Productivity and Self-Care: An Unlikely Pair

My first year in grad school I remember walking into Dr. Kertz's office and declaring that there were simply not enough hours in the day to do everything that I needed to do. I had forgone all self-care and to say I was frazzled and trying to keep my head above water is an understatement...

Entering grad school, I thought I had good time management skills. I thought that I was an efficient worker. I always maintained a crazy schedule in undergrad filled with work, double majoring, lab work, and social activities. I managed my insane schedule without hesitation. My college roommate frequently laughed and told me I was crazy for joining so many groups and bouncing meeting to meeting. But I enjoyed it. I prided myself on maintaining a social life and keeping up with school and work. I lived by my planner and my google calendar.

However, it wasn't until I began 1st year and found myself frazzled in Dr. Kertz's office that I realized that my system was flawed.  I was "working" all the time. I always had school materials by my side, and would turn down invitations with friends to stay home and work. I thought surely with the number of hours I was putting in that I should be able to keep up! Dr. Kertz asked me about my time management. I was surprised... My time management? Well I thought I was the queen of time management! I never considered that I wasn't using my time efficiently. After some self reflection,  I decided that I was going to need to change how I do things if I was ever going to make it through grad school.

This meeting was a turning point for me. Here are some of the things that I have tried to implement in my life to be more successful (disclaimer: this is still a work in progress!). Hopefully some of these tips can help you!

1. Self-care is important:

The higher level students were always talking about this self-care thing... My first reaction was that there just isn't enough time! Spoiler alert! I was dead wrong. My lack of self-care was actually making me less productive when I was working. You have to find ways to incorporate the things you love into your life during grad school. I know that for me, I need to hang out with other people and have a good social support system. In the clinical program at SIU we have a bunch of really friendly really cool grad students (I'm not biased at all). We are all very hardworking, and we push each other to work harder and achieve more, but we are not competitive in a cut-throat way. There is always someone around who is willing to relax and hang out, work on stuff at a coffee shop, or just lend a listening ear.

2. Another shocker: you can't survive without sleep:

 You will get sick. And die. It's also not possible to replace all of your sleep with massive amounts of coffee. We need 6-8 hours of sleep to function normally. I have learned that in order to be productive during the day, I have to sleep at night. This is not a groundbreaking tip, but it is really essential. Does this mean that there aren't times when I have to stay up extra late studying or work on a paper really late? No, of course not. But I do make a point to go to sleep around the same time every night so that I get the sleep I need. I have found that I am much more productive during the day and get more done if I set aside that time to sleep. 

3. Remember what made you come to grad school in the first place. 

When you are in the middle of the semester it is easy to lose sight of why you are here. I find it incredibly motivating to think back to the fall and spring when I was applying and interviewing for grad school. I remember just how bad I wanted to be here. I wanted this more than I have wanted anything in my life. Reflecting back on that feeling motivates me to keep going. Also, I find it very exciting to be able to do exactly what I want to do each day. I get to be a clinician, a researcher, a teacher, and a student all at the same time. People keep telling me that in the real world (outside of grad school) it is incredibly difficult to maintain a clinical and research 50/50 split. In grad school it is required that you do at least some research (in our lab, lots of research!) and a lot of clinical work. I love the mixture, so it is great that grad school forces (errr... encourages) me to do both!

4. When you set aside time to work- actually work. 

This tip sounds easy, but is surprisingly difficult for me. The first couple months in grad school I spent a lot of time "working", but it was not very productive work time. Now I try to set small 15 minute goals. After the 15 minutes, I take a short 2 minute break to check my email. Stand up and walk around (get coffee, water, etc.). Then I get right back to work on the next goal.

To keep myself organized I make tons of lists. I still live by my planner and my google calendar, but instead of writing giant items on my to do list (i.e., thesis lit review, study for prelims, etc.) I break it up into very small manageable goals. In fact, my goals are split up so that I can accomplish them in 15-30 minutes. I find that it is motivating to cross things off of a list, and extra motivating when you get to cross off multiple things each day. 


These are a few of the things that I have tried to implement in order to increase my quality of life. I have gone from a frazzled first year trying to stay afloat to a much more confident third year by using these tips. I truly enjoy grad school. I have no doubt that I have made the right decision to come to SIU to work with Dr. Kertz. Having a good support system through your fellow grad students and mentor makes a huge difference! I hope you find some of these tips helpful for your own lives!