Grad school can be overwhelming. From writing up research papers to being a graduate assistant and following up on classes, there are quite a lot of things on one’s plate. Your to-do list can quickly become overwhelming. When I was in grad school, productivity was always an uphill battle.
There were times when I had to take up some particular habits that would help me reach my goals faster and reduce slacking. With so much to do, it’s important to find ways to increase your productivity and make the most of your time.
In this post, I go through 11 ways in which you can increase your productivity as a graduate student.
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1. Prioritize Your Tasks
The first step in increasing your productivity as a grad student is to put priority on your tasks. There were so many times I was hitting at an empty wall trying to accomplish multiple items in one go. But identifying the most important tasks can help one tunnel into the right direction.
To do so, make a list of items that need to be completed each day and focus on those first. This will help you stay on track and ensure that you are making progress towards the items that need to be completed first. Determining which tasks are urgent and which ones can wait will help you finish items faster.
Creating a to-do list and dividing it into categories based on the priority and importance of each task can help with organization of tasks. One trick, is to use the Eisenhower Matrix, which divides tasks into four categories: urgent and important, important but not urgent, urgent but not important, and neither urgent nor important. This will help you focus on the tasks that are most important and require immediate attention. Just make sure to break up each item into multiple steps.
2. Use a Task Management System
Using a task management system to keep track of your tasks can prove to be very handy. This does not have to be an elaborate or one of the many expensive apps available. It could be a simple to-do list and a free calendar like google calendar. I personally like to use TeuxDeux with google calendar so that I can keep track of the most important items of the day.
For going digitally, I prefer TeuxDeux because of its simplicity. The tool uses simple html language and transfers the items not completed onto the list into the next day. You can also create different lists with it. However, it is a paid app. But long before TeuxDeux I used notes. If sticking digitally, the trick is to use apps that sync across devices so its easily accessible. Find a system that works for you and use it consistently to keep yourself organized and on track.
However, as much as I love digital task keeping. I can’t seem to let go of the physical touch of a planner. Just as the digital system, I use my planner as a to-do checklist with additional notes and keep track of everything using Google calendar. It is simply the best of both works. Having used Erin Condren for a while, I love their planners and notebooks alike. They are well organized and simple to use. They also have a warehouse sale going on!
A task management system is a helpful too to avoid procrastination (trust me, it happens a loott!) and stay focused on your goals.
3. Break Tasks into Smaller Parts
So let’s elaborate on the point made in the first bullet. Most times, large tasks can feel overwhelming. Many a times I have got stuck in a cycle of procrastination when the task is too large. When the To-Do list says ‘write a blog post’, trust me. It’s been a year since it has been rolling over. So right before writing this post, I broke it down into.
– Write 11 subtitles for the blog post
– Create Pinterest images for the post
– Create social media images for the post
– Write descriptions for 2 subtitles for today
and so on. And voila! You have this post handed to you.
Just like I explained before, breaking tasks into smaller pieces involves dividing large projects into smaller, more manageable tasks (like the previous list). This applies the same way for technical projects, be it school, internship, work, or grad school.
4. Setting Realistic Deadlines
I have many a times been stuck in the trap of thinking I have 30 hours in a day rather than 24hours. Out of which I do need some hours to sleep and eat (as a base minimum). So there have been times when I have said, I will start writing a code in the morning and do this, this and this in the evening. Only for it to not pan out and take numerous days to finish and feel frustrated.
One goal that I have set for now is to set realistic deadlines for myself. When setting deadlines for your tasks, firstly divide the tasks into smaller bits (like discussed). This will help you realize that you need more time than required for the tasks and thus set realistic deadlines.
So the main steps to setting realistic deadlines involves:
– Breaking up tasks into smaller parts
– Assessing the time required to complete each task
– Setting a deadline that is both achievable and challenging
This will help you avoid procrastination and stay motivated to complete the task. Also remember, if you cannot do it. Don’t fret. It is important to be flexible with deadlines and adjust them as necessary to accommodate unexpected challenges or changes in your schedule.
5. Having a Dedicated Workspace
One of the rules that I have made for myself is not to eat/do leisure activities and work at the same place. This helps your mind perceive that when you sit down to work on your desk, it is solely for work and nothing else.
Having a dedicated workspace can do wonders. And yes, it doesn’t have to be another room or anything big. Just a corner of your room, however you may want it to be can be used. Just make sure that its away from distractions, especially a TV!
