Cover Story

Where do the hours go?

April Krowel cringes every time she recalls it. It was early December and she had planned to decorate her home for Christmas with her husband and 2-year-old daughter. But she still hadn't started her 30-page practicum paper, which was due the following week.

"I really thought it would be no big deal," says Krowel, a counseling psychology doctoral student at Ball State University. "But it literally took all weekend to complete. I ended up getting it done and got a good grade, but it was at the expense of spending time with my family."

After that weekend, she made a promise to herself never to let it happen again. Now, she uses Apple's iCal calendar program to keep better track of upcoming assignments and schedules time for working on them weeks before they're due. She also sets reminders to avoid forgetting anything.

"It's very important to me that my family doesn't suffer while I'm pursuing my PhD," she says.

Krowel's ruined weekend was the result of an all-too-common phenomenon known as the planning fallacy, says procrastination researcher and Carleton University psychology professor Timothy A. Pychyl, PhD. He and other researchers have found that people tend to overestimate how long it will take to complete short tasks and underestimate the time longer projects will take. Then there's the fact that we forget to schedule time for the basics, says Pychyl.

"One of the biggest myths when it comes to time management is that next week always looks free," Pychyl says. "But if you put everything into the calendar that you have to do before you do anything else — things like eating, sleeping, buying groceries — you see right away that you really don't have a lot of time."

Time management is especially important for graduate students because they have so many concurrent projects, and that is likely to continue throughout their careers, Pychyl says. Get your schedule under control with these tips from several time management mavens:

Audit your time

Take a week to keep track of exactly how you spend your time, Pychyl suggests. Be it showering, eating or doing laundry, every activity should be tracked.

Nicholas Scheidt, for example, uses Google Calendar to schedule and color-code every single thing he does, from driving to sleeping, to going out to brunch on Sunday mornings.

"Every single hour on my calendar is accounted for, so that I have a very clear view of what I'm doing," says Scheidt, a clinical psychology graduate student at Carlos Albizu University in Miami. Then, when he needs to find extra time to study for exams or write a paper, he just looks at the calendar and reprioritizes.

"It's just so helpful to know where every hour is going because then you can really control your time better," he says. Even just tracking your schedule for a week gives you a much better sense of how you are spending your time, how long certain tasks such as grocery shopping or reading email really take. You can then build a more accurate schedule for yourself.

Find what works best for you

Experiment with a few different schedules, suggests Cady Block, a medical-clinical psychology doctoral student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. If you're a morning person, set aside a couple of hours in the morning to study. Block says she tends to work best by doing what she calls "chunking," where she does certain tasks on certain days.

"I found that shifting my mindset too many times during the day — between conducting research, attending practicum for a few hours, and then visiting another site to see patients, for example — made me inefficient," she says. "But if I lump all research into one day, and practica into another, I am able to concentrate all of my attention on what I'm doing."

She also chooses not to work on weeknights, reserving that time for relaxation, and then spends a portion of her weekend on coursework and research activities that can be done outside the lab, such as writing manuscripts.

"I know other students who do the opposite, and that works for them," she says.

Establish bright lines

Leave little room for negotiation once you put something on your agenda, Pychyl says. "There's no starting the task at 10:15 a.m. if you said you're going to start it at 10 a.m.," he says. "You have to honor your schedule as if it's set in stone, because otherwise you're setting the precedent that these things don't matter." If you must give yourself any leeway on this, plan two options for the time chunk — for example, either read studies or write a section of a paper. This strategy should apply to both work time and personal time, Pychyl says: "There needs to be a point in the day where you say, OK, I'm going to do some recreation now."

Just get started

So much of good time management is getting past the "I don't feel like it" mentality, Pychyl says. "The truth is that your motivational state does not have to match the task at hand," he says. "Very often, attitudes follow behavior, so just get started." You'll likely be surprised by your renewed interest in the task once you make a little progress.

Get (a little) help from friends

Block suggests enlisting another student in your cohort to help keep you accountable and meeting with him or her often to review progress. "I know of students who put together ‘dissertation groups' where they met once per month and reviewed progress on their dissertations," she says. "Your peers can often be your key to success in graduate school, as long as you choose them well."

Use small chunks of time

How often do you think to yourself, "I only have 15 minutes before my next appointment — that's not enough time to write that memo/read that article/type up those client notes. I'll just surf the Web instead"? Pychyl suggests using that time to get started on the task. "You might be surprised at how much you can get done in a day by just using those small chunks of time to make progress on something," he says.

Use technology to avoid distraction

Social networking and email checking are a procrastinator's best friend. To help you stay on task, download a productivity tool that allows you to block certain sites on certain days and times of the week, such as Leech Block, Google's StayFocused or Apple's Focusbar app.

"If you know that Facebook or YouTube consumes a good amount of your time, these apps can help eliminate those distractors," says Sheila Modir, a clinical psychology doctoral student at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Abandon perfection

As a busy graduate student, you don't have the time and energy to give every project your all, says Aileen Chang, a school psychology doctoral student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. If there's an assignment that's not crucial to your realm of study, but that you're required to complete, Chang recommends giving yourself only a set amount of time to do it. "Once that time limit is up, consider the product ‘good enough' and move on to the next task," she says.

Reward yourself

It's important to plan breaks — and even an occasional vacation — to refresh your mind and spirit, Scheidt says. While he was writing his dissertation last year, Scheidt took day trips to the botanical gardens to clear his mind. As a bigger reward — and an impetus to stay on task — he scheduled a trip to Argentina for after the project was completed.

"You really need to have incentives like that to stay motivated," he says.

Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago.