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  • Madeline Topf

On feeling overwhelmed.

Being a grad student from home has been a vicious cycle. I get overwhelmed that something is due, I work on that thing only until I turn it in, I take time off because I am exhausted, I get overwhelmed again about the next thing. It repeats.


In undergrad, this feeling was familiar, common, and socially acceptable. My friends and I would make small talk complaining about the work we had and all the quickly approaching due dates. Now, it feels different. Worse. I have no structure during the day, so, I could be working that grant proposal at any given time. I also don’t have the camaraderie as I did before, where my social life centered around studying. Either way, it sucks. I’ve found a few strategies really helpful.


1. Think of the birds Bird by bird is a book by Anne Lamott about how to write better and be more productive. She tells the story of her brother trying to write a report on birds which he had an entire three months to write. He had nothing done but it was due the next day. Lamott’s father just put an arm around her brother saying, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” I think of this when I am faced with something overwhelming. Bird by bird, just a little bit at a time, and it will get done.


2. Throw a tomato at it Another trick I’ve been using is the pomodoro timer, which is a little phone app that sets a timer for you for 25 minutes followed by a 5 minute break. This repeats a number of times and then there’s a longer break for 25 minutes. I don’t need the breaks as much as I need the small amount of motivation- Just 25 minutes. I can do something for 25 minutes. Often, I find myself able to work 50 minutes straight (ok, I’m bragging). Some days I have to go even shorter, 15. Working uninterrupted for 15 minutes gets more done than you’d think.


3. Bullets and numbering There IS time in the day to get things done… but I have a hard time deciding what needs to be completed. I got this tip from my dad, Dan Topf, who has been working from home as long as I’ve been alive. He writes: “Adopt a Prioritized Daily Task List. Identify tasks that are A (must) B (should) and C (might). Then number each of these ABC’s by sub priority. Update every day.” This allows for focused work on what you know you need to do. He also suggests thinking about your most productive time of day and choosing that as when to work. Unfortunately, my most productive times are the mornings before lunch and evenings after dinner. That doesn’t really work for a traditional schedule.


4. Do less. It’s the digital age, and productivity hacks are everywhere. We all want to optimize our time and that can be stressful. Just choosing like two things to do per day is a good strategy and builds confidence. If I expect myself to get 10 things done, I sometimes do nothing. Trying to accomplish small things per day will help. Also, it’s fucking 2020. There should not be an expectation of incredible productivity. We can do this!

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