can pull you away from your work: friends, technology, breaking news, incoming emails, and the list goes on. One thing I’d suggest is to try a technology cleanse. Put away anything that may distract you, including your phone, and prioritize your current project over anything else. You may surprise yourself with the amount of work you get done if you can “get in the zone.”
4. Ask for help when you need it
If you need someone to read over a funding application before you submit it, ask them. If you don’t know how to make the graphs you need to include alongside an abstract, ask someone. People in your lab and department have differing levels of knowledge and expertise than you do, and they understand that grad students have a lot on their plates. Yes, other people are also busy, but be clear about what you need help with and when the deadline is, and they will more than likely be very happy to help.
5. Identify where and when you do your best work
Everyone has different ideal working conditions. Personally, mine are mid-day, hopefully at a café. Many people find cafés distracting while they’re trying to get work done, but I find that it helps me focus because I have to actively block out the people around me and truly focus on my work. Your ideal working conditions may be in the lab where other people are focused as well, or at home where you’re most comfortable. They may be early in the morning or late at night, but that’s up to you to decide. Once you’ve found what works best for you, stick to that whenever possible. Make deliberate plans to help yourself be productive, and you’ll make it through your list in no time.
These are the 5 things that help me stay on track and be productive. It’s normal to veer off the course a little bit in grad school, and procrastination is inevitable (at least for me!), but there are ways to manage everything that you need to get done. The next time your schedule seems overwhelming, try these out and see if they can work for you, too.
Do you have other tips that you use to be productive? I’d love to hear them!