4 Productivity Lessons I've Learned From the Most Intense 4 Months of My Life

Like a bear slowly awakening from hibernation (despite the fact it’s early January) I’m finally emerging from the productivity slumber I’ve been locked in since the end of my first semester of graduate school. I had huge plans of getting up early every day to work on my own projects, write articles for SamSpurlin.com, and plan the TEDx I’m in charge of. While I was able to get some of these things done, my writing output has been close to nil for the better part of three weeks. At first, I was frustrated with my apparent lack of productivity. How could I possibly stand to waste all of this free-time that is so incredibly hard to come by during the semester? I needed to be working hard to get everything done that I don’t have time to do while engaged with the duties of a grad student. Luckily, I decided to give The Power of Full Engagementa re-read early in December. I already knew this on a subconscious level, but this book helped me reaffirm the idea that renewal is just as important as productivity. In fact, without powerful renewal I’d never be able to ratchet up my productivity over time. With that helpful reframing, I’ve been enjoying my time at home and slowly warming up the productivity engine once again.

As a first foray into writing in about a month, I think it makes sense to take a little bit of time killing two birds with one stone. I think it’s vitally important to spend time reflecting on the past in order to improve the present and it’s also vitally important that I just get my fingers moving again.

Graduate school is an intense period of time in a student’s life. I worry that I mention it too often on this blog, so I’d like to take a little bit of time using it as a source of more general insight. My experiences are unique, but I suspect what I’ve learned over the past 4 months is not. Over the course of the next couple of hundred words I’d like to share with you my greatest takeaways from my first semester of studying for my master’s degree in positive developmental psychology.


Mental power is a predictably important resource when you’re a student. Graduate school demands that you have a huge amount of mental power on hand at almost all times. It may seem silly, but I was very, very grateful that I instilled some habits in my life over the past couple of years that freed up mental power for more important activities. For example, I have an extremely minimal wardrobe that requires zero thought to address each morning. I know that I can grab either pair of my shorts or pants and any of my shirts and look like a respectable human being. Other habits such as my implementation of Getting Things Done, how I manage reference information (Evernote, simple filing system), and the way I use my computer have all allowed me to use my mental power on more important questions. All of this seems terribly inconsequential, I know. However, Every little taxing decision or thought that isn’t directly related to something important represents a tiny drain on my psyche. Deciding what to wear every morning or deciding how to manage a new piece of information in my life are tiny decisions that happen many times every week. By having a system in place to take care of these items automatically has been a huge boon over the past couple of months.

Do you have a set system in place for when you receive a new piece of information (say, in an email) that requires your action? For me, I hit two buttons, type a sentence or two, hit enter, and know that a task has been safely captured in my task management software. It requires almost no thought and I don’t have to wonder where my to-do list is or if I’ve forgotten something important. Are you happy with the tools that you use on a daily basis or does something about them make you angry? I got tired of using crappy pens so I did a little bit of experimenting and discovered a pen that I love to use. I visited Amazon and purchased a box of them that are now currently residing in my desk drawer. I know that I always have an excellent pen at hand that won’t make me rue the idea of writing. Think about anything you have to do over and over in your life and ask yourself if you have a system in place. Don’t waste mental power on stuff that doesn’t matter.


Graduate students can be kind of weird. Myself and the rest of my cohort are all high achievers when it comes to school. We come from backgrounds where good grades and academic achievement are valued. However, sometimes it seems like the appearance of hard work is valued more than the actual results of that work. In a nutshell, just because you spend 10 hours a day at the library does not mean you’re more committed. There were times over the last semester where I found myself getting sucked into this mentality. It’s easy to find someone who appears to be working harder than you and the initial impulse is to try to match their apparent commitment by spending more time buried in a book or tucked away in the library.

