How To Survive Crunch Time

A few times a year, work (of any kind – grad school-related or not, paid or not) takes an outsized role in one’s life. It could be that your yearly committee meeting is fast approaching and you feel the pressure to have some progress to show. Maybe you are going to an important conference, and you’d like to present something more substantial than preliminary data to impress the bigwigs of your field with. Or maybe you’re organizing some kind of event, and as The Day approaches its planning squeezes all of the free time out of your life.

Since busier-than-usual times are inevitable, we may as well learn how to survive in the stressful periods that punctuate life as a graduate student. And while I don’t consider myself someone who actually thrives during extra-busy times, I have gone a few times around the Crunch Time Carousel, and I’ve learned a thing or two to help make a stressful time less overwhelming:

BEFORE crunch time happens: plan

  • The best time to come up with a plan is when I’m still reasonably well-rested and un-hassled; in other words, before I actually need to apply it.
  • Make a master list of all the things you will need to accomplish. Then identify which points depend on which other points, so that you can plan the order in which to tackle these tasks. Once I’ve done this, I also give myself some soft deadlines, dates by which I hope to be done with specific tasks.
    • Apps like Todoist can be helpful to make those lists, but scribbling things down on paper can work just as well
  • Make sure that whatever calendar you use is up to date with any deadlines, non-negotiable activities, and commitments.
    • This also includes planning some free time or some time to relax, especially in the days right before a big event.
  • Part of this planning also involves figuring out what is non-essential, what you can trim if you need to.
    • For example, in the weeks before I finish big projects I tend to gradually cut down on my tv watching, book reading and video game playing (and, I’m sad to say, GradLife blog post writing)
  • Warn your friends! Before crunch time starts is a very good time to hang out with your friends and warn them that you’ll be busy or distracted for the next little while!
  • Now is also a good time to think about food. When I’m busy and preoccupied, thinking about what to make to feed myself takes up brain space I do not have to spare, and I find it all too easy to become a takeout-atarian. So before it gets to that point, I like to freeze some very basic beans/rice/cheese/salsa burritos, which keep well in a freezer and are easy to warm up in a microwave.


DURING crunch time: prioritize

  • When faced with a task that is too big or daunting, I get overwhelmed, I freeze, and I procrastinate. To overcome this, the aforementioned master list of things to do is invaluable. By breaking down big projects (e.g. holding my yearly advisory committee meeting) into smaller and smaller tasks, I eventually end up with a list of concrete actions (e.g. 1) make a Doodle poll with my supervisor’s availabilities, 2) email the Doodle poll to the rest of the committee, 3) book a conference room, 4) email the exact date and time to everyone to needs to be there, etc.)
    • I personally like to have a printed or handwritten copy of this master list: there’s something uniquely satisfying about physically crossing off tasks as I complete them. Plus, completing even one small action can help me get over a sense of inertia, and can motivate me to complete two more, or even three more
    • That said, a very long list of tasks can be just as overwhelming as a big project with no plan or list – especially when you’re juggling multiple projects from different areas of your life. When that happens to me, I prioritize: I choose the three most important tasks to do on that day, and I focus on completing those items.
      • If you still feel overwhelmed by the number of things to do, I recommend trying out a priority matrix – it’s just a structure to help you identify which tasks you should tackle first. The Eisenhower box (where you classify tasks based on how urgent/important they are) is probably the most famous kind of priority matrix, but when you have a particularly long list of tasks you can still end up with too many things in the “urgent and important” #1 priority box. If that’s the case, you could try taking into account the amount of time needed to complete a task – check out this tumblr post for a method where you classify tasks based on how quickly you can finish them and when they are due.
  • As ever, taking care of yourself and your basic needs is important. Specifically, I find that getting enough sleep is crucial. Cutting down on sleep to try to do more things is very rarely an effective strategy: sleep deprivation impairs cognitive function, and it’s hard to do things well if I can’t think well. Also, I find it easier to regulate my own emotions when I’m well-rested; it’s hard to focus on my avalanche of tasks to do if I’m extra-irritable and internally turning into a Rage Volcano.
    • This is where planning for downtime and putting hard time limits on work can be invaluable. For example, I have an alarm on my phone that rings out around 9 pm – after which I must close my laptop, stop working, and time some time to relax (by taking a shower, or journaling, or doing some half-assed lazy yoga) before going to bed.


AFTER crunch time is over: decompress

  • After getting used to working at a breakneck pace, it’s all too easy to keep going. But while pulling a single 60+-hour week can be fine, it’s not a sustainable way to work. Much like you need a rest day after an intense day of exercise to avoid injury, it’s good to take some time off to rest after an intense period of work to avoid burnout. It could be as short as an afternoon away from the lab, or as long as a week away from Montreal – whatever can work for the particulars of your situation
    • It’s actually one of my biggest grad school regrets that I waited a week and a half before taking time off after my comprehensive exam. In retrospect, I did not do very good work during that week, and I wish I would have gone on vacation immediately after learning I had passed my exam
  • Remember those friends you haven’t seen lately? Now’s a good time to hang out with them!


Crunch time is stressful, but by planning, prioritizing, and pacing ourselves, we can get through it. You’ve got this!!

Do any of you have any crunch time survival tips I haven’t covered? Do you have a favourite food prep recipe to share? Have you come across a new kind of priority matrix that could help me better prioritize my life? Please leave a comment below!

Header image: original photo by @steezsister/GradLifeMcGill, modified by Sophie Cousineau

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