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Toxic productivity in grad school

Hey Gaels, I hope all is well!

The school year is really flying by fast, isn’t it? I can’t believe that we’re already mid-way though the semester! It feels like it was just yesterday that I was going through my program orientation and meeting my classmates for the first time.

So, how have I been?The good news is that I have been feeling much more secure about my place in graduate school since my last blog—and for that, I have to give lots of credit to my classmates who did not hesitate to share their own experiences with imposter syndrome with me.

That said, grad school has been BUSY to say the least. I am yet to find a single moment to stand still—even if I was fully caught up with coursework (and I’m not), there would still be additional readings to review, assignments to grade, and potential topics to explore for my thesis. The irony of it all is that I only need to be on campus for a few hours a day, as the first semester of the Epidemiology MSc consists of just two core classes and one elective. The perceived ‘freedom’ of grad school sounds amazing to some (and it does have benefits!). However, the sheer number of hours I am left with to allocate for independent schoolwork places the onus on me to effectively manage my time every day. I have come to realize the importance of being a self-regulated learner and having strong time management skills.

With so much autonomy, so much to plan, and even more to accomplish, I can’t help but ask myself: “Will I ever get time to take a scheduled break?”

There is no doubt that maintaining a healthy work-life balance is essential. Nonetheless, like many students, I sometimes fixate on my academic goals, making my wellness an afterthought. Taking a break is the last thing I want to consider when I am behind in my coursework or unable to complete the tasks on my schedule for a given day. It often feels like I am yet to “earn” a break in this circumstance. If I take a break regardless, my guilty conscience may also remind me of all the work that I could be getting done if I kept working. I know that a dangerous snowball effect can follow when I make my breaks contingent on my productivity. I start skipping meals, inevitably begin cutting down on sleep, productivity slows further, I take even fewer breaks, and so on. The cycle can be endless.

Cartoon of student with head in hands staring at books

In many ways, our education system exacerbates this toxic productivity culture. Many students—myself included, at one time—simplify academic success to earning 4.0+ GPAs (and see anything else as afailure). These marks are important for admission into graduate/professional schools, but are they really everything? Can we define our success and sense of self-worth through these numbers? The grind doesn’t stop there. Even in grad school, I worry that my ability to secure limited research assistantships and grants will be based on the extent to which I produce research while maintaining a high GPA. Overall, there is a prevailing outcome-based mentality towards school that normalizes and even implicitly encourages students to place an extreme emphasis on grades—and this focus can easily detract from one’s well-being, as my experience with taking breaks exemplifies.

So, how can we go about chasing our academic goals without compromising our wellness? Here are three exercises that have helped me escape the toxic productivity trap:

Breaks: understand their value and actually implement them

Even though taking a break feels wrong when there is still work to do, I find that simply having a moment away from schoolwork allows me to return with much better focus. I encourage you to recognize that breaks are likely going to help you accomplish more of your goals in the long run. Keep in mind that a break should ideally be spent doing something you enjoy—I like to pursue my hobbies, which include playing basketball, biking, and learning the piano. Lastly, be as intentional with your break as you can. Schedule a time for your break activity beforehand and do your best to turn your ‘work brain’ off during this period.

Set realistic expectations and acknowledge progress.

In the hopes of maximizing my productivity, I tend to go overboard when constructing my daily to-do-lists. Inevitably, I am unable to complete all my tasks for the day and skip out on breaks, which just leaves me feeling tired and demoralized. However, whenever I create a more realistic daily schedule, I can accomplish all my goals and make time for something fun. That in turn helps me feel much more refreshed and motivated to continue working the next day. In addition to planning for less, I also recommend acknowledging your progress—no matter how small—because doing so will help you recognize how productive you have been.

Redefine your values and self-worth.

When school becomes your everyday life, it’s hard to look beyond it. Our busy schedules compel us to value schoolwork and not find importance in anything else. Many of us are also inclined to romanticize productivity, and subsequently attach our self-worth to our academic success. However, remember that you are so much more than what you study, how much you study, or what the letters on your transcript say. Ask yourself: “Am I focusing my energy on the right things?”

See you next time! And don’t forget to schedule your break today 😀

– Shahnawaz