Q: How can I keep my shit together in grad school? I’m sad + stressed, like all the time.
A: The boring answer? Mental health management pretty much comes down to two things: (1) Balance and (2) Structure.
Your academic program is going to affect both (duh), so look for a program that will help you pursue your academic goals while maintaining some semblance of work-life balance and structure in your life. If this advice is too little too late + your program is kind of fucking you over mental health-wise, let’s chat about what you can do to balance your life and add structure to your time.
How To Create Balance In Your Life
1 | Adjust Your Outlook
Maybe you don’t “believe” in work-life balance and are about to skip this section. Well, buckle up, bud, this section is for you.
In my unscientific opinion, most people who end up in grad school suck at finding a balance between work and Everything Else.
Why? Because you, a current or aspiring grad student, are probably an ambitious, hard-working smarty-pants who has built up an identity around Being the Best and Doing the Most.
No shade – that’s my default MO, too. But it kind of sucks working yourself stressed and sick sometimes, right? So, let’s work on accepting the fact that work can (and should) be a meaningful, fulfilling part of our lives, but work, on its own, can’t create a meaningful, fulfilling life. Balance is everything.
Okay, great, thanks for humoring me. So, you ask politely after waiting around awkwardly for a bit, How does one actually, you know, make the balance thing happen? So happy you asked.
2 | Balance Your Calendar
If grad school’s your kind of thing, I’m guessing you’re a bit of a planner. If something’s not written down in your calendar or to-do list, it’s not happening.
Me, too. But it’s really easy to get caught up in working or studying all the time if you consult your planner and the only thing written down is: Finish research proposal, or study for exam.
When it comes to balancing work and everything else, the one piece of advice that has helped me – a recovering workaholic and lifelong perfectionist – the most is this: Schedule time for friends, family, and fun. (Seriously.)
You’re already amazing at managing tasks, checking off to-do lists, and doing more things a day than you probably *should*, so use those strengths to help you fit more good stuff into your life.
For me, regularly-scheduled activities that I genuinely look forward to tend to help the most. Here are some ideas you could try:
- Weekly classes that you take just for fun
- Daily phone calls or texts with someone you love
- Monthly volunteer shifts
- Friday night Chopped-style cooking competitions with your roommate
- Daily walks with your pup or a friend
- Weekly movie nights with your SO or fave film nerd (I’ve heard good things about the AMC Stubs A-List subscription if you want to see all the films but aren’t a fan of MoviePass)
- Monthly dinner parties or potlucks with your favorite people
- A solo morning or evening routine that’s just for you
Quick shoutout to girls dealing with depression or other mood disorders who are having a hard time “looking forward” to anything right now:
It’s okay to struggle with things that *should* feel easy, like having fun. You’re not broken, you’re getting better. Be patient with your progress, and practice being gentle with yourself.
To get the ball rolling when it comes to learning to like things again, start with low-commitment activities with a quick pay-off.
A period of depression is arguably not the best time to take up, like, ballet if you’re apt to get frustrated and bored with slow progress. Doing things you know you’re good at, even if you haven’t done them in a while, can help you feel better about yourself.
If you’re coming up blank, try an activity you used to love as a kid, even if it’s something “silly” like coloring or playing dress-up. It’s literally okay if you spend your chill time sitting on your patio, watching cars drive by if that’s something that feels good to you.
But look for things that are (or might become) fun or interesting to you and gradually start to carve little chunks of time for them in your life.
Wait, Is This Whole Thing Supposed To Be This Hard?
Okay, so, maybe you’re on board with the idea of a healthy work-life balance, but, try as you might, you can’t make it work. After all, time doesn’t grow on trees.
Well, not to sound like your mom here, but you could probably use some more structure in your life.
If you missed that day in school where everyone else learned how to structure their days effectively (lol jk most of your friends are struggling, too), don’t worry.
Structuring your time effectively isn’t something you’re born with, but it is something you can learn.
