Getting through a STEM Master’s program requires a certain level of efficiency and organization. I have honed this process over and over again during my entire academic career. I’d really like to share these tips with you:
- Buy a planner and use it religiously! Use both the month overview and the weekly overview so that you can keep a general sense of scheduled events on hand at all times. Allow the paper to hold the worry about getting to appointments on time – schedule a separate entry for travel to the appointment itself and if it’s in a new location, quickly put it into Google Maps to estimate how long you’d need to travel. I usually add about 10 minutes to any estimate that Google Maps gives, because a lot of times Google Maps thinks you either drive like a maniac or won’t encounter actual traffic even though you will…
- Set aside two periods of time each day for planning – once in the morning, and once at night. Plan the next day’s activities at night before bed. In the morning, review those tasks and then tackle your inbox to find any extraneous new items you need to put on your planner for future days.
- Keep your vision board tacked in front of you on your desk and make a point of looking at it at least once a day. Doing this will keep you focused on your major, long-term personal and career goals and will keep you from feeling lost in the “rat race” of daily struggles.
- Designate only very specific periods of time to check your email. This will keep you in control of your schedule, rather than allowing your peers who keep emailing you to control you. This will also allow you to keep on top of what YOU have to get done that day. You have to prioritize your own tasks first before you can help anyone else.
- Always respond to your emails as soon as you see them in your inbox. Don’t allow emails to pile up for days at a time. At the very least check your inbox(es) every 48 hours. Respond to emails in the order you receive them. Try really hard to take care of any research or filing that the email requires as soon as you read it and before you move on to the next email. This will keep you from having to think about the task twice. It just gets done the first time you think about it.
- Plan breaks and extra periods of “leeway” or “overflow” time into each day. When you set reasonable periods of time to accomplish tasks, you allow your mind to be fully engaged in the task you’re doing presently rather than worrying that something won’t get done. In the odd event that you actually have to push off a task to the next day (due to some unforeseeable issue that arises), try to make sure it’s whatever was the lowest priority task on your agenda for that day.
- Set regular times each week to do basic things like cooking, laundry, and basic hygiene.
- Set aside at least 30 minutes per day to do something you REALLY enjoy doing.
- Keep a pencil jar on the side of your desk. Include highlighters, scissors, stapler with staples, thumbtacks, tape, sticky notes, white out, pens, and a pencil with eraser. This will keep you from having to keep getting up to get things you will need often, and this is important because getting up and sitting back down can be very distracting to your train of thought. It can also make you feel flustered if you tend to be more anxious like I am.
- Keep all of your resources and study materials in one place. The same explanation from tip #8 applies here.
- Keep a “random notes” pad or journal handy for those extraneous “oh, yeah, I gotta remember to…” moments. That way you can scribble it down as soon as you think of it and then specify a time later to tend to it. This will free up mental space so you immediately get back to what you had originally been scheduled to do at that time.
- Set up your desk ergonomically. Making a setup that doesn’t cause you subconsciously to want to hunch over or shrug is very important to improving your productivity and preventing stress-related repetitive injuries. Getting proper blood flow to your brain, feet, and hands is essential for you to be able to work optimally. If you need to adjust something and it requires you to buy something, the adjustment is honestly well worth the investment.
- Have a home for every thing. As soon as you get home or get to work, always put your keys and/or purse in a designated spot so you won’t have to spend any energy thinking about where you put them later. Putting things away as soon as you’re finished with them will keep you from losing things and having to expend twice the energy thinking about putting them away the first time and then actually having to come back, think about it again, and then actually do it. This practice also ensures that you have a tidy space to work and live. It will overall lower your stress levels because your subconscious won’t constantly be detecting chaos.
- Set up an “adulting” filing cabinet or box. In it you can line up a folder for each category of your life (e.g., one tax documents folder per fiscal year, medical records, identity records, any cards or drawings from friends, business/HR contact information documents, financial account and credit card information). As soon as I get a new document in the mail, I make a point to read it right then, address it or schedule a time to address it, and then file it away in its appropriate new folder. Doing this immediately cuts down significantly on the number of papers you have sitting on or in or around your desk!
I really hope you find one or more of these tips helpful! As a chemist spending HOURS in the lab each day on top of completing coursework, teaching, and doing research, I HAD to find a way to live EFFICIENTLY. I am positive these will help you. They have definitely been tested!
Rozalyn Davis holds an M.S., Chemistry, from the University of California, Berkeley, and a B.S., Chemistry, from Purdue University. Her interests include women’s empowerment, health and wellness, and environmental sustainability.