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As an undergraduate, I had a problem: I could work very efficiently during the week, but over the weekend I could get absolutely nothing done. Usually my plans for the weekend would include errands, studying, working on papers and projects, getting ahead with reading, and taking care of numerous chores (laundry, bills, writing applications, etc.)

But I would end up doing none of this. Instead, I would find myself scrambling to do the bare minimum for Monday in the wee hours of Sunday night or in the last few minutes before class.

Does anyone have tips for navigating short periods of unstructured time, such as two free days, in an academic setting?

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    So, what do you do instead? You know you need to do specifics things, yet you are doing something else. – Jon Custer Nov 19 '15 at 0:23
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    @JonCuster Researching things that interest me and are important, often relating to my field, but that have nothing to do with this week or next week. Not partying! – SAH Nov 19 '15 at 0:29
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    So, apparently, you feel no great pressure to get the pressing (due Monday) work done, preferring to do the 'fun' work. Many people can only work under immediate pressure. One way to approach it is to use the 'fun' work as an incentive to do the 'necessary' work - tell yourself that if you get assignment X done by 2PM on Saturday, you can spend 2PM-dinner working on something fun, than after dinner get to assignment Y. Sleep in late if you get that done, than... – Jon Custer Nov 19 '15 at 0:33
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    I recommend reading this great blog article about being distracted by other interests. It offers a paradigm to manage productivity and also strategies to cope. waitbutwhy.com/2013/10/why-procrastinators-procrastinate.html – Gabriel Fair Nov 19 '15 at 3:25
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    Also the wikipedia article on flow was very helpful to me: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_%28psychology%29 – Gabriel Fair Nov 19 '15 at 3:26

10 Answers 10

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One solution that has often worked for me is to try to not work on the weekends. If your weekdays are solid work times, then you can do more intense work on the weekdays and aim to have your weekend entirely free. Even if you don't entirely succeed, you'll still be in a much better situation with respect to the things you need to do by Monday. Then you can take real time off and have fun without guilt and actually recharge yourself for another solid week.

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    This is a fantastic suggestion! – SAH Nov 19 '15 at 1:09
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    You can also take a single day off every week completely. For example, I basically never did any school on Saturdays - I would do homework on weeknights and on Sundays, but my Saturday was a guilt-free day to not work on homework. – enderland Nov 19 '15 at 4:17
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    @enderland That's another great idea. 5 days are for work, 1 day is for "work that does not fit in the 5 days" and 1 day is for relaxation. Note that they need not be standard days. I used to work Saturday morning, then relax in the afternoon, maybe go out in the evening, visit the church on Sunday morning, and work again on Sunday afternoon, finishing what needs to be done. It worked well for me because in general, I need to feel some pressure, which is better on Sunday afternoon than Saturday afternoon :) – yo' Nov 19 '15 at 22:33
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    This is a fantastic suggestion. Jewish and Christian traditions both have the idea of a Shabbat (Sabbath), which is a day to rest. It's a fantastic idea even if you're non-religious. – Crisfole Nov 20 '15 at 12:59
  • Isn't this obvious? Everybody needs regular downtime. The fact that the OP is desperately struggling against that need is only proof of that! – Lightness Races with Monica Nov 22 '15 at 5:47
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As a postdoc and young faculty, I always felt guilty about not being particularly productive on weekends. I'd make big plans for really spending solid hours on this or that project or paper, but it never came together.

In the end, I realized that I'd goof off so much on the weekend because I was simply burned out from the week. My resolution, made a few years ago, has been to simply not work on Saturdays, and I live by that rule pretty rigidly. Saturday is the day I go on long bike rides with my friends, go out with the wife, read fun stuff, watch movies, and not feel bad about any of this. Sunday sleep in, have a lazy morning, and then spend the afternoon working from the couch. Sunday has typically become a pretty productive day for me. It's made me a lot happier with my weekends, and with myself.

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As an undergraduate, you were basically doing a more intense and funky version of high school. College was a fixed-term way station on the road to your real life. The ideal approach was to hunker down, make your excuses to your friends inviting you to parties, and sprint the finish. You, I, and 99% of the undergrads out there, had... limited success in this. Oh well. We're only human.

At the graduate/postgraduate level, things change. This is your job now, and there's only a very dim light at the end of the tunnel. the number one worry is not goofing off, it's getting burnt out. Drop-out rates are far higher here than they were at the undergraduate level.

Don't ignore your urge to take a break from time to time. It's healthy, it's reasonable, and it'll help you (a) advance in your academic career, and (b) not end up hating your life in the process.

Sometimes you'll wake up on Sunday and be hell-bent on getting some crazy work done that day. That's natural, at least for the fanatics with the drive to remain in academia. Go for it.

