Tips for Grads: Getting back on track

By Olivia Gacka, PhD Student

In the wake of completing a big project or reaching a major deadline, do you ever feel absolutely useless? I myself just finished up a huge months-long project right before spring break, and throughout the process I constantly told myself “When this is over, I’ll get everything else done. I’ll be so productive!”

You may be able to guess that has not turned out to be the case. In the days since the project ended, I have felt simultaneously depleted and overwhelmed by everything I have to do that was pushed to the back burner until now. Here are some things I’ve been doing to try and get back on track:

  • Acknowledge: At first, I had absolutely no sympathy for myself when I was too exhausted to start tackling all the things I’d been putting off. But it’s important to remember you just did something huge – you’re burned out for a reason! Assuming you’d be able to spring back right away is overly ambitious at best. So, take a minute (but really, take a day or two) to rest and congratulate yourself for whatever it is you just accomplished before proceeding. You did it!
  • Take stock: After you’ve taken some time to be nice to yourself, sit down and write on a piece of paper all the things you now need to think about doing. You’ve had the thought “I have so much to do” looming in your head, but how many things do you have to do exactly? Five? 10? 20? Are they all roughly at the same level of difficulty? Or are some easier than others? Concretely identifying the things you now have to devote energy to will make the next challenge seem much more surmountable if you can demystify the items for yourself a bit.
  • Tiny steps: Don’t start with the most complicated thing you have to do. I started with laundry. It seems silly, but doing a less cerebral task like taking care of the laundry I had put off in the final days of my big project gave me the little boost I needed to feel up to tackling the bigger things, like catching up on reading and answering all the emails I’ve been ignoring. You might be the total opposite, however, and may find that answering ignored emails will give you the stamina you need to do your laundry. Just pick the easiest thing on your list for you, and work up from there.

Tips for Grads is a professional and academic advice column written by graduate students for graduate students at UW­–Madison. It is published in the student newsletter, GradConnections Weekly.