What to Do When You Are Overwhelmed with Work: How Not to Suck in Grad School

Ambitious graduate students and academics inevitably run into a big problem, being overwhelmed with the volume and complexity of work. This happens to nearly everybody. Becoming overwhelmed will happen, even if you are the most disciplined, organized, meticulous, strategic, and well prioritized scholar. Efficiency is a useful characteristic, but it does not make one immune from being overwhelmed. The ability to say no frequently is another useful characteristic, yet becoming overwhelmed is still inevitable. It happens to everybody. The question is, what do we do when the sheer volume of work surrounds and suffocates.

Most academics are wise enough to adhere to the Linus Pauling adage, “the best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.” That is, important and productive researchers have multiple projects ongoing at all times. There are additional papers and projects that are somewhere in the publication pipeline and require energy and time. All researchers working at universities also have time requirements for teaching, administration, university governance, and other supervisory or training with students. In addition, there are professional responsibilities such as journal editorship, engagement with professional organizations, reviewing papers, and evaluating grant proposals. The projects resemble a Jenga tower of precariously stacked projects that grow taller and taller. At some point the tower becomes too tall and collapses due to its inherent instability or the presentation of some external event (e.g., illness, a surprise or last-minute project, personal problems). The careful balance of multiple ideas and projects then becomes an incoherent mess of pieces that have buried you in a massive disorganized and chaotic jumble. The purpose served by balancing multiple projects and ideas is lost when the tower collapses.

Once your fragile tower of ideas collapses around you, it is time to rebuild. Even the most organized and disciplined scholar finds themselves in a cycle of building careful to-do lists and series of projects, which is followed by a collapse. Symptoms of the collapse include missed deadlines, the feeling of being spread so thin that nothing is done with high quality, there is no time to reflect and think about scholarly products and process, your day has become entirely about work, relationships and health again to suffer, and feelings of hopelessness and high anxiety are the norm. Rebuilding your tower mindlessly will result in repeating the process of building and collapse until there is burnout and intense frustration.

Step Back

The first instinct for most professionals when they become overwhelmed (after panic, tears, and hyperventilation) is to grab the first task available and begin working on it. Working extra hours, reducing sleep, sacrificing friends and family, and giving up exercise are frequent consequences of immediately beginning to work on a task. There are two major problems with this hard-working approach: one is that as you are working on a task, new tasks are accumulating and re-filling the bucket; and two is that there is an increased feeling of hopelessness as you work harder and harder while falling further and further behind.

The better first move (after panic, tears, and hyperventilation) is to step back and take stock of the situation. A mindful and well-organized plan of attack for reorganizing the to-do list and establishing a realistic timeframe for each task is required. Also consider what were the planning errors or events that created the circumstances for the overwhelming breakdown to have occurred in the first place. These are to be addressed if at all possible. Even when it comes to the overwhelming collapse of the to-do list, a thoughtful and mindful approach is more effective than haphazard busyness. Failing to plan is planning to fail.

Long Term Planning

Because there is so much to do, most conscientious scientist will begin working on tasks as quickly and efficiently as possible. This is a mistake. This is the ideal moment for long-term planning. Assess exactly what your one-year and five-year personal and professional goals are. Then review all of the pieces of the to-do list in order to determine if all tasks are consistent with professional goals. Items on the to-do list that are not consistent with professional goals need to be eliminated or given low priority.

The purpose of the long-term planning exercise just at the moment that things are most overwhelming is to ensure that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Simply working harder and longer without a goal or purpose can be discouraging, frustrating, and eventually self-defeating. By occasionally reconsidering whether the to-do list matches with long-term goals helps to avoid the cycle of massive to-do lists followed by inability to meet deadlines. The best time to audit your to-do list is when things become the most chaotic and you feel most overwhelmed.


As you survey the rubble of high priority tasks and try to figure out how to reestablish an orderly method of completing your work, you will need to prioritize tasks. The two primary methods of prioritizing tasks are by urgency and by importance. Urgent tasks tend to have rapidly approaching timelines or an expectation of rapid turnaround (e.g., emails, grading). The tendency is to immediately work on urgent tasks first. Timelines are to be respected, but tasks deemed to be most important in your long-term planning exercise must also receive immediate attention. In the most efficient approaches to addressing to-do lists there is always a tension between important task and urgent tasks. No matter how busy, it is always a good investment of time to allocate 20% of your energies towards tasks that are considered important, but not urgent.

