New Year’s Resolutions for the Graduate Student II: Time Management and Your Personal Life

In my first post on time management, I discussed how to tackle the seemingly endless reading load that comes with graduate school. In this second post in the series, I am focusing on trying to find a work/life balance. The key word here for me is “trying” — because, truthfully, this is the area in which I struggle the most, the area that breaks down quickest, the area that brings the most guilt and personal browbeatings every term.

I start with the best of intentions — this term will be different! This term I am NOT going to let my work for grad school get in the way of my family life/ personal pursuits/hobbies and interests. I am going to have a reasonable balance between working and playing, get enough sleep, eat healthfully, and spend plenty of time with my family and also working on the things I enjoy doing by myself. I am going to find perfect balance!

Then, ’round about week eight or so, it becomes readily apparent that That Is Not Going To Happen.

And it’s around week thirteen or so that the tears and breakdowns begin: I’m never going to get it all done! I never have time to [insert academic activity here] or to [insert family activity here] or to [insert personal activity here] and I am going to fail out of graduate school and be the worst mommy in the world all at the same time! I might as well give up RIGHT NOW because this is NEVER GETTING DONE!

I think my husband would actually be shocked if we didn’t end every term on a two-week bender of furious, eight-to-ten-hour writing and grading sessions fueled by coffee, chocolate, wine, and tears — but that was true even when I was teaching high school. Consulting with my fellow graduate students and even many of the professors I know, I can only say that this seems to be par for the course — the end of the term is a hairy time for all.

At this point, you’re wondering: Well then, Genius, why are you bothering to write a post on work/life balance if you haven’t even figured it out for yourself? And that’s a fair question to ask. Here’s the thing: aside from those finals weeks, I’ve managed to hash out a pretty good balance overall — enough so that many in my cohort have asked me how I get everything done and occasionally accuse me of being Superwoman (which, by the way, I am not complaining about, because I love her invisible plane.) I don’t have ALL of the answers, but I have some answers, and more importantly, I can draw your attention to what you need to think about and plan for in order to try to hold on to your personal life while you’re working toward your PhD.

Bigger-Picture Planning: Weekly, Monthly, by Term, by Year

SO — the first order of business is to Get Organized. It should go without saying — and most people who get into graduate school have more or less figured it out — but if you don’t budget your time, you won’t have the time to do what needs to get done. Most people seem to have migrated to Google calendar or similar digital timekeeping apps; I’m still a physical planner kind of girl, and I like those big, Barnes and Noble hardbacked desk calendars, so I can really SEE what I’ve got on my plate each week:


I am not so anal-retentive that I color code EVERY entry in my planner, but I do have a loose code — if it appears in RED, it’s a firm due date or non-negotiable meeting generally related to work; I tend to use black for everyday, regular kinds of things, and black, purple, or blue for events, activities, meetings, and so forth (being left-handed, I’m not a huge fan of the pencil, although I do use them for writing in books). I sit down with the new planner, my course schedule, my schedule of classes I’m teaching, the academic calendar, my children’s calendar, and whatever I know is coming up by way of conferences or trips or appointments, and write all of it down before the term begins; then add to it over the course of the term as needed. Having everything in there before the beginning of the term empowers me because I feel as though I have some control over my time. It helps me structure my workload in terms of writing my own syllabi as well — I know when my conferences are, when I need to miss a class, and so forth, and I can plan for it right from the beginning of the term, rather than looking disorganized when I have to cancel a class “unexpectedly” for a doctor’s appointment I made six month ago, but forgot about.

Having a hard copy that shows me a week at a time just makes it easy for me to visualize the week ahead. This week shown above, for example, I can see that I’ll have 22 papers to grade after Tuesday, and that I have an abstract and annotated bibliography due that same evening, plus a problem paper (3 pages) due Thursday. I have a number of meetings I have to attend and workshops and talks it would be beneficial to attend. How do I organize my time to get that done, and still have any time for my family or personal life? Well, since I had the abstract and problem paper listed in the “This week” section from the week prior (which I tend to use more as a “preview of coming attractions” section for things that are due the following week) I worked on those the preceding Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, finishing up on Monday morning, which freed up the workweek. I ended up missing the talk on Monday night so I could go home and spend time with my family, since I was going to be gone until after the girls were in bed on Tuesday and Thursday and home late Wednesday. I graded 5 papers a day on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and then finished those on Friday, as well as a little reading and research, all in plenty of time to make sure the girls and I were suitably decked out for their big Halloween Party at school on Friday night. Then, the weekend was All About Family, as you can see, since my youngest turned 6. So, all in all, that was a well-balanced week, with an equal amount of time devoted to family and work. I should add that I didn’t write them in, but I did get runs in the mornings on Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday as well.

