Time Management Strategies for Graduate Students

Time Management Strategies, Tips, and Tricks

Colored clocks and stopwatches symbolizing time management strategies.
Time management strategies no one taught you.

Many graduate students come to me because they are experiencing problems with productivity and want to learn some time management strategies. This isn’t a surprise, because time management isn’t something most graduate programs offer classes on. Despite the importance of time management in succeeding in graduate school and in your career, you’re mostly expected to figure them out on your own.

If you are lucky, your advisor might be able to give you a few time management tips but just as often they will look at you blankly, shrug their shoulders, and say something like “learn to prioritize” or “get up earlier.” Neither of which is helpful (especially if you are not a morning person).

Time Management Principles

The crux of the issue is that there is no one time management system that works for everyone because we are all different. Most students who are good at time management have figured out what works for them through trial and error. They may have tools they use and habits they’ve implemented, but they can’t necessarily explain why that approach works for them. Worse, a lot of people looking for better time management strategies will try and fail at using these same time management tools and think the problem is with themselves, not the tools. After all, the tool works for their friend, so why doesn’t it work for them?

If this sounds like you, let me assure you, there is nothing wrong with you! The tool isn’t working for you, because it’s not the right tool for YOU and you need to experiment more to find the tool that does.

That being said, there are some underlying time management strategies that tend to be true for almost everyone. If you can better understand these strategies and principles, then you can figure out which time management tips are most likely to work for you and ignore the rest.

Time Management Strategies

Tip 1 – Energy.

We don’t really manage time; everyone gets the same 24 hours in a day. What we manage are our energy and attention. You have an underlying energy pattern throughout the day, across the week, and over the course of a project. Sometimes it’s hard to see this pattern because of random fluctuations (poor sleep, stressful life events, etc.) but it’s there.

Think about when you typically have the most and least energy throughout the day. You can even track it if you are having a hard time identifying your pattern. Take a spreadsheet, piece of paper, or daily planner and mark down the hours you are typically awake. For the next two weeks, chart how alert you feel throughout the day each day. I bet you’ll start to see a daily and weekly cycle. Once you know this pattern, you can use it to schedule your time better. Try to do the most mentally demanding tasks during your most alert times and save the lower energy tasks for the low energy times.

Tip 2 – Planning.

Planning is not a luxury. Graduate students often hire me because they are feeling overwhelmed and out of control of their studies. One of the first things we do is sit down and plan out their week. We list all the projects/classes/papers they are working on and set action items for each day. The very act of working through the tasks and getting clear on what needs to be done leaves them feeling more in control. Trying to carry all of the details of things that need to be done in your head is overwhelming. Getting that down on paper helps you see your commitments, identify problem spots, and create a plan to move forward.

Sit down once a week and plan your activities. For most people, the best time to plan is as they are wrapping up their activities from the week before when everything is fresh in their minds and the next steps are apparent. The exception to this is if you are exhausted. Don’t try to plan when you are overtired, get some rest, and then come back to it.

Tip 3 – Ambition.

Humans are greedy creatures. Graduate students are greedy for productivity. If you write 10 pages of your thesis in a day, you’ll secretly wish you had written 11. This leads to an ugly cycle of over-ambitious planning, failure to meet your goals, feeling bad about not meeting your goals, and then trying to make up the missed goals on top of the next over-ambitiously planned week. This is a path to anxiety, depression, and burnout. Don’t travel it.

When you plan your activities, plan for 8 hours of academic work a day (less if you are working and going to school) and make realistic estimates for how long things will ACTUALLY take – not how much time you WANT them to take. If you aren’t good at estimating how long things take (and most people aren’t), always err on the high side. If you think it will take you two hours to do the homework, plan for it to take three. If it only takes two hours then you can move into the next task or be done earlier, but you won’t have fallen behind. Then, start tracking how long things actually take you. The only way to get better time estimates is to start paying attention to them.

Tip 4 – Rest.

Mental activity is exhausting. The brain is the most energy-intensive organ in the body and because learning, by definition, is a novel experience, there is no way to make it less energy-intensive. And yet, it’s not uncommon for graduate students to think they should be working on their schoolwork every day and feel guilty when they aren’t.

The problem is one of diminishing returns. You can force yourself to work when fatigued but every task starts to take longer. You eventually reach a point where you would have gotten more done had you stopped to rest. Plus, fatigue wreaks havoc with emotional control. As you become more tired, tasks seem harder, attention gets worse, and things start to feel overwhelming.

Getting out of this trap starts with you realizing when you are getting mentally fatigued. The second step is to stop and rest. Come back at it with a clearer head. Then build in a plan to reduce the chances of it happening again. Plan for one day off a week (two if you can swing it), guilt-free. It’s vital for physical and mental health, plus play and rest improve creativity and problem solving, making you a better graduate student. Also, remember that energy pattern we talked about? Most people find they get tired sometime around midweek. If you can, plan for a shorter workday around then. It won’t always be possible to manage a lighter day, but whenever you can, you should try.

Tip 5 – Leaks.

“Beware of little expenses. A small leak will sink a big ship.” -Benjamin Franklin.

Energy and attention are often lost in small increments. Checking email, reading the news, a stroll down social media lane. Many students look up at the clock and wonder where their day went. If you are not underestimating how long tasks take and are still wondering what happened to your productive hours, then chances are you are losing time to leaks.

It’s easy to do. None of these activities on their own seems like a lot of lost time but added up over the course of a day or a week and you are losing hours of peak productive time. Just spending 15 minutes on social media and another 20 minutes reading the news during your best hours each day means losing 4 hours of peak productive time a week! That’s time enough to complete a homework assignment, read several journal articles or book chapters, or even write a good part of your thesis or dissertation.

Chances are, if you are struggling with time management, you’re spending more than 15 minutes wasting energy and attention. A study1 of worker productivity suggests over two hours of lost work time a day just on social media!

I’m not suggesting that you close your accounts and never check the news. It’s important to remain informed, but it’s like your parents should have told you… no play until work is done. Take control of your own time management. Set up realistic goals for the day and save the time-sucks until after you are done. If you are having trouble doing that, check out my article on 5 Ways to Boost Productivity for tools that can help.

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

All for Free!