Why Are Some Habits TOXIC to Your Productivity in Graduate School?
I’ll be honest with you about my graduate school experience:
I was an eager-beaver 1st year graduate student. Going straight from college to a PhD program, I thought I was maximally prepared to take on the challenges of graduate school.
As soon as I started my doctoral program, I was ready to put the same strategies to work that helped me to strive as an undergraduate:
- working long hours,
- making sure every assignment was perfect before handing it in to a professor,
- cranking through my to-do list every day, and
- trying to do everything on my own to demonstrate to my professors that I was independent.
It did not take long before I realized that my approach to getting through graduate school was wearing me down, and I felt overwhelmed by the responsibilities of research while trying to complete my coursework. I also realized that I was not alone.
Not only were some of my classmates burned out by the end of our first year, but senior graduate students (in their 5th, 6th or 7th years) were also unsure about what they needed to do graduate.
Everyone in my graduate school program was bright, hard-working, with high GPAs from brand-name schools. So, why was it such a challenge to complete a PhD thesis? There were students in our department who completed their theses in 4 years or even less – what were they doing right?
Or, more importantly, what were the successful students NOT doing, that helped them to graduate quickly?
The challenges of graduate school are very different from those in college: instead of weekly or monthly assignments, your project spans multiple years. Working long hours paid off in college: sometimes three professors handed me three assignments on the same day, and they were all due one week later.
In order to do high quality work, I had to put in long hours in college to complete all assignments during crunch-time.
In graduate school, you might put in long hours for one project, and then find out later that you went in the wrong direction. Or, you want to put in long hours, but you are not even sure what you need to do to make progress on your thesis.
Or perhaps, you know what you need to do to graduate, but you just don’t have the energy, motivation, or interest to do work after so many dead-ends, conflicts with your supervisor, and the uncertainty of the PhD job market.
Most of the work ethics that supported you to get through college, or perhaps in industry, will quickly prove to be TOXIC in graduate school.
These work habits are not only ineffective, but they can lead to burn-out, damage your personal relationships, and destroy your self-esteem.
Many bright students quit graduate school, and even change career paths completely, simply because they did not realize that the habits that they brought with them from college or industry are actually hindering progress om their theses.
In this article, I will show which habits are the most toxic to your productivity, and what you can do to break free from them, so you make progress and finish your thesis.
Seven Habits Are Toxic To Your Productivity
One of the most amazing things about being a thesis coach, is that I get to talk with graduate students from all over the world, who come from all different fields of study. Yet, when they initially reach out to me, their emails are very similar:
“I need to graduate by this date, and I have so much work, and so little time. Can you please help me to become more productive?”
How come graduate students from all over the world, from different fields of studies, have so much work and so little time to complete it? During our initial consultation I ask them about their goals, challenges, and time-management strategies.
I am amazed when I hear that a student from Germany in Engineering has the same challenges as a student from Nepal in Sociology.
The more questions I ask them, the more they realize that the problem is not that they don’t have time.
The problem that most students face is that they have certain habits that eat up their time, so even during the limited time that they are at work (if they have kids for example), they are not maximizing their productivity.
I list these habits here in the order of importance based on my clients’ experiences. Some of these habits might not apply to you – but maybe you can recognize some of these patterns in your daily work:
1.Focusing on what you need to (or should) do, rather than what you want to accomplish. There are few things more demoralizing than a long list of to-do’s without a purpose that excites you.
Yet, many students have a long list of tasks to be completed by an ambitious deadline, without an exciting reason or purpose behind their.
To give you an example, one student was overwhelmed in trying to get data analyzed and her slides prepared for her thesis committee meeting.
She focused on all the little things that she needed to do (e.g. perfecting her slides and practicing her talk until it was flawless). But what did she really want? She wanted to get her committee’s approval to move onto the next phase of her research, so she could be closer to graduation. Was it necessary to get all her slides perfect to get their approval? Or was it more important to demonstrate that her data was solid?
In the next section, I will show you how changing your focus from what you need to do, to what you really want, will not only improve your progress, but make the journey so much more enjoyable.
2.Majoring in minor things – As we all have 24 hours in a day and infinite number of things we could be doing, achieving your goals boils down to prioritizing what actions you need to take each day that are in alignment with your purpose. Students who reach out to me for help, have endless number of commitments (e.g. student groups, hobbies, family trips) that eat up the little time that they have.
A successful entrepreneur told me that the most important word he learned in the English language was “No.” In order to accomplish what is truly important, you need to say “No” either to yourself when you get distracted, or to others who need your time. Saying “No” does not mean that you need to be rude to others, or shut people out from your life.
I will explain this concept in more detail below, but there are many ways of saying “No,” without being offensive and still maintain a good relationship with others.
3.Prioritizing email and social media – This is a subcategory of “Majoring in minor things”, but it is such a big time sink that it deserves a category of its own.
I have yet to meet a student who complained about “Not having enough time”, without admitting to being “sucked into” email, social media, or web-surfing regularly. Unfortunately, in today’s world we cannot quit digital communication cold turkey.
Email and social media (especially for job hunters) has become a survival tool. But, I will show you below how to manage your time, so that you don’t put more effort into this area of your life than you must.
4.Perfectionism – This is one of the MOST common toxic habits, even among students who generally manage their time well.
Some students keep rewriting the same paragraphs from their theses because they are not satisfied with their writing. Others spend a lot of time reading, but are reluctant to start typing because they are worried about not knowing enough before putting pen to paper (so to speak).
Of course, I encourage everyone to strive for excellence and high quality research – but striving for excellence is much more motivating than trying to make everything perfect. There is no such thing as a perfect thesis – even if you spent 100 years writing it, some professors will still question some of your arguments.