This is, by no means, a “regular thing.” It’s a struggle to maintain the balance, especially when you get weeks like this:


See ALL THE RED? That’s 22 Writing I portfolios (+/- 100 pages each). 36, 5-6 page essays from 105, and 36 exams from 105, all to be graded by Friday at 5 p.m. Oh — and also, 3 of my own 4, 15-20 page term papers, also due Friday at 5 p.m. And… because I am slightly self-destructive, I was also completing training towards running the Mistletoe Half Marathon that Saturday. NEEDLESS TO SAY, that was a bad, bad week for us here in the Elmes household; it was all I could do to ensure the girls got fed and off to school and bed at semi-appropriate times. The best thing you can do on weeks like this, is to stock up on the wine and chocolate and issue fair heads up and advanced warning to everyone in your immediate vicinity. I tend to gather the family together at some point the week before and explain to them that Mommy is now going to enter the Vortex and they must all of them just hang on for five days, and then they get Mommy back. They have grown quite adaptable and accepting of this reality. For about a week or a week and a half every term, Mommy goes nutso. Totally normal in their world. As long as you warn everyone that it’s coming, you should be fine. I recommend having the kids buy lunch once or twice on those weeks, if you have kids, and making arrangements for them either to go to daycare or an after school program or a friend’s house for a few afternoons. And go ahead and let them have pizza and macaroni and cheese and pasta for dinner. And let them watch a little more television or play another hour or two of their favorite video game. They’ll be happier, and so will you. It will not in any way affect their chances of getting into Harvard, which were slim-to-none in the first place. It will, however, prevent you, personally — and possibly all of you — from having one too many meltdowns over the insanity.

in addition to making use of a planner, I also plot and chart long-term, so I know what to expect and can plan family trips and future conference attendance and the like. I created a Word document mock-up of the course requirements I need to meet in order to earn my degree, and every term I update it with the classes I’ve taken and the ones I plan to take, so I can track my progress and make sure I don’t miss anything. I also jot down advising questions I have and bring this document with me to my advising meeting each term. This is an easy way to stay organized, and it has the added benefit of being inspirational, because you really SEE the progress towards degree:


As you can see, my questions are directly related to how quickly I can satisfy degree requirements — because the longer I’m in graduate school, the longer my family has to juggle the crazy schedule. Part of balancing graduate school and your personal life includes planning to complete the degree in a timely fashion. I am insanely organized about where I’m going and what I need to get there. I already have drafts of my comp lists, and I have already begun preliminary reading towards my dissertation. This keeps me from having those last-minute stress bomb blowups — if I stay a step ahead of what I need to be focused on, then I am not going to be blindsided by the workload down the road. I can better plan how to allot my time, and this in turn allows me to maintain a better balance between working and personal time.

Day-to-Day Time Management Tips

There are some things we don’t think to budget for when we are mapping out our time, and it can get dicey when we neglect to factor in creature needs such as getting dressed/ ready for work, our commute, parking and walking to and from our destinations, stopping for gas, getting the oil changed in the car, shopping for groceries/ other needs, paying bills, doing laundry/ dishes, cooking, cleaning our homes/ apartments, doctor’s visits, and so on. Suddenly, that entire lovely morning you thought you had free becomes a whirlwind of stress because you forgot that you don’t have any clean shirts and the milk has gone bad and CRAP, the check engine light is on again in the car and this is the ONLY free morning you have all week: off to the laundromat, the grocery store, and the car shop, and sayonara, reading time!

