We're a little crazy, about science!

Time management as a student

AHHHHH! There’s so much going on right now my head feels like it’s going to explode. Still, I am hopeful that today is the day that I check a few of those things off my list. Let me just say, the more I have to remember the more stressed out I get, mostly because I’m afraid I’ll forget something. The solution is simple, don’t try to remember anything, but that is problematic… right?

We’re wrapping up January with a bang. Or at least I am trying to! Once again for those of you just tuning in, this is the daily blog about me! More specifically, about my life as a PhD candidate in neuroengineering. There’s a lot going on right now from my R21 grant, to outreach, and even a book chapter. In my downtime I make things, mostly woodworking these days. Today we’re talking about how I manage to juggle so much and still somehow find time to relax. I’ll spoil the surprise, it takes work, but I try to prioritize my mental health since it’s always a bit rocky. Now that you’re caught up for the most part, let’s dive into the topic for the day.

For those not aware, I have a TBI (traumatic brain injury) I’m sure as a veteran it’s far more common than we like to admit. For me, I deal with chronic headaches, slight aphasia that gets worse when I’m stressed, but the most inconvenient thing is my memory. You tell me a movie plot and if I’ve seen it I can tell you the title or vice versa. It’s a weird super power of mine, I can do the same with music no problem. Yet for the life of me I can’t memorize anything from school without serious work, I constantly forget my schedule, and if I’m not careful I would probably forget to attend classes I’m enrolled in. Don’t ask me why my memory is so good in a very specific and useless case, I couldn’t tell you.

Still I manage to make it to classes, meetings, and experiments. I know when my deadlines are, how much time I have to hit them, how much time (I think) it will take to accomplish those things, and I give myself some wiggle room to make sure I get it done. It’s not that my brain lets me remember all these things, it doesn’t. Instead I have a system that works for me and even though I have to put in extra work to maintain it, the result means I don’t have to stress out about anything because I don’t have to worry about remembering something.

Basically my first secret is that I color code my calendar. Classes are blue, outreach/mentoring/etc is purple, experiments are orange, VA appointments are red, and so on. This is the first link in a multi link system. Everytime I have something I’ve scheduled it immediately goes into the calendar lest I forget it. The color coding helps me glance at it on my phone and I know exactly the type of day I’m about to have without getting into the details. It’s time saving and means I don’t have to click on the task to see the details, I already know almost everything about it just by seeing the time, day, and color.

The second tier of my system involves slightly more work. Every Sunday I enter the weeks tasks, everything from cutting my hair to the things in my calendar, into my time management app. I prefer TickTick, it’s free, easy to use, and it gives me a lot of functionality. I’ve used it for the past four or five years now and I love it. It gives me reminders when I have meetings, I can check things off the list of the days things to do. I can prioritize tasks by importance, and I can set recurring tasks so I don’t have to keep entering my class schedule or things I do on a regular interval. I can set it and forget it, which means not only do I not have to remember the time of my meeting, I get reminders that I set to let me know when it gets close. I prefer 1 hour, 30 minutes, 10 minute and 5 minute warnings so I can get ready and stop whatever task I’m doing at that time, but that’s just what works best for me. I even put a reminder to enter the next week into my phone, very helpful because while I don’t think I would forget without it, it’s nice to KNOW I won’t forget.

Here’s the deal, even if I didn’t have a TBI and had a great memory for dates/times, there’s no way I would be able to keep it all straight without writing it down somewhere. Even then, if I get sucked into a task, who’s to say I won’t lose track of time? It happens to the best of us, one minute it’s early morning the next it’s late in the afternoon and I realize just how long I was spending on that task, but only after the fact.

Then there is the stress and anxiety of trying to remember everything. I can’t do it, I’m an anxious person as it is, I need to keep life as simple as possible or I would spiral out of control and drop out of the program. My mental health has gotten somewhat more stable over the years, but it’s only because I’ve gotten better at balancing on that razor thin tightrope I walk that keeps me from falling into a deep and dark depression. Things like lists and reminder alarms help me keep my balance because I know I’m not forgetting something. When I schedule something it goes into my phone right away, every time.

Here’s the problem with my system though and let me be clear it’s a big one. It’s MY system, it may not work for you. Yeah, that’s the problem with time management techniques as a whole, they are very person dependent and require you to do the work to figure out what the best strategies are for you. Maybe parts of my system work for you, or even the whole thing and if that’s the case, then great! Chances are though, my super tailored to me and my issues system isn’t the best for you. Maybe color coding doesn’t work because you’re color blind, or maybe alarms, or in my case my phone vibrating, causes you too much anxiety for it to be useful. I’ll tell you right now that it’s okay.

My system is my system because it works for me, it doesn’t have to be your system and frankly probably won’t be the best system for you. The point of today’s post isn’t to give you a fixed blueprint to the key to time management. Instead think of it as recommendations and a starting point for you to figure out what your system should look like. It took me several years to fall into the system I’m using now and it could eventually change depending on how my needs change. Time management, like diet, healthcare, or even hobbies is very personal to you.

In the end, this post is just my attempt at getting you to think about what your system should look like and to try out a few things if, like me, you find yourself having trouble keeping track of all the little things you need to do. Life is stressful enough, hopefully this will help you find ways to reduce that stress, if only slightly.


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