8 Tips for Grad Students for Planning in 2021

Timur Hammond outlines some small changes you can make in how you relate to your work that might create a little more space for joy, happiness and mental health.

February 11, 2021
 
 

Graduate school always brings its own particular challenges. These include managing workloads, expectations and the burden of saying something new, among others. There’s the professional anxiety of the process (will I have a job after I finish this program? How will I find it? Is this even worth it?), and that’s often coupled with a set of personal anxieties (am I smart? Am I a good person? Am I worth this? Or am I just a failure?). Such challenges aren’t new but have been thrown into even sharper relief over the past 12 months.

Recent survey results suggest that graduate students (along with undergraduates) are facing new levels of stress and anxiety linked to the effects of the pandemic. Those effects include financial hardships, food insecurity, expanded caregiving responsibilities and an often-heightened sense of not belonging. Unfortunately -- although not surprisingly -- those negative impacts seem to correlate with already existing inequalities and forms of marginalization in academic environments. Many of these issues require systemic transformations, including in the ways that universities, departments and advisers address mental health challenges related to the structure of the graduate job market, as well as the broader social, cultural and political context in which we find ourselves.

But while we continue to work collectively to achieve those systemic transformations, what else can we do? We can make small changes in our lives and in how we relate to our work that might create a little more space for joy, happiness and mental health. In short, we can make a plan.

Any quick search for productivity tips will return tens of thousands of hits. After all, we live in a world of self-optimization, one in which we’re exhorted to be more entrepreneurial, innovative, successful individuals. Our is a world of metrics and benchmarks, statistics and citations, h-indexes and Altmetric scores. Nobody specifically told me that those numbers mattered as a graduate student, but I learned to care about them, to worry about them, to measure myself by them. If I failed, well, that was my individual fault. And in the grad school world, simply telling students to plan better might be just a way of shifting the responsibility -- and the blame -- from the institutions within which they operate and onto them as individuals.

But that hasn’t been my experience with planning.

I joined my department in 2017. Like a lot of first-year faculty members, I was overwhelmed by the experience. I chased emails, spent too much time on course prep, read the news way too much and only wrote to meet the immediate deadlines of conference presentations and editor expectations. I wrote some things that year but didn’t submit anything.

The following year, I joined a faculty boot camp program run by the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity. Their system wasn’t revolutionary: write every day, begin every week with a weekly plan and start every semester with what they called a strategic plan. But even if it wasn’t radically surprising, it was revelatory for me. The boot camp was built around small groups that worked to keep each other accountable. I came to recognize a lot of the bad habits that I’d been cultivating. I started to take small steps toward developing habits that didn’t simply help me but also allowed me to engage more effectively and meaningfully with the people around me.

You’ll discover many different ways to write such plans, including the NCFDD model and those that Design Your Life and Creativity in Research and the bullet journal system provide, to name just a few. Each model works differently for each person, but here are eight tips that I’ve found to be especially useful and would like to share with grad school students.

No. 1: Schedule time for long-term projects every day. Put them in your calendar and stick to it. One of the challenges of academe is the relative mismatch between short-term responsibilities (email, teaching, meetings) and the long-term products that we’re generally evaluated on (our research and publications). It seems simple enough, but if you don’t protect a little bit of time every day for long-term projects, they will either a) not happen or b) get tangled up in a complicated mess of anxiety, procrastination and binge-writing.

No. 2: Leave negative space. The point of a weekly plan isn’t to schedule something every minute of the day. I was really struck by an interview with the artist Jenny Odell in which she talked about the value of negative space to a work of art. Her point, as I remember it, was that our work, especially our writing, sometimes needs nothing around it -- just empty space and unfilled time.

No. 3: Track your writing time. One of the challenges I continue to grapple with is a constant feeling of “It’s not done.” I spend so much time thinking about all of the projects I haven’t finished that I often forget to acknowledge the time that I have, in fact, put in. It’s for that reason that tracking my time (I use Toggl) has been such a valuable activity. I’ve been using the platform for more than two years now and can see how my energy and enthusiasm have ebbed and flowed. Perhaps more important, tracking my time also helps me see how much time it actually takes me to write an article or a book chapter. Instead of measuring myself against my colleagues or my imagined ideal self, tracking my time reveals who I actually am.

