Published: April 24, 2020 By

First things first. Let’s be real. Life is not about being productive right now. Productivity is not the goal in our current state of affairs. In our world right now, taking care of our essential needs—food, water, and sleep—is more than enough. By writing this, I do not mean to induce guilt or shame into being more “efficient” and “productive.” 

Instead, my aim here is to help graduate students bring a sense of calm and structure into the chaos of life. From anxiety about our parents’ health to fights with our roommates, life feels turbulent right now. But with a few simple strategies, we can start to find some grounding and peace.

When we care for ourselves first, we find serenity. One way to cherish our own needs is through the thoughtful prioritization of tasks. By being mindful of where we are spending our time, we can focus on what’s really important: our family and community, as well as our research.

I want to pause here for a short tangent.

When I say “research,” I am not thinking about research as “work” here. Instead, I encourage you to think about your research as one of your passions. All of the graduate students at CU Boulder are doing fascinating and valuable research. I hope that by using some time management techniques, you can reconnect with that passion through a healthy balance of research and personal life.

Sarah chats on Zoom with her friend and her dogLack of motivation is a common symptom of the depression that many feel from COVID-19 isolation. If you feel like you’ve lost touch with passion for your research, take five minutes to write out why you are doing your research and how you became interested in the subject in the first place. Begin with the words, “With my research, I am most excited about... and I most hope to . . . ,” then free-write for a few minutes.

Once you’ve gotten in touch with “your why,” try these strategies to find some discipline, freedom and meaning in your life during the chaos of COVID-19.

Put Down Your Phone

In 2018, I read the book How to Break Up With Your Phone by Catherine Price. It changed my life for the better in many ways: I deleted social media apps; I turned off all notifications. I stopped bringing my phone into the bedroom. Because I sleep and focus much better now than before, I’d like to help others find similar peace in avoiding the distractions that phones are constantly making in our lives.

Let’s face it. We all have some level of addiction to our phones. There’s scientific evidence to back it up. We know that smartphone usage decreases attention span and increases memory loss. Are you still not convinced? Try sitting down for 15 minutes and then count how many times you look at your phone or reach for your phone.

So what to do about it? Start small. Try putting your phone on silent or Do Not Disturb for 20-minute chunks of time. Don’t keep your phone within arm’s reach while you’re working. Charge your phone outside of the office. Don’t bring the phone into the bedroom. Interested in learning more? Try the Screen/Life Balance challenge to get less screen time and more calm in your life.

Establish Your Skeleton

Food, water, sleep and exercise—first. Build your muscles—research and writing—second.

Without a good foundation to basic life needs, you might find yourself drowning. We all know we need to eat healthy and drink more water; but how can we go about establishing these healthy life habits? Choose one of the basic life needs for your “skeleton”— food, water, sleep or exercise—and focus on it for 30 days. Be specific and timely about your focus. Don’t just say, “I’m going to drink more water.” Say, “I’m going to drink 8 glasses of 8 oz. cups of water per day.” Don’t just say, “I’m going to go to bed earlier.” Say, “I’m not going to look at screens after 8 p.m.” Then, hold yourself accountable with rewards: Give yourself a gold star every time you drink a cup of water or resist looking at your phone in the evening.

Cut Distractions

Turn off your phone. Turn off your email. Then, once you start the task at hand, have a pen and blank post-it next to you to write down any other “to-do” tasks that come to your mind that are not related to the task at hand. When you think, “Oh crap, I gotta call my mom back!” or “I need to write Tim an email!” you write down on your post-it “call Mom and email Tim” instead of looking at your phone or opening your email only to enter the rabbit hole labyrinth of the internet, emerging an hour later and wondering what you were doing in the first place.

Establish Structure

Within any structured time, be flexible. Plans change. Things come up. Work gets interrupted. But within a measure of flexibility, establish concrete tasks with specific time frames. For example:

  • I’m going to work on the outline for chapter 3 from 9-10 a.m.
  • I’m going to write 500 words of the introduction.
  • I’m going to analyze data from 1 interview for 50 minutes.

If you find yourself frozen by being overwhelmed with how much you have to do, make a list of your three most important tasks. Break those tasks up into manageable chunks of small projects. Try a bullet journal to keep track of everything and be sure to reward yourself when you finish a task with a break or self-care activity.

Where do I go from here?

Set up an action plan for yourself. Take it one day at a time.

  • Establish one no-phone goal for yourself. For example:
    • No phone in the bedroom.
    • No phone time before 1 p.m.
    • Change where you charge it.
    • Keep your phone outside of arm’s reach when working.
  • Pick one focus for your skeleton: Water, food, sleep, or exercise. For example:
    • No screens after 8 pm.
    • Yoga every morning.
  • Write down which of your three most important tasks are for tomorrow.
  • Decide what time your work time starts tomorrow and stick to it.

Sarah flexes her bicep during a Zoom call with a friendFor more resources on time management tips, check out the Graduate School’s Online Resource Library. To have a group to meet with every week to talk about productivity and establishing good habits, check out the Grad+ seminar series.

If you or someone you know is struggling, Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS) is available. They are providing drop-in and individual counseling appointments via telehealth. Graduate students can also join CAPS workshops covering topics like coping skills, anxiety management and more.

Health and Wellness Services will also be hosting a new series called Let’s Chat. This program will allow students to join a facilitated discussion and skills workshop to address a number of concerns related to COVID-19, including loneliness, anxiety, depression, lack of motivation and more. Sessions are held twice weekly and new topics are available each week.

Sarah Tynen is the graduate program manager at the Graduate School. She completed her PhD in geography in May 2019.

For more information, contact Sarah Tynen at Check out the Graduate School’s website for all of our professional development opportunities.