Monday Motivation #91 (2/21/22)
In my last semester as an MSU undergrad, I didn’t go to any of my Thursday and Friday classes in March. I had good reasons: one week we were on spring break; one week I was presenting my very first research poster at a conference; and two weeks were spent visiting prospective graduate schools. Even though I was only taking 13 credits that semester, I struggled to balance my course load with two different jobs and the need to prepare for life after graduation. There just wasn’t enough time to accomplish everything on my lists, so I needed a new plan.
I sat down with my calendar and syllabi, and sketched out due dates, exams, and assignment timelines. I blocked off time for my March travels, and the hours I needed for sleeping and eating and having at least some fun on occasion. And then I figured out how to get the most benefits out of the time remaining in my semester. Obviously, I needed to pass all of my classes so I could graduate. But I’d already earned admission to several good graduate schools and a fellowship from the NSF to pay for whichever program I chose, so the actual grades in my final semester didn’t matter too much.
My Database course included huge weekly programming assignments , but each was only 1–2% of our final course grade. For one particularly difficult assignment, the instructor extended the deadline but offered a “skip a question” coupon for the final exam for students who turned in their code by the original deadline. Some quick math made it clear that the best choice was to turn in my assignment on the original due date (even though it was only 80% complete), and take the coupon that would guarantee full points on 20% of the final.
In my Networks class, I was really struggling to understand the content: the mechanics of dividing information into invisible packets that zipped around the Internet and we reassembled at the destination just didn’t make sense to me. No amount of extra studying seemed to help, so mid-semester I asked the instructor whether I would pass the class based on the work I had done so far. The answer was yes, so I explained that I would do my best but didn’t have enough time in the semester to dedicate full effort to this course. When the blocks of time I had set aside for Networks were up, I set that material aside and moved on to my next task.
I was reminded of that hectic semester recently when talking with some grad students about how to allocate time as they work towards big goals, like defending a dissertation. Some tasks, like experimental research, are unpredictable by nature. But most of the time we can estimate how long something will take to complete and plan accordingly. When there’s more work than time, we have to make choices: do we submit a polished draft of one chapter, or rough drafts of two chapters? Do we prioritize “done” over “perfect”? Do we ask for an extension, or revise the task so that it fits into the time available?
This week, I’m sharing some ideas and resources to help you manage time and tasks as you work towards big (and little) goals.
Three Things to Try This Week
Pick a Plan(ner) — whether you want an all-digital approach or are a devotee of paper and pen, finding a planning system that works for you is an important first step towards managing your time and tasks. There’s no “perfect” system, and it’s normal to change your approach periodically, but this article offers some advice about how to find a planning system that will work for you, for now.
Make an Outline — whether you’re working on a dissertation, drafting a research paper, or trying to plan experiments, making an outline of what needs to be included is a good way to think through the structure and content of your work. Outlining can help you iterate through the plan, figure out what needs to be included, and estimate how long that will take. Plus, outlines for one project can often be adapted to jumpstart related work; for example, this detailed discussion of how to outline a dissertation includes many elements that may be helpful at other points in the research process.
Build in Breaks — sometimes, when we’re sprinting towards a deadline, we can focus most of our attention on a single project. But that type of effort is not sustainable for more than a few hours or days. Most of the time, it’s important to divide our time between professional and personal goals: consistently making time for work, for play, and for rest helps us maintain a healthy balance. Succeeding at this takes some practice, and requires us to be honest about how we’re actually spending our days. Consider this advice about how to tweak your time management to find a better balance in your own life.
- While building an outline is a great way to start your thesis, it is even more helpful when you follow the MSU formatting guidelines for electronic theses and dissertations.
- Everyone is invited to attend the Engineering Graduate Research Symposium on April 14 at the MSU Breslin Center. You (and your colleagues and friends) can sign up for free.
- March 1 is the deadline to verify that your annual report for 2021 is complete; that means you’ve submitted it, your advisor has added their feedback; and you’ve reviewed and accepted this input. If you haven’t finished all three steps, please review the instructions.