During the busiest quarter of my college career I was taking 20 units, working 18 hours per week, volunteering 4-6 hours per week, leading 2 student organizations, and conducting 6-9 hours of research per week. It wasn’t easy, but I managed to end the quarter with straight A’s due to highly effective time management & study skills. In this article, I’ll go over my methods and thought process for balancing everything and reaching peak productivity.
Making Sure You’re Ready
Before we even begin, a word of caution I usually advise students with is ensuring they are not taking on more than they can handle. Many students have to balance work and school, but if you have the choice do not spread yourself too thin with other activities unless you know you’re ready. For example, during the first 2 quarters of college I focused solely on school and didn’t add anything else to my plate. I experimented with different study strategies until I got the grades I wanted, only exploring extracurriculars after gaining confidence in my academics.
Organizing Your Weekly Schedule
The first step to navigating your busy schedule is organizing it. First, follow this quick guide on how to set up your schedule. Here are some key points and supplementary info:
- Use a calendar system and input all your mandatory requirements (class, work, research…etc). This lets you visualize the bare minimum of what you have to attend during the week.
- Next input your estimated study hours. Be specific with what you will do. For example, don’t just write “do chemistry book problems”, instead write something like “Chem Questions 1-20”.
- By doing this you are setting out realistic, accomplishable goals for yourself. Little by little, meeting these goals will ensure you are prepared for your next exam. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, the simplicity of accomplishing these goals will help you feel on track.
- Be careful of overestimating how many hours you need to study. Say your goal is to finish 20 Chem questions before next lecture. If you allocate an excessive amount of time to this, say 5 hours, you run the risk of working at a slower pace to fit that time span. Instead, if you know finishing 20 questions should only take 3 hours, then challenge yourself to make it work.
- On the other hand, try and leave some wiggle room. Sometimes assignments are trickier and longer than expected. Do your best to finish on time, but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t. Instead, you may want to allocate time later or on a different day to catch up on everything.
- Finally, take control of your free time. Having time to recharge is just as important as studying. At this point you should be able to visualize how much time during the week is unoccupied by commitments. Hopefully, your schedule shows that you have a little more free time than you thought. I highly recommend scheduling free time every day as it will not only make you happy, but also help you be more productive when it comes time to grind again. Use that time to gym, socialize, watch TV, or whatever leaves you feeling recharged.
I also recommend supplementing your calendar with a To-Do List. Easy way to quickly visualize what needs to get done. For example:
This acts as a snapshot of my current responsibilities. Then, I would go and schedule each of these into my calendar so that I have a goal to accomplish them by a certain date.
Balancing Work, College, And Everything Else
Now that we’ve gone over how to organize your life, it’s time to talk about a very important mindset:
The All or None Rule
This rule lies at the center of being productive while balancing a busy lifestyle. The basic premise is, commit to focusing 100% on whatever activity is outlined in your calendar. If you have 4 hours allocated to studying, focus 100% on that. No checking your phone (unless on a scheduled break), no socializing, no watching TV… etc. Then, once your calendar says it’s time for free time, focus 100% on that. Be present in the moment and enjoy it to the fullest.
The reason for this is it helps us maximize our efficiency at both studying and enjoying time off. For example, if you are casually catching up on book problems while watching TV you’re doing it wrong. You won’t be able to work through your assignment as effectively – it’ll be slower and the material won’t stick well. But you also won’t enjoy your show to the same extent – since you’re studying at the same time it won’t feel like a break and you won’t leave feeling recharged.
Don’t try and multi-task! Fully enjoying your free time is also key to avoiding burnout.
So how do we go about being 100% focused on any given task? Start with finding an environment that suits your needs. Need to catch up on lecture slides? Quiet library room might be the move. Need to talk through difficult concepts? Team up with a few classmates and find a study room. I recommend capping study groups at 3 or max 4 because the larger the group, the easier it is to get off-topic.
Next, it helps immensely to tuck your phone away and put it on silent. Only check it on scheduled breaks, allowing you to remain focused during study time. Speaking of which:
Scheduled Breaks & The Pomodoro Technique
Our brains have limited attention spans. Nobody can focus on studying for hours on end and remain efficient. We need scheduled breaks. The Pomodoro technique builds in study intervals along with break intervals. Here’s how to do it:
- ID a study task
- Set a timer to 30 min
- Work on task with intense focus (minimize distractions)
- Take a 5-10 min break
- After 3-4 cycles take a longer break (20-30 min)
Experiment with different lengths of study time vs different lengths of break time to find what works for you. Overall this helps fight procrastination, build up momentum, and study for longer periods of time without burning out.
Ending The Day by 5pm
An awesome schedule hack to try is picking a time, say 5-6pm, and committing to taking the rest of the day off after. This means completing all your commitments before evening. I tried this for a quarter and loved it, although it may not work for everyone. On days I worked 8am-5pm I found I still needed to study at night to keep up, so I switched plans. But if your schedule is a little more flexible it’s definitely worth a shot!
– Byron R.
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