Productivity Tips from a Graduate Procrastibaker: steps to set yourself up for success working from home

If you’re anything like me as a grad student, with the onset of Covid-19 and subsequent quarantine, you are constantly being bombarded on social media by conflicting articles about how to stay productive, how being unproductive in times of crisis is okay, and my personal favourite, (and consequently one I contribute to) idealized and highly stylized procrastination social media posts, mine are usually in the form of posting my many baking projects. Quarantine has both changed many things and at the same time, very few. For me, baking has always been my way to productively procrastinate anything. In fact, my favourite portmanteau is procastibaking, and it is something I cop to, crisis or no. But I’m finding the bombardment of productivity posts and articles can be stressful in itself. After all, there is not a one-size-fits-all productivity solution because as graduate students we all have very different lives and responsibilities. Some of us have children, others are living in complete isolation, some are already dealing with pre-existing crises and others felt they were barely keeping their head above water regarding PhD progress even before the pandemic. Here I recognize my privilege as a single childless person; I can lock myself away to work and only have myself to distract me, though in quarantine this can be more isolating than ever… And truthfully, over the years I’ve become very good at creating distractions for myself… I mean ‘productive procrastination’.  With that note, what works for me, may not work for all, in the end listen to yourself (and others who rely on you, if that’s the case), because you will know what’s right for you.

One thing I should say before you start reading even more quarantine productivity advice, is that its okay to allow yourself time to be disappointed. This crisis hit three days before I was set to head out on my research trip, and everything was cancelled. I was left without even a place to live (as I had given up my apartment and packed away all my things in storage). I was very lucky I had family to rely on, but I was also constantly being bombarded by a single stressful question, from others and myself, ‘well, what are you going to do now?’ My research trip was supposed to make up the majority of my dissertation, and now it was postponed until further notice. And that question terrified me, because I really could not answer… ‘What am I going to do now?’ For the first couple of days I went into hyper-productivity mode, trying to figure out my plan A, B, C, D and Z, but I found myself frustrated with the results. It was later that I realized it was because I didn’t allow myself time to stop, be disappointed and grieve everything. Not just my own loses, but what was happening all over the world. After all, in this global crisis the whole world is suffering. I would definitely say a crucial step for your own productivity and more importantly your own mental health, is allowing for some time to embrace and really feel; it’s okay to be unproductive for a while. As well regarding our female colleagues with kids, it has been well documented that female academics are already at a disadvantage regarding progressing through the ranks of academia. The gendered impacts of Covid-19 are already being studied and unsurprisingly, the impact for female academics (particularly with kids) are very different from our male colleagues in the academy. This of course also impacts our ability to do work, and conflicts with the speed in which the academy expects work done, it is important to be cognizant of these pressures and differences in workload when assessing your own productivity and whether productivity is even possible.

It is also important to take stock of your mental health during this period. It is a good idea to try and keep in touch virtually with your academic community (this is important even in times of non-crisis). I’m sure you’ve heard it a million times, a graduate degree can be an incredibly isolating experience, but knowing you’re not alone can help. And if you truly feel like you are drowning, there are resources out there to help you, here is a link to a mental health service included with our Student Care graduate plan called Empower Me.  They have a call-in line for anyone who needs to talk with someone. UW counselling services is also providing on the phone appointments; if you need to schedule one just call: 519-888-4567 ext. 32655. Please don’t hesitate to use either of these services if you need someone to help with your mental health.

So why take the time to read the work from home tips from of a self-proclaimed procastibaker? Well, one of the ways I productively procrastinate is to create highly organized to-do lists, SMART goals, and productivity planners. My excel spreadsheets are truly a thing of beauty. I recently started bullet journaling and I love it. But then again, I was always one of those people who carried around a paper planner, rather than use my phone calendar. I can see the odd looks and cringes now, but I swear I remember things better. My productivity spreads in particular are what I want to share with my fellow graduate students who are looking to get working from home. And trust me, I know it is hard, and I also recognize that some days its just not possible to get motivated. The pressure to constantly produce for academics seems to never really go away, even in times of crisis. One thing that seems to work well for me, is working with the natural ebb and flow of my feelings of motivation. On days when I feel very motivated (deadlines help me with this); I own it, I focus all my energy on my most important tasks. On days when my motivation is low, I am (or at least try to be) forgiving of myself. On those days, I give myself permission to work a little less and do some self-care instead. After all, no one can be 100% motivated all the time. But sometimes it is not possible on your low motivation days to do little or no work, so here are some other things you can do to help jump start your motivation (again adapt and change these as necessary for your own circumstances):

  • Step One: Set up your workspace (even if it is only a mental adjustment)

  • Step Two: Create a rough schedule around your needs

  • Step Three: Keep track of the activities you want to hit every day and reward yourself when you do

  • Step Four: Create a to-do list or project list

  • Step Five: Set out your most important tasks for the day

  • Step Six: Reflect on your day, adapt and change as necessary

  • Step Seven: Make time for self-care and relaxation

Step One: Set up your workspace (even if it is only a mental adjustment)

