My tips for productivity

One of the most significant non-academic things I learned during my first year as a PhD student was how to be productive even in moments when I really didn’t feel like it. In fact, I had a pretty good handle on this throughout college as well. I think as a society we tend to over-glorify productivity, and I have definitely done this myself in the past. While it feels great to accomplish many things, it is also important to take time to rest. However, for the times when you have no choice but to be very productive, here are some of my best tips.

  • Have a pre-work ritual. For me, this usually involves cleaning off my desk and lighting a candle; there is just something about candles that puts me in the zone to do work. But your ritual could be using some essential oils, washing your face, making a cup of coffee, changing into a certain type of clothing, etc.; just something to remind your brain that it is work time.
  • Be clear on what you need to accomplish. Seems obvious, but many people plunge right into the work they know they need to do immediately without considering what their next steps will be. This often leads to mis-allocating time and completing things at the last minute. Take 10-15 minutes even to review your to-do list, and decide what needs to be done this month, this week, today, and even this hour. Give yourself a reasonable amount of time to do it. That way, you won’t make excuses like “well I’m not going to get this done by 5 pm anyway so I might as well just wait to start it.”
  • Similarly: calendar blocking. This may seem unnatural, but so are our expectations of productivity at times. I learned this tip from Amy Landino. It’s nothing extremely novel, but I do think this is a superior approach to time management than a simple to-do list. When I make such a list, I still end up with various incomplete tasks at the end of the day. When I use calendar blocking, I literally force myself to get things done within a certain amount  of time. Then, if I don’t finish a task, I am forced to move to the next task and/or re-allocate the rest of the time for the day. I actually wouldn’t recommend living every day like this, but on busy days I definitely do this.
  • On that note, I recommend using Google calendar in general. I will talk more about this in my post on useful apps for students, but my life changed when I began to use Google calendar creatively in addition to (and eventually instead of) a paper planner.
  • Wake up early. Or stay up late! Or go to a coffee shop without your phone for a few hours in the middle of the day. Whatever works for you, but the point here is to find a solid chunk of uninterrupted time in an environment where nobody will be bothering you. Usually early in the morning works because it is before most people are awake so you are less tempted to check email, respond to text messages, etc., and the same is true late at night. Some friends recommended going to a coffee shop without a phone — I  haven’t tried it yet, but I think it sounds like a great idea!
  • Use one of those social media blocking extensions on your internet application. I never believed this would work until I tried it. I actually didn’t think I checked social media that much until I added an extension that gave me a 20 minute limit per day (on my computer), which was helpful because instead of being derailed for half an hour to check twitter, I kept getting the “shouldn’t you be working?” page.
  • Say no! I never feel guilty saying no to something that will hinder me from achieving what I need to for myself. Whether it is a social activity, a work opportunity, a request for help (obviously exercise discretion on what is actually more important), little interruptions can really hinder your productivity. Again, not a general rule but something to be strict with yourself when you really need to be productive.
  • Coffee, because obviously.
  • Exercise! When you are tired from a great workout, it suddenly becomes 10x easier to sit still for hours doing your work at the computer (if that’s the kind of work you do). It’s good for the brain, it will help you think more clearly, and just generally improves your productivity.
  • Last and most important tip, which I’ve alluded to already: minimize interruptions. A two second interruption from a quick text or someone knocking on your door can actually turn into a 20+ minute interruption because of the way it disrupts your focus. We as humans actually can’t multitask, no matter how tempting it can be to believe that we can. Focus on one task exclusively before moving on to the next, and you will develop a momentum that allows you to actually finish projects and move on. Resist the temptation to do everything at once.

Do you have additional tips for productivity? Or even tips you have tried and that didn’t work for you?


5 lessons I learned in college

College was not long ago for me, and I am already nostalgic about it; I really miss that time in my life. As a student living on campus, I felt like I had the world at my fingertips and was surrounded by possibilities. I learned so much in my classes, and I enjoyed the academic aspect of my life. One could say that I was, and am, a nerd. However, now that I have the gift of retrospect, I can recognize that some of the important lessons I learned as a college student didn’t involve my classes at all. The mix of being in an environment with so many opportunities and also trying to figure out my first few years of actual adulthood led to interesting experiences, and if I were advising an incoming student, these are some things I would want them to know.

  1. Time is valuable and your most important resource. Once you spend time, there is no way to get it back. Time can fly by so easily, and to be happy and healthy we need sleep, exercise, and social interaction. However, balancing the three as well as your academic work can feel impossible. I recommend finding a time management method that works for you, to avoid those days where one moment you are talking with your friends in the common room and the next it is 10 pm and you haven’t even started your work that is due tomorrow. (Soon I will be writing about how I stay organized, so look out for that if you find this challenging!)
  2. There is no formula for success in your chosen field, and there is no one path that will bring you to the desired destination. This became extremely apparent in every career center seminar I was forced to attend attended. Successful professionals would participate in talks and panels and discuss their “nonlinear” career paths and how life never really goes as planned. There are some things you can do to make this reality less intimidating and more exciting. Learn how to think about your strengths in terms of what skills you have and why they make you unique, not just in terms of your specific job “experience.” For example, I had several internships in DC, where I worked making some Excel spreadsheets and gathering historical documents about people who nobody has ever heard of. When I decided to attend graduate school, rather than apply for jobs straight out of college, I could have marketed these skills as “proficiency with Excel and ProQuest,” or I could have emphasized how these experiences taught me to see research as a puzzle waiting to be solved, and how my drive to solve that puzzle in addition to the practical skills I’d learned made research a natural fit for me. Which one do you think sounds more appealing?
  3. The importance of your GPA really varies depending on your specific goals. I personally prioritized my GPA over almost everything else, including the social aspect of college, because I wanted more than anything to go to law school and I knew I wouldn’t forgive myself if I slacked in any way that could make me a less appealing applicant. I didn’t end up attending law school, but I did decide to go to grad school, where my GPA was also important. But say I’d decided to apply for jobs instead. Having a fantastic GPA certainly wouldn’t have hurt, but having a great or even good GPA might not have made any difference when paired with useful internship experience. The difference between the amount of work a student would put in for a 3.75 versus a 4.0, though, would make a difference in their college experience. Remember that there are trade-offs involved in any decision that you make, and learn how to determine which option is most valuable to you personally, and why, rather than relying on what is conventionally recommended.
  4. Thinking of your classes as an opportunity to learn, or even as a game/ challenge, makes them far more rewarding than regarding them as an obstacle you need to overcome just to receive a diploma. This is similar to having an “I get to do this” attitude rather than an “I have to do this” attitude. It may just sound like a cheesy line your high school teachers or coaches throw at you, but viewing your obligations as opportunities makes them feel more worthwhile. Many, many people cannot attend college, or even attain lower levels of education, due to financial or other constraints. If you are lucky enough to be in a position where you have the option, you should recognize your privilege and appreciate the opportunity to learn as much as possible.
  5. Your success depends largely on how you play the cards you’re dealt. If you attend a large university where it’s nearly impossible to develop a personal relationship with professors, you might need to get creative about communicating with your TAs and classmates to really understand the material. If you attend a small liberal arts college that nobody has ever heard of (me), then you might benefit from participating in activities that get you involved in the broader area and expanding your network. If academics do not come very easily to you, finding a passion or a club where you can gain leadership skills might increase your desirability to future employers. Maybe instead of trying to be a jack-of-all-trades, find opportunities that align with your strengths and do what you can to downplay your weaknesses. Nobody is great at everything, but being really good at one thing gives you a unique edge.

What are the most important lessons you learned as a college student?