Sometimes you'll drag yourself out of bed on the weekend and want nothing more than to binge-watch Netflix all day. That's natural, at least for the mortals who inhabit academia. Go for it.

Bottom line is, work-life balance is a matter of understanding your needs as both a professional researcher and a normal person. Those two identities are in direct conflict, and you can't allow either one to conquer the other, because they need each other. Keep them both fed.

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I'm someone who does tend to work every day of the week, unless some particular event pops up to postpone it. That may not be for everyone, but in some sense it's easier to just have the same daily rhythm rather than switch it on and off. As an undergraduate I probably wasn't always working on class work; first, there's so many more interesting activities available than later in life, and two, maybe I was working on personal programming, writing, or gaming projects.

Here's a thing that helps me be productive. I keep a "todo" list (actually in a LibreOffice database) tagged with a priority A, B, C, or D. Every day or night I try to process the top 3 priorities to the top of the list -- and then I try to go and do whichever one seems like the most fun, or compelling, or on-my-mind at the time. This seems to go down better than forcing myself to do something because "I must". I may not be working on the ideal top priority, but I'm working on something, which gives momentum.

I've got "todo" items that get recycled with weekly, monthly, and quarterly chores. For example: weekly chores include grocery, laundry, shaving, and some other stuff. Try to get this as tight and efficient as possible so you can tick it off in about an hour without thinking about it. For example: my monthly chores include a system virus-scan (takes about 1 hour), and while that's happening I do a sweeping/bed laundering task.

Find some way to get regular exercise, it makes a big difference in energy levels. Sometimes for me that's been drumming or daily tennis.

In 2009 our TV blew up and we never got it replaced. I used to spend quite a bit of time watching TV. If you still have a TV then I might recommend ditching it.

I only check email and voicemail once a day. My phone is off all the time the rest of the day so I'm never interrupted. Occasionally there's some social cost now as other people find that weird.

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It's usual thing. We plan the work to be done and we won't be usually able to work out the plan as we want. It's quite natural I guess. What can help you, I think is to keep some reminder (or something of that sort in your phone) saying to start doing a particular task. (Keep the same reminder every half an hour. So, you might start doing that task, because you keep on seeing the tasks to be done. (Towards the end of the reminder, you may add the ultimate target or aim of doing the task) This might be helpful for you, I believe. You can also stick around some posters too. (When you wake up in the morning (be it weekend or weekday) you get to read what is written in the poster. Remind yourself what you want to do) if there is a strong intention for you to work hard in the weekend, you'll be able to do it. All the best @SAH :)

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I can clearly relate your issue with myself here. I am in the first year of my PhD and had the exact same problem that you are facing now when I was in my undergrads. Firstly, working in the weekends is not for everyone. But since your motivation is clear from the question, I would keep away from advising you the (dis)advantages of working in the weekends rather share some methods I employed myself.

Problem: I could work very efficiently during the week, but over the weekend I could get absolutely nothing done.

I am not sure what you meant by efficiently, I take the word meaning here. There may be several things that could distract you. I state some of them.

  • Away from classroom atmosphere.
  • No external motivation (class time tables, tutors, classmates).
  • Codes of conduct attached to the workplace is no longer applicable.

Here are my tips addressing each point.

  • Create a stimulating atmosphere comparable to your classroom or library at your stay.

This varies from person to person. For me, I like my room to be clean and ordered. There is a portrait of Einstein(I am in Physics by the way) on the wall on my left. I have a clipboard and a whiteboard on the wall facing me.

  • Rely on internal motivation.

Before I start my work in the weekends, I tell to myself how important it is to focus on my aim. Keep realistic timetables and stick on it (very important). It is important to keep time for non academic activities (I have never me anyone who is devoid of those!). I spend 2 hours per day during weekends reading autobiographies(The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin is highly recommended), Chess etc. Bear that in mind and make a realistic timetable.

  • Make sure the codes of conduct at the classroom is still valid at home.

This doesn't mean that you should wear a uniform (if you have one). In my case this translates to limiting time spent on social media, being disciplined during the study hours in the time schedule etc.

That said, let me tell you that the personality and passion of a person has a huge role to play in this. This would make this answer highly subjective but this is what I followed with moderate success and I insist you to focus on the general idea that is communicated.

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Too long for a comment... All the answers here (even the outliers, I think) are essentially honest accounts of how people deal with "the week", and the peculiarities of the rhythm it may suggest for our lives.

Of course, if the real question is "how do I get myself to systematically behave in a way I don't want to...?", then the answer is either that it's not sustainable, or "change yourself". :)

My own choice, for many reasons, has been to try to avoid thinking in terms of this entirely conventional (though universal) description of human activity: workdays, weekends, holidays, vacations. This was obviously easier when I had no kids, and no partners involved in conventionally-scheduled lives. But even in, and if one looks carefully, almost because of, the throes of small-children exigencies (maybe more severe than almost everything else), one can remind oneself that the conventional description of weeks and days is purely conventional.