There’s little you can do about routine daily activities, except to know how much time you usually need and then factor in some wiggle-room for the effect of others upon that time; to wit:

Example One: I know it takes roughly twenty minutes to get my daughters up and out of bed, dressed, hair and teeth brushed, and breakfast-fed before the bus. I also have one child who thinks mornings were created by Satan expressly to torture her. Right — factor in an extra fifteen minutes, and she’s got a 6:15 wake-up instead of a 6:30 wake up, to allow for the d-a-w-d-l-i-n-g that occurs once she’s out of bed. That means I need to be up and moving by 5:45 to get coffee, lunches, and breakfast done before I have to wake her up. That means if I’m not in bed by 11 or so the night before, we’re all going to suffer for my exhausted mommy-ness. This therefore colors how the evening-to-morning pattern plays out in our home on weeknights: homework completed before dinner; dinner no later than 7:30-8:00, baths if necessary,  girls dressed for bed and teeth brushed no later than 9:00; bedtime story, lights out, a little mommy and daddy downtime, and Mommy in bed ready to snore away by 11 p.m. It does vary, but not by much.

Example Two: I know it takes 45 minutes for me to get from door-to-door, home to school. I also know that inevitably, someone’s had a fender-bender or there’s construction or some other traffic issue that arises during my commute from one city to another. At the latest, I leave an hour to an hour and twenty minutes before I have to be there to ensure I get there on time regardless of what might come up along the way — which will get me out of anything except my own fender bender or a flat tire or other auto malfunction.

Example Three: If I have an appointment or meeting with someone else on an individual basis, I try to give myself a cushion of 20 minutes or so after the appointed time in case it goes over (so, for a one-hour meeting from 11-noon, I don’t schedule anything else until after 12:20 or 12:30). If I have a doctor’s appointment I get there twenty minutes early and budget 45 minutes or so after before I need to be anywhere, to allot for backed-up offices. If I need an oil change or a tune up I expect to be there for several hours and try not to plan anything for after. I carry a book or article(s) I need to read with me EVERYWHERE I GO.

Example Four: My DH does a lot of the food shopping for our family during the weekend, but I also pick a few things up when we need them. Anytime I am going shopping, even if it is for “just a few things,” I assume it is going to take at least an hour. This keeps me from freaking out over how S-L-O-W the checkout person is, so I don’t rip his or her head off and then feel like a terrible person. I assume it is going to take a while, and in fact, I kind of hope it does, because again, I carry a book or article I need to read with me EVERYWHERE I GO. You would be shocked at how many pages you can sometimes get read just standing in line at a grocery store. Three pages less to read at home is a game of rummy with the family after dinner.

When You Can, MULTITASK.

Oh my gosh, there is SO MUCH TIME that gets wasted in an average day. If you have about an hour’s commute both ways, get a reader on your cell phone, plug it into the charger, and have some of the things you need to read read to you while you drive. If you’re doing laundry at a laundromat, take papers to grade or something to read with you (our laundromat is located right next to the apartment fitness center, so I occasionally will go workout while the wash is on.) If you prep your fruits and veggies  for the week all at one go, or bake and cook for an afternoon and then eat leftovers all week, that’s that much less time you have to spend during the week making food.

Have a Routine. Sort Of.

You don’t want to go overboard on scheduling yourself — that’s a recipe for burnout. But if you have a general idea of when you prefer to or need to do certain things, that can be a personal life thing to plan the rest of your time around — for example, you may prefer to do your shopping on Friday nights because there are far fewer people in the store, or you might like getting your laundry done on Wednesday afternoons, or you (like me) prefer to wait until morning to do last night’s dishes, rather than taking away from family time in the evenings. I don’t do household chores during my peak concentration time — I work best from about 6-7 a.m. until about 1 or 2 p.m., and after that I get afternoon-sleepy, and FORGET about anything serious happening at night. So whenever possible, I get most of my academic responsibilities out of the way before that 2:00 point, and then switch to anything that needs to get done around the house. We also have to plan around the girls’ activities — Girl Scout meetings, book club, and the like. Because every-other-Monday is Juniors and every-other-Thursday is Daisies, every-other-Monday is pizza and every-other-Thursday is mac ‘n’ cheese and peas — quick, simple, no hassle, everyone likes it, the end. It also helps streamline shopping — we know that every two weeks, we need pizza, mac ‘n’ cheese, and peas. Stock up beyond that on fruits and veggies, some meats for DH, and throw in some couscous, amaranth, rice, pasta with sauce, and the like, and we’re good. We get more adventurous around holidays or extended time off such as summers. During the academic term, we just need healthy, nutritious, filling, good-tasting food.