Considering your priorities and long-term planning are also essential when it comes to considering which new tasks that you should say yes to and which opportunities need to be politely declined. Declining, then missing out on new opportunities is a common victim of the overwhelmed scholar. There is nothing wrong with taking on new tasks even when overwhelmed, but make sure that these task are consistent with your highest priorities and your long-term planning.


The overwhelming collapse of the to-do list is something like a financial bankruptcy. In order to get out from under the avalanche of impossible-to-complete tasks some sacrifices may need to be made. Tasks with hard deadlines (e.g., grant proposals and conference deadlines), may need to be sacrificed if they are not of highest importance. Semi-firm deadlines such as manuscript reviews, agreed-upon delivery of work with co-authors, grading, and other tasks can often be renegotiated to a later time. The major mistake is to hide from overdue work. Stand up and address each person you owe work to and negotiate a new deadline. Clearly, this is not an activity that you want to do often and it is not fun at all. Negotiating a new deadline date with a research partner, student, or journal editor is far more professional than being late with no warning. In addition, tasks that do not have a formal deadline are often ignored. These tasks, such as submission of journal manuscripts, can be extraordinarily important. Ignoring this writing because your to-do list is too full will result in minimizing your research productivity and will affect the trajectory of your research program.

What Not to Do

There is nothing wrong with increasing work rate. However, all nighters, skipping meals, avoiding exercise, and working with high levels of anxiety are recipes for burnout. Effective self-care is impossible when extra work replaces normal life and this becomes a permanent state of being. There is nothing wrong with high intensity long and hard work. There is a problem when work is no longer productive for achieving goals and work is a never-ending hamster wheel of busyness.

A Couple of Pointers

Even after stepping back, creating long-term plans, prioritizing, renegotiating, and avoiding maladaptive practices; there is still a lot of work to do. Quite often the avalanche of work is due to a personal problem, illness, or some other event that has made work difficult to complete. Moving from no work to full speed work can be a challenge. An exercise to get back into the habits and rituals that are necessary to be most productive can be valuable. It is not too difficult for frequent readers to determine that this is the purpose of my blog posts. A blog post does not take full and intense concentration like a manuscript for publication in refereed journal, but it requires the discipline and productivity skills necessary to jumpstart efficient work habits. So a brief and manageable task is often enough to get you back on track. The second pointer is to create only a mild increase in time spent working on to-do list tasks. Rarely do you ever want to increase the time spent on your to do tasks by more than 25%. Multiple all nighters and marathon sessions usually result in poor quality work and quality of life problems. The last pointer is to fully complete your first couple of tasks in one sitting. Completing a task and checking it off of the list is reinforcing and launches your reboot of the to-do list in a positive direction.


Far too many academics despair when the to-do list becomes overwhelming and collapses into a disorganized and insurmountable mess. This happens to everyone who is making every effort to take advantage of all the opportunities to become a productive scholar no matter how organized they may be. The mistake happens when becoming overwhelmed leads to panic and mindless busyness. This form of work crisis is an opportunity to reestablish priorities and to work most efficiently on the projects that are of highest importance. Taking the time to step back and be mindful about how you conduct your daily tasks goes a long way towards sustainable productivity.

SR Shaw


Losing Your Way as a Scientist: How Not to Suck

Nearly every researcher feels as if they have lost their way at one time or another. The big plans may not have worked out. The daily stressors and environment of their employment place are not conducive to achieving professional goals. A series of projects have worked themselves into an intellectual cul-de-sac that do not advance the big goals. Personal stressors and responsibilities restrict the time necessary to achieve professional goals. Work is tiring and tedious. There is a vague, but loud and persistent, feeling that what you are doing right now is not what you are meant to do with your career. These are not same as the day-to-day hassles of a researcher. Some of these hassles involve things like broken equipment, spoiled samples, difficult relationships with collaborators, data collection sites falling through, disagreements with supervisors, papers rejected, and grants unfunded. These day-to-day hassles are the price of admission to being a researcher. The big question is what to do when one finds that the big and slow moving ship of the research program and career are going in the wrong direction.

Frankly, many researchers do not have this dread because they never look up from their day-to-day work to see the big picture. They go from project to project with little mindfulness—usually conducting the research that is the most fundable. But many have goals, strategies, and an understanding of how their work fits into the big picture of scientific thought and discovery. Quite often these scientists survey the road map, find the point on the map that says “YOU ARE HERE,” locate the desired destination, and determine, “I cannot get there from here because I am on the wrong road.” Sometimes this conclusion is based on an analytical consideration, other times it is a feeling that things are just not going right. How does one get back on track?


