Graduate school is full of exciting new experiences and challenges as you develop advanced skills and use them in new ways. Graduate school takes time, and finding the right way to balance your time is critical to accomplishing your goals. In this video, I give you some time management tips that will help you with prioritizing, setting goals, and creating a plan. Prefer to read the content of the video? The full transcription is below so you can access the material in the way that works best for you.
But first, why is time management so challenging in graduate school? During your undergraduate career, you probably had a full schedule of classes with a detailed syllabus for each course. In contrast, graduate work allows for more independence and time to devote to your interests and goals. You take fewer courses and there are fewer set deadlines. But there are also more demands on your time. During your degree, you might teach classes, contribute to a research group, present at conferences, do an internship, join a student organization, and much more. And then there’s family and friends and activities outside of school. You get the picture. All of these factors and more are important to keep in mind as you think about how to plan your time and prioritize your tasks.
Before we get started, it is important to remember that time management is a highly personal skill. Some of the tips I have might work for you, while others might not work as well. I recommend trying a few of these techniques and then adapting them to fit your individual needs. One key element to managing your time is prioritizing. You need to determine which tasks require immediate attention, which tasks need planning, and which tasks you should try to avoid. The first step is to create a to-do list of all of the tasks that you need to accomplish. Depending on your needs, your to-do list could reflect the things you need to accomplish during the semester, during the week, or even during a particular day.
The Covey Matrix: A Tool for Time Management
Next, you need to divide these tasks based on their urgency and importance to your success. One way to do this is through the Covey Matrix, which is found in Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. In this matrix, tasks are organized based on their urgency and importance. Urgent tasks are tasks that require immediate action. If you don’t attend to them, there could be consequences. Important tasks are tasks that relate to your long-term goals and values. The matrix is divided into four quadrants and we will discuss each now. Tasks in the first quadrant are urgent and important. They are built on necessity, so they should be completed as soon as possible. A task that might appear here is: “study for tomorrow’s exam.” It is a necessity that you prepare for your exam and if you don’t, there could be consequences, such as failing your exam and impacting your overall grade in the class. In the second quadrant are tasks that are important but not urgent, so tasks that are not time-sensitive, but they are important to achieving your goals. Tasks in this quadrant might be “write my thesis” or “apply for a grant.” Both of these are goals that are extremely important to your career and goals, but they need focus and planning. We’ll talk more about this quadrant in a second.
Quadrant 3 has tasks that are urgent but not important to your long-term goals, such as answering non-time sensitive emails or helping people who stop by your office unexpectedly. These tasks are deceptive – they could take up a lot of time if you are not careful. That’s why it is important to be cautious when addressing the tasks in this quadrant. The final quadrant is reserved for tasks that are not urgent and not important, essentially time-wasters that should be avoided. This includes things that disrupt or distract your form using our time productively, like surfing social media or watching lots of YouTube videos. As you are prioritizing and using the Covey Matrix, keep a few things in mind. First, by putting tasks in quadrant four, it doesn’t mean you should always avoid doing these things. It’s just important to think about your intentions before you start. For example, maybe you have blocked off time on your calendar to work on a paper. But rather than working, you have the urge to check the news, update Facebook, and then watch videos of pandas on YouTube. These tasks are disturbing your work and preventing productivity, so they belong in quadrant four. On the other hand, if you’ve taken a break from working, you might focus on some of these tasks to give your mind a rest.
Next, make sure to keep as few tasks as possible in quadrant one. Focusing only on tasks when they become urgent and important can leave you stressed and burnout. This means you will need to regularly devote time to the tasks in quadrants two and three, because if you put them off for too long, they can move into quadrant one and become urgent and important tasks. Now that we’ve prioritized, let’s focus a little more closely on quadrant two. These are the tasks that are most important to your goals. But as you can see, these are tasks that require a little more planning and goal-setting. You can’t, for example, say “Tomorrow, I am going to write my entire thesis.” Instead, you need to break these tasks down into several small, manageable goals that you work on over a period of time. Let’s say that your goal is to write a semester paper. Think of some of the steps that you need to take in order to write the paper, such as choosing a topic, outlining, completing a draft, and making final edits. Then, assign each task a tentative deadline. These deadlines are meant to keep you on track and most of them should be relatively flexible. Maybe a task takes longer than you expected or maybe you catch a cold and miss a day of work or maybe an unavoidable situation comes up. If you create too many firm, tight deadlines and then miss one or two, it might prevent you from making meaningful progress.