(Helpful hint: leaving the paying of the bills out of your regular routine doesn’t make them go away. Schedule a time to sit down and pay them, once toward the beginning of the month and once again near the middle of the month. You’ll be poorer, but feel like you’ve gotten something important from your to-do list done and out of the way.)

If It Can Wait, Let It Wait

Sometimes emergencies occur — your tooth breaks, or you need an appendectomy, or the car won’t start and needs a new battery. But for routine maintenance — both of yourself and your other family members (pets included!), and of your home and personal mode of transportation — try to schedule any and all non-emergency appointments during term breaks — preferably, during winter or summer break, when you have a lot of time off, rather than spring or fall, when you are trying to bang out the draft of an essay for class. I promise you, moving your annual physical or dental cleaning from April to the end of May or beginning of June is not going to make a difference in terms of your physical health, but it can mean a huge difference in your time and stress load during the term. Likewise, if your car is at 3,200 miles, another few weeks to the oil change won’t kill it. Anything of this nature that you can put off until after a term ends frees up that much time during the term, and those hours can add up. During the term, I’d just rather spend three hours with my kids and husband than with my dentist.

You DO Have Time For YOU

Graduate students, and particularly those with families (myself included) tend to sacrifice ourselves on the Altar of Academia, and typically spend a disproportionate amount of time wallowing in guilt over how we have miserably failed everyone we know because we don’t have the time to do everything we need to do. The FIRST thing we usually toss out of our extremely overextended schedule is our Self — the things we do to pamper or care for ourselves, such as exercising, eating well, getting enough rest (all of which I will tackle in my third post in this series) and also our hobbies and pastimes, such as reading for pleasure, drawing or painting, going hiking, dancing, embroidery. knitting, volunteering, mani/pedis — whatever floats your boat.

Bad Idea. Bad, Bad Idea.

Think about it: If you are tired, overworked, underfed, under-rested, and generally stressed beyond enduring, what is your typical response?

a. promptly shut down and get sick

b. turn to the bottle or some equivalent vice, and then promptly shut down and get sick

c. wolf down chocolate, turn to the bottle or some equivalent vice, and then promptly shut down and get sick

d. yell at everybody for wasting your time, wolf down chocolate, turn to the bottle or some equivalent vice, and then promptly shut down and get sick

e. all of the above, and then some

Here’s the thing: You were a person when you entered graduate school. What, you thought you would just turn into an automaton once you got started? As an educated human being, you have myriad interests both intellectual and non-intellectual in nature. If you toss them all to the side in favor of being The Graduate Student, then when everything is done and you have the degree, what will you be? The Graduate Student. Because you stopped doing any of the things that made you anything else.

Do you see the concern? If at the end of these 4+ years the only thing you have cultivated is the Life of the Mind, then you will have lost yourself — and possibly many of the people who matter to you — along the way. You may or may not ever get over this. It’s a recipe for later-life regrets and identity crisis! I am personally guilty of falling into the trap of “but this is what I do, it’s what I love, it’s what I am” thinking on a fairly regular basis. I get blinders on and go into the vortex and go All Grad School, All the Time. Inevitably, at the end of these (thankfully, short-lived, because my children and husband knock it out of me) intense periods, I am exhausted, drained, burned out, cranky, cross, off-kilter, and in desperate need of balancing out. (This is why they give you those long breaks between terms, people.)

So, pick something, or a couple of somethings, that you love and that have nothing to do with graduate school. Or with your family or significant other or anyone besides you, yourself. I run, hike, dance, paint, and write fiction, as well as making homemade beauty products and obsessing over my hair and hairtoys. You might take up wine or beer tasting or brewing, or cooking, or mountain climbing, or Zumba, or Yoga, or volunteering for the local animal shelter or Habitat for Humanity, or learning an instrument or another language, or going on short, inexpensive trips to sightsee, or photography, or being in a band or working with theatre, or having a pet or plants, or doing your genealogy, or pottery, or starting a collection, or SOMETHING. Anything. I recommend one or two physical activities, and one or two hobbies.


