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Time IS on Your Side: Maximize Your Output to Minimize Your Stay

Every graduate student I have ever known feels exactly the same way when starting to work on the Ph.D.: overwhelmed. You probably feel the same way now. It is understandable. By deciding to try to complete a dissertation, you have begun a long and uncertain journey into the world of research. Somehow you have to do something that--by definition--no one else has ever done before. And even after you have started your research, it may seem like you will never, ever finish--there is just too much to do!

At exactly the moment when the burden of all your daily tasks starts getting in the way of your progress toward your Ph.D., time management becomes crucial. What this means in practice is that you need to establish a variety of strategies that will help you organize and allocate your precious time among the multifarious tasks demanding your attention. And just why is time management so important? Well, believe it or not, learning how to manage your time effectively can literally cut years off your stay in graduate school.

The first step is to decide what you have to do. That may seem obvious--you have to write a thesis--but it isn't quite so simple. There is no way you can plan every task between now and graduation. Experiments will fail, promising leads will turn into dead ends, and elegant hypotheses will be slain by ugly facts. It is all part of the game. And that is just the research. What about shopping for food, doing the laundry, running over to the post office, and picking up the kids? Instead of trying to plan everything at once, break it down. Management guru Mark McCormack calls this strategy " eating the elephant." Setting these goals can be difficult, particularly when you're just starting your research, so it is wise to include your adviser in the process. Tell him or her what you plan to get done and in (roughly) what order. Your adviser will appreciate your discipline and the opportunity to add his or her two cents.

People in Your Neighborhood: Time Bandits

Take a look back over your typical day. Did you stop by the machine shop to pick up some screws and stay for 30 minutes discussing last night's game with the machinist? Does every visit to the departmental secretary wind up in an hourlong gossip session? Is a quick lunch with your best friend followed by 45 minutes playing pinball? If so, you have a time bandit in your life.

A time bandit is anyone who gobbles up precious chunks of your daily schedule with unproductive activities, usually talking. Don't get me wrong, the occasional chat, gossip session, or pinball game can be a pleasant break in your stressful day and help you maintain a semblance of a personal life during the all-consuming days, months, and years of your thesis research. But if you allow too many time bandits into your life, your progress can slow to a crawl, or even stop. It isn't their fault; instead, it is up to you to recognize when you are using someone else's gregarious good nature to help you procrastinate.

Once you have a list, prioritize. What absolutely has to be done now? By the end of the day? This week? This month? By graduation day? Peter Fiske suggests placing each task into a 2-by-2 matrix with "Important" and "Not Important" on one side and "Urgent" and "Not Urgent" on the other, an idea Stephen R. Covey discusses in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. Do the "Important-Urgent" stuff right away and save the "Important-Not Urgent" things for later. The tasks in the remaining two categories should be saved until after you have finished all the other stuff.

One common entry in the "Not Important-Urgent" category deserves special mention: e-mail. You can't, of course, cross e-mail completely off your list; it is the lifeblood of modern professional science communication. But we all know how the hours mysteriously slip away when we are responding to e-mail. To keep it under control, Fiske suggests limiting looks at your e-mail to once in the morning and once at night. I also discovered this method while writing my thesis, except I added another session after lunch and always completed some other productive work before checking my e-mail in the morning. It works.

Once you have your list, you need somewhere to write it all down. I use a classic black "Week-at-a-Glance" calendar and a pencil. Many people I know swear by the various electronic pocket organizers that are available ("RAM for your brain," one friend calls them); use whichever method works best for you. I write every daily task (even buying stamps!) in my calendar. Appointments are recorded on the appropriate day and time and highlighted with a box. Longer term things such as conferences are entered on the date they take place, but at the same time I pencil in reminders of other intermediate tasks that will have to be done earlier (buying plane tickets, for example). Then, as I complete each task, I cross it off the list. Don't neglect this step; it is a great morale builder. Even buying stamps feels like an accomplishment when I cross it off my list!

Finally, I am a big fan of hobbies, and if you don't already have one I encourage you to take one up in graduate school. Although I agree that you have to be careful not to let your hobby take up too much time, I still believe that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. For me, scheduling a regular time for some fun and exercise with a group of friends helped keep me fresh and sane throughout grad school. It also focused my work, because if a task wasn't done by playtime, I didn't go play. And just about anything will do. At first, I joined a group of grad students in an informal Ultimate Frisbee group that was more about chaotic running and intense midfield conversation than actually winning games. Ultimate segued into once-a-week classical guitar lessons, but the nightly practice proved too time-consuming and I switched to thrice-weekly karate lessons at a local club. What a wonderful outlet for pent-up frustrations that was!

With your time-management skills in place, you should have no trouble cruising through the first year or two of graduate school. But there is another hurdle looming in the distance. Next month we will take a look at qualifying exams.