It took less than two years in graduate school for me to burn out. I was spending long hours in the laboratory, yet I worried that I wasn’t making satisfactory progress. Overwork-induced exhaustion made me sloppy and impaired my productivity, creating a vicious cycle.
My experience is far from unique. A 2022 Nature survey found that 70% of graduate students work more than 40 hours per week and that 68% have difficulty maintaining a good work–life balance. And, according to Nature’s 2021 salary and jobs survey, nearly half (45%) of scientists across all career stages report signs of burnout and overwork.
How to find, read and organize papers
Time-management strategies can help to rein in work hours, but can also promote a culture of unhealthy hyper-productivity or act as a Band-Aid to cover up toxic research environments. Time management shouldn’t be about maximizing the amount of work you can cram into your day; instead, it should help you to prioritize your professional goals without sacrificing personal well-being.
In my case, that meant rethinking how I structured my days, weeks and months. Inspired by computer scientist Cal Newport, author of the 2016 book Deep Work, I’ve cut back my hours in the lab substantially, which has improved my mental and physical health. Yet I have seen no noticeable decline in productivity. To use my time more efficiently and prioritize my most important tasks, I track my goals on three timescales.
Level 1: Big picture
Big-picture planning encompasses long-term goals. For graduate students, this might include your ideal time to graduation, learning specific skills or career exploration; for a research professor, it might be completing projects, applying for funding or improving teaching and mentoring skills.
One of my favourite tools for big-picture planning is the Gantt chart, a type of horizontal bar chart that plots project timelines (Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets have templates for creating these). I created a Gantt chart shortly after joining my PhD lab, and update it a few times per year. It includes timelines for key experiments, major conferences, milestones for my doctoral programme and career exploration.
To avoid distraction from day-to-day tasks, keep your Gantt chart somewhere prominent, such as on a bulletin board near your desk.
Level 2: Academic term
At the end of each academic term, write out a plan for the next quarter or semester that considers three elements:
Reflect. What goals did you set in the previous quarter? Did you accomplish them? Why or why not?
Forecast. What events, commitments and deadlines are coming up this term?
Prioritize. What goals will you set for this quarter? Which ones will you prioritize?
Collection: Work–life balance
Your targets for the next few months should arise from and contribute to your big-picture goals. These might include completing particular experiments, writing a paper or grant application, or preparing to teach a course. Laying out your research goals alongside other upcoming commitments (teaching-assistant appointments, committee obligations and so on) helps you to set reasonable expectations.
One tool that can be helpful at this level is the Kanban board, which features columns with different labels for you to categorize and track tasks or projects. You might assign tasks based on status (such as ‘In progress’, ‘To do ASAP’, ‘To do next month’ and ‘Not started’) or priority (high, medium and low). Several online tools provide Kanban boards, including Trello and Notion. Alternatively, you can make an old-school board using sticky notes.
Level 3: Daily or weekly
For finest-grained planning, you can use a daily planner, but I prefer to work on a weekly timescale because my research often involves experiments that run over several days. In either case, you can assign specific slots for each task, known as time blocking, or use to-do lists.
Time blocking is ideal for planning experiments around other commitments and for organizing protocols across multiple days; it works best for tasks that require at least 30 minutes to complete. All you need is an electronic or paper planner. Keep in mind that your plan should be flexible: if an experiment takes longer than expected or if journal editors request manuscript revisions on a tight timescale, you’ll need to accommodate these changes.
To-do lists save you from having to schedule every minor task and can help to remind you of small but important jobs. However, they’re less than ideal for longer tasks that take several hours or stretch across several days. Without blocking out specific times, it can be difficult to predict whether your immediate to-do list is reasonable.
Time to work
Here’s how I use these three elements in practice.
First, decide how many hours you’re comfortable working in a week. This is highly personal — don’t let your answer be swayed by your perceptions of other people. Block out any fixed appointments, such as classes or meetings. Second, create slots for the most urgent and important tasks. Try to schedule recurring tasks (such as reading papers, preparing lecture materials or building next week’s plan) at the same time each week. Finally, fill any remaining time with lower-priority tasks, including responding to e-mails, ordering supplies and so on.
Collection: Time management
If you cannot fit everything you want to accomplish into your allotted hours, your options are to delay the remaining tasks or remove them entirely. Delaying a few tasks is fine, but do so sparingly or you might find your task list ballooning.
If a task does not contribute to the goals you outlined in your big-picture and academic-term plans, it’s a candidate for removal. For research tasks, it’s helpful to envision the story you plan to tell in your future paper: does this experiment contribute to that story or fall outside its scope?
Simple as it seems, this strategy has completely changed how I spend my time. I’ve found it easier to decline new commitments when I could clearly see that they would not fit into my schedule or contribute to my goals. I’ve become a better mentor for my undergraduate researchers, and carved out space for my hobbies, health and social life.
At the same time, my research is more streamlined. I don’t begin a new experiment until I convince myself that it’s both necessary and has the best experimental design to test my hypothesis. Looking back, many of the experiments that once kept me in the lab late into the night will never end up in a publication; they were often weakly designed or unnecessary.
When we value our time, we spend it more wisely.