Staying Organized to Improve Productivity

Setting: It’s that time in your graduate career where your advisor says: “Time to start writing the first chapter of your thesis!” or “You should write a summary of all the papers you’ve read so far.” In that moment many thoughts may come to your head, in my case, it was an overwhelming feeling that this was an impossible task. This became my goal for the summer, the fall, and the winter, and yet I couldn’t bring myself to start. All I could think is that it was too much, too many books and papers, so little time!

In an effort to make my life easier (or at least less stressful) and hopefully yours too, here is a list of organization steps that have helped me tackle writing challenges:

1) Keep small goals: Trying to start a big project like writing your thesis or preparing for your preliminary exam might seem like a huge mountain to climb. Take a step back and ask yourself is there a smaller hill I can start with? Make an outline, start with a draft explaining what you do and your motivation as if you were talking to your grandma or prepare an informal talk for a seminar. Having small and more attainable goals will keep you motivated and moving forward!

2) Find tools that keep you organized: When I finally started writing, I found myself drowning in a sea of content. I would often become too frustrated. “There must be a more efficient way to do this!” Turns out there are many free citation managers that make it easier to keep track of references. For a neat comparison table of the most popular ones look at: http://thegradstudentway.com/blog/?p=1680. After starting to use Mendeley, I felt like finally I could tie together all the information I had gathered over the years in a useful way.

3) Set daily writing times: Maybe you won’t finish your writing in a week or a month. But, if you set at least half an hour a day to write, you will keep progressing each day! It’s like starting an exercise routine or training for a marathon. Sometimes, you just need to show up to the gym. Getting into the habit of writing is just as important as the writing itself.

4) Start!: Yes, you, go and write right now! Once you have an advisor, start making annotations of the papers you read, have a journal where you keep track of your goals, your ideas, what works and what doesn’t. You can find creative ways to do this. You’ll thank yourself later! Grad school is hard enough as it is. Keeping yourself organized will help you work smarter and make that “impossible” transform itself into “I’m-possible”.

Always, remember:  “A journey to a thousand miles begins with a single step.”  ~ Lao Tzu

About Vanessa Rivera-Quinones

I am a fifth-year Ph.D. student in Mathematics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who enjoys teaching, learning applications of math in different disciplines, and making math accessible to everyone. My research interests involve using mathematical models to understand how interactions among hosts, parasites, and the environment shape the spread of disease. Follow me on Twitter: @MissVRiveraQ.
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