So let's be philosophical: what does one want, (versus) what does one need? At one extreme, trying to force oneself to be more "virtuous" than one's natural inclination (at any particular point in life) seems at least partly misguided, although nudges in various directions are obviously part of a developmental process.

If the question is "how to overcome practical things getting in the way?", well, this has nothing to do with weekends, all the more since many academics can "work from home" (!!!) whenever no trip to campus is necessary. My own faux-rationalization is that doing laundry or washing dishes is a better "cigarette break" than actually smoking, although we all should know that it's easier and more fun to be addicted to an addictive thing than to non-addictive tasks. :)

In that vein, whenever one finds oneself trying to coerce oneself into something against (part of) one's will, one should... consider. By this year, I think the key point is to not make plans that commit you to be something you don't want to be, especially in terms of what it involves day-to-day.

For myself, I try to integrate practical tasks with "my work". "Breaks" from long-term not-immediately-gratifying projects are to take care of (immediately gratifying?) tasks such as folding laundry, paying bills, exercising (relatively fun!), going to the grocery, taking care of house/lawn/whatever...

Still, if one really doesn't care about the "research project", it'll be a good trick to make it stay in one's head. On the other hand, caring a bit too much does keep one awake at night... but maybe it's an adventure?

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If you have trouble working on your studies in a focused way on the weekend, then get those errands, laundry, bills, applications, etc., out of the way. Set yourself a reward that you will indulge in ONLY when a certain basic to do list has been accomplished.

It can help to have a support buddy -- someone who is going through something more or less similar, with whom you can compare notes at least once a day. Make sure the buddy doesn't drag you down, though.

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What I tried to do in college and post-grad is party my ass off on Friday and Saturday. Sunday was recovery and study/research day. Much easier to focus when you get the party out of you and when you have a slight hang-over you don't feel like doing much else.

(I am vehemently opposed to those who act like they are going to study all weekend and procrastinate, bitch to their friends about all the stuff they need to do, watch netflix and just waste the weekend. Party it up then cram on Sunday!)

  • Doesn't answer op. Specifically the question is Does anyone have tips for navigating short periods of unstructured time, such as two free days, in an academic setting? – Sathyam Nov 19 '15 at 23:25
  • @ThejusMahajan, your answer is good (in my opinion), but/and so is this one. Just a very different kind of answer (partly disputing aspects of the hypotheses, but I consider that inevitable and legitimate). I say this in the context of someone who works long days seven days a week... but, when younger, crammed some parties and other late nights into that, as outlet for (apparently) youthful energy/exuberance. An insincere, unenthusiastic self-discipline contains the seeds of dysfunction. – paul garrett Nov 19 '15 at 23:33
  • @paulgarrett, There may be lots of different kind of answers, but since OP has clearly stated his question, I think specific answer would be more appropriate. I invite you to read this if you haven't done already. – Sathyam Nov 19 '15 at 23:42
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    @ThejusMahajan, I do not care for any argument here, for several reasons. For one, even if one "reads the rules", the question of whether an answer conforms or not is subjective, at least in my opinion. I realize that many people believe that things I count as subjective are not, and also many peoples' subjective issues seem to me essentially objective, ... So, as long as we are basically civil here, we can see the range of opinions! :) – paul garrett Nov 19 '15 at 23:46
  • @ThejusMahajan - I think I conveyed this but I am clearly stating that get all the play and fun times out of the way so you are forced to focus on Sunday. I feel if you know you have to work on Sunday and know you can do whatever with no rules for the 1.5 days before that your time is focused. If you never unwind you just end up doing nothing and neither having fun nor getting anything done productive. Some of my best ideas were thought of on a late Saturday night and implemented through research on Sundays. – blankip Nov 20 '15 at 3:27
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I'm an undergraduate as well, and what works for me, is to not plan ahead, but just find that time during the weekend where you're not really doing anything, and brute force yourself into a short period of pure studying/working. It doesn't have to be an hour, you can start with as little as 30 minutes (some work can honestly take me way less than that to complete, if I full-on apply myself).

The thing is, even if you only managed to solve one exercise, or read one page, or even just progress in a tiny step and it seems like you didn't get any closer to finishing your work, you'll inevitably feel some kind of accomplishment, even a little proud of yourself - and once you feel that, go do something fun! Don't get carried away and keep working when you are past the time you set, just do whatever else. Then, after a few times you'll "trick" yourself like that, you'll notice you can set the work time longer and longer, because it will no longer be conceived as a bad thing. You'll be willing to spend more time working to get that reward afterwards. Kind of "Pavloving" yourself. Try this a couple of times, and even if it doesn't work, at least you've done some studying!

Hope it helps :)

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