How to Manage a Heavy Workload as a PhD Student: Practical Time-Management Tips

There aren’t many times in your life when you feel like you have to do so much with so little as when you’re in graduate or post-graduate school. You may wonder what happened to that “younger you” that could balance school, fun, work, and life when you were an undergrad. But the reality is that things are just different when you’re a PhD student, and that can get both overwhelming and incredibly lonely. 

Take care to balance your time and build a life around doing things that bring your joy. Rather than focusing on building your life around deadlines, calendars, and projects, structure your workday so that it adds value to your life as a whole.

In other words, manage your time from the inside out. 

This post was written by Abbie Van Wagner (freelance writer) on behalf of Dr. Dave Maslach for the R3ciprocity project (check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software).

Often, advice about managing time has to do with using technology tools for project management or optimizing your calendar to maximize your productivity. You may even keep a work diary so you can reflect on whether you were productive enough in what you actually accomplished. 

In this article, I’m going to challenge your thinking by telling you you’re doing it all backward. Managing your workload starts at home and with your non-work life. Once you build a foundation and determine where your values lie, you can come up with a plan that you’ll be able to stick to for work-related tasks. Managing your time should focus on yourself as an individual and what you enjoy.    

To hear more about managing your workload and time, check out this video, where Dave discusses the topic in more detail! 

Time management for workload and time.

Focus on What Brings You Joy

Think back to when you first discovered your field or when you first felt that spark of excitement from digging into your research. Of course, we all get a little beaten down by the realities of life, but the things that you truly enjoy typically stay consistent over time. 

When you’re trying to manage a heavy workload, focus on the parts of your work that make you happy or pique your curiosity. Instead of thinking like a robot and viewing your life and work as a well-oiled machine, try to focus on enjoying the moment you’re in or what you’re working on at the time. 

Sometimes, that may be difficult to do, especially when you’re really swamped with tedious tasks. Still, thinking about the big picture and how your work right now fits into your larger goals can be great for keeping you motivated. Or it may mean just focusing on getting through the daily grind so you can enjoy whatever you have planned for the evening or weekend. 

By focusing on your happiness and following your own enthusiasm, you can avoid the culture of overworking in academia. 

Are you a workaholic? Find out by watching this video, where Dave discusses the work culture in academia.

Are you a workaholic?

Of course, the things that bring you joy may change quite a bit over time. As a PhD student, you’ll wear many hats, so there will be times when you enjoy what you’re doing more than other times. Follow your heart and build a strong foundation, and you’ll always be able to get back to your center, even when your life is chaotic. 

If you’re a PhD student, read this article which discusses the sacrifices you make and why you deserve appreciation.

Reward Yourself

One way you can keep yourself motivated is to plan breaks and rewards into your work time. For example, when you sit down to write, set a goal to come to a stopping point, and then break away to have a snack, go for a walk, or chat with a friend. 

Having these planned breaks and rewards is especially important when you’re grinding away at some of the more mundane tasks on your list. Be sure to stick to them, too. Treat your stopping points just like your starting points – they’re non-negotiable parts of your schedule. 

It’s important to use these breaks and rewards to help you resist the urge to keep pushing through when you may not be producing your best work. Those periods when you’re tired and unmotivated are also when you’re more likely to fall to technology and other distractions that can end up being major time wasters. Not only that, but when you’re not really “feeling it,” you may make mistakes or have to do rework because you were too tired or unfocused. 

It’s also a good idea to reward yourself with social activities (if that’s something that you enjoy). Academia can be a lonely place, so building a community around yourself will help you to feel supported even during the roughest times. 

To hear more about that, check out this video where Dave addresses how to deal with loneliness in a research career. 

Dealing with loneliness.

Protect Your Personal Time

Oftentimes, PhD students get so wrapped up in their work they may forget about the time needed for self-care. Simple tasks like going to the grocery store, cooking, chores, and sleeping are essential and require time in your schedule. 

Taking personal time is critical for your mental and physical well-being. If you want to keep your sanity now and in the future, you’ll need to know how to determine when you need to take time for yourself. 

To learn more about how to keep your sanity in academia, check out this video, where Dave discusses the topic in more detail.

Keep your sanity in academia.

Time management and mental health have big impacts on one another. That’s why ensuring you have time for work, relaxation, and self-care are all equally important when scheduling your limited time. Listen to yourself, your body, and your mind.

If you need to sleep, then sleep!

