How not to Suck at Graduate School: Creating a Productivity Schedule

There are many ways for academics and graduate students to increase their efficiency and productivity. Because individual circumstances, both personally and professionally, change it is necessary to be able to adapt your methods to your current realities. Nearly every semester involves a new strategic plan to increase quality of work. Because no matter what the realities of life are, the goal is continuous improvement.

For me, this should be a high productivity academic year in terms of scholarly papers and ideas. I have a favorable teaching schedule, a research lab of motivated-to-produce graduate students, pent-up ideas that did not get written last year, invited papers and a book contract, and a solid base of data to use. I have also decided not to go after writing major grant proposals this year because these activities require a large amount of work with a low probability of success. The plan is to have a strong publication year now that will increase the probability of grant funding for next year. I also have a lot of motivation to keep up with my younger, smarter, an extremely productive peers; and move to a full professor status. Although this strategy may not work for everyone, even for me in previous terms, this is what I am using for a potentially high productivity year.

The first assumption is that a to-do list is simply fantasy unless time is allocated to complete each item. So at the least your to-do list must sync with your calendar (I use Priority Matrix, but there are many excellent to-do lists available). It also helps that I have enough experience to know how quickly I can work and therefore am a little bit stronger at estimating the time to complete a task than I once was. Here are the steps that I use:

  • Fill your schedule with nonnegotiable items. This includes your classroom teaching schedule, scheduled meetings, office hours, classroom planning, and other regular meetings that you cannot escape.
  • For every one-hour of meeting time, schedule at least 30 extra minutes to prepare for the meeting or to follow up. Meetings without preparation or follow-up are a complete waste of time.
  • Fill your schedule with items that are critical to your life. I know it sounds silly, but schedule time for lunch, time with friends, family time, exercise, sleep, shopping, time with significant other, rest and downtime, hobbies, volunteer work, etc. Your work is a marathon and not a sprint. Take care of yourself and your relationships. It is easy to become obsessed with work at the expense of living a decent life. Once these items are put into your schedule, they are also nonnegotiable.
  • Estimate at least two hours per day for flex time. These are for impromptu student meetings, hallway consultations, answering emails, bathroom breaks, taking deep breaths, office naps, and other work (e.g., reviewing manuscripts and reading).
  • I tend to keep a seven-day schedule. However, it is extremely rare for me to do more than four hours of work per day on the weekends. Many academics like to keep a five or six-day schedule.
  • I do not seem to have the mental stamina that I once did. So I cannot write for hours at a stretch anymore. Therefore, I use the Pomodoro system of 25 minutes of full work with five minutes of rest (this is when I usually send out Tweets of frustration @Shawpsych). Then Pomodoros are added to the calendar. I typically have 20 Pomodoro units (10 hours) scheduled per week.
  • From experience, I know that I write approximately 300 to 350 words per Pomodoro. That does not sound like much, but there is much variability. Sometimes I can write 2000 words in one Pomodoro and other times writing comes slowly or the session is spent editing and revising. Nonetheless, the goal for me is to have 6000 to 7000 words written per week. Sometimes Pomodoros are used for data collection, outlining, planning, or data analysis.
  • Now go to your projects. A project is any paper, chapter, book, grant proposal, report, or work that requires dedicated time to complete. I have a gross list of all projects that are on my agenda. There are usually 10-12 that are in my brain at any one time. Many of these are co-authored. I keep all of this information on a spreadsheet.
  • All projects with firm deadlines such as grant proposals, contracted work, invited papers or reports with deadlines, and the like are scheduled first. If possible, I like to give extra time on projects. For example, if a paper will be approximately 7000 words (or 28 APA-style pages) in length. I schedule one week to write a first draft, one week to revise and edit, and one week to let it rest or for unforeseen problems.
  • Well thought-out papers and papers with complete data take about 3 weeks to prepare for submission. Papers that are not fully baked can take forever. Spend Pomodoro time developing your ideas, completing analyses, and making detailed outlines so that writing will go smoothly. I have individual meetings with all of my students. Usually, this meeting time is where our projects are thought out and outlined.
  • Projects without firm deadlines are the hardest to complete and probably the most important for your career. See #getyourmanuscriptout for Twitter inspiration on this issue. Most often we work from deadline to deadline and those papers with no firm deadline can be put off for months or years. But typically this is your most creative work that sets the tone for who you are as a scholar. Place these papers into your calendar of Pomodoros. I typically place one project paper without a deadline into my schedule at a time. When that paper is submitted, then I move on to the next paper and schedule that.

All fields are different in relative demands for project completion. In general, 12 projects per year is a reasonable goal with this model of work. As we all know, some projects are massive and some are simple. I am a no-drama advocate. Consistency and scheduling time for high quality work is preferred to a lot of down time followed by high intensity panicky writing.

A critical factor to remember is that Pomodoros are not free time. When someone asks you if you have time available, consider a Pomodoro to be a meeting with yourself that cannot be cancelled. In a pinch, you may be able to move a Pomodoro to a different time, but do this rarely and never cancel.

This also helps you to understand which requests you can say yes to. If there is no time available to complete a task, then the answer is no. It is always easier to say no, if there is a larger yes on your schedule.

The hardest part of this schedule for many is the insta-author aspect of this form of schedule. If I have a random 30-minute period between meetings, then I can instantly get into focus and write for 25 minutes—and then move to the next meeting. I have always been able to do this. Many folks need to get in the mood and do not bother to work unless they can string together 2 or 3 consecutive hours. That’s okay—I just like to pick up the scheduling crumbs of the day and make them useful.

Sometimes, I do extra. We all know that there will be interruptions, disruptions, emergencies, lack of motivation, anxiety, depression, and other things that will interfere with the productivity schedule. It is going to happen. The calendar and productivity schedule is aspirational. If I am writing and on a roll, then I will keep going beyond the scheduled Pomodoro, if possible. I consider extra writing to be productivity insurance for the inevitable disruption of regularly scheduled writing tasks.

I have made the case many times that the best strategic plan is to have a plan. There are so many techniques and strategies available that the above described idea is probably not the best for most readers. Pick and choose the parts that work for you. Or develop a completely different plan. Have a plan. I know that many people fly by the seat of their pants, work all night, sleep for days, every project is completed one minute before the deadline, and move organically (or haphazardly) from project to project—and many of these people are successful. But these folks are often hard to collaborate with, have challenges in their personal lives, do not sleep well, experience burnout, and have a host of other difficulties. Have a plan. Your sustainable productivity and overall quality of life will improve.

SRShaw

 

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One thought on “How not to Suck at Graduate School: Creating a Productivity Schedule

  1. Very timely blog post for me. I’m a late stage PhD student also at McGill!) who just published my first paper (one of those with no firm deadline 😉

    It was an extremely rewarding experience, but writing, editing, getting new data, then rewriting took 8 months in all. We went through a new revision every month.

    So I was especially inspired by the part of the blog post where you said a well thought out paper should be done in 3 weeks. That’s what I aspire for with the next paper. And I need to do a lot of thinking and planning to get there.

    Thanks for another thoughtful post!

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