Matters to a Degree

Does this scenario sound familiar? You've made a commitment to do something, with every intention to honor your promise. Then, the deadline draws near and you become anxious, stressed, overwhelmed and wonder how you're going to be able to find time to meet your obligation while attending to all of the others? So, you work until you're weary, you have a sudden and unrelenting "brain freeze," you fulfill your commitment but the quality of your work does not meet your (or others') expectations, or you simply withdraw and fail to honor your agreement, letting yourself down, disappointing others, and even worse, damaging your reputation.


Overpromising, overextending, overestimating and overdoing does not help you live a balanced life, take care of yourself or develop a positive and healthy professional identity. Yet, we all do it on occasion. And we all regret it afterward. The opportunities for students to contribute professionally are tremendous, making it difficult to pass up chances that you think may only come around once.

It always seems that there's too little time and too much to do. But selecting your activities and opportunities carefully is one of the most important skills to master as a graduate student. Saying "no" and respectfully declining enticing opportunities will serve you much better than taking on a project, then quitting and letting people down once you're involved.

Being able to set priorities and allocate time appropriately are critical skills for achieving your personal and professional goals. Taking control of your time and schedule enables you to increase productivity, enhance your quality of life and establish a reputation for which you can feel proud.


How do you select from among many alternatives wisely?

  • Examine your schedule and available time. Sit down with your calendar and list all of your responsibilities, as well as your routine and mandatory activities. Include your classes, lab work, study time, work schedule, practicum, family activities, and time for self-care and social events. Keep in mind that it's often easy to underestimate your time constraints.

  • Survey and prioritize. After looking over your schedule, determine if you have already taken on too much. Can you scale back any of your activities to free up more time for new opportunities? Decide what is realistic and what is most important to you in light of your existing obligations.

  • Avoid last-minute commitments. While a calendar can serve as a useful visual reminder of standing and upcoming events, too many blank spaces may tempt you to fill them quickly with new activities. Before taking on another obligation, be sure to obtain a good description of what will be expected of you and the time investment. Consider how the new activity will contribute to your development and if it's in-line with your goals. Be sure to set aside time in your schedule for rest and relaxation. Days reserved "just for you" or "just for family" are as important as everything else!

  • Say "no" and "yes" and mean it. Learning to say no can be a very difficult thing to do, particularly for students who want to stand out among a cohort of other high-achieving and talented individuals. People that you don't see or interact with on a regular basis may not realize the full extent of your time commitments. When your schedule is already pushing its maximum capacity, it's not only permissible, but important, to say no and to feel comfortable setting limits.

Before committing to something new, take some time to think about the implications, so that if you do agree to take it on you can perform to the best of your abilities and be absolutely certain you can follow through. The first few times you have to turn down an exciting opportunity may feel awkward or unsettling. But it's much better for you and your reputation to do a few things exceedingly well, than a lot of things in a mediocre way.

Dealing with an overcommitted schedule is difficult. Examining your activities with respect to your goals will allow you to develop valuable skills that will help you gain credibility and maintain balance.

-Dr. Carol Williams-Nickelson

Find your balance

See the March 2005 gradPSYCH cover package for tips on how to balance work, life and school.