How To Structure Your Time Better
1 | Stop Treating Structure Like a Dirty Word
If you don’t think structure is *for you*, let’s chat for a minute before you give up on it completely.
First of all, it’s true that establishing and maintaining structure comes more naturally to some people than others. But you can still learn to use structure-building tools effectively, even if the process doesn’t come naturally to you.
The trick is to remember that tools should work for you, not the other way around.
It’s also important to remember that structuring your life more effectively can and will help you be more productive. However, the goal isn’t just to get more done.
Structure can also help you:
- Prioritize what’s really important to you
- Practice physical and emotional regulation
- Create effective daily routines
Basically, structure is going to help you make the most out of the 24 hours you get each day. That’s huge when you’re drowning in grad school commitments and trying to balance your life. Plus, not to sound like your mom (again), but learning how to structure your time effectively is an important grown-up skill that will help you, literally, for the rest of your life.
So, ready to give this whole structure thing another go? Here’s how.
2 | Stock Your Toolbox
A lot of people swear by apps to help them improve their productivity or build better habits (check out the links to learn about some people’s top picks!)
Just remember that a tool that works really well for someone else might not work for you, so don’t feel bad for jumping ship if a popular app doesn’t do it for you.
Your needs might also evolve over time. That’s okay, too. When I was in school, I loved using Todoist, a simple but effective to-do list app that allows you to break down your tasks by projects, to help me keep track of everything going on in my life. But now that my life is calmer and more consistent, my phone’s calendar function does more than enough.
If you prefer managing your tasks and tracking your habits by hand, you might want to look into starting a bullet journal.
You’ve probably seen bullet journals featured on Instagram, Pinterest, or Buzzfeed that intimidate the fuck out of you. Don’t stress just yet.
The foundation of bullet journaling is a simple task management system called Rapid Logging. Seriously, you can learn to do it in two minutes. Once you’ve gotten the hang of things, you can spend as much or as little time on your bullet journal as you want. (Yes, seriously. A bullet journal without decorative page dividers is still a bullet journal.)
I also love this unique list of productivity tools from writer Ann Latham. In the article, Latham emphasizes the power of behavior-based tools, like saying “no” when you need to, prioritizing your physical health, and developing clarity. Fucking yes, girl.
At the end of the day, there are a million tools out there to help you structure your life more effectively. If something works, use it. If it doesn’t, toss it and try something else. No worries.
3 | Regulate Your Schedule
It’s not a secret that keeping a consistent schedule is best for your mind and body. It’s easy enough when you’re working a 9-5 to maintain a regular routine (at least during the week), but it can get a bit more challenging when you’re in grad school to stay on track.
Here are a few suggestions to help you regulate your schedule more effectively in grad school:
- Take advantage of teaching opportunities: Like a 9-5, your teaching gig will help add structure to your week
- Show off your work at conferences: You’ll benefit from the structure of the conference prep and presentation process (not to mention the outside feedback)
- Set a regular work schedule: If you have a lot of independent work on your plate and not a lot of external structure, set regular work hours for yourself and then stick to them
- Talk to your advisor if your schedule still isn’t working for you: Honestly, not every advisor will be willing to help you shift your schedule, but you won’t know if you don’t ask
Real Talk Alert
Honestly, this stuff is hard. No one was born knowing how to prioritize their tasks perfectly or knowing which time management tools work best for them. It’s a lot of information, and I don’t want you to feel overwhelmed or think that you’re doing it wrong, just because it’s not easy or automatic for you.
Please remember that, when we talk about adding structure to your life, we’re describing a tool to help your life run more smoothly, not a destination.
If something sounds helpful, try it out. If it works for you, keep doing it. But if not? That’s okay. There are a million and three more ideas out there for you to try. And you have all the time you need to figure out what works for you.
That’s it for today. If you loved this post, feel free to share it with your sad, overworked grad school friends via your fave social media. Have more tips to cope with grad school stress? Share what you do to deal in the comments!
Until next time!