Now that you’ve determined your priorities, it’s time to record them in your calendar. In this calendar example, I’ve color-coded some of my tasks based on where they fit in the Covey Matrix, and I’ve chosen colors that correspond with a stoplight. This strategy could be helpful to you so that you can see where your priorities lie for the week. For example, the urgent and important tasks (such as taking my exam and going to class) are in red, which alerts me to their importance. I recommend setting aside time in your calendar to complete these tasks first, since it is crucial that you address them. I’ve devoted quite a bit of time for quadrant two – including outlining my paper, going to the library, and creating a to-do list, which I’ve marked in green. Finally, I’ve set aside an hour each day to address the tasks in Quadrant 3 – the urgent but not important tasks. I’ve put them in yellow so that I remember to be cautious.
Assign Goals for Each Session
One good trick is to assign yourself a goal for each session – for example, I’ve decided to outline my paper on Tuesday morning, and on Wednesday I am going to read two articles. By incorporating your goals into each study session, it will help you focus and stay on track. Another tip to consider as you fill out your calendar is to determine what time of day you are most productive and regularly block off time then to work. If you work better in the morning after a cup of coffee, block off time each morning for focused work (that’s what I’ve done here). If you work better later in the day, you might reserve some time after lunch.
Take Time to Relax
Devoting time to self-care is crucial to time management, but these tasks don’t always fit nicely into the Covey Matrix. You can see that in purple I’ve blocked off time away from work—time to relax, have fun, and practice self-care. In addition to blocking off time for lunch, the gym, spending time with friends, and other activities, you’ll also want to set aside time within each study session to take a break. Remember, time away from work can be just as valuable as time spent working because it allows your mind time to recharge and relax.
Learning to Say No
An important dimension to time management is knowing when to say “no” to a task, especially if it doesn’t fit in your schedule, causes stress, or keeps you from accomplishing your goals. Before you say no to an opportunity, there are a few things to consider. First, think about what this opportunity means to you and if it relates to your goals. Sometimes when we are asked to take part in a task, it can feel like an honor or a boost to our ego. And while that can feel great, that doesn’t necessarily mean that completing the task will be beneficial to you in the long run. Think about what it means to say yes. How much time will you need to devote to this task? Where will you need to work and will others be involved? Is there a deadline? Do you foresee being stressed or overwhelmed with the task? It might help you to reach out to a friend, mentor, or family member for advice. Sometimes getting another’s perspective and talking through the pros and cons of a situation will help you see if taking on another task is the right decision.
If the opportunity is something you think you want to participate in but you are concerned about committing to the entire task, consider if there are other ways you might be involved. Could you do part of the task or share duties with someone else? Maybe you could mentor or provide advice to another person who is interested. Can you recommend someone else who would be a good fit? If the task isn’t time sensitive, maybe you could request to work on it at a later date. Finally, if you have decided to say “no” to a task, don’t wait too long; procrastination won’t make saying no any easier. In your communication, be firm with your intentions but also be gracious and thankful to be given the opportunity.
The University of Illinois has many campus resources that can help you manage academic and personal expectation during your time as a graduate student. For information, consider reaching out to the Health Education team at McKinley Health Center, the Counseling Center, and the Graduate College.
Emily Wuchner is the Thesis Coordinator at the Graduate College. She holds a PhD in musicology from the University of Illinois, and her work focuses on music and social welfare in eighteenth-century Austria. In her free time, she enjoys playing the bassoon, watching sports, and hanging out with her calico cat, Gracie Sue.