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How to manage your time while learning

The ‘Learning’ project

Imagine a project manager. If his or her work is to be effective, it requires compliance with certain principles, whether it concerns a manufacturing process, an IT project, a social project, scientific research, etc.

Every project starts with defining the aims so that you know what we are working on and why. This is followed by the cycles of planning, execution and evaluation. In our private lives we approach important matters in a similar way - we plan, execute, evaluate, for example, when we travel, buy a flat or go on a diet. So what makes it so difficult for us to apply a steadfast and specific approach to learning? Many students experience feelings of anxiety, frustration, and stress when it turns out that exam dates are approaching and they do not have class notes, the materials required or the knowledge about the subject. What is worse, when they manage to pass exams (often investing a lot of energy into it), they still do not learn from their mistakes and fail to change their approach to learning in the next semester. Recognising the necessity to take the learning process seriously is the first step in the right direction towards better time management in the future.

Project elements

Let’s assume, then, that each semester at university there is a certain project that requires the skill of professional management from a student. Usually, by the first week of classes, it is already clear what the criteria for passing each course will be and syllabuses, objectives and reading lists are available. Therefore it is a perfect time to start preparing for exams.

1. Aims

It is worthwhile to regularly ask yourself questions helping you to clarify your goals: What do I want to achieve?; Why is it important for me?; How do I know I already have it? Graduation may be a general goal, but we often want more or something else: to become a specialist in our field, to prove ourselves, to acquire the skills for a well-paid job, etc. Whatever you choose, it is worth sticking to a few principles: define your goals in a positive way, as specifically as possible, and set checkpoints where you will measure the level of achievement. What is guiding you is your main goal, but in order to develop as a student, you also need objectives. It is useful to set them for each subject and your current challenge. Is it enough for me to pass a test? Do I want to get an A? When exactly do I want to have the next chapter of my Bachelor's thesis ready?

2. Planning

You are at the beginning of the journey and you know the end point. What remains to be determined is the next steps of the journey through the semester. Your past experience as a student and estimation skills will come in handy. It is a good idea to start by analysing your week and assessing your own psycho-physical preferences. A review of fixed items such as classes, training sessions and meetings will allow you to determine the time you can devote to your own learning. At the same time, it is a good time to look at your own daily cycle: many people experience an intellectual peak before noon and in the evening. If possible, plan for a longer break, relaxation, lunch in the early afternoon, and adequate time for sleep (around 7-8 hours) at night. We should also remember about the brain’s working cycles. Usually, effective studying is possible for the maximum of 1 hour, after which you should take a short break, get up from your desk, do some breathing or physical exercises or play with your pet. If you find it difficult to remember, you can use apps that support the pomodoro technique. A bell will ring after 25 minutes to remind you that you have completed one section of work, then another bell will ring after a 10-minute break for the next 25-minute session. A single pomodoro is a short enough time during which it is easier for you to motivate yourself to study in this mode, even when tired or with reduced motivation. With more practice, it is possible to study for two pomodoros (50 min.) without interruption.

While this may seem like a slight exaggeration, it is also essential to plan your planning. Let’s imagine student X who has decided to study every Tuesday from 6 to 9 p.m. What might her plan look like in detail?

18-18.20 planning ‘for today’, reviewing the material and specifying how to work;

18.20-18.30 ‘warm-up’ - concentration-enhancing exercises (e.g. figure eights, juggling, focusing on body signals, breathing observation),

18.30 - 20.30 (4 pomodoros + 1 break) review of chapters 1 and 2 of the coursebook, which were studied a week ago, reading the following two chapters and underlining important information, drawing up mind maps according to the main points;

20.30-21.00 summary of the learning session in the ‘planner’. To what extent were the objectives achieved? Was the time sufficient? How does it bring me closer to the goal set for this subject? What needs to be modified and prepared for next Tuesday?

3. Action

For what we have planned to actually happen, we need to take care of a few more things. The so-called implementation of intentions is very useful. Studies show that students who write down their goals and precisely define the time and place of study are better able to meet their obligations on time.

For example, student X put down her plans as follows: Every Tuesday from 6 pm to 9 pm I will be studying physiology at my desk in my room using the coursebook ‘Fundamentals of Physiology’, Miro for creating mind maps, Planner for monitoring progress and Pomodoro Timer for setting break times.

Student X’s learning is further supported by the purposeful arrangement of her environment. Every Tuesday morning, she takes ‘Fundamentals of Physiology’ out of her locker and places her laptop on her desk. This allows her to see her workspace ready immediately when she returns home. An app on her phone can remind her that 6 p.m. is approaching. Many unambiguous signals in the environment announce that it is time to study, everything is prepared. Taking the first step (opening Planner and checking the scope of work set for today) is obvious and very easy, although the entire task of mastering the exam material is rather difficult. The student switches her phone to the aeroplane mode and asks her roommates not to disturb her until 9 p.m. After a few weeks, it turns out that studying physiology on Tuesday has become a habit. In order to strengthen habits, motivational rituals can be introduced, i.e. a sequence of simple actions preceding a specific action (e.g. always bring yourself a jug of water before studying, tidy the desk, light a fragrance oil burner). It can also be useful to be able to stack habits, i.e. to combine several duties into a continuous chain of tasks (e.g. after learning physiology I will learn two more Spanish words).

4. Evaluation

This is an important moment to pause for a while in your daily activities and look back at how far you have managed to carry out your plan. It may turn out that everything is perfect. The satisfaction that comes with it will give you a great boost for further learning. In order not to lose intrinsic motivation, it is worth resigning from rewarding yourself in the classic way (e.g. by buying yourself something or eating sweets). Equally valuable is the observation that the plan is a partial success or a failure. Always remember to judge the situation, not yourself. Feelings of guilt fuel the vicious circle of procrastination, so instead of giving in to them, diagnose the situation. Maybe the tasks were more time consuming or the methods you chose didn’t work? Or maybe you didn’t allow yourself enough time for rest? When you know what the cause is, you can make adjustments to the plan. Do it often (and in a planned way!) to keep control over the entire process.

Techniques and tools

There are many tools available today to support task and time management. You should plan to find out more about them and choose the right ones for you. Techniques are certain systems, sets of rules or algorithms that can be used to better plan and execute tasks, e.g. To Do Lists, Kanban Board, Eisenhower Matrix, Time Blocking or Getting Things Done. A tool is the way you choose to plan and learn according to your favourite technique. For some, the best tools are still analogue notebooks, calendars, sticky notes and coloured pens. At the same time, programmes and applications developed for planning and managing tasks, such as Planner, Trello, Todoist, Google Keep, Timeneye, are extremely popular. When making your choice, take into account not only the opinions of Internet users and advertisements, but also your intuition - if you like the layout of a given application and you feel like working in the proposed way, try it out as an initial option.

It is worth approaching the process of learning each subject as an important project in your life. Do not lose sight of the mission and purpose, pay attention to details, detect difficulties and actively seek solutions. In academic challenges, we are often blocked by the feeling of inability, lack of regularity or motivation. In fact, we often only lack specifics.

Reference literature

Clear, James, ‘Atomic Habits. Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results’, Penguin Publishing Group, 2018

Covey, Steven (ed.), ‘First Things First’, Simon & Schuster, 1994

Allen, David, ‘Getting Things Done: the Art of Stress-Free Productivity’, Viking, 2001

About the author

Urszula Szczocarz - psychologist, trainer, educational and career counsellor. Her interests involve modern education, creative learning techniques and coaching tools for group work.