A student who regularly tunes into the blog sent me this interesting question/comment.
‘hi Dr G,
Sunday musings about urgent and/or important work and wondering if you might consider a word or two on this in your well-being blog to help us students work out priorities? (and not get side-tracked such as writing emails like this…)’
I thought I’d have a crack at answering this question. So here we go…
If you are even moderately capable at what you do, you’ll regularly fall into the trap of believing that you should automatically be good at tasks related to what you do.
For example, if you are a decent student, you may (consciously or sub-consciously) believe that you should be good at many of the things that often go along with that: tackling procrastination, prioritising, scheduling, memorising material etc.
But in reality it is very possible that you’ve got to where you are on the basis of an incomplete set of skills. It isn’t until you hit a wall in terms of performance that you realise this.
For many students, university study is that ‘wall’. The work is harder. There is more of it. The expectations are higher. And you are expected to take full responsibility for your own learning. As a result, students often have to learn a whole new set of more complex skills in order to deal with the shift in workload and work complexity. Sometimes it takes doing a PhD until a student is pushed to the limits of their skills.
Prioritising (mentioned in the student’s comment above) is one such skill.
On the surface, prioritising seems fairly simple. Write a to-do list and then work sytematically through the items on that list. You can go ‘old school’ with a pen/paper list or use one of the many electronic to-do lists available on the internets.
But once you start trying to prioritise, you realise it is a little more complex than that.
- On what basis do you prioritise tasks? Is it about urgency? Is it about ‘importance’? What constitutes an ‘important’ task?
- What times of the day should I work?
- How do you handle it when priorities change?
- How do I convince myself something is a priority?
- How do you know how long something will take?
- Having prioritised stuff, how do you stick to your to-do list?
- How do I handle those days where I don’t feel like doing my work?
To prioritise, you need to actually be able to do a bunch of things – identify what is important, know what work is due and when it is due, write to-do lists, schedule, minimise distractions, set aside time, tackle low energy/motivation, self-monitor, counteract avoidance. Each of these things on their own is relatively simple, but melding them all together so they work in harmony is actually a complex skill. Complex skills require instruction and practice.
So if you are sitting there wondering why, despite your best efforts, you don’t seem to be very good at prioritising and managing your time, it isn’t because you don’t have the underlying ability, it is most likely because you haven’t had appropriate instruction in the relevant skills and/or practised those skills enough.
If you’ve never been shown how to manage your time, then it is in your best interests to learn how. Fortunately, with the internet at your fingertips, such instruction is easily accessible.
Ironically, you will need to set aside some time to do some reading on topics where you feel you lack appropriate skills: time management, prioritisation, procrastination.
Regardless of the search terms you use, you will likely find a range of opinions and strategies on how to better manage your time. Some of these will be evidence-based (i.e. shown in research to be helpful), others will simply be suggestions that people make based on what has worked for them.
Your job is to gain a decent understanding of the range of techniques that people have used to help with time management and studying. If you are after a starting point, I quite like this site, which whilst American, has some good resources – https://collegeinfogeek.com/ . One common trap at this stage is students spending days and weeks researching study tips. It is a form of procrastination in itself. You shouldn’t spend more than a couple of hours researching study tips before putting some of those tips into action.
Keep in mind at this step that there are rarely any ‘magic bullets’. We all hope to find that one productivity hack that yields amazing results but we rarely find it. Lots of people will try to sell you strategies they say will solve all your problems, but those strategies don’t exist.
More likely is that you will piece together recommendations and ideas from different areas, and after a lot of practice and trial and error, find a set that work for you.
Practice/ trial and error
I always make the assumption that when I am learning a new skill, that I will suck at it in the beginning. I also assume that the more times I practice a skill, the better I will get at it.
These assumptions are not controversial and evident in just about every example of skill building.
If you are struggling with time management, then you are going to need to practice it more.
This means pulling together what you’ve learned about time management (from the instruction step above) into a basic plan for ‘getting shit done’.
Wake up Monday morning and implement your plan. At the end of the day, ask yourself how it went.
Wake up Tuesday morning and implement it again. At the end of the day, ask yourself how it went.
Repeat this for a week or two. Did you get better? What barriers did you find? What worked well? Did you get more stuff done?
There will be some good days and some not so good days in the process, but the overall trajectory will be improvement.
After a reasonable period of practice*, pick apart your plan. Keep the parts that worked. Discard the parts that didn’t. Don’t keep banging away at strategies that simply don’t work. There is no reward for rigidly holding onto unsuccessful strategies. Keep revising your ‘getting shit done’ plan as you try ideas and learn more.
Then Treat each day as both an opportunity to practice new study skills as well as an experiment to see which study skills work the best for you.
You will, with repetition, reach a point where you are getting enough done to cope with the demands of study. At that point, lock those skills in as habits – things that you do each time you need to study.
Improving your productivity is a process that continues through life
I’m in my 40’s. I studied for 9 years. I worked in research and academic roles for 10 years. I got reasonably good at getting work done during that time.
But I am constantly revisiting and thinking about how to improve my productivity. For example, when I started this job, I moved to a system where I focused most of my writing time from 8 in the morning till 2 in the afternoon, when I was at my freshest. I then use the afternoon period to deal with simpler, less cognitively demanding tasks. I still make changes and refinements to my work strategy.
I recommend that you make ‘incremental improvements to your productivity’ as an ongoing goal. This means continuing to read productivity methods (e.g. https://www.lifehacker.com.au/) and experimenting with new ways of working. Remember however, that if you make changes to how you work you need to practice those changes for a sufficient amount of time before making an assessment on whether they’ve helped.
In fact, I think this is a fairly decent approach to life in general. View each day as an opportunity to refine how you live your life, knowing that incremental improvements compound over time to make positive outcomes.
I’m not sure if I answered the student’s question but I hope this was helpful anyway.
* what constitutes a reasonable period of practice depends a lot on the skill. Typically I find that people (including myself) abandon a particular skill before they’ve gotten good enough at it to accurately assess whether it will be useful to them. For example, I had to meditate daily for at least a month before I felt familiar enough with it that I could assess whether it was helpful to me.