I’ve worked hard over the past five years or so developing the work habits and the productivity systems to allow myself to complete a large amount of high quality work in a shorter amount of time. I don’t have to spend as much time in the library as some of my classmates and that’s okay. It’s okay to spend a lot of time in the library, as long as that time is truly needed. The problem I have with the graudate student mentality is the idea that the more harm you cause yourself by foregoing sleep and working long hours the more dedicated you are as a student. That’s stupid. Not sleeping is stupid. Graduate school requires your brain to be working at top capacity and that is never possible if you’re operating at a severe sleep deficit.

Are you taking time to take care of yourself? Those periods of renewal that I talked about at the beginning of this post are vital if you want to be at the top of your game. It can be easy to use something very visible (like sitting in the library) as a representation of how hard you’re working. That’s an overly simplistic metric of productivity. Instead, resist the urge to keep up with the proverbial Joneses and let output be your measure of productivity. That’s what truly matters, anyway. If you can create the output that you need to in a fraction of the time it takes someone else, be happy, humble, and willing to use that leftover time to take care of yourself. Self-care is the secret to keeping that high level of productivity functioning.


Even going to graduate school in the first place was an example of doing something that scared me. I was moving across the country and away from everything I knew as a native Michigander — a community that loves hockey, a career, my friends, and family — to roll the dice on something completely new. So far, that has been one of the best decisions of my life. Once in California, I didn’t shut down my life coaching business. In fact, I expanded it. Trying to run a business while being a full-time student is scary but worth it. When the opportunity to organize a TEDx conference presented itself, I applied and was selected to fill the position. It has been an incredibly stressful, monumental, and scary project. But it has been worth it. I’ve been filling my time for the past four months identifying projects and activities that scare me and doing my best to do them. It’s redundant advice, I know, but searching my horizon for fear and barreling toward it has been one of the best things I’ve done.

Is there something you’ve thought about doing that scares you? What is it about this thing that you find so scary? Is there any way you can lean in to this project and get a taste of how scary it really is? Before I took on the TEDx organizer position I volunteered for the conference that we put on in September. It gave me a taste of what it takes to organize something like this and gave me a taste of the fear before jumping in feet first.


This is similar to my first point, but I think it deserves its own section. I like doing things from beginning to completion, no matter what. I quickly realized this is stupid. Studying for tests is a specific activity aimed at learning what I don’t already know. Reviewing information I already understand is an utter waste of time. My old way of doing things was to always start from the beginning of the content and work my way methodically through it. I finally learned to attack my studying in a more intelligent way by focusing on the information I didn’t know and ignoring what I already understood. This cut my studying time down significantly. Maybe I’m late to the party by doing this but it seems like lots of my classmates took the study-it-all-regardless-of-what-I-know approach.

The other side of this equation is making really tough decisions about how I’m willing to spend my time. If the difference between getting an A or a B is an additional 5 hours of studying, I’m probably not willing to make that investment. It’s not because I don’t value good grades or am afraid of hard work, I just know that there are better ways I can spend those 5 hours. I can write an article for this website, I could spend some time working with a life coaching client, or, believe it or not, I could get some more sleep. It’s a sign of maturity to logically assess where you’re spending your time and refusing to let your circumstances dictate your action, instead of the other way around.

How is your time arranged? Do you control how you use your time? Obviously, there are plenty of demands and responsibilities that require us to invest our time into activities that are beyond our scope of control. That’s fine, but what about activities that are under your control? Are you happy with how you spend your discretionary time? Can you remove some activities that aren’t providing any value in your life in exchange for something that does? I don’t have a TV in my apartment at school because I know it would be another drain on my already precious discretionary time. There are things I value more than television that I would rather spend my time on. There are things I value more than a 4.0 — like growing my business, exploring my own research interests, and taking care of myself physically and mentally.


I don’t want this article to appear as if I’ve mastered graduate school after my first semester. I certainly haven’t. There are still many aspects of being a grad student that I haven’t mastered. For example, I haven’t taken care of myself nearly as well as I should be. My workout routine has been sporadic at best and after my meditation retreat in September I’ve only meditated a handful of times. It’s hard to balance everything I value with everything else that is demanded from classmates, teachers, and others just as I'm sure you face a huge array of forces that pull you in multiple different directions.