One of the essential skills I’ve had to (re)learn this year is time management. In particular, I’ve had to learn this in the context of preparing for exams. Despite having an undergraduate degree and having been in tertiary education for several years, I haven’t been in study programs that had exams at the end of each semester, oddly enough. Thus, having to structure my study not only before the exams but during each week of the semester so as to be adequately prepared and to not cram has been somewhat of a challenge.
Imposing a structure and routine to how I work has helped immensely in this regard. Previously, I would spend a lot of time working, for not a whole lot of output in return. I’d routinely get distracted by anything from social media to YouTube rabbit holes, sometimes losing whole days of ‘study’ sitting in front of my laptop doing basically nothing of worth. At the beginning of the year, this would result in often having to do things at the last minute, having wasted a lot of time and presuming I could wait until the last minute to do work, which had usually worked previously. After one too many close calls and grades that didn’t reflect my actual ability, I decided to make a change.
The model I use uses the analogy of running, in particular, the idea of sprinting and distance running, which is outlined below. It’s not particularly groundbreaking, but it’s an analogy that’s worked for me.
Sprinting, in this model, is basically work that is done under a strict time or other constraints. For instance, allotting a small but clearly defined period of time (say, an hour) and working flat out during then. Basically, it’s the Pomodoro technique, though I didn’t realize the technique had a name until I began writing this article. When used right, it can net a great deal of output in a relatively short amount of time. However, it is mentally taxing. I can only work under this condition for a fairly short amount of time before needing to take a break for a while.
This concept is similar to an idea raised by Cal Newport in his book ‘Deep Work’. Specifically, cutting out all distractions and imposing strict constraints in order to produce deep, quality work in a fairly short, focused session.
Distance running, in this model, is less structured than sprinting. If I have a more open-ended goal, such as doing some research and exploration of a question or topic I want to know more about, I employ this approach. This allows me to go on some tangents and make connections I may not otherwise make in a highly-structured sprinting session, but still has a clear goal in mind, unlike my previous method of working. By nature, I’m prone to doing this. I take advantage of this personality trait, but with some other conditions to maximise its benefit and minimize the downsides.
Ideally, this will be the last post on productivity, study and similar topics for a while, for a couple of reasons. In a few short weeks, at the end of my exams, I’ll have finished with study for the year and will have a few months off entirely, save for a bit of work and volunteering here and there. Secondly, I recently looked back at my first post on this new blog a few months back. Within it, I outlined that I wanted this blog to be more lighthearted and spontaneous than my previous writing, which so far hasn’t really happened. Old habits die hard, of course, but I can’t help but feel I’ve started to fixate on what aren’t particularly interesting or fun topics to write about, even if they are personally useful to a degree.