Do them for an hour or two, once or twice a week, every week, no matter how busy you are and especially when you are completely stressed out. Write them in your planner, just the way you do your classes and appointments. Make a date with yourself and KEEP it. Because at the end of all of this, you have to live with yourself and so does everyone else. Be someone you’d want to be around. Be a human being. Because at no point did anyone tell you: To be a successful graduate student you must relinquish your humanity. If this is how it feels, then you did that to yourself, and you can un-do it.Take the time to recharge yourself as a person throughout the term, not just on breaks. It pays off in increased energy and enthusiasm, zest for life, and the knowledge that you are so much more than your comps list. These are all important attributes to have and to hold onto when you hit the job market at the end of this process, so start cultivating them now!

A Particular Note On Significant Others

If you are very, very lucky (like me), you have married someone who not only loves you, but who completely understands how insane academic calendars are and fully supports your wild ride towards the degree. My husband’s mother is an artist who has taught for 30 years at a community college, so he is well aware of the cray-cray that happens at the end of a term. What I think he was unprepared for, was the amount of reading I have to do as a lit major, which essentially means I’m spending that same kind of time every other week of the term on work-related activities, just not losing my sanity the way I do during finals. In order to accomplish that kind of reading, I need some longer stretches of time during the week. I have sought to keep my workweek schedule (the amount of time I am actually physically on campus) to 3 days a week, but of course that often turns into 4 and even 5 since the entire university isn’t rotating around my personal schedule. He, in turn, has an insane schedule of meetings to attend and report on in addition to his regular workday as the editor of a newspaper. This means we both have to be flexible in order to meet the needs of the kids and still have some quality time to ourselves. Some weekends, he takes the girls out for errands-running and hiking and trips to the museum to give me more hours to work in. Sometimes, I have to skip a late afternoon or evening meeting, or a workshop, or even a class, to accommodate family needs. Sometimes, he is ridiculously over-stressed out over his workload and whining and complaining and ranting; and sometimes (much more often, to be honest) that’s me, and sometimes that leads to arguments and even flat-out fights, but we have a standing agreement: I’ll put up with your shit if you put up with mine and that seems to be working well so far. Because — you know — at the end of all of this, the goal is to have the degree AND ALSO still have the husband. I like him. I’d like him to stick around for the next thirty or forty years or so, enjoying the wild ride right alongside me.

Remember: YES, you need to put your needs first — I’m the first one to argue vociferously and boldly that my needs as a graduate student have to come first 95% of the time, because that’s why we are even here in the first place! —  but if you are in a committed relationship, then you can’t just put that on hold for four or five or six or however-many years and expect it to still be there when you finish. I have seen many relationships go sour because of the pressures of graduate school — and that’s not necessary. MAKE THE TIME TO DATE YOUR MATE, or call it off yourself. It’s neither accurate nor fair to blame graduate school for a failed relationship. Almost always, if a relationship goes bad while you are working toward your degree, something else is going on. If you are someone who married young, it may be that you got caught up in the hype society feeds you about how your life is supposed to go, and now you have grown up and realized that you aren’t the person you thought you were and you don’t want the life you thought you wanted. AND THAT IS OKAY! But, if your husband/wife still does want that life, then you have to negotiate the situation or walk away and let him or her find someone who also wants that life. Simply ranting at him or her for a year or more about not being supportive and blaming everything on the pressures of grad school instead of acknowledging that you’ve changed the game without fair warning is a recipe for all sorts of ugly scenarios that lead to the irrevocable breakdown of a relationship — it’s hard, but better for everyone involved, to head it off at the pass. It’s not a bad thing to change, and it’s not a bad thing to grow — but you need to make the decision about whether or not you want to change and grow apart or together sooner, rather than later, and then you need to work at it. Be fair.

What about you? What are your tips for achieving a work-life balance?


About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
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1 Response to New Year’s Resolutions for the Graduate Student II: Time Management and Your Personal Life

  1. Pingback: New Year’s Resolutions for the Graduate Student III: Physical and Emotional Well-Being | Melissa Ridley Elmes

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