Wellness, Productivity, Balance for Graduate Students and Beyond

The Finish Line: How do you manage your time and energy when the end is in sight?

As you might have noticed, I've been grinding! I launched my graduate student community, Thrive PhD fully, on April 2, and to get ready for that, I was working. A lot. So many little things to get done, so many last minute tasks I didn't plan on intruding on my schedule. But while I was working, I noticed a lot of things happening in myself, and in my clients, like:

  • Apologizing for working long hours
  • Feeling guilty about the irregular scheduling 
  • Shame about falling away from habits and routines that are proven to be helpful
  • Physical symptoms - exhaustion, fatigue, mental fuzziness that isn't easily solved by some extra sleep or a cup of coffee
  • Fear (rational or not) that it will always be like this, or never end

All of this got me thinking about whether we have to, or should, consider the period of time right before the finish line as a particular type of work. I take it as a fundamental premise of my coaching practice that people need to rest, every day. People deserve self care and they do not earn it through work or productivity. Things that recharge us ultimately serve the work, and therefore we do not need to barter with them. But how does that square with a period of time when you know that you have to work to get things done because you're nearing the finish line? So here are my guidelines on how I decide what constitutes a finish line situation, and tools to survive in them!

  1. Two weeks is the limit. In high school, my French teacher said "anyone can do anything for two weeks" as a way to motivate us to study really hard for an AP test, but I've often returned to that as an idea as an adult. I both use it to motivate - it's hard to do something for two weeks, but it doesn't last forever! There's a light at the end of the tunnel! - but also to check myself: am I really sure this will only last for two weeks (or less)? If you're looking at your schedule, and the finish line is more than two weeks off, it might be helpful to think about ramping up, rather than sprinting, as your metaphor. You can be gradually increasing the work time, but not going ALL out, up to the two week mark, but you cannot be pushing yourself to go ALL OUT for more than that without some serious consequences.
  2. It's okay that things look different during that finish line time. In a perfect world, I always get 7 or 8 hours of sleep, I always have some sort of movement, I make food that makes my body feel good, I take time to meditate, I have creative pursuits, every day has something fun....but the finish line is not the perfect time. It's okay! The more work I create for myself, apologizing to others, feeling guilty, feeling shame about what I didn't finish earlier or more gracefully, the harder the finish line is going to be. Giving yourself permission to do things differently under the circumstances is the key to starting to let go of some guilt. 
  3. You can enjoy your other work. In true finish line time, I use other tasks as a reward. For example, when I was really working hard on getting Thrive launched, I found myself looking forward to doing some editing or client calls - doing anything different felt like a relaxing break! So going into those moments and tasks, trying to be present and really enjoy them, without worrying about what I wasn't doing, helped me not forget the rest of my life and tasks, but also get a little space from my main focus.
  4. Rest and relaxation doesn't have to be all or nothing. It also helped me to start being really purposeful about the self care I was doing. I couldn't afford a whole day off to vegetate on the couch, but I could take a walk around the block with a favorite podcast to just look at some trees. Rest didn't have to take up hours - but I could be really present for it, and really enjoy it, making the most of what I could do. 
  5. Decide on your non-negotiables. My chronic illness and mental health demands that I sleep at night. I cannot pull all nighters. I need at LEAST 6 hours of sleep - so this was my hard line. I could skip workouts, eat a little junkier/faster than normal, but sleep was going to happen, whether I felt like I had done enough or not. 
  6. Let other people know! I told my parents, I told my friends, I told my husband: this is crunch time, I could use your help! This let people know I might not be as responsive over the phone, and gave me a little space to withdraw into my work cave without raising alarms, but it also gave people a chance to support me in concrete ways. My husband made dinners and didn't give me a hard time about spending less time together, and I could offer him in return a commitment to the end date - this wouldn't last forever. 
  7. Respect the spirit of the finish line. Once you cross it - once the draft is in, the project launched, the deadline passed - you have to stop working. That's the only way this works - crunch time only really works if it's time limited. So once you hit it, it can be really tempting to look back and say "look at everything I got done! Imagine what I could do if I kept this up!" RESIST THIS. You cannot keep this pace up forever - so give yourself a break. Absolutely take the best strategies and what you've learned about how you work to apply it to your normal life - but you will suffer real consequences to your health and well-being if you never end the crunch time. 


Katy Peplin