That time I deleted all of my apps: balancing grad school

One day I got frustrated with myself for checking my email, then Facebook, then Instagram, then Twitter, then going back to my email. I took a leap of faith and deleted all of the apps on my phone. I peered down at my empty screen with a big sigh of relief. Fifteen minutes later I got out of my Uber [1] on a freezing Michigan night holding my luggage in one hand and my phone in the other. I realized that I had saved the hotel address in my email.

Maintaining balance has been one of the biggest challenges for me in grad school. A place with a lot of freedom, many cool smart people, and endless channels for distraction. As an undergrad I had gotten used to working late into the night and pushing for deadlines with all my force. I planned to bring the same rigor to grad school and be the best at it [2].

I started strong. I sacrificed weekends, healthy meals, and hobbies that I had never really taken up seriously. But that didn’t mean that I spent all of my time laser focused, doing groundbreaking research. In fact looking back I can imagine that a lot of that time was wasted browsing Facebook or answering emails that made me feel productive but weren’t really why I was in grad school.

The nature of research made achieving balance very difficult. There was no real end to the work day. I could work anywhere and at any time and most of my peers, including my husband, did just that. While many have voiced their concern (and I can’t thank them enough for doing so), common academic culture still doesn’t acknowledge this as a problem. In fact in many circles it’s a sign of strength and ambition to never stop working. Without an ending time to my daily work I soon found that my research crept into all aspects of my life, I used every moment awake to do research, even if I was not productive. I was always online, responding to emails and Slack messages right away. This gave me a sense of security. At least I was always working, I just needed to get more productive at it. I didn’t acknowledge how harmful this constant mental engagement was. I had trouble sleeping.

We spent many hours complaining about grad school with my peers. One of my friends, Carrie, suggested that to sleep better we should make a pact to shut down our laptops every night at 10pm. I felt very shocked at this proposal: Shut down my laptop at 10pm and lose a whole 2 hours that was still there?! That I might actually be able to do something productive in? Maybe everyone else just didn’t take their research as seriously as I did. I was very wrong. It hit me most prominently a while later when I went to see my dentist. After greeting me she asked: are you still overworked? I realized that I had probably spent my last visit complaining to her about grad school. Was that what people remembered about me? Had “being overworked” become part of who I was?

That fall I gave up and started to re-evaluate what I was doing with my life. I started with a lit review on productivity and time management and tried out some of the strategies I found. Here’s a bullet point list of the things I’ve been doing for almost a year now to maintain balance in grad school.

  • I stop working every day at 5:30pm.
  • I have a shutdown routine that starts at 5:30pm and lasts at most an hour. During this time I respond to emails, do any other administrative work that I need to do, check my calendar and plan out roughly what my goals are for the next day.
I set up Gmail Meter to send me monthly stats about my email use.
  • I do not work on weekends.
  • I keep Slack turned off by default and only check twice a day, once at noon and once during my shutdown routine
  • I have turned off all notifications, both on my laptop and my phone except for text messages. There is no other piece of information that is crucial for me to learn about right away.
  • I bought an alarm clock and don’t take my phone to my bedroom at night. Starting and ending my day by browsing my phone was a bad idea.
  • I deactivated my Facebook and Instagram accounts. I asked my husband to change all the passwords on my social media and messaging apps so if I find myself checking compulsively I can log out and then I have to wait to see him and ask him to log back in for me.
  • I complete 3 hours of concentrated, deep work every work day.
  • I leave my laptop at my office and go home at the end of the day. I don’t think about my work until the next day.

These are my rules, granted I don’t always stick to all of them. They are mostly ways that I have found to create friction for behaviors that I don’t want to do and to create a well-rested, calm environment for the things I want to do better.

Following these rules has made me a lot more calm and a lot less anxious about my projects. My research projects used to be a part of me, their failure was my failure, and this made me stressed. Procrastination was the path of least resistance in dealing with that stress. Now my projects are something that I devote a part of my day to. I’ve created a distance between my research and myself. If one day I don’t make the progress that I hoped for, at least in the afternoon I’ll finish a book or get some knitting done. There are other channels for me to make progress in and achieve something. I’ve also found that the time that I do spend working is focused and I have a clearer, more well-rested brain to strategize and make progress with. But most importantly, I’m not constantly stressed out, and that has been my greatest victory :)

[1] I still used Uber back then.
[2] Back then I wanted to be the best at everything. Thankfully, I no longer hold that position.