Productivity Killers: 5 Self-Sabotaging Behaviors of Graduate Students

Burned out light bulb symbolizing self-sabotaging behaviors that hurt student productivity.
Avoid causing your own burnout.

As a graduate student, you are responsible for managing your own productivity. You can be responsible for everything from conducting literature reviews, passing statistics classes, conducting research, to grading undergraduate exams. All these activities add up and it’s not uncommon for graduate students to fall behind, feel overwhelmed, and want to give up.

Worse, it’s not like a class in productivity and time management was a required credit. If you are really lucky, maybe your advisor can give you tips to handle the new workload, but often it’s up to you to figure out a system for productivity that works for you.

It’s going to take some experimenting but you will find your stride if you give yourself permission to try new approaches. But, let me give you a little guidance to help you speed up the process. Productivity is as much about what you don’t do as it is about what you do, so here are 5 things that graduate students often do that sabotage their productivity.

5 Productivity Killers

Man holds knife. He's a productivity killer.

1. Working Against Your Internal Clock.

There’s a great myth about morning people out there with a nearly cult-like following, that graduate students who get up early are more successful and productive. Lots of people buy into this myth and think the solution to their productivity is to force themselves to get up earlier. However, it is just a myth based on the structure of the corporate world. Who is the business world built for? Morning people. And who succeeds in this environment? Morning people, of course. Publish this in the Journal of Duh.

However, there are over 300 individual genes that go into determining when you are most energetic and when you are the sleepiest. The best way to be productive is to observe and then work with your internal clock. The best way to sabotage your productivity is to force yourself to work against it.

2. Setting unrealistic to-do lists.

Who is up for a daily dose of demotivation? What was that? You’ll pass? Ahh ok. Then why have you created a to-do list so long that you would need a 40-hour workday to get it done?

One of the most common mistakes students make is planning by wishful thinking instead of considering how much time the activities will actually take. This is a dangerous approach because we all want to get more done than is realistic. Being humans, we really want all the work done RIGHT NOW, and if that’s not possible, at least by later today. Consistently setting unreasonable goals leads to a pattern of disappointment, frustration, and demotivation. It’s a lot easier to keep motivation than it is to regain motivation, so don’t risk losing it by setting unrealistic to-do lists.

3. Waiting for the right time to get started.

There is never a perfect time but now is always the right time to get started. Whether it’s taking two minutes to create a word document for your next paper, ten minutes to identify your keywords for a literature search, or 15 minutes to plan an analysis, there is no better time than the present.

Despite this, many people think they need a chunk of time to get started on any assignment. Let’s call this false belief what it is… procrastination. If you get started, then you might have to keep going, and sometimes that’s scary, but one way or another the task is going to have to get done. You don’t gain anything by lying to yourself about what you need to get started.

Our brains don’t like to be uncomfortable, we try to avoid it as much as possible, but avoidance just leads to more problems later, when everything you’ve been putting off comes due. So, face the discomfort and get started. That first step is always the hardest, so take the step and make use of the time you have, because those wasted 10 and 15-minute windows add up to a lot over the course of a semester.

4. Trying to do large activities in one step.

What’s easier to climb? A ladder with a bunch of steps or a ladder with only a few? It’s the same with activities. Breaking activities into their smallest workable components makes them less intimidating, more motivating (as you rapidly strike them from your to-do list), and easier to fit into those 10 to 15-minute blocks we just talked about. Nearly every activity can be broken into smaller, more manageable pieces. Have a book to read? Break it into chapters. Are chapters too long? Break it into pages. Got a methods section to write? Break it into sub-sections, like data sources, procedures, measures, and analysis. Have a literature review to do, break it into steps: identify inclusion keywords, identify exclusion criteria, run a search, download citations into a reference manager, sort the first 20 citations, sort the next 20 citations, obtain articles, etc. Just about every activity can be broken down into tasks that will take less than a couple of hours and most will take even less.

5. Waiting to ask for help.

Or worse, not asking for help at all. If you are struggling in a class, it’s time to ask the professor for tips on how to better study, get an additional explanation, or ask if there are other useful materials to learn from. Are you struggling to get code to work for your research assistantship? Don’t wait until the next lab meeting to say you weren’t able to complete the task, be proactive and get the help you need as soon as possible.

You are a student; you aren’t expected to know it all and you aren’t expected to learn it all on your own. Professors won’t think less of you for needing help, but they will think less of you for not being proactive when you need it and have your work suffer because of it.

Productivity in Graduate School is Hard Enough

Don’t make it harder. Take a long hard look at your approach and think of ways to do things differently. It’s O.K. to experiment with what does and doesn’t work for you, the trick is to keep going until you find the right approach and try to avoid the things that don’t work for anyone. Want more tips for graduate student productivity? Check out Being Productive: 5 more ways to avoid killing productivity.

Wishing You the Best in Your Academic Success,
Dr. Cristie Glasheen, Your Graduate Student Success Coach

All for Free!