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I am a terrible procrastinator. I have written more papers in the last hours before they were due than I can count. In fact, this very blog entry is a few weeks late, in part because I struggled to find time to write about “Finding Time in a Busy Schedule.” It’s okay to laugh about that; I know I do.

When I first arrived at HDS, I felt embarrassed by my procrastination problem, in part because some of my classmates seemed to be able to accomplish a dozen impossible things before breakfast. By the end of my first semester, I started to feel like I was drowning, in part because I had all my final deadlines clumped together in the same few days in December. I ended up with an incomplete in one course so that I could finish the final paper over the winter break.

Early in my second semester, something wonderful happened. A classmate and I were talking about the heavy reading load we had, and I said that I always did every reading for every course. She laughed and said something like, “You’re not supposed to do that! The point of having too much reading is to learn what not to read and read more effectively.” This was a revelation, not just because it had never occurred to me not to read every word of every assigned reading. If part of being in grad school was to learn how to manage a crushing reading load, what other meta-skills was I supposed to be mastering? I began thinking of procrastination and time management issues not as problems to overcome, but as just another kind of course material.

I’ve spent the year since then working on learning better time management by treating it as just another part of my HDS experience. I try different strategies, discarding some and keeping what works. Because this is a skill set I’m learning, I don’t expect myself to already be perfect at it.

  1. Plot out your semester before finalizing your courses.

During shopping period, I get out a big calendar and map out all the coursework deadlines for the classes I’m considering. Am I committing to two short reflection papers on the same day each week? Are the final papers all due on the last day of the semester, or are they spread out over a longer period? If due dates aren’t on the syllabus, I ask about them during the first class meeting.

2. Be honest with yourself about your time and abilities.

When I have everything mapped, I think critically about what I can manage. It’s easy to let your enthusiasm and optimism talk you into a course load that isn’t sustainable over the length of the semester. That said, it’s okay to challenge yourself a little.  This semester, two of my final papers are due on consecutive days. I would not have been able to do that when I arrived at HDS, but I’ve improved enough that I’m willing to challenge myself now.

3. Experiment with time management strategies and use what works for you.

I am a techie and a geek, but my most effective time management tools are very low tech. For example, no matter how many electronic reminders I set, I used to miss events I wanted to attend. I found I had problems remembering that I needed to do one set of readings early because of another deadline. I’ve solved my ‘big picture’ problem with two tools.

First, I have a seven day planner whiteboard on my door now. Each Sunday, I fill it up with classes, school-related events and meetings, and outside events and activities. It gives me an immediate sense of what days are going to be very busy, what days are mostly free for reading and study. Every time I pass it I am reminded of meetings I have during the week.

Second, I have taken a large weekly planner and used it to create a personalized course reading schedule. I cut up my syllabi and for each week in the semester, I pasted in my readings for each course into that week’s page in the planner. When I finish a reading, I mark it off in the planner. Again, this allows me to have an immediate overview of my work for each week and make more effective choices about my time each day.

4. Turn your weaknesses into strengths.

When I am procrastinating, I will do all kinds of other work to avoid working on the thing I’m putting off. I’ll clean my room, organize files, grocery shop and read for every other course. Because I know that about myself, I keep a To-Do list and use it as a procrastination tool. I ask myself, “What’s the next most important thing after this paper I’m avoiding?” Then I work on that instead. Often, that means I’m working on the paper that’s due next week instead of the one due this week. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s pretty effective.

5. Be gentle on yourself.

Finally, be forgiving with yourself. If I already knew everything there was to learn at HDS, I wouldn’t be here. By conceptualizing time management as just something else I’m learning, I allow myself room to make mistakes and to not know how to do something. I used to ‘punish’ myself for not completing work by not doing anything social; as result, if I was procrastinating, I felt guilty about taking any time for myself. Now I build in social time and take it just as seriously as my coursework. When I make time in my schedule for my emotional needs, I end up with more energy to put towards my coursework. As a result, I’m having my best semester so far.

I’m still a procrastinator; being at HDS hasn’t changed that. However, I’ve learned to think of time management not as some magical ability everyone but me was born with, but as a set of skills that I can learn and improve over time. HDS has given me an excellent opportunity to do just that – ensuring that when I graduate, I’ll leave as a more productive procrastinator.