6. Minimize Distractions
Speaking of distractions, it’s important to minimize them as much as possible. So number one, something I struggle with myself is – Turn off your phone! Any notification that comes in from your phone may it be social media or one of the useless emails that comes about can be distracting. The ‘ping’ of the notification can instantaneously take you to another place mentally and will prove the previous bullet point to be moot.
One of the items that most phones have started now is the DND or the Do not disturb buttons. These sections can also be customized with your preferences such that if there is an emergency you can be contacted. Using these valuable resources can help minimize distractions thus helping you stay focused and productive, and ensure that you’re making the most of your time.
If you’re working in a shared space or at home with others, consider using noise-canceling headphones or a white noise machine to block out distractions.
7. Take a Break
I cannot tell you how underestimated having breaks are. Whether be a vacation or small breaks between tasks, taking breaks is an important part of staying productive. Between tasks, taking short breaks can help you recharge and avoid burnout, and make it easier to focus on the task at hand when you return to work. During the break, you could take a short walk, do some stretching, or just take a few deep breaths. Just make sure to not do any tasks that steers you away from your goal.
Same as having shorter breaks, longer breaks or vacations are similarly, if not more important. It is important to take a break from work and come back fresh and rejuvenated. It’s important to use this time to disconnect from work and do something that you enjoy. This can reduce chances of burnout and the feeling of being demotivated.
8. Use the Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique is quite popular amongst the student community. It is a time management method that involves breaking work into 25-minute intervals, with a five-minute break in between. After four Pomodoros, the suggestion is to take a longer break of 15-30 minutes. This technique has shown to be effective in staying focused and avoiding burnout. But these time slots might not work for all.
As a grad student, working in an interval of 25 minutes is not always the easiest. Many a times, when writing a code or post-processing data there were times when I couldn’t get up at 25 minutes. Adjusting these timelines for such moments and using the Pomodoro technique in a modified manner can still prove to be helpful.
9. Stay Active
Staying active can have profound impacts in improving productivity. A study conducted by The Boise State University on link between physical health and productivity showed that employees with better physical health felt more productive at work .
Apart from staying productive, regular exercise can help reduce stress, improve cognitive function, and increase energy levels. It does not even have to be a full series of intense workouts (although it doesn’t hurt). It has been shown that even 30 minutes of a brisk walk can elevate afternoon slump.
So all in all, staying active involves finding ways to incorporate physical activity into your daily routine, even if it’s just for a few minutes at a time.
10. Stay Organized, especially Digitally
Staying organized is key to staying productive as a grad student. Keep your workspace clean and clutter-free, and make sure all of your notes and materials are well-organized and easy to access. Throughout my grad school, I used my iPad to take all notes as well as any activity being conducted in the lab. This helped me keep all my items in one place if needed. Apps like Notability have been a life saver for me.
However, with more and more space being available on the digital front end, it has become quite difficult to keep it organized. Although this would require a separate article of its own, here are some quick tips to achieve it:
– Make sure there are no more than 2 nested folders
– The search feature is the best part about online notes. Make use of it!
– Make sure there is an archive folder in all your folders, this helps ‘archive’ old items.
– Make sure to clean your emails regularly. Keep a gathering point
If you want to know more about this, let me know in the comments and I will make a whole article for you!
Staying organized involves also creating systems and processes that help you stay on top of your tasks and keep track of deadlines. This can be digital or physical, whatever you prefer.
11. Seek Support
Finally, don’t be afraid to seek support when you need it. Sometimes, you might not even realize it, but a support system or an accountability parter is what you might require. This could be in the form of a mentor, a tutor, or a support group for grad students. During my masters, having my professors as my support system in times where I didn’t know what the next step to do was essential. They have already gone through this, so they will definitely be able to help in managing the demands of grad school.
A part of seeking support also involves recognizing when you need help and being willing to reach out to others for support. So a weekly or a bi-weekly reflection on the same is crucial to a well balanced cycle of remaining productive!
Increasing productivity as a grad student requires a combination of strategies, including prioritizing tasks, using a task management system, breaking tasks into smaller pieces, setting realistic deadlines, creating a dedicated workspace.
I hope you enjoyed the article! If it helped you don’t forget to share it with your friends and co-grad students as well! Let me know what is your main method of improving productivity!
 Wattles, M. G., & Harris, C. (2003). THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN FITNESS LEVELS AND EMPLOYEE’S PERCEIVED PRODUCTIVITY, JOB SATISFACTION, AND ABSENTEEISM. Journal of Exercise Physiology Online, 6(1).