I’ve posted here a couple of times about my difficulties with work life balance and confusion over values surrounding work in graduate school. In the past year or so, I’ve found a few strategies and routines that have worked for me and helped me to work consistently, accomplish some major goals, and give myself some needed breaks and celebratory fun times. I’m going to try and describe those strategies and routines here, in hopes that I can come back to them in moments when I’m feeling sluggish or that someone else might be able to benefit from bits and pieces of my own experiences.
First off, I’ve found myself keeping a pretty regular eight-hour work day routine. For the last couple semesters since I achieved candidacy and started working on my dissertation, I’ve been on fellowship, which means I don’t have teaching or coursework demands on my time and energy. My work day gets to be totally committed to my dissertation process and other related tasks like pursuing funding, publishing, or conference opportunities. Without regular teaching or coursework time commitments, I’ve been able to keep a roughly eight hour workday routine. My eight hour workday runs from about 10-6. This is sort of ironic for me because, coming from a working class family, one of the reasons I chose to pursue graduate school was to avoid an overly rigid work schedule. But I’m finding that being able to choose the eight hours I’ll work for, the space I’ll work in, and the work that I’ll do has helped me to work regularly and to avoid the kind of mandated rigidity I was hoping to escape. Most of my days look like: get up, workout, eat breakfast, shower, walk my dog, go out into the world somewhere and work for eight hours, come home and have dinner, do something fun at home or go out with friends for a few hours. I’ve found that this routine has served me well and allowed for variety within structure. I get to choose where I want to work each day, what I want to make for dinner (I enjoy cooking and find that it de-stresses me!), what fun things I want to do at the end of the night, and who I can spend my work hours and fun hours with each day.
This kind of variety within routine is hugely important to me because in the past too rigid a routine has made me restless and resentful in a matter of days. Any time I have to do something the exact same three times in a row, I lose interest. So, this pattern has been a great, productive compromise for me. One of the most important things I’ve learned how to do is to let myself actually put the work down at the end of the night to do something fun for myself without feeling guilty about not working. The same goes for morning time. I let my mind stay clear of work for a couple hours each morning while I get ready for the day. Without this time away from work each day, I would feel run ragged and end up accomplishing a lot less. Within the actual eight hour workday, I’ve started to assign myself two major tasks a day. For example, I might work on transcribing interview data for four hours and then completing a grant for funding for four hours. I might revise a dissertation chapter draft for four hours and then spend four hours coding data. I might revise an article for publication for four hours and then spend four hours reading. I like to try to switch the tasks up about halfway through the day, again guaranteeing the variety within structure that seems to be most productive for me.
Another strategy I’ve found useful is using lots and lots of to-do lists. I keep the following to-do lists: master list of things I have to do in order to graduate/complete my PhD. program by a particular date, smaller master list of all the things I have to do in a given semester, a semester calendar to show when each of those things has to be done by, a daily to-do list for each day’s tasks (I write the next day to-do list at the end of each workday. I find writing a new to-do list while I’m still in work mode saves me a lot of time and energy the next day when I’m gearing up to work again), revision lists for each of the writing projects I’ve got going, post-it notes EVERYWHERE breaking components of all the lists down into manageable chunks. And when I check something off, I get to check it off ALL THE LISTS! Such a great feeling. To-do lists have helped me to be realistic about how much I can accomplish in any given amount of time. I write the hard copy lists in pencil, so as to be forgiving of myself when not everything gets done and the list has to be adjusted. With electronic to-do lists (in my phone’s notes app) I use a checkmark emoji next to a task to denote that it’s been completed. This is great because I don’t have to erase completed tasks and I can look back and see all that I’ve already done successfully! Woohoo! Go me!
Maybe the most important thing I’ve started doing (and that really I’ve been doing all along) is talking about the work with whoever’s willing to listen! This helps me to reflect on my own strategies and to learn new strategies that have worked for others. Listening to others’ experiences has also taught me to be patient and forgiving of myself when I’m feeling frustrated with the work. No single strategy works for everyone all the time, so talking with others and listening to their experiences helps me to recognize successes when I’m experiencing them and to cope with the challenges as they arise. With all of these strategies, I’ve found myself enjoying doing challenging work that matters to me and to the kinds of people and students that I care about most.