Hurry Up and Read This!

Many of us look back on our week and feel astonished that we made it out in one piece.  Client work, case management, consultation, assessment, report writing, faculty meetings, student group meetings.  Oh, and also class.  And life, I suppose.

As grad students, we are in a bit of a bind.  Although we need to practice good self-care and make time for rest, we recognize the importance of this period of development.  We have infinite opportunities to learn more, do more, and truly maximize our training.

In the spirit of finding and maintaining a healthy work-life balance, I recommend leaning into some time management and organization techniques.  The key is to make your schedule as efficient as possible by prioritizing, streamlining, and eliminating certain activities.  But first, you need to take a good look at your schedule.

1. Map from Micro to Macro

The first step is pretty straightforward.  Many of us keep calendars that say “Paper due today” or “Meeting at 3pm,” but usually we do not include the minor, or micro, details.  This leads us to macro-level mistakes, as the small things tend to pile up.  Grab a calendar and some paper, and let’s do this thing.

Begin by looking at the Daily Level.  Starting with the time you wake up, take your paper and record everything you usually do. Be as detailed as you feel might be helpful.  An example of the breakdown might look like this:

  • 6:00am – Wake up, stumble out of bed, caffeinate
  • 6:15am – Make breakfast
  • 6:30am – Eat breakfast
  • 6:45am – Shower time
  • 7:00am – Get dressed and ready to go
  • 7:20am – Out the door, begin commute
  • 8:00am – Practicum / Class until 3:00pm
  • 3:00pm – Meeting with faculty member until 3:30pm
  • 3:30pm – Head to the gym because you are awesome
  • 3:45pm – Work out until 5:00pm
  • 5:00pm – Drive home
  • 5:40pm – Do homework, report writing, etc.
  • 7:30pm – Relax and recover for tomorrow
  • 9:45pm – In bed, asleep by 10:00pm

Next, look at the Weekly Level.  Basically, look closely at how your schedule changes from day to day.  For example, you might have the same events on Mondays and Tuesdays, but you need to be ready to get up an hour earlier on Wednesdays to make it to your meetings that day.

Finally, look at the Monthly Level. This is where you need to look at important deadlines, inconsistent meetings, and days off.  These will come in handy later. Also, take a minute to schedule a day each month where you will sit down and plan the month ahead.

Have you noticed anything as you went through your schedule?  Anything that seems to take up unnecessary space or energy?

2. Prune Away the Pointless

My mom loves gardening.  As a kid, I hated working in the garden.  The bugs would bite, the dirt would get jammed under my fingernails, and the summertime sun in southern Idaho was brutal.

Although I hated it, I learned a few very important things about growing plants.  Roses and trees, for example, require pruning at the beginning of the season to keep the rest of the plant efficient and strong.

Step two means you need critically analyze (1) which activities are useful and healthy, and (2) which activities are slowing your growth.

Obviously your coursework, training, and meetings are essential.  You have worked too hard to cheat yourself out of a solid education, so you want to preserve the things that keep your plant growing.

How do you know whether to prune or preserve?

A good rule of thumb is to eliminate activities that feel like meaningless time burners, thus allowing you to really lean into the things that matter and are life-giving.

Here are a few examples of things that you should probably prune from your schedule:

  • Spending too much time in the grocery store
  • Checking Facebook and Twitter more than once per day
  • Planning events that are more than 6 months out (unless it’s a wedding or dissertation)

Here are a few examples of things that you should not prune from your schedule:

  • Class
  • Sleep
  • Time with family and friends

3. Strategic Schedule Sorting

Now that you have pruned away the pointless activities in your weeks, days, and months, you are ready to reorganize your agenda.

If you are not sure how to sort your schedule, use one of the examples below as a starting point.

Do you want to…

  • Free up your weekend?
    You may need to sacrifice a few weeknights by doing coursework, report writing, etc. rather than taking time to recharge.
  • Free up your weekday evenings?
    You may need to schedule a block of time on the weekend to complete all of your coursework.
  • Get in 8 hours of sleep each night?
    You may need to go back to Step 2 and prune away some things.

Potentially, all of those goals can be achieved with good time management and organization.

One way to do this would be to choose three days of your week that you want to maximize productivity.  Try to pack as much of your schedule into those, thus freeing up the other 4 days.  I like to call these “heavy hitter” days, which is “gym bro” language for a high intensity workout.

For example, you might want to designate these “heavy hitter” days as the days where you are in class, being that your brain should be already be primed for course-related projects.

On the other hand, perhaps you want to choose days that you are at practicum or work as the “heavy hitters”, which then allows you to give more energy and focus to the days that you are in class.

4. The Relaxation Ratio

Did you schedule time to relax and recharge?

As a track coach, I became really good at noticing when my athletes were beginning to deteriorate physically.  The wear and tear of workouts, practice, and sleep deprivation would often build up as finals week drew near.  Stress also played an important role, as student-athletes must usually sacrifice time resting, time with friends, or time studying in order to stay competitive.

Rather than push my athletes to work harder in practice, I assign “rest homework.”  For example: Go home, take a nap, play video games with friends, or go for an easy walk.

Grad students face a unique form of stress by virtue of this period of professional development.  Although many of us recognize the importance of self-care and the life-work balance, often we choose to set those things aside in the name of productivity.

Instead of hanging with friends on a Friday evening, we choose to hammer out that report that is due next week, browse through internship sites, or hack away at the dissertation.

We do this because we are successful, driven people who recognize the importance and reward of discipline.  

Rather than altering your drive, let’s channel that into scheduling some purposeful relaxation and rest.

A good rule of thumb is to schedule 1 hour of down time (not including sleep) for every 4 hours of work.  

This ratio provides a good balance which will allow you to maintain productivity.  If you choose to move all your relaxation and play to the end of the week, and assuming you work roughly 8 hours per day, that adds up to 10 hours of required rest.

Grad students regularly put in more than 8 hours per day of work, so make sure to hold yourself accountable in resting enough according to how much you are working.

Extra Credit: Helpful Hacks

Here are a few easy tips for improving your organizational and time management skills:

  1. Log your hours with Time2Track.  I love that Time2Track lets me operationalize my work load.  This is also a great way to help you with Step 1.
  2. Wear a watch.  Increasing your awareness of time will help you be more attuned to the things that may need pruning.
  3. Use a reminder app.  Set reminders for yourself on your phone or computer, that way you don’t have to play catch up later.
  4. Partner up.  Find a classmate or colleague who might also benefit from better time management and organization, and work on this together.
  5. Practice good sleep hygiene.  Making your sleep more efficient will benefit everything else.


Do you have other organizational tips, tricks, or techniques?  Share them with the Time2Track community in the comments below!