In normal times, one of the reasons why I pack up my computer, books and go into the office is the mindset it puts me in. In my apartment, there are a million other things to do, cook, bake, clean, endlessly binge shows, and its harder to regularly get into a ‘time to work’ mindset. Going to the office acts as a mental switch for me, when I go there, its time to work. Obviously, in the times of quarantine this has become impossible. So, if you are like me, you have to find ways to create that mental switch without moving to a new physical space. This means creating a workspace within your home that acts to switch yourself into a ‘time to work’ mode. Ideally this workspace would be a place you do not do other things, for example, your bed or the couch in front of the TV. This obviously may not be possible in every case, for example, I used to live in a studio apartment, and I did not have room for a desk. Regardless of whether it can be a separate workspace, you should pick a place that is relatively comfortable, so you should pay attention to the ergonomic design of the workspace like how high the table is and your arm and shoulder position. It might be time to invest in a lumbar support or wireless keyboard to be ideally comfortable. Theoretically, it is easier to work longer and more productively if you are comfortable. If only one of these things is available, I would say choose comfort. I also like to have a timer at my workspace, that I set for a certain amount of time (usually 30 minutes) I want to work, after which I have a break, get tea, stretch, etcetera. Also, for those of you with kids, I recognize it may be much harder to find a workspace where you aren’t interrupted and can sit for an extended period of time. Just remember, even with the pressures of academia, productivity isn’t always possible (and can be severely overrated) when working from home. If you have to work, however, one of my friends had the strategy for comprehensive exams, of either working early in the morning or late at night, when her kids were in bed, to squeeze in some reading time. Though I understand this is not always ideal. If you can’t make the physical adjustment to have a dedicated workspace, try at least to have a mental adjustment into a working mindset. The next steps can help you do this, by creating a rough working routine and prioritizing which tasks to focus on.

Step Two: Create a rough schedule around your needs

Are there any things you consistently want to do in the mornings, or is there a time that your mind is best at working? Create a rough ideal schedule around this. You don’t have to account for every minute, just create a rough draft of the routine you would like to follow while you work from home. For example:

Daily Routine example
Morning Afternoon Evening

Yoga

2 hours of dedicated writing/research time. Make Dinner

Make Breakfast

Do a French lesson *Free time**

Read for 4 sets of 20 minutes

   

Stretch in between sets

   

This routine would simply be your ideal schedule, if life decided it didn’t want to interfere today. In other words, don’t feel bad if your life doesn’t look like this every day.

Step Three: Keep track of the activities you want to hit every day and reward yourself when you do

Even something as simple as checking things off a list can release dopamine to your brain (which also helps with productivity). So, it can be good to physically write down your goals for everyday and check them off when you complete them. This is mine from my Recollections bullet journal.

Habit racker

As you can see I want to floss more (small but important), read academic texts for at least 30 minutes a day, and practice French every day. I get to colour in the square on the days I complete the task. If this does not suit your needs, here are two more options for tracking: (The tracking page on the left is a pre-made page from my Recollections bullet journal, which I bought at Michaels)

Start goal tracker

Step Four: Create a to-do list or project list

Like many graduate students I am often juggling about 50 things at any one time. I find it helps to have a ‘master’ to-do list of all those tasks and projects, and their due dates. I normally do them month-by-month and add as I go, but you can do this anyway it suits you.

 Step Five: Set out your most important tasks for the day

This may be the most important step for me to have a productive day. Either the night before or in the morning, look at your to-do/project list; pick out a maximum of three tasks you want to focus on that day (in addition to your ongoing goals) and set out the amount of time you want to spend on each task. The below spread is based loosely on using the pomodoro technique, so each box represents 30 minutes of time. It’s important to make your goals attainable, so if you have one very big project consider only having one most important task for the day and break it into smaller pieces instead.

You can you will tracker

 

Below is a completed one so you can see how I would fill it out. These designs are very flexible so you can add or remove things as needed. For example, some people like to keep track of the amount of water they drink on this page.

Stay focused

 

I have also played around with using a digital daily most important task list in Microsoft Onenote, which definitely can be faster, so that is an option for you. But honestly, I still prefer the paper trackers.

Step Six: Reflect on your day, adapt and change as necessary

This is another incredibly important step, I find to keep myself productive long term. After each day reflect on your days progress. Did you complete the time goals you set for yourself? Were there too many tasks? Did something derail your productivity that day? I recently started incorporating a ‘productivity score’ at the bottom of my daily task list, to give myself a rating at the end of the day.

Productivity rating

I think it is also important to have a reflection element as well as a score, because scores are so subjective. The three questions I like to ask are: What did you do well today?, What can you improve on?, How are you feeling?. These things can contextualize your ‘productivity score’ and potentially help you narrow down ways to change and become more productive tomorrow.

Step Seven: Make time for self-care and relaxation

This one goes hand in hand with all the other steps. If you make sure to make time for relaxing, as well as work, your work will go much better. Maybe, plan a virtual movie night with friends, or make time to bake something delicious… as you know, that is my go-to. In times of upheaval it is more important than ever to plan activities that will relax and restore you.

So that is it. I hope you find at least one of these spreads and steps useful to allowing yourself to be more productive at home. And truth be told, I use the daily task planner, all the time. As graduate students we are often working to abstract or soft deadlines, which can be a real challenge. Writing down your goals and keeping yourself accountable can be a great way to continue your progress, and at the end of the day help you get one step closer to the ultimate goal of finishing your thesis or dissertation. In case you haven’t heard this recently; you can do it! Good luck and happy working.

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