Wellness, Productivity, Balance for Graduate Students and Beyond

How to Schedule Mindfully: a #MindfulPhD post

Hello, my name is Katy Peplin and I am a recovered over-scheduler. No, really. Once, in the weeks leading up to my qualifying exams, I brought in a schedule that I had made for myself, with activities planned out down to 5 minute increments. The schedule lasted for three weeks. I was busy explaining how proud I was of scheduling 15 minutes to read for fun four nights in the future when she stopped me and said:

Tough question, doc. 

Tough question, doc. 

"What happens when something runs long and the schedule gets thrown off?"

My mind immediately jumped to: redo the schedule of course! But after being prodded to see how long the schedule took to make (more than an hour) and how likely it was that something, in the course of a three week time span, might run late or finish early, or that something unexpected might come up, I began to realize that maybe something was off. It wasn't until she took the schedule away, and challenged me to work without one for a week that I realized:

I schedule to feel less anxiety, because its a future promise of time spent on things that are important. But, if that schedule changes, I feel even MORE anxiety because the plan I had to keep everything in control is now not working. The anxiety gets even worse when I work to "catch back up" to goals that were just dreams in the first place, until I either burn out or shut down. 

And, another important realization:

95% of the time, I know what needs to be done. I rarely miss big deadlines, or forget to do important things. Excessive scheduling can just add pressure to what is already a pretty functional routine. 

Now, let's be clear. I still schedule things! My life runs by my Google Calendar, and I have systems to keep tasks in check so I make sure I'm making progress. BUT I no longer force myself to make hugely detailed schedules for every minute of every day, and rather focus on making sure I'm being smart about priority tasks. Here are some tips that I've found really helpful in my more loosely scheduled life:

  • Block out time for important things you might otherwise overlook/not get to. I've written before about scheduling writing, but sub in any of the following: hobbies, eating, meal prep, sleeping, time with friends and family, admin tasks you avoid, exercise. Putting it on your calendar makes it a commitment, and hopefully lets you fit in work AROUND your life, not the other way around.
  • Be clear about what needs attention that day. I love my ABC lists for helping me whittle down my focus when I do sit down to work - one column for things that HAVE to be done today, one for things that would be great to finish, and one column for things that need to be done, but not today. 
  • Check in with how you feel regularly. Is your schedule giving you a sense of accomplishment or control, or do you feel anxious eery time you open your calendar? Use it as data to adjust and refine your routines and tools, not judge yourself. Every day is a chance to do better! 
  • Start with the big rocks. I love this approach to scheduling - put your big rocks, the things that have to get done that week, in your schedule first. Leave room for the little stuff that will inevitably fill in later. 
  • Put time limits on things that are time-sucks. During my PhD, teaching expanded to fill all the time it could. Most of that was due to the fact that I loved teaching, and genuinely found pleasure and purpose in the classroom, and prepping to be in the classroom. But as my schedule got busier, I had to start putting time boundaries on things. I could only spend one hour revising a lecture I'd given three times before, I tracked my time per paper during grading to make sure I was being equal but reasonable (I could easily spend an hour plus on a five page paper!) Most of us have an activity that we'll work on forever if we let ourselves - putting boundaries on that activity and respecting them can help us accomplish more without compromising the quality of the work or our schedule overall. 

No matter what you decide to try or change, I encourage you to approach your schedule with a lightheartedness, a curiosity. If I change this, what happens? How can I be more objective about what I get done during a day? Sometimes adjustments take a while to kick in. Sometimes what works wonders for someone else is a total fail for you. Keep using those PhD critical thinking skills on the most fun subject of all: you!