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Time Management Tips for Graduate Students

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All academics, graduate students and faculty alike, struggle with the challenge of managing their time. New graduate students are often amazed at how much there is to do each day: classes, research, study groups, meetings with professors, reading, writing, and attempts at a social life.  Many students believe that it will get better after they graduate, but, unfortunately, most people report being even busier as new professors, researchers, and professionals. With so much to do and so little time it is easy to feel overwhelmed. But don't let stress and deadlines overtake your life.

How to Avoid Burnout

My best advice for avoiding burnout and getting bogged down is to keep track of your time: Record your days and maintain daily progress towards your goals. The simple term for this is "time management."  Many people dislike this term, but, call it what you will, managing yourself is essential to your success in grad school. Learn how to manage your time with these tips for time management. 

Use a Calendar System
By now, you probably use a calendar to keep track of weekly appointments and meetings. Grad school requires taking a long term perspective on time. Use a yearly, monthly, and weekly calendar.

  • Year Scale. It's difficult to keep track of today and remember what needs to be done in 6 months. Long term deadlines for financial aid, conference submission, and grant proposals creep up quickly! Don't find yourself surprised to realize that your comprehensive exams are in a few weeks. Plan at least 2 years ahead with a yearly calendar, divided into months. Add all long term deadlines on this calendar. 
  • Month Scale. Your monthly calendar should include all paper deadlines, test dates, and appointments so that you can plan ahead. Add self-imposed deadlines for completing long term projects like papers.
  • Week Scale. Most academic planners use a weekly scale of measurement. Your weekly calendar includes your day-to-day appointments and deadlines. Have a study group on Thursday afternoon? Record it here. Carry your weekly calendar everywhere.

Use a To-Do List
Your to-do list will keep you moving towards your goals on a daily basis. Take 10 minutes every night and make a to-do list for the next day. Look over your calendar for the next couple of weeks to remember tasks that need to be planned in advance: searching for literature for that term paper,  buying and sending  birthday cards, and preparing submissions to conferences and grants. Your to-do list is your friend; never leave home without it.

  • Prioritize your to-do list. Rank each item by importance and attack your list accordingly so that you don't waste time on nonessential tasks.
  • Schedule time to work on classes and research each day, even if it is just a few 20 minute blocks. Think you can't get much done in 20 minutes? You'd be surprised. What's more important is that the material will stay fresh in your mind, enabling you to reflect on it at unexpected times (like on your ride to school or walk to the library).
  • Be flexible. Allow time for interruptions and distractions. Aim to plan just 50 percent or less of your  time so that you'll have the flexibility to handle unexpected interruptions. When you're distracted by a new task or something that you need to remember, write it down and get back to work. Don't let a flight of ideas keep you from completing the task at hand. When you're interrupted by others or seemingly urgent tasks, ask yourself, "What is the most important thing I can do right now? What's most urgent?" Use your answer to plan your time and get back on track.

Time management doesn't have to be a dirty word. Use these simple techniques to get things done your way.

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