Being a graduate student is one of the rare occupations in which we can make our own schedules; technically we can work whenever we’d like. Before beginning graduate school this flexibility seemed an extremely exciting benefit, but once I began I realized how difficult it actually was to keep myself on track and prevent burnout. With the end of my first semester as an MA student complete (and having survived writing roughly 50 pages in two weeks) I’ve realized how important having and sticking to a self-imposed schedule is for me.
My entire adult life I’d had the type of job where you go to work when you’re told, work for a designated amount of time, and then you leave. I had absolutely no say in when I worked, and for the most part I worked late, inconvenient hours. Although I didn’t particularly enjoy what I did, when I wasn’t at work, I didn’t think about work. All in all, it was fine, but when I decided to go to graduate school, the prospect of being able to work whenever I wanted to was so appealing. Unfortunately for me, once I actually immersed myself in graduate school, I realized how much I relied on a structured work life.
I spent the first month or two of the semester alternating between struggling to start my work and feeling unable to stop working. I ended up feeling like I was working all the time and when I did take breaks, not only did I feel guilty for not working but I also had a hard time beginning to work again (stress paralysis, anyone?). Not only was I extremely stressed and overwhelmed, I wasn’t very productive and I started getting burnt out, fast. Having realized that what I was doing wasn’t working for me, I talked to a few people (thank you, Jenna!) and did some research of my own on how to schedule my time. It made a huge difference! Below are some tips that helped me create and adjust to a self-imposed schedule:
- First and foremost, figure out what time of day you work best. Is it right when you wake up, after lunch, or in the evening? Knowing and working with this fact about yourself can help you be as productive as possible during your work hours.
- Once you know when your most productive hours are, be consistent about what time you go to bed and wake up every day (and get the recommended 7 to 9 hours, of course!). This was a hard one for me and I’m still working on it, but I do find that when I stick to it, my days are much easier.
- Use a planner! Whether you use a task app, a notebook, Google Calendar, or a weekly schedule, actually writing down (or typing) what you plan to do and when you plan to do it each day will help you stick to it! I find it easiest to plan for my day the evening before, but if planning your entire week works better for you, then go for it!
- When making your schedule, it’s important to think about how long each task will realistically take you to finish. If you need to read a 400 page novel in the next week, estimate how long it takes you to read a page and multiply from there. It’s always best to overestimate (rather than underestimate) how long an assignment or task will take because unexpected free time is better than your work bleeding into the times designated for other tasks.
- I find it easiest to break my work into very manageable chunks, and furthermore, alternate between assignments. Rather than trying to read that 400 page novel in one day, I prefer to designate, say, two hours in the morning to working on an essay, two hours before lunch to reading that novel, then an hour after lunch to completing a weekly response for another class, and then the following hour to reading an essay, etc.
- Finally, one of the most important things is to make sure you schedule designated free time. I can’t stress this enough! Knowing that your day ends at 7pm (or 5pm, or 9pm—whatever works for you) not only makes your workday easier to get through, it makes you more productive during the day. Also, having guiltless free time after your work makes you more productive the next day! Also, 15 or 20 minutes breaks between hours-long chunks of work are great, too!