In any problem-solving situation, at least half of the time and energy needs to be spent identifying exactly what the problem is. There are three big questions that need to be asked before you determine that you have completely lost your way. First, is this a short-term or long-term problem? Success takes time and patience. Rarely are the big goals quick and easy. Also, estimating how long it takes to achieve goals is something that nearly everyone underestimates. Be patient. Making a radical change may result in deviating so far off of your career path that you may end up in the swamp. Second, is this simply a nonlinear path that is different than your expectations, but will take you to the same destination? Success is not a linear path. In our minds, achieving dreams and goals are always linear and stepwise. In reality, success is winding path with starts, bypasses, and stops. Step back and determine whether you are lost or have simply found a less direct way to travel to your goals. There is nothing wrong with the scenic route. What may seem to be a dead-end position, evil or ineffectual supervisors or colleagues, a series of failures, or a research program that is not as fruitful as desired; all may be opportunities in disguise. They can all get you to the same place. Third, are the original goals, plans, and paths that you set out for yourself the correct ones? We often cling to goals out of habit. The goals we made in our undergraduate days may not be realistic or useful anymore. You now have more experience. Changing goals is perfectly fine.

Implied in the above paragraph is that I do not find timelines for career goals useful, but once did. Things like, “Earn a PhD before the 25th birthday.” “Tenure track position before 30.” “Full prof by 40.” I had all of these types of goals. As a middle-ager in retrospect, the journey is infinitely more important than the destination. And if you have a destination, reaching it by a certain time is more stressful than helpful. This is your life, not a train schedule.


Problem analysis involves careful consideration of the personal, environmental, and situational elements that are negatively influencing the trajectory toward your goals. Be brutally honest. Maybe you do not have the talent or drive to achieve your goals. Maybe your supervisor is not supporting you in a fashion that leads to excellence. Maybe you would prefer culinary school. What would need to change to get you back on the path to your goals? Are you willing to do those things?

I am a terrible person to give advice on this because I am completely without ambition as a scientist. I am not that smart, disciplined, or driven. I once missed a grant deadline to help my daughter study for an exam. Because my partner tends to burn food or cut herself, I try to be home early to cook dinner every night. I publish 3 to 6 papers per year and write a book every few years. I try to make the papers good and helpful to my profession. But I am never going to be a rock star academic. I have incredible respect for those who are and do not begrudge their ambition and skill. My goal is to ensure that upon graduation all of my students are better and more skilled than me. I have a pretty good idea what it would take for me to be a major scientist and I am not willing to that (even when entertaining the possibility that I have the requisite abilities).


Once you are certain that you have fallen off of the desired path into a large ditch and are willing to do what it takes to get back on, then it is time for action. This is more than searching for greener pastures, this is about meeting essential professional goals and achieving what you desire as a professional. Nearly all academics I know are constantly searching for new and different academic posts. That is a normal activity. However, setting fire to the lab or otherwise rage quitting is not normal. Nearly as bad is breaking contracts and agreements. Not meeting your end of a contract is something that could shadow your entire career—and not in a good way. So do not walk away, except under extraordinary circumstances. New jobs, research programs, supervisors, employers all require massive and painful amounts of work. Are you sure you want to and need to make changes?  Once you are sure, then pull the trigger and give the new situation full and complete energy. Do not look back, just begin sprinting on your new path to your destination.


All of the above recommendations are logical and reasonable. However, often the first signs that you are losing your way as a scientist are feelings of dread, confusion, frustration, anxiety, depression, hopelessness, disappointment, homesickness, and other emotions. Any solution to the idea of losing your way is not only a matter of career strategy, but emotional factors as well. Most scientists are passionate, serious, and conscientious. The negative side effect is that all career issues are heavy and fundamentally alter scientists’ self-image. Feeling that your science career is going in a bad direction almost by definition means that your life is going in a bad direction. For most scientists finding the right path to their professional goals is the essence of their being.

I am on the other end of the spectrum and tend to be light in being for a university professor. I take the work seriously, but not myself. If academics does not work out for me, then I am sure I will be happy as a school psychologist, window washer, farmer, or street sweeper. This sounds a bit silly, but it is far easier to experiment and try new paths when you do not feel the weight of the world on your professional shoulders.

