Basic Self-Maintenance for Academic Success – Part 1

This is the first in a two-part series by Ada Palmer (@Ada_Palmer), who has generously made a ‘Healthy Work Habits’ handout which you can download here.

Think Long-Term

Remember that the real goal of this Ph.D. program is to train yourself to be a great historian, which includes training yourself to balance the burdens of academic life. Learning to use your time well and take care of yourself so you are happy and productive is just as important as learning your field. If you become a professor, the workload will only increase as you are required to teach more classes, produce more research, attend more conferences, advise more students, do more paperwork, and face more deadlines, and many other career paths have similar heavy burdens, with stricter deadlines and fewer second chances. If your current workload seems like “too much” don’t assume nothing can be done. You can learn to accomplish more in less time, if you remember to (A) plan your time carefully, and (B) pay yourself first.

Pay Yourself First

Never feel that hobbies, leisure activities, exercise, or rest are “taking time away from” your studies; keeping your mind and body in a fit state to work is one of the responsibilities of your studies, every bit as much as learning languages or passing exams. A motto recommended by the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity is “Pay Yourself First” i.e. remember that, while you have many responsibilities, your #1 responsibility is to be your own custodian. Guarding your own happiness and productivity and is a duty, not an indulgence.


Plan Your Time

“I Don’t Have Enough Time!” I believe you. Time is an academic’s rarest and most precious resource. But that doesn’t mean you should reconcile yourself to being constantly overworked and exhausted. If you feel that you work to exhaustion every day, but still don’t have enough time for all your work, you don’t need to work more. You need to work less but accomplish more in the hours you do work, and reserve other time for rest and fun. It is possible. One centerpiece is realizing that academic life requires balancing three things: short-term tasks, long-term tasks, and leisure/rest. Unfortunately short-term tasks are the only ones with accountability: class readings, short papers, grading, applications, professional e-mails in your inbox, these all have due dates within a week or two, which hold you accountable and push you to get them done promptly. Long-term tasks like “Be ready for your oral exam in a year” or “Finish your dissertation in 4 years” are much more important, but have no accountability, so there is no consequence to letting a day, a week, a month go by without actually working on them. Similarly, leisure activities like sleep, rest and exercise are absolutely necessary to keep you in a fit state to work, but there is no consequence to skipping one so it is easy to let yourself skip two, then three, then all, letting yourself sink into exhaustion and draining your ability to work. Watch your time, and fight to keep short-term tasks from taking over!


Give Your Best Hours to Your Most Important Tasks

It may seem that an hour is an hour no matter what, but our ability to work and concentrate varies over time. An hour of work put in when you are at 100% may produce as much as two hours when you are tired, stressed, hungry, and not at your best.  Your ability to work is by (A) circumstantial factors such as workspace comfort, (B) metabolic factors such as nutrition and time of day, (C) sleep, and (D) mental health factors such as stress management, socializing and fun. It may seem like an impossible dream to say you can do more in less time, but if you work to maximize the quality of your working hours you genuinely can reduce the quantity.