5.Beating yourself up – Do you know “Grandma’s Rule”: No playing outside until you do your homework? My Grandma was certainly right. After I played outside I had no energy to do homework. I had to get it over with before going to play. However, homework back then (in elementary school) was half an hour or maybe 1 hour. I
f you keep this mentality in graduate school, you will not play until you get your thesis done – in 5 or 6 years! And then, you will be too busy to play because you will need to get ready for your new job (interviewing, moving, etc.). As I will explain below, you need to reward yourself regularly – even for a tiny baby step in the right direction.
6. Isolating yourself, or not asking for help – Loss of motivation is frequently accompanied by feelings of isolation. Students in graduate school might isolate themselves from their community, their coworkers, and maybe even from their supervisor. Research is not a solitary endeavor and reaching out to others for emotional support (spouse, friends, family, community) or academic support (supervisors, thesis committee members) can help you to get through the natural ups and down of graduate school.
When you isolate yourself, you are not only depriving yourself from inspiration from other people, but you can also damage your personal relationships and self-esteem.
7.Ignoring signals from your body to take a break- Let’s face it: none of us are getting younger. Even if you skipped several grades, you are only going to get older as you progress through graduate school. You cannot take your health for granted, even if you are in your 20’s.
More hours at work do not translate to more progress. Extreme stress for extended periods of time can lead to burnout and low quality work. If you are working when you are tired you are more likely to make mistakes, which in the long run will hinder your progress.
What Can You Do to Break These TOXIC Habits and Finish Graduate School?
The first step in breaking any habit is to become aware of it. If you recognize any of the patterns mentioned above, try the following tips. Remember that it can take several weeks to break a habit or to form a new one. I recommend choosing one or two tips for now, that you feel would make the most difference in increasing your productivity:
1. If you feel overwhelmed by a to-do list and not sure how to prioritize: Instead of following a to-do list and cramming as much as possible into each day, write down what is the end result that you want. For example, instead of writing in your calendar “Work on slides for committee meeting”, write “Create an outstanding presentation for committee meeting to show them that my data is solid, and I am ready to move onto the next phase of my research.”
Then, you can list the actions necessary to achieve that result. An action plan with a well-defined goal is much more motivating than a random list of chores.
2. If you spend a lot of time on activities that do not support your thesis,(e.g. social events that you feel obligated to attend): Learn to say “No”, or at least reduce the responsibilities you have. I used to be the Co-President of the Hungarian Association at MIT, and I organized social events and cooked for 20-50 people.
As I neared my graduation date, I asked other students to help with the organization and the cooking. This reduced my time commitment, and working with other students (rather than by myself) also became a fun social activity. Eventually, I transitioned the leadership to more junior students so I could focus on finishing my thesis.
3. If you spend more time on email/social media/web-surfing that you want to admit: Do one high priority task every morning before checking email, to reduce distraction from information overload. As most people check their email as soon as they turn on their computer, this can be a tough habit to break.
If you feel “email-withdrawal” symptoms, commit to only 30 or maybe 15 minutes to an important action, such as setting up an experiment, writing or preparing slides. If you can, delay email checking by at least one hour, so you can accomplish an important task before getting overwhelmed by emails.
4. If you are a perfectionist, and spend too much time on details: Think about what is absolutely essential to make your work (writing, experiment, presentation) outstanding. As the 80/20 states, 80% of your success comes from 20% of your effort.
Focus on the 20% (e.g. doing rigorous data analysis) that will give you the most bang for your buck, instead of focusing on minor details that do not add to the quality of your work (e.g. colors on slides, re-writing the same paragraph repeatedly).
As it is impossible to write a perfect thesis, I advise students to let it go when they think it is 95-98% complete. Almost everyone I know had to revise their thesis, no matter how carefully they revised it beforehand.
5. If you feel like you “should” be working harder or “should” be making more progress: Celebrate every small milestone. Optimized one condition in your experiment? Wrote one page of your thesis? Acknowledge every small win. You don’t need to eat a fancy dinner, but reward yourself with a little break such as going to the gym, going out with friends, or anything else that is FUN for you.
6. If you feel like you do not get enough support: Friends (especially other graduate students), family, and student groups can be a great source of emotional support. Academic support can be a little bit more challenging to get, especially if you don’t have a good relationship with your supervisor. One of the most important factors in getting the right support is to be proactive.
Reach out to your supervisor, and if he/she cannot give you the guidance you need, turn to other professors, or senior members in your group. In my upcoming blogs, I will discuss some strategies to get better mentoring from your supervisor, so you can get your thesis on track. (If you are not on my list yet,enter your email at the bottom of the page to get my free e-book “Finish Your Thesis Faster.”).
7. If you lack energy, or have frequent tension in your body: Of course, the first step is to see a doctor to make sure there is no underlying condition that is affecting your energy levels or physical pains. If there is no underlying illness, take a look at your work schedule. Are you working long days and never take a break even on weekends? While there is a lot of pressure to meet milestones and publish, you need to “sharpen your saw” regularly. A tired body and mind will not be productive or creative.
It can be easy to get lost in your work in graduate school, and before you know it, it is the end of the day and you didn’t go to the gym (again) or even eat a decent meal. The best way to keep your body in top shape is to pre-schedule breaks and exercise in advance. Put them in your calendar, like you would any other meeting. One of my professors confessed that he didn’t go to the gym often, but whenever he did, he was more productive and creative afterwards. Keep sharpening your saw – not only will you be more productive, you will also be happier.
To support this last point, I will share with you a quote from Abraham Lincoln:
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”