The vast majority of times that a scholar feels lost, the issue is primarily that of emotional upset, frustration, or general unhappiness rather than a fundamental strategic career mistake that requires a dramatic course correction. I would make the case that the feelings of frustration and being on the wrong track is a sign of an impending positive major breakthrough. When engaging in difficult work, there are often setbacks, self-doubt, and frustration. Rather than despair, the best approach is to seek counsel, acknowledge the emotional component, take a short rest, and approach the problem from a new angle. This increases the likelihood of a reinvigorating breakthrough. Most often uncomfortable emotions related to scientific progress are signs to make very minor changes with the reinforcement of a major breakthrough on the way. If you have the major breakthrough or have a big success and still feel that you are going in the wrong career direction, then a change is justified. But dramatic change prior to success could disrupt the process and minimize the chance of scientific breakthrough.

This is where courage is necessary. When you believe that your entire professional life is at stake, you know that your situation requires a course correction, and your emotions are screaming that you are on the wrong track but are too scared to change; then a change is required because it is terrifying. By far the largest mistake you can make is failing to steer away from a path that is leading you in the wrong direction. But make absolutely sure that your direction is wrong first.


All scientists feel that they are going in the wrong direction at one time or another. There is a significant emotional component to this that needs to be addressed. Most importantly a scientist needs to step back from the emotions, make the best possible assessment of the current scientific trajectory, make a realistic assessment of goals; and then make a difficult decision. The majority of times a major course correction is not required — they are simply negative emotions to be processed with difficult, tedious work ahead before a major scientific breakthrough can be earned. However, if you are clear that the change is needed (preferably after a success), then make the leap quickly, completely and do not look back. The most difficult part is being honest with yourself.

SR Shaw





How not to suck at maintaining your health in graduate school: Cooking and eating

How not to suck at maintaining your health in graduate school: Cooking and eating

March 1, 2014

This is a previously posted blog from my website: www.mcgill.ca/connectionslab/blog. This is the first of the three wellness entries. The 2nd wellness blog appeared yesterday on this site concerning sleep. The final wellness entry will be about stress management and will appear near the end of April. BTW: All of my students need to develop two wellness goals, in addition to their research and clinical goals, in their annual objectives that we develop each fall. We must take care of our students and encourage them to take care of themselves. 

Graduate school is a phenomenally stressful activity. The hours are long, students are constantly being evaluated, professors can be unreasonable, and the money is terrible. Moreover, friends, significant others, and family try to be helpful; but they rarely understand what graduate students are going through. This is the first of three wellness blogs for this site. Today’s post will be on cooking, next month will focus on sleep, and finally an entry on stress management.

I am shocked at how many of my students cannot cook. Alternately, students who can cook find themselves without time to prepare a meal or are not highly motivated to spend time cooking for one. As result, students often go out to eat, have pre-prepared meals from a box or freezer, and generally spend too much money for food that is not nutritious. In addition, graduate students are high achieving, conscientious, and often anxious people and are at high risk for eating disorders. Cooking well and eating well have a significant influence on stress, health, socialization, and overall well-being. Eating well can help your energy, stamina, and ability to do your best work.

There are a large numbers of websites on diet and nutrition, and there is also no shortage of people who will give you unsolicited advice on what, when, and where to eat. Some diets are radical and extreme. I do not know what to think of these sites. My view is that we should eat in the most stress free, time efficient, inexpensive, socially relevant and sustainable way possible. Rather than give advice, I would rather give five specific simple and cheap recipes for important issues in eating: something for everyday eating, something for when you want to impress someone, something to bring to a potluck dinner, lunch, and a quick snack.

Everyday eating: Mulligatawny

Mulligatawny is a lightly curried vegetable soup that has many variations and makes wonderful leftovers.


  • Celery (3-4 ribs)
  • Onion (1 medium)
  • Carrots (about 1 cup—15 baby carrots/3-4 medium carrots)
  • Red lentils (1.5 cups)
  • Butter (4 tablespoons) but can replace with olive oil for vegans
  • Vegetable broth (2 litres)
  • Small can of tomato paste
  • Curry powder (1-2 teaspoons)
  • Cayenne pepper (0.5 teaspoons
  • Optional:
    • Heavy cream
    • Boneless chick thighs
    • Coconut milk


Chop your onions, carrots, and celery coarsely (this is not an exact science). Place into a large stock pot and cook at medium heat with the butter for about 15 minutes—until vegetables are soft. Add vegetable broth, tomato paste, and red lentils. Cook for about 15 minutes. Add curry powder and cayenne. Stir. Cover and cook for 30 minutes. Use a stick blender (a cheap and valuable tool) or scoop veggies into a blender (that thing you make margaritas with) and blend until there are not veggie lumps. It should be a smooth soup. Simple, cheap, healthful, and flavorful.

