5 Ways to Be Productive Without Compromising Your Health in Graduate School 

Jun 04, 2020

By Sojourner White

Graduate school is a hub for learning, personal development, and yes – a whole lot of work. Amongst the daily ups and downs of homework, practica, personal responsibilities, etc., you can wear yourself out because more things always need to be done. Then, procrastination and pressure can creep in and derail your progress more, forcing you to continue even though you need a break. It’s difficult as graduate students to find that balance between studying and working when you want to succeed in a program you chose to better your future. But remember, you’re human and you need breaks to enhance your productivity. 

Having recently completed my own Master’s degree, I was one of those students. Unfortunately, I can recall a few occasions when I valued productivity over my health – before I realized they go hand in hand. It’s easy to neglect yourself in graduate school, and I’ve learned that when it happens, you can’t perform your best. Graduate students push themselves to be productive until they reach their breaking points, yet there are ways to get things done in a healthy way. To help you make better decisions than the graduate students before you, here are 5 ways to be productive without compromising your health. 

1. Gather your study buddies and work together

When you’re stuck on an assignment or have writer’s block, you may need some moral support. This support can be friends, classmates, school club members, etc. depending on how you build your graduate school community. Schedule to meetup virtually or have in-person writing and homework dates at cafes or the libraries. You can brainstorm together, work individually, and even take timed coffee, snack, or tea breaks so you can stay on track. Having other people around can motivate you to be more focused. 

However, once you get comfortable with a group of friends at your new favorite cafe, that productivity can decrease. It’s really easy to get distracted when you build bonds with people. Definitely do a wellness check-in with your study buddies by setting aside the first 15 to 20 minutes or so to catch up before you work. That social interaction is as important as working – and it can energize you as well. Just be sure that you are setting out to accomplish what you need to get done too. 

2. Workout solo or take a group exercise class 

Maintaining your physical wellness should be just as important as academic achievement, especially in graduate school. Exercise is one of the first tasks to get axed from a busy student’s schedule, even though it shouldn’t be because it can be one of the most beneficial parts of your routine. Working out is a great way to relieve stress and clear your mind when you are always on the go. You can run, walk, cycle, do yoga, lift weights, etc. to get yourself moving, all while taking a much-needed break. If you want to double it as social interaction, grab a friend or two and do a workout class together such as Zumba or Spinning.

3. Make a to-do list, then prioritize it

As a planner myself, I often make to-do lists for everything from school to work to grocery shopping. However, making a list can cause you to be more anxious and shut down instead of getting pumped to finish a task. After you have compiled all your tasks, divide them up by day to see what is manageable to get done in the midst of your other responsibilities. Consider prioritizing each task by what day or time the assignment is due, and/or breaking down large assignments into smaller parts to get it down. Sectioning off your tasks makes it more digestible to process on a daily basis and will not overwhelm you. 

4. Ask your professor for an extension

Graduate school can get overwhelming when the papers, exams, and presentations become too much. Many professors layer on assignments without knowing what is on your plate, so you may have multiple projects due the same week or even on the same day. If you are feeling bombarded with work, ask a professor for an extension on an assignment or two. Do not be ashamed – we all reach our breaking point and it is OK to ask for help. Never be afraid to use your voice to advocate for yourself. While all professors may not be understanding or accommodating, it doesn’t hurt to try. 

5. Take a break or a mental health day 

Though many people in college, both undergraduates and graduates, believe powering through assignments all night is the way to success – it’s not. Sometimes “enhancing” anything means slowing down everything. Our bodies need to rest, even if it’s temporary, to recharge and relax before moving onto the next task. Short-term solutions can include building periodic breaks every 30 minutes to an hour during your workdays and sessions or watching an episode of your favorite television show for a quick escape. Write down your break time in your planner, or pop it into your mobile calendar to hold yourself to it.

Additionally, mental health days are becoming more and more common in schools and workplaces. As people are recognizing how the obsession with productivity impacts mental well-being, colleges and universities are beginning to implement mental health day policies to make environments more inclusive. Communicate with your professors by asking about mental health day protocols, and if a strenuous situation arises make them aware of any issues you’re facing. Professors can be more supportive than you think.

In conclusion…

Between classes, homework, group projects, jobs, and more, graduate school is a continuous adjustment. It requires students to be “on” constantly, which is not the healthiest model to live by. Whether it’s asking for help from a professor or leaning on friends for group study and writing support, that adjustment does not need to include all-nighters. Sometimes taking care of yourself is the most productive part of your day. I hope that these tips can help you find the balance in studying most effectively and knowing when to say “enough.” 

Sojourner White holds a Master’s of Social Work in International Development from the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis. Prior to graduate school, she taught English in Spain as a Fulbright Fellow and served in the AmeriCorps program Public Allies. She currently does intersectional race and health equity consulting with organizations to redesign their practices for more equitable, community-minded outcomes. You can also find Sojourner writing on her travel blog Sojournies, where she offers tips and resources to encourage students and young professionals to make travel part of their lifestyles. 

© Victoria Johnson 2020, all rights reserved