  • Accountability can be a big help. Create your own deadlines and rules, like “5 pages by X date” or “Finish researching X topic in Y month” or “Always exercise M/W/F/Sat” or “Always have meals with a friend 2x per week.” Self-imposed deadlines, if you stick to them, can help you stick to your long-term tasks and leisure/rest plans.
    • You can set aside certain hours of the day, or times during the week, as reserved exclusively for long-term tasks or leisure/rest and make the self-imposed rule never to let short-term tasks violate those protected hours.
    • There are many free or inexpensive Productivity/Accountability apps/programs which let you make daily task lists, to-do lists, “good habit” lists, and check them off each day, tracking your accomplishments and reminding you clearly what you planned to do, and whether or not you kept it up. Many people like a program called Habitica because its gameificaiton adds extra motivation, but other popular options include, Todoist, 30/30, DropTask, GTasks, Limitless and Zenday. These programs can do wonders for both work and leisure/rest/health.
    • You could pick a “writing buddy” or “research buddy” and pledge to each achieve a certain amount each week; keeping up with a friend keeps you motivated. You can also use a buddy for self-care, exercise, and other non-work essentials.
  • Not all hours are equal. You concentrate and think better at some times of day than others. Try varying what time of day you do different things and observe for yourself when your most productive hours are, so you can give them to your most important tasks. For example, many tend to do e-mail, short-term assignments, grading and paperwork tasks earlier in the day to “get them out of the way” before settling in to research and writing, but this means giving your best hours to minor tasks, and approaching your most important work when you are already tired. Try reversing the order, setting aside an hour or two for research & writing before other tasks.
  • “Track your time” to learn where your hours really go. Try for a week or two keeping a time diary, where you write down the time at which you begin every activity. You may discover that days which feel like they are completely full of academic work actually contain many secondary tasks or “time traps” which could be reduced. After tracking your time for 2 weeks you can discover where your time really goes, and make a plan.
    • E-mail and social media are a common time trap, since fascinating links and new posts or shares from friends can lead to a long chain, adding up to many minutes. Try timing your e-mail/media access to see if you are losing a time there. If so, try making a rule like “max 45 minutes of email in the morning” or “no web surfing before noon” or “facebook, twitter and youtube only between dinner and 11 PM.”
  • Set aside time for long-term tasks. It is very demoralizing to feel that you are working all day every day and yet your big projects aren’t progressing, and that morale blow can affect you more deeply than you imagine. Reserve at least a small amount of time regularly to work on your big projects, even if it’s a tiny amount. The NCFDD recommends “Write for 30 Minutes Every Day” so that, even if you only progress one paragraph, you can look back at the end of the week and see a few pages’ progress, which can make a huge difference, both to getting finished, and to avoid feeling demoralized. Whether you try 30 minutes a day, or a couple hours at a set time each week, holding yourself to a steady minimum of focus on your long-term goals will achieve a lot.
  • Some things you do are neither work nor leisure – these are the best areas to examine to find ways to save time. Can you reduce your travel time? Your e-mail time? Your shopping time? You have to eat, but you can still save time there.
    • E-mail is a huge time-eater; working on ways to make it more efficient, like getting off mailing lists, or creating filters and labels, can save hours a week.
    • Peapod delivers groceries, and subscription services like Amazon “Subscribe & Save” will deliver staples like cereal, rice, pasta, canned goods, toilet paper, vitamins etc. to you through the mail (no shipping charge) at any interval you like (weekly, monthly) at prices lower than most Hyde Park grocery stores, so you can stock up and reduce your shopping trips to quick stops for milk & produce. This can save an hour or two every week.
    • You can pick one meal a day to make “superquick” by having a premade wrap or sandwich, or a smoothie made of protein powder plus juice and/or yogurt and fruit, making time to cook something delicious for another meal.
    • Can you use your commute for a second purpose? Biking makes your commute into exercise; relaxing music makes it into stress-reducing leisure; listening to audiobooks turns it into research and course preparation.


Learn About Yourself

Experiment with how, where and when to work. Some people work best at home, others in a library, in a crowded space, alone, in the morning, at night. Some people do one kind of work best in one situation and another in another. Try different options, and don’t assume that the way you have been working is the best for you without testing out others. You may discover a new working method that works better for particular projects, or combinations of work.


  • When you start work, try doing to make yourself feel “on duty” whatever that means for you – take a shower, get dressed, change the lighting, so it feels different.
  • Is your apartment a mess? Is the area where you work cluttered? Some people work well in a cluttered space but some feel more productive in a clean place. Try setting aside a day to really get your place in order (invite a friend to help and make it an activity) and then see if you feel better and produce more over the next week. If not, you can safely let the place get cluttered again, but if so you have found a way to improve your time.
  • Some people find that wearing particular clothes make them more or less productive, because how you dress affects how you feel. Try working in different clothes (comfy/slobby at-home clothes, more formal clothes, looser, tighter, warmer, cooler clothes that let you feel the cold a bit) and see how they affect your concentration.
  • Try “Work in Company” getting together with a friend to work in parallel. Having someone to chat with can raise morale, and having someone else working makes you feel you should keep working, instead of goofing off with breaks or surfing the web.
  • The vast majority of young academics work hunched over a laptop. This compresses the spine and strains the wrists and shoulders, making work at the laptop physically grueling even though you are not consciously aware of pain. Doing it for a long time can also cause Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and other forms of Repetitive Strain Injury. Studies suggest that 60% of Ph.D. students develop RSI before graduating. Making a safe work desk is very easy, and can make you feel much better while working:
    • (A) get an external monitor and position it up high so it is directly in front of your face when you’re sitting up straight, while your laptop serves as your keyboard and is set nice and low, near your lap. OR
    • (B) get an external keyboard to put down at keyboard level, but put your laptop up high so the screen is in front of your face when you sit up straight. You don’t have to buy an expensive stand: a pile of books or pizza boxes will do.

Part 2 of this blogpost is now available here.

Ada Palmer is a recently-tenured Associate Professor in the University of Chicago History Department. She works on early modern Europe and the history of radical thought, especially in the Renaissance. She is currently focusing on a collaborative project on the history of censorship during information revolutions (see She is also a science fiction novelist, author of the award-winning Terra Ignota series (Tor books), and a composer and musician. She is a chronic pain sufferer and happy to share with students and fellow academics the self-care strategies she has developed balancing her own work with disability. Ada tweets at @Ada_Palmer.

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