Notes: You can add 5-6 saffron stems or bay leafs for extra depth. 0.25 of a cup of coconut milk or heavy cream gives silkiness. Adding cooked boneless chicken thighs makes this a full meal. You can adjust the curry powder and cayenne to taste.

Leftovers: This is great over rice. Add a can of diced tomatoes, shrimp, saffron, and coconut milk for a delicious and different meal.

Impressing someone: Snapper in mustard sauce and asparagus


  • Red snapper (but any mild light fish works like tilapia, grouper, or haddock)
  • Full fat sour cream
  • White wine
  • Mustard (coarse grain or grey poupon)
  • Thyme
  • Asparagus
  • Onion
  • Olive oil


Put fish fillets in a pan and barely cover the fish with wine. Don’t make the wine too expensive—a generic and cheap pinot grigio is fine. Preheat oven to 350, put the pan with fish and wine in the oven for about 20 minutes. In the meantime, take about ¾ cup of full fat sour cream (fat free sour cream is nasty and light sour cream is barely acceptable) and add a teaspoon of thyme (dry is fine, fresh is best) and a big tablespoon of mustard and mix it up. Chop onions coarsely and put them into a frying pan with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and a pinch of salt. Cook at medium heat, sauté and stir until the onions start to brown. Then add the asparagus until the onions and oil mix in nicely. The onions take about 15 minutes, and the asparagus about 10 minutes more—so time accordingly. You do not want limp and over-cooked asparagus. Back to the fish. After it poaches, cover the fish with the sour cream mixture. It will start to mix with the wine and get yummy. Let it get messy. Return to the oven for 8 minutes. Then take out and serve immediately. You can add a salad or a sweet potato if you need more stuff.

Something to bring to a potluck dinner: Pasta salad


  • Penne pasta
  • Cherry tomatoes (20 cherry tomatoes)
  • Kalamata olives (25 olives—pitted)
  • Olive oil (4 tablespoons)
  • Balsemic vinegar (1 tablespoon)
  • Feta cheese (8 ounces)
  • Pepper
  • Oregano
  • Leeks or onions
  • Options:
    • Chopped chicken breasts
    • Mint leaves
    • Garlic
    • All sorts of stuff


Simple. Cook the penne pasta until al dente. Not super soft, but a bit of chew to it. Drain the pasta. And place in a very large bowl. Let it cool just a bit—you do not want the pasta to melt the feta. Just add all of the stuff and mix thoroughly. But slice the leeks or onions into narrow strips. Put the leeks or onions into a very hot frying pan. There should be smoke and charring and all sorts of mayhem. That’s okay. Then add the charred or cooked leeks or onions into the salad. And that is it.

Everyday lunch:

I am not one for fancy lunches. I like fruit, veggies, nuts, and cheese. Or fruit, veggies, nuts, and leftover meats (the biggest problem is that letting food spoil is a major waste of money). Hard boiled eggs can also be good. Really, lots of fruit and veggies and a source of protein. That’s it—do not get fancy. You do not have time. But never skip or have to go out (unless there is a social or work reason).


My favorites are roasted nuts. I buy bulk almond, pecans, or walnuts at Costco. I put about 12 ounces of nuts in a large Ziploc bag. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and shake the bag until all nuts are coated (um…don’t forget to seal the bag first). Spread out on a single layer on a cookie sheet. Add salt and pepper. You can also add dried garlic, a little bit of sugar, a little bit of honey, dried orange peel, herbs, or whatever you want. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes. Then turn the oven off, but leave the nuts in the oven. This dries the nuts out and makes them crunchy. Remove when cooled. Recently I added dried blueberries to roasted pecans—and it was a delicious mix. Nuts are high calorie and high fat—but have a lot of nutrition. When I want something salty or sweet—I reach for nuts, not chips. And don’t eat very many. Ten to fifteen nuts is plenty.

And in sum:

My blog is not a cookbook. But these are some basic, simple and specific things. The big thing is to eat cheap, minimally processed, and nutrition dense foods (more veggies, fruits, nuts, and meat; less grains and sugars). But eat.

A note: I learned to cook for financial reason. I was too poor to go out often and cooking was a great date activity (back when I did the dating thing). When you can cook, you always have friends. My wife married me almost entirely for my cooking. Many of you know that she is quite beautiful and intelligent; and I am significantly less so. My motto–cooking: it helps you marry up.

Another note: I try not to interfer with my students’ personal lives, so long as you are happy then I am good, do not judge, and do not cyber stalk. Frankly, it is not my business. But if I suspect you have an eating disorder, then I will intervene and work with you to get support. All of my students are required to create at least two annual wellness goals. Good eating can be one of them.