One of the most difficult things for new Graduate Students to manage effectively is their time. This is in large part because graduate study has built into it large segments of unstructured time that can easily be wasted. One of the most important skills graduate students can learn early in their career is how to structure their time effectively.
I have gathered here some suggestions that might help students take control of their time so that it can be used most productively.
I mean this not only in the ancient Greek sense of knowing one’s limits–although this is part of it–but specifically I mean: know when you do your best creative work and reserve that time for writing or other intellectual activities that require a high degree of concentration.
- Are you a morning person? Do you do your best work at night?
One of the best tricks I learned some time ago was to set an alarm on my desktop for a certain amount of time during which I would focus on a single task, be it reading an article, writing notes, free writing or editing. Focus on nothing other than the task at hand until the alarm goes off.
- Here is a link to Unclutterer’s discussion of desktop timers which has some suggestions about free alarm clocks for the PC and Mac.
- About.com suggests a nice little timer trick in which you focus on specific tasks for shorter, 20 minute periods.
This timing strategy does on a small scale what you should also do on a larger scale: set deadlines for yourself. You can do this with self-discipline or shame; for the latter, try making an appointment with a colleague or professor in which you will discuss some element of your work that will be complete by that time. You’d be surprised how motivating it is not to want to seem clueless in front of others – this is part of what motivates many of us teachers to prepare like crazy.
Take Control of Email/Social Media
Studies have shown that each time you check your email it takes an average of 15 minutes to return to your original task. You need to take full control of when you give yourself over to checking email and other forms of social media.
- Turn off the automatic alert on your email, IM service, etc.
You need to have a reliable calendar that you can easily use to keep track of all your appointments. You also should have a dynamic way to track and prioritize what you have do. There are many computer programs that can help in this regard.
With regard to ToDo lists, it is helpful to be able to organize them according to projects that keep the work in various courses and other academic and personal projects separate. I have been using Things lately, and like it quite a bit. A nice, free, but less involved, list maker is available at Zenbe.com.
I have also been making excellent use of Evernote, which allows you to keep notes of all kinds in the cloud and syncs with multiple computers and smart phones.
A Quiet Space
It is not always easy to find a good, quiet space to work; one with few distractions. It is critical to locate one, be it in your apartment, on campus or in a cafe. If you are working in public, it is often helpful to have your earphones in your ears even if you are not actually listening to anything through them. Earphones can function as earplugs, filtering out distracting noise and fostering concentration. Plus, people are less likely to interrupt you if they think you are listening to something.
I often see graduate students who are exhausted and over extended. People don’t often realize that intellectual activity is often as tiring as physical exercise. Make sure you give yourself down time as it cultivates creativity and increases productivity.
- Get enough sleep: it seems that less than seven hours a night cripples productivity, memory retention and creativity. See this article on How Much Sleep Do We Really Need? on the website of the National Sleep Foundation.
- Allow your mind to wander: I know it sounds strange for me to suggest this, but allowing your mind to go where it will as you perform menial tasks can help you work through a particularly difficult question or issue.
- Move: when your body is healthy, your mind becomes stronger, so be sure to get out from behind the desk and walk or exercise. This is not wasted time, but part of an overall strategy of success.
- Reward yourself with something fun you like to do when you have accomplished something; or use it as an end toward which your work is directed.