Plan, plan, plan – managing your time…
I am sure I am not the only one who cannot believe it is January 2017 already. It feels as if 2016 was just a few weeks ago! What is more shocking is that I will be graduating soon. While coursework and exams can make the days feel long at times, the period of life you spend as a university student is actually relatively short. Whether your degree is 3 years or 5 years long, you will undoubtedly be surprised at how quickly it all goes by. This is why it is imperative to make the most of your university experience by managing your time wisely. Some of the most useful things I have learned from my lecturers have been outside scheduled lecture times (which is a perk of visiting them during office hours). One of my lecturers once encouraged me to view myself as a toolbox and my time at university as an opportunity to fill it up as much as I can, so that I will have made myself as useful as I can by the time I graduate. The analogy was a powerful one and it has stuck with me ever since. I have some tips and insights which can help you make the most of your time as a student.
Plan, Plan, Plan!
You have probably heard the phrase “failing to plan is planning to fail” several times already. As cliche as it may be, it is true. You might have been able to get away with living life spontaneously during sixth form or college, but university is an entirely different ball game. Depending on your course, you may or may not have a weekly timetable as intense and structured as you have had in secondary and post-16 education, but regardless of academic discipline one thing is universally true: you become entirely independent and responsible for your learning. So, the value of the time you put into planning and preparing cannot be overstated.
It is important to plan yearly, semesterly, monthly, weekly and daily. In terms of planning yearly, I create a table outlining my goals for the academic year and make them more concrete and achievable by detailing precisely what it is I want (“goal”), why I want it (“purpose”), how I am going to get it (“targets”), and what it will look like when I get it and when (“indicators”). This is best done during the summer holidays, just before the academic year starts as it is a great source of motivation and sets the tone for your entry or re-entry into student life. Once you have an idea of what you want to achieve over term-time, you can then move on to filling in your diary with important dates, such as those of campus careers events and for study abroad or internship application deadlines, as well as non-academic priorities. Doing this before lectures begin is crucial as you may find yourself pressed for time when weekly assignments begin pouring in and deadlines are fast approaching (the dates of which you also should write down ahead of time, along with exam period dates and things of that sort).
Once you have all of that sorted, planning monthly, weekly and daily is just a matter of breaking down those overarching plans. A monthly calendar gives you a general overview of what to expect over the coming weeks and what might be expected of you in relation to applications, events or assignments. More significantly, planning for the week is how you ensure you stay on top of your targets. I like to set aside a day of the week, usually Sunday, to reflect on the week gone and plan for the week ahead. Because I have already written down key dates, I just have to revisit my diary and my university timetable to remind myself of what is happening, what I need to do to prepare myself for each day, and what I need to have accomplished by the end of that week. Note, however, that the success of your planning and goal-setting hinges upon your ability to discipline yourself to revisit your plans and goals regularly. Of course, things won’t always go according to plan, but it’s still important that you have a general idea of what is happening. If you have to, create reminders on your phone, on post-it notes, posters, whiteboards, etc.
Preparation is key
The more specific your plan, the easier you will have made it for yourself during the semester. For example, when planning for finances, try estimating expected expenses for the academic year and compare that with your student loan. If you think you need to work, consider how much you will need to make to cover the shortfall? Roughly how many hours would you need to do? How will you spread these hours over the week? As you think through these things, remember your studies are your priority and should not be neglected. The spaces in your weekly timetable are designed for independent study, so make sure you are giving yourself enough time to do just that and to do it as well as you can. But if you must work, try to find a flexible role that is compatible with your timetable, such as, for instance, working as a student ambassador for the university, which allows you to work when you are able to. In my case, I work both as a student ambassador and as an assistant for the university Enquiry Management team. The way I balance this alongside my studies is by applying for work according to my weekly demands. I tend to work on the days that I have no lectures or seminars, but even then I tend to work a few hours at a time or as many as I can without compromising the time I need to spend in the library on those days.
You will find that at times you may have to make difficult choices, but doing well at university does not necessarily mean you must become a recluse. In fact, it is good that you remain well-rounded and carve out time for extracurricular activities and regular interaction with friends and family. One way I like to maintain relationships, for example, is by communicating while I commute. I spend a lot of time on public transport and on foot, so when I’m not taking a reflective walk, or not reading a book or lecture slides on the bus, I put my earphones in and try to have a conversation while on my way to and from university.
This means that when it’s time to work, I can work. It’s no use attempting something half-heartedly and you probably even end up wasting more time as a result. I have had days when it has taken me hours to do something because I approached it sluggishly, then after I completed it I realised it would have taken me far less time if I had put my all into it from the start rather than dragging it out. One way to counter this behaviour is by learning to defer gratification. So, if it helps to encourage you to increase your effort, create incentives for yourself. Tell yourself “if I write 500 words of this essay by 12pm, I can watch Netflix for an hour free of guilt”.
Another lecturer of mine also recommended eliminating unnecessarily time-consuming activities from my daily schedule in order to “create time”. One of the ways I do this is by preparing my meals for the week on Sunday, which, as I mentioned, is my planning and preparing day. This saves me so much time that would otherwise be lost cooking everyday and it enables me to stay in the library much longer as I don’t have to go home for lunch. Here are some snaps to inspire you from the Sunday I spent planning for my week and this blog post.
All in all, a good part of managing your time well is about mindfulness of how and where your time is spent and whether these habits will lead you to your desired goal. There are plenty of resources on time management available online (e.g. the Pomodoro technique) and through the university. I’ve also included some photos below of some tips from my sixth form planner. In the end, it’s all about prioritising, knowing how best you learn and achieve goals, then creating a schedule in light of that knowledge. After that, it’s all about being disciplined in following through. In the words of Earl Nightingale: “Never give up on a dream just because of the time it will take to accomplish it. The time will pass anyway”. Don’t forget to take it one step at a time, one day at a time, and enjoy the journey. Now, go forth and seize the day!