This guest post in the Student Experience series features helpful tips and compassionate perspective from Simmons College SLIS graduate student, Michelle Janowiecki–a perfect follow up to this recent post about stress management by our blog editor.
Don’t type the words “life in grad school” into Google. The results are terrifying: articles upon articles that focus on a future of extreme sleep-deprivation, poverty, stress, and never-ending work.
After a semester of library science and history graduate school, there is some truth in this harrowing stereotype. Graduate students overwhelmingly have busy lives. We go to class, squeeze in work and internships, and hurry over to club meetings, conferences, and professional development workshops. We face late nights of work and early morning commutes. Despite this, graduate school is also more manageable and less scary than I expected. I’ve discovered that finishing deadlines and answering my commitments is a delicate but achievable balancing act. But in order to survive my first semester happy and whole, I’ve had to learn many lessons about managing my time and making time for myself. I offer them up here to all the people avoiding homework by reading this blog. (Don’t worry, it’s career development, right?)
Make time to be a person.
I used to think that I needed to fill every waking moment of my time with meaningful and productive activities once I entered graduate school. I would work effectively and constantly, and spend any remaining free time to reading academic journals, LIS blogs, or revising my CV. While I never came even remotely close to achieving this utopian efficiency, I realized an important lesson very quickly: I am not an academic robot. Being a person (not a robot)—enjoying hobbies, ridiculous conversations with roommates, watching a favorite show, rereading a favorite book, or going on spontaneous run—makes me happy and sane. And I need to be happy and sane to finish my readings, my essays, my work, and attend to everything else happening in my life. So when I find myself staring blankly at a computer screen after a long day, I’ve learned it’s better to take a break than to struggle onwards. When I return to my computer after some reading or television, I’m reenergized and motivated to finish my work.
So take the break. Don’t let it become a marathon viewing of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which, of course, I’ve never done), but make sure you take time in your life for the activities and the people that make you happy. It actually makes you more productive.
Turn off distractions.
Occasionally, I sit down to write a response paper or an essay and something remarkable happens. I start watching YouTube clips about corgis or binge reading mock articles about western art. At this point, I don’t need a break. I’ve only been working for twenty minutes or for an hour. Yet, I still click on the next video of corgi puppies and suddenly this unplanned excursion can quickly spiral into an hour or more of distraction mayhem. Luckily, I have found several solutions to save such distractions for another time. I turn off my internet. Or if the assignment requires internet access, I’ve also used internet time management applications on my browser to block me from distracting websites until the work is finished. I’d recommend LeechBlock for Firefox and StayFocusd for Google Chrome. If I don’t need my computer at all, I unplug entirely. While cutting myself off from the joys of the Internet is painful, it helps me focus when I seriously need to get work done.
At some point in undergraduate school, I discovered the list system. After too many nights trying to fall asleep, thinking, “Is that reading assignment due tomorrow? Do I have that meeting? I should wash my clothes,” I finally grabbed a pen and pad of paper, and wrote out each task for the day ahead and immediately fell asleep. Since that night, I’ve found writing to-do-lists motivates and focuses me. There is a special satisfaction in crossing out each assignment, chore, and plan. It makes goals achievable and motivates me to do more each day. I also write down tasks like “dinner” and “take shower,” so even at my most unproductive, I know I still achieved something that day. Also, I’ve heard rumors that planners are useful.
Start assignments as early as possible.
You know that moment at two o’clock in the morning when you are eating chocolate covered espresso beans, slightly crying from the florescent light, trying to finish your assignment? Promise yourself: I will avoid this at all costs. I try to always start large projects early in the semester, knowing that the weeks are going to whiz by very quickly and that all of a sudden, everything will be due. Establishing a weekly schedule to work on assignments and keeping to that schedule can really mitigate potential all-nighter disasters. Let’s leave the all-nighters to the unwary undergrads.
That’s it. While I wish I had more advice, or a special insider secret, there is no magic way to achieve perfect productivity. Everyone has their own methods to cope and their own challenges to face. I hope, however, this post gave you some useful ideas or inspired you to revamp your own productivity measures. Also, I hope you have a happy, healthy, and successful semester!
Michelle Janowiecki is pursuing her MLS and dual MA in History at Simmons College and has an interest in late nineteenth century American history.