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This is Heavy: Time and Stress Management for Graduate Students

Posted By Ryan M. Collins, Friday, October 23, 2015

            On October 21, 2015 shortly after 4:00 PM, sci-fi junkies and movie lovers national-wide looked to the skies, waiting hopefully for a sleek silver DeLorean appearing out of thin air. For this was the date to which Marty McFly and Dr. Emmett Brown traveled in Back to the Future, Part II, which in their cinematic world included flying cars, self-drying clothes, and, perhaps most improbably, the Cubs winning the World Series (no shade). While many of the predictions in this science fiction classic have come to pass (think wearable technology, video conferencing, and 3D movies), others remain a far fantasy. Still, this fantastical idea of time travel has left many of us to wonder – what would I do if I had a time machine? For those of us in student affairs, it would seem a perfect fix to this vexing problem of time management.

            Well, as far as I know the flux capacitor remains little more than science fiction, which means that we must continue to view time as a fixed resource. For graduate students, this means balancing a full academic course load, an assistantship that invariably requires more than the prescribed “20 hours per week,” and other commitments such as internships, professional development, and eventually job searching. Then of course, there are personal and social commitments, which far to often get set aside just to keep up with work and school. With so many demands, is it possible to keep up

I believe so, provided one approaches it with the right mindset. As an “N” on the MBTI inventory, I like to look at time management from a “big picture” perspective. Ultimately, time management comes down to two distinct but interrelated goals – managing priorities, and managing the self.

Managing priorities requires us to examine all of our responsibilities and complete them in order of their importance. So how do we determine what is most important? In his book, The 7 Practices of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey shares a story called “The Big Rocks of Time,” in which he shares the following message: “If you don’t put the big rocks [i.e., those big things that are most important to you, such as family, education, and personal health] in first, you’ll never get them in at all…If you sweat about the little stuff, then you’ll fill your life with little things, and you’ll never have the real quality time you need to spend on the big, important stuff.” To put it more simply, Covey advises us to “not sweat the small stuff” and to make sure we are prioritizing those things in which we find the greatest value. Within the contest of our professional life, we have to look at the values of our department or institution – what are the “big rocks” according our institutional leaders, our strategic plan? Are we focusing our time and energies on the priorities of those for whom we work?

From a practical standpoint, there exists a simply exercise to help us to prioritize tasks. The figure below categorizes all potential tasks along two axes: importance and urgency. Ideally, we should be spending the majority of our time in the “Important/Not Urgent” quadrant – this means we are spending most of our time on important things, but never feel rushed by them. This, in turn, ensures that we aren’t sacrificing important values such as time with friends and family as well as personal health in the mad rush to “just get it done.”

The second goal of the “big picture” of time management is managing the self. Student affairs professionals nationwide espouse the importance of “self-care” when working with our students, but far too infrequently engage in this practice ourselves. As graduate students, you may feel overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated for the work that you do, often at the expense of your personal mental and physical health. Some of us may experience extreme stress to the point of burnout, which causes us to be less productive in our day-to-day activities.

Important / Urgent

Important / Not Urgent

Not Important / Urgent

Not Important /

Not Urgent

Inadequate sleep and poor nutrition may make us groggy and sluggish during the day, which inhibits our creativity, focus, and drive to accomplish the needs of the day. This, in turn, leads us to make less effective use of our time, which breeds more stress. This can continue in a vicious cycle until we experience a complete and total breakdown in motivation and production, otherwise known as BURNOUT.

So what can you, as a graduate student, do to prevent the BURNOUT? Everyone operates a little bit differently, but no strategies for time management will work without first knowing your priorities and taking care of your needs. With that in mind, here are some of the main lessons I learned in my graduate school experience.




1.     Remember that your students are a priority. Organize your work responsibilities according to the needs of your students.

2.     Plan ahead. Don’t just look to the next day, but to 2-3 weeks down the road. Know when your big assignments are due for class and your busy days are at work, and work ahead to make sure you aren’t planning a program for 500 people the same week you have three papers due.

3.     Don’t get bogged down in the administrative stuff. Student affairs can be a highly administrative field, and while administrative tasks are important, they can’t consume your entire workday.

4.     Don’t sweat the small stuff. As noted above, don’t let the little things get you down, or you will never get around to accomplishing the most important things.

5.     Take time for yourself. If you aren’t taking care of yourself, you’re not going to be as happy or productive when you are working. Taking a 15-minute break from studying to do something you truly enjoy can do wonders for your attitude and productivity.

6.     Have a flexible schedule. The beauty of being a grad student is that you can often flex your schedule. Any good employer will understand that your class schedule may not allow you to be in the office during all normal business hours, and that your assistantship may require you to do evening and weekend work. Adjust your schedule to give yourself time during the day to offset the time you spend working after hours.

7.     Schedule lunch. Everyone has to eat sometime – and I don’t mean a microwave meal eaten at your desk. Lunch is a time not only to re-energize and nourish yourself with food, but also to share social time with colleagues and classmates. Have standing lunch dates with other graduate students to take a break and talk through the struggles of life.

8.     It can probably wait until tomorrow. Give yourself permission to leave the office at 5:00. It is true that a student affairs professional’s work is never done, but that doesn’t mean we have to try.

9.     Remember you are a student first. Don’t sacrifice your grades for the sake of your assistantship. Without the degree, that assistantship won’t get you very far.

10.  Take a class for fun. This can be a great way to hold yourself accountable for self-care. As a graduate student, you are allowed sign up for “fun classes” like physical education, music, and art. Take advantage of the opportunity to take free classes in something you enjoy (assuming your institution does not charge tuition by credit hour).

11.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help. We get it. And by “we” I mean your supervisors, other professionals, and your professors. Don’t view asking for help as a sign of weakness, but as a sign of humanity.

12.  Enjoy yourself. Have fun! We know you didn’t get into this field because of the money, but because you genuinely enjoy the idea of working with students in a college environment. Don’t forget to have fun and enjoy the ride.


These are but a few suggestions from my own experience; no doubt your peers, colleagues, and supervisors can provide more. At the end of the day, however, your ability to successfully manage your time falls to you. In the words of Doc Brown, “Your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has. Your future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one.”


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