Productivity in Graduate School: Four Steps for a Time-Management Tune-up

By: Laura Takakjy, Doctoral candidate in Classical Languages at the University of Texas at Austin


The summer is a great time to reflect on the past year and what has and hasn’t worked for your study habits. The slower pace presents an opportunity to try new apps and time management techniques in a lower pressure setting.

Here are four steps for taking inventory of your time management and for implementing new work patterns that will set you on a path for a successful fall semester.


1) Figure out what you are doing and when you are doing it

Step number one is simply informative: learn what you do when you sit at your desk. This sounds simple—you are working, right? Probably not as much as you’d like to think. Mindless email checking, reading over news headlines, organizing desks or desktops, or even obsessively grading can distract from working on the projects that matter the most to academic progress.

The easiest way to check what you are doing is to track your time. I have found toggl to be a user friendly resource for measuring my work. The app lets you create ongoing “projects” that you can tap into every time you begin a task and tap out of when you end it. At the end of the week, toggl sends you a report of the total number of hours worked on each project.

If an app doesn’t work for you, excel or a notebook can be handy. Don’t be discouraged if you find you are engaging in active work a lot less of the time than you imagined—remember that developing increased awareness of your productivity is the first step to improving your productivity.


2) Understand the roots of your procrastination and address them

Once you understand your study habits, figure out when you are procrastinating and why. Making the perfect schedule only works if you are confident you will complete your tasks.

Last year, I had the pleasure of taking a summer writing workshop with Trish Roberts-Miller, Professor of Rhetoric and Writing at The University of Texas at Austin. She proposed that we procrastinate for three main reasons; first, because we don’t know where to begin (decisional procrastination); second, because we are bored by our work; and third, because we are anxious and (all) suffer from “imposter syndrome” or the idea that we are not up to the task to complete our own work.

When I realize I am procrastinating I identify which of these three statements (and it could be all) is true:

A) “I don’t know where to begin”

As David Allen says in Getting Things Done, “If you’re not totally sure what your job is, it will always feel overwhelming” (pg. 204). In other words, a blank screen sparks anxiety. Allen recommends that people “work from the bottom up” rather than focus on the big picture too soon. When I feel overwhelmed by my project, I do something very small that might lead me to more clarity later. For example, reading one article that sounds interesting and writing a summary of it might spark an idea for a seminar paper.

Another way to help with decisional procrastination is to seek help. A logical source of help might be your professor, advisor, or a trusted graduate school colleague. A professor, for example, can help pare down big topics into more manageable bites. Coming to a firm decision means working toward a concrete goal rather than working adrift.

B) “I am bored”

Having a self-reward system can help alleviate boredom. You can promise yourself something small (“a piece of chocolate if I work for an hour”) or something bigger (“a massage if I work 10 hours this week”).

Logging in hours (with toggl or whatever works) as suggested above can be a reward in itself. Tracking progress increases our awareness of our goal and has been shown to correlate with success; John Norcross calls this phenomenon “reactivity” in Changeology (pg. 57).

I combine tracking my time with a simple reward system (e.g. “If I log in 4 hours today, I get a piece of chocolate”). The only trick to using rewards effectively is to reward yourself only when you complete your intended task. For example, if you know you will eat the chocolate no matter what, then think of another reward. Likewise, don’t promise yourself something you should be doing anyway. Promising yourself sleep for 8 hours sounds more like avoiding punishment rather than working toward a reward.

C) “I am a phony!”

Finally, there is the type of procrastination that is the most pernicious of all: “imposter syndrome.” This is the hardest to overcome because its purpose is to keep us inert to delay facing the judgment of others or of ourselves.

Keep in mind this important point: studies have shown that there is no correlation between low intelligence and procrastination (David Allen has a section called “Why Bright People Procrastinate the Most” in his book, pgs. 240-244).

Learning about “imposter syndrome” is the first step to overcoming it. When I identify my own “imposter syndrome,” I recall past times of persevering through difficult academic challenges. I also remind myself that everyone feels this way from time to time either by talking to others or reading blogs like this one.

Furthermore, you can free write your way out of “writer’s block” by writing about “writer’s block.” Joan Bolker’s chapter “Getting Started Writing” in her book Writing your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day (which is a useful resource for any kind of writing project) has some useful tips on different types of free writing ideas.


3) Set realistic goals both great and small

Tackling procrastination can help jumpstart projects, but following through requires manageable and realistic timetables.

The trick is to create reasonable to-do lists. For example, if you give yourself an hour to read an article and then you realize the article will take you at least 3 hours to digest, at the end of the hour you might feel demoralized and be more prone to procrastinate next time.

You can use the data collected in section one (above) to analyze how long different tasks take you. For example, you might determine you are capable of reading 20 pages/hour and writing 1 page/hour and then use that information later when you are planning how long it might take you to write a paper.

As for planning when to work, this is matter of preference. If you find Tuesdays are when you are most creative, then it might be best to schedule paper writing rather than holding office hours.


4) Prioritize

If you realize that you don’t have the time to read an article for 3 hours, then it’s necessary to rethink the significance of that task. Instead of adding more hours to the day, figure out what tasks are absolutely essential and work from there. In other words, could you get away with skimming a long article? If no, you might need to rethink and reorganize your other projects in order to accomplish the most important projects to your academic progress.

Incorporating prioritization into your schedule could simply be a matter of rearranging your to-do list to reflect what is most pressing (writing your thesis) verses your dream list (organizing your office supplies). Priority Matrix is an app that lets you create a four quadrant list of your to-do list (one quadrant might be “important and urgent”; another “important and not urgent,” etc.). The premise of the app is based on a pen and paper method.

I’ve found Remember the Milk to be a helpful way to organize my to-do lists. You can have the app send you email reminders. Google calendar and a host of other services do this do this as well.



Understanding procrastination and then prioritizing your academic progress frees time for success. By using these methods, I must admit that I haven’t accomplished everything I would have dreamed. Instead, I have accomplished what is most important to me and my academic success thus far.

A special thanks to Dr. Trish Roberts-Miller (Professor in the Department of Rhetoric and Writing at The University of Texas at Austin) whose workshop I attended in 2014 inspired me to implement so many of the changes I described above.


Works Cited:

Allen, David. 2003 [2001]. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. New York: Penguin.

Boker, Joan. 1998. Writing your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing your Doctoral Thesis. New York: H. Holt.

Burka, Jane B. and Lenora M. Yuen. 2007 [1983]. Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press.

Norcross, John C. 2012. Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions. New York: Simon & Schuster.


Other resources: