How to Get Work Done in the Summer Without Hating Yourself (Maybe)

phd comics summer

This summer, I’m trying something new: work-life balance. It’s not easy at all, especially given my tendency to be far too ambitious about how much I’ll accomplish in the summer. I usually write myself a to-do list a mile long in May, and then beat myself up in August only over accomplishing half of it. I know I’m not the only one with this problem, and I know I’m far from the only graduate student who feels guilty whenever they take time off from working, but then also guilty while working for not taking more time off — the grad school catch-22. This summer, my first as an ABD-status student, felt like a great time to hit the reset button on the cycle of overworking and guilt-tripping myself.

Given the to-do list I’ve set myself for the summer, it may not sound like I’ve cut back all that much. I am a co-organizer for a graduate student conference my department is hosting in October, so I’ve been working on putting that together with my fellow co-organizers. I’ve been finishing up a special author project and researching possible dissertation projects (my prospectus is due in September), which has involved a truly absurd amount of primary and secondary reading — much of which still lies ahead of me. I’m also writing a bit for the CAMWS GSIC blog and traveling with my husband for his summer research project. I have a half-time appointment as a research assistant for one of my professors that will run for six weeks through midsummer; I will also start my 2019-20 assistantship at the UI Press in July. Yikes.

oprah yikes

If you are a graduate student reading this, you likely have a similar line-up of jobs and projects keeping you busy (and guilty) these summer days. For us, summer “vacation” is usually anything but. It’s so hard to break out of the mentality that we need to be working all the time, especially when that expectation is handed down (tacitly or explicitly) from an advisor or other authority figure in your program. I certainly haven’t stopped feeling guilty about my measly progress on my to-do list yet, but I have gotten a liiiiittle bit better at finding balance since the semester ended. Mostly I’ve done this in three ways:

1. Lower expectations. Looking at a half-done to-do list in August, when the semester is about to ramp up again, is possibly the most depressing experience of my graduate career to date. Back in May when I started to make my usual, absurdly long to-do list, I forced myself to cut back and focus only on the essentials: finishing my special author project and choosing my dissertation topic. For the former, I set incremental deadlines during the summer to force myself to work semi-consistently. For the latter, I compiled a stack of books from the library and have started to work through them one by one.

I haven’t given myself any other school-related to-dos for the summer. Even though there are conferences I want to submit abstracts for in the fall and papers I want to revise into articles that I can submit to journals, I forced myself to formally recognize that those are secondary, even tertiary, priorities for this summer. I have reminders about those things written down in a separate place from my official summer to-dos. If I don’t get to those things by mid-August, it’s okay — I won’t have to be disappointed by those unchecked boxes on my list.

2. Set boundaries and protect them. So far this has been the hardest part of my attempt to find balance, but I think it’s the most important. I usually don’t set myself any kind of schedule over the summer, so I end up working very inconsistent hours. This month, I am spending 9:00 am to 4:00 pm in the library on weekdays, working on academic work and blog writing. I am not working after 5:00 pm this summer, period (no matter how much I may “want” to, or guilt myself into feeling I need to!). Instead I’m spending the evenings with my family and friends, trying out new breweries, re-learning to knit socks (my last attempt four years ago ended in disaster), and catching up on my movies and Netflix watch lists.

I’m also trying to keep work out of the weekends as much as possible. I know this one won’t last for much longer; once my assistantships start up, there simply will not be enough hours during the week to get all my work done. However, when that happens, I am still going to do my best to contain work to only one weekend day, leaving the other free for relaxation. Sure, I could get more done if I spent Sunday afternoons in the library, but isn’t the whole point of summer that you don’t have to spend Sunday afternoons in the library?

3. Schedule the fun! My official to-do list isn’t just about work: it includes reading one book for fun, getting back into a regular yoga habit, and several knitting and crochet projects. The purpose of summer is to give our minds and bodies a break from the brutality of the school year, to relax and refresh ourselves — why not treat those as goals and activities equal in importance to whatever academic work happens in the summer? Checking a box on the official to-do list when I’ve finished knitting a baby blanket or reading a fun book makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something important, because I have: I’ve spent time on something that renews and refreshes me.


I am not good at loosening up and letting go of things. My work to-do list and the guilt trips I put myself on for not being productive enough follow me everywhere. So this is not an “I did it and you can too” list of easy steps — this is me, as one workaholic to another, saying that I think it’s possible to be less of a workaholic and still feel good about your summer productivity. I may not get as much done this summer as I would by working evenings and weekends, but I am much less likely to hate myself and feel like I’ve wasted my break come August. And though I have snuck in some weekend reading once or twice, I already feel more relaxed than I usually do at this point in the summer. Here’s hoping I can keep it up — and here’s hoping you can, too.

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