No. 4: Build multiple systems of accountability. For me, one of the greatest challenges of graduate school was figuring out to whom I was accountable. The relatively solitary nature of academic work often compounds the lack of accountability: we spend a lot of time writing by ourselves with no other commentary than that voice in our heads. In graduate school, I had my dissertation adviser, but I eventually realized that expecting them to be the only person to help me stay on track wasn’t productive for either of us.

Group accountability was a key part of the faculty boot camp I attended, and since then, I’ve continued to organize virtual writing groups. (We use Microsoft Teams, but it could be Zoom or Skype or Google Meet.) I also share my Toggl account with a colleague. Thus, I know that every day I sit down to write, I have a (virtual) place where other people can join me, and every day I log my writing time on Toggl, I can see what my friend has accomplished. Maybe tomorrow, I think, I’ll write more than they do!

No. 5: Limit your distractions. Distractions take many forms. Some are outside our control, while others aren’t. For many people, one of the chief distractions is social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook. I’ve never had a Twitter account, and after listening to a Cal Newport interview a few years ago (see this recent post), I blocked my access to Facebook using a program called Freedom.

What I like about Freedom is that it’s always running. When I noticed that I was spending too much time on news sites, I blocked them during the day; when I noticed I was using YouTube not to research videos for my lecture course but rather to watch play-throughs of Civilization 6, I blocked that, too. I still restore access to those sites, but only in the evening. What I’ve done, in other words, is disrupt the habit loop I’d formed: not writing led to anxiety led to distraction led to more not writing. The anxiety about writing is still there, but blocking many of these websites helps me to sit with the anxiety a little more effectively.

No. 6: Cultivate a practice and a goal that is not work-related. Don’t expect yourself to work all the time. In fact, I suspect that even people who look like they’re working all the time probably have something else in their life that isn’t work. For me, it’s become running. “I’m not a runner,” I used to tell myself, yet I’ve been running three to five days a week for the past six months. I’m trying to run a half marathon in 2021.

My partner and I both use the Nike Run Club app because it gives us a plan for when and how far we should be running. Even more valuable to me is the accountability that the app gives me: I ran this far this week, and I want to beat that next week. Running isn’t possible for everybody, but try to find something that you do regularly that moves you toward something new -- whether it is taking photographs, cooking, drawing, collaging, reading, woodworking, meditating or simply taking walks.

No. 7: Planning matters, but it’s not actually about the plan. The first time I sat down to write a weekly plan, I finished that week and got angry with myself. “Jeez,” I said to myself, “you can’t even stick to what you said you’d do. You’re so lazy, such a failure, such a disappointment.” Like many people, I’d tried plans and agendas before. I used to have a stack of planners with one month filled in and then six months of blank pages, signaling all the times I’d started and stopped.

But I’ve come to realize that it’s not actually about being good (or bad) at planning itself. It’s about what the act of planning asks us to do: What am I doing this week? Why am I doing it? And if it’s not making me happy, or if matters are getting in the way of my planning, could I change at least one thing -- however small? The act of planning every week has taught me to attend a lot more to the iterative process and worry a little less about the final product.

No. 8: Be generous with yourself -- and with others. The other morning when I started my run, my running app asked me to tell me something great about myself. I almost stopped my run right there, because I realized how rarely I begin my work -- running and writing both! -- by telling myself something positive about myself. Planning and accountability matter, but also remember to be generous with yourself: put in the work that you can, how you can. Tomorrow is a new day.

Graduate school has always been challenging, but especially so over the past 12 months. Unfortunately, planning doesn’t necessarily address some of the systemic and structural issues that we face today, but it might -- it just might -- create a little more space to pursue that work. At one time last fall, I was feeling overwhelmed by both my personal and professional commitments. I happened to listen to an interview with Sharon Salzberg, which led me to her essay on being frozen by overwhelm:

“How do we restore perspective when trying to laugh seems like too much effort? Work on not making the feeling of sloth your enemy. In other words, the more we add judgment, projection into the future, self-belittling, fear, hopelessness, or a sense of isolation, the more we suffer when sloth comes. Our work is to grow in presence, balanced awareness, compassion, and understanding, applied to whatever is happening -- including sloth.”

Maybe planning can be part of that work, too.

Bio

Timur Hammond is an assistant professor in the department of geography and the environment at Syracuse University, where he also serves as a faculty liaison for the Future Professoriate Program. He completed his Ph.D. in geography at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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