If you need to eat, eat! 

Not only does taking care of yourself help promote better productivity during your work time, but it also helps foster resilience and helps you to be better prepared to manage stress and anxiety during crunch time. 

Learn more about mastering resilience and other tips to handle difficult times in this video!

Mastering resilience.

Know When to Stop

There will be times when you feel like you’re really “in the zone.” Whether you’re working on a writing project or paper, performing research, or doing other tasks, you’ll experience moments when you feel great about what you’re doing. Believe it or not, those moments when you’re chasing an idea or feeling especially energized are some of the best times to stop working. 

While that may seem counterintuitive, knowing when to stop can help you refocus on the joy and excitement you get from your work. It will create a mindset where you’re looking forward to getting back to your project or task rather than dreading it. 

Because, as humans, we are driven by our emotions and personal drive, this can be an effective technique that works better than some of the more rational-focused productivity tools. When you have your internal desire driving you back to work versus a calendar or other reminder, you’ll typically find that you’re happier and more productive during your work time. 

What is life really like for most PhD students? Find out by reading this article!

Find a Routine That Works for You 

Finding a routine that not only works logistically but also makes you happy is critical to managing your time as a PhD student. Start with the essentials like sleeping and eating, and then let the rest fall into place in a way that makes sense for you. 

One essential component of your routine is rest and sleep. You should allow yourself 7-8 for sleep each day. From there, you can prepare a schedule that allows you to complete the necessary amount of work while allowing yourself time for breaks, rewards, and other tasks.

How your routine looks will depend on you and your personal preferences. For example, if you like to get up and get to work right away and take a breakfast break later, your daily routine may be different from someone who likes to start the day more gradually.

If frequent breaks throughout the day make you more productive versus a longer break in the afternoon, then you should let that guide your routine and schedule.

The most important part is to build your routine around your life rather than around your job. Your work should complement who you are, not consume your identity. 

If you’re interested in learning more about different useful software and tools for PhD students, check out this article with our team’s recommendations!

Accept Your Flaws

There will be times when you feel like a complete failure. You’ll fall behind schedule, you won’t complete work you needed to get done, or sometimes you may need to redo work you already did because it didn’t turn out right. Give yourself some grace and understand that those are normal parts of being a PhD student and a human! 

If you’re in a rut and feeling down on yourself, check out this video where Dave discusses the fact that sometimes, education does indeed make you feel like a failure. 

Education makes you feel like a failure

Even the American Psychological Association challenges you to “abandon perfection” as part of your pursuit to better your own time management. The simple fact is that there’s not enough time in the day or energy in your body to give every project or assignment your 100% best. 

Take some time to review your workload and prioritize tasks and assignments that really need your focus and attention versus those that may be less crucial to your research. Give yourself a time limit of how long you want to dedicate to that particular assignment or task and stick to it. 

Using this technique will help you combat any perfectionist tendencies and keep yourself on schedule for your more important work. 

The Bottom Line

As much as you might feel like a robot at times, you most certainly are not. You are a human with human emotions, drives, wants, and needs. You’ll get all kinds of advice about how to manage your time and create an effective schedule for your life as a PhD student, but the honest truth is that there is no “one size fits all” approach to planning your lifestyle. 

You may try different apps and tools to manage your productivity or use multiple calendars to keep up with various deadlines. Or you may even want to use software to ensure you’re not getting off-track when you’re working. Whatever you choose to do, just be sure that it fits into your lifestyle and contributes to your overall well-being and satisfaction.

If every day is just an endless grind of calendars and deadlines with no joy, it won’t be long before you get burned out. 

Instead, I challenge you to stay focused on what you enjoy the most about your work. Take time to celebrate successes. Allow yourself an opportunity to be excited when you learn something new or discover something during research. 

Most importantly, structure your workday from the inside out. Start by building a life you enjoy and allow your work to complement that. Focus on the things that make you happy. Schedule time for friends, self-care, and relaxation. Take breaks and reward yourself. 

Allow yourself room to fail and time to do the things you like, whether it’s taking a walk, watching a TV show, or going to the gym. If you focus your attention on the good parts of your day and put equal weight and importance on those, you’ll have a more productive work day and a happier, more fulfilling time as a PhD student and researcher.

And as you continue on in your research, you’ll be better equipped to find your own internal motivation for your work more easily. 

To learn more about the motivation for research besides just external validation, check out this article

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