6 steps to reducing anxiety through task management in graduate school

Anxiety is tricky to control because we often feel like obsessing over what can go wrong can help us respond in the many possible events. To reduce anxiety, you need to stop this thought process. This can be difficult in graduate school because of the large number and variety of tasks required for success. After having anxiety problems resulting from grad school, I began to take this more seriously and developed a plan.


1. Brain dump all your tasks

First, brain dump every task you can think of for the next (month/paper/project). Don’t forget to put down repetitive tasks like checking emails, reading articles, or grading.

2. Organize by priority

Using excel or google sheets, make one column per priority (high, medium, low). Organize your list of tasks according to priority. Be realistic – not everything is as high priority as you think!

3. Chunk larger tasks up

You might have a larger task such as “write a lit review” or “finish experiments” – try to chunk it up into items that take about 1 hour to complete. For example, “identify articles for lit review”, “plan experiment”, “plan data analysis”.

4. Plan for the week

Now that you have an exhaustive list of things to do, pick your top 8 in each category and put them at the top of your priority columns. Give a few lines of space between these and the rest of your tasks. Create columns for M-F a few columns over, and distribute these top 8 tasks.

5. Put the least amount of work on Friday

It’s difficult for me to not want to do all the high-priority tasks immediately (Monday or Tuesday). To accommodate this, I put the minimum things on Friday. That way, I know if I slightly over-burden myself early in the week, I’ve left myself plenty of elbow room at the end, and it will get done.

6. Include daily/required tasks 

You spend time going to meetings, grading, teaching, writing emails, etc. Make sure you put these items into your daily to-do list. They are still work, and it will make you appreciate how much work you really do every week.

After a task is completed, I like to use “strikethrough” so I can visualize how much work I’ve done all week. At the end of the week, I clear everything I’ve completed and start the process over.


The logic

By dumping everything you can think of into a central location, there is no longer any good reason to constantly think about what you have to do or when your deadline is. You have it written down. This will help you break away from bad habits, but there is more you can do to help yourself when making your daily to-do list.

Underestimate your productivity

This is particularly important at the beginning. If you over-burden yourself using this method, you won’t feel like it is helpful. Only put in about 5-6 hours worth of tasks into each day. You should still be able to knock out all of your top 8 most important tasks, since they should all be chunked into ~1 hour tasks.

Don’t put anything on the weekend

Obviously you might work on the weekend, but consider this “extra” work. This way, instead of feeling guilty about relaxing all weekend, you feel extra-productive if you happen to do a bit of writing. Win-win.

And the most important thing..

Only plan once a week

Once a week, fill out your to-do list. It’s fine to re-arrange a little bit, but try to avoid the temptation to constantly go in and tweak it. Look at your to-do list as a set of specific instructions from your previous self, and try not to question it.

If you get a sudden request from someone, and it isn’t ultra high priority, push it off for a few days. If you absolutely can’t wait until next week, then just trade it out for your other tasks.


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