III. Getting organized
- What is my preference?
- What are my organizational methods? Why do I use them?
- How are they working or not working for me?
- How can I improve my organizational skills?
Being organized involves having an understanding of the task to be done, the estimated time to complete the task and time available, and the tools needed. While there may be a connection between neatness and organization, it is not always the case. People have different methods and tolerances, and some people are “selectively organized” in areas that reflect their personal values.
In broad terms, individuals may adopt a style that is “left brain” (logical, detailed, sequential, linear) while others favour a “right brain” (holistic, relational, creative, gestalt) approach or a mix of the two styles. Depending on your personal cognitive style, different strategies will be helpful around “task, time and tools.”
See Two Different Organizing Styles.
Common organizational challenges for grad students
The loose or “open” schedule
On the surface your schedule may appear very open. Unlike undergraduates who often have their school days filled with classes, grad students don’t have a great deal of structure in their day. Creating a self-imposed plan of action for each year, term, week, and day is paramount to keeping on track.
Planning a schedule can be particularly difficult at the beginning of one’s program if “things haven’t started yet” (e.g., reading courses not yet laid out, thesis unclear, etc.). For some students, setting up supervisory meetings, group meetings, and research studies may take weeks. During this phase students who have not organized a tentative plan might find themselves wasting precious time. Getting into a routine too late may also lead to procrastination.
A sense of openness or too much space in your schedule accompanies some students throughout their programs with dire consequences. They might chronically hand in work late, not be well prepared for presentations or comprehensive exams, and/or get further and further behind in their research.
This “fluid” feeling is particularly challenging for students whose cognitive style is more “right brain” as they are not naturally predisposed to highly structured routines. “Right brain” students might find sticking to a self-imposed schedule very difficult, even though, it is critical to achieving their goals. To assist you in planning your schedule, see Learning Strategies for Right-Brain Thinkers.
Regardless of your cognitive style, regularly revisiting your values, goals and priorities will give purpose to your schedule.
Large projects (e.g., researching and writing a dissertation) may span many years. Even with clear goals and time management skills, large projects might feel daunting and energy levels might falter. In addition, certain aspects of the project that are in your control (e.g., making a plan to finish your literature review) and others are not (e.g., waiting for your supervisor to read and provide feedback on your research proposal). A large project will also compete with many other tasks, both academic and personal. When managing large projects, grad students often struggle with:
- Long timelines: When do I want to be finished my project? When are major deadlines? When do I need to complete X, Y, Z? What are the consequences of not finishing on time? Do I have a Plan B in this event?
- Loose structure (see above section “Loose & Open Schedule”)
- Locus of control: What aspects of the project do I control totally, somewhat, not very much? Who else has control over my decision-making and in what ways? How do I feel about having limited control in some aspects of the projects?
- Limited feedback: How and from whom can I get feedback? What feedback can I expect from my supervisor?
- Unclear expectations & accountability: What is expected of me? When? To what extent/level? Who am I accountable to? What am I responsible for?
- Multiple and competing tasks: How will I ensure that this project is not obscured by other competing tasks? Where does this project fit in vis-à-vis my other priorities? How can I maintain a balance in my academic and personal life?
- Energy: How will I sustain my energy and a positive attitude to the project? How will I stave off burnout? How will I balance my schedule to ensure I have downtime, sleep, exercise, healthy meals?
- Procrastination & Perfectionism: How will I get started on the task I’ve planned to do? How will I know when it’s time to let go and move onto something else? How can I do my best without going overboard to the detriment of other tasks? How can I control my tendency to make things perfect?
Negative thoughts: Fear & guilt
Do any of these statements sound familiar to you?
- “What if I can’t do what my supervisor has asked?”
- “I’m way over my head.”
- “If I can’t get this done when [my supervisor] asked for it, will s/he think I’m lazy? Not smart enough to be a grad student?
- “If I don’t finish this degree, what will my [family, friends, partner, kids] think of me?” “I’m not grad student material. Who was I trying to kid?”
Negative thoughts can impact your performance. They increase your stress levels and, consequently, interfere with concentration, focus, and time managment. If you are feeling this way, you might consider a professional consultation with a learning strategist and/or a personal counsellor at Queen’s Counselling Services.