Protecting and managing your work time
by Jon Malek
At the ripening age of 33, I have spent more than a third of my life in university in a variety of roles: student, writing tutor, T.A., and now instructor. If I had to impart anything to those who are starting a new year of high school, college, or university, it is that I didn’t really start being productive until I worked less. That is, until I learned to protect and manage my work time, and to devote more space in my life to things that mattered.
Managing your time happens at a number of levels. During my undergraduate degree, I would spend marathon sessions working, either on campus, at home, or both. For those who have done this, you will know that you are not working that entire time. We must stop to eat, use the washroom, and perhaps chat with people we run into – all of which is, of course, fine. However, if, for example, you go to campus on Saturday morning to work all day (e.g. 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.) to either study, review, or research, chances are you are not working for that entire time. In fact, without proper strategies, you will likely waste much of that time.
First of all, if you plan work for a prolonged period of time (two or more hours) without much structure, your brain becomes fatigued and increasingly unable to focus. Moreover, without a study plan your energies are liable to be wasted or misspent on one task while neglecting another. You should plan each day out as closely as you can. For example, if you have a class at 10:00 a.m. and plan to study afterward, be realistic about that time. If class is over at 11:30 a.m., will you eat lunch before you study? Or will you study first, and then eat in between? You certainly do not want to skip this meal, as I discuss later. What tasks do you hope to achieve in your study time? In my experience, I can realistically knock off two major tasks, sometimes three. So, what are your priorities, long term and short term? Perhaps in one afternoon you want to do class readings for tomorrow’s class, and build a research bibliography for your upcoming essay. Or, you need to work on your chemistry lab work and design a presentation to class for next week. In doing this, you will need to balance short term and longer term projects. Again, be realistic when you are planning this. In my undergrad, one of my biggest deficiencies was that I assumed I had more time to work than I really did. There are 24 hours in a day, right? And after sleeping and such there must be plenty of time to work. As the Academic Learning Centre at the University of Manitoba demonstrates, though, out of a 168-hour week, we are left with about 31 hours to study per week. Check it out here and plug in your own schedule to see how much time you actually have to work each week: https://goo.gl/c3GsnG. Ultimately, you need to be realistic with how much time you have in a day, and how much you can accomplish.
To make use of the time you have, you will need to manage your work time. This involves scheduling how much time per task will be given. I find I am most productive when I work based on time allotted, not work that needs to be done. That is, if I planned to write a whole draft of an essay in one evening (perhaps three hours), but don’t finish working until I’m done, I may find myself up until the early hours of the next morning. While the task might be done, the other task for an upcoming project was neglected, and now I’m too tired the next day to work effectively on it. Knowing that you only have, say, 90 minutes to work on drafting a paper, though, you will be motivated to keep focused on the task at hand. Also, to protect your time, make it clear to others that this time is work time. Your smartphones now have the ability to enter do-not-disturb mode – make use of it!
The second way to manage your time is to break your study time into time-blocks. Your brain is like your muscles. It can go for long periods of exertion, but must have rest and recuperation in between. If you wanted to tone your upper body, you would not do the equivalent of three sets of five reps all at once – you would do more harm than good. Likewise, if you do not break up your study period, you will experience mental fatigue very quickly. After an hour or two without a break, your focus will begin to weaken and your productivity will decline. For most of my tasks, I like to utilize something called the pomodoro technique (and yes, there is an app for that). In this practice you focus solely on your task for 25 minutes, after which you take a five-minute break. This break should include some physical movement, such as a brief trip to the washroom or to refill your water bottle. After the break, you return once again for a 25-minute work block. After four such cycles (25 minutes of work/five minutes of break), you take a longer 30-minute break. This keeps you focused while preserving your mind’s energy, thus prolonging your mental endurance. This technique also has a built in reward system. Regardless of how much you get done in a work block, you know that you kept to that time. Use this to encourage further productivity. Of course, this does not work for everyone or for every task, but it can provide a model for you to build what will work for you.
Thirdly, before you do any of this, you must take care of yourself, including sleeping well, eating properly, exercising, and limiting alcohol intake. In the last lecture of each of my classes, I remind my students to get a full night’s rest (eight hours) before the final exam, and to make sure they eat properly before they sit the exam. The brain, like your muscles, needs energy and sustenance to operate properly. When it is tired or robbed of energy from food (no, energy drinks or coffee do not count), it will not perform at its best. For your memory and problem-solving abilities to work effectively, your brain must be rested and fed. Coffee and energy drinks can be a useful, if temporary, boost to your mental energies but they come with a cost. When caffeine and other energy drinks leave your system, you will feel more tired than before. The best way to prepare yourself for mental exertion – whether sitting in lecture, studying in the afternoon, or taking an exam –is to rest well and consume water. Slow and steady wins the race, so make sure you are sleeping regularly – including going to bed at the same time and getting up at the same time (your body relies on a schedule to properly regulate its sleep patterns) – eating properly, and exercising. Exercise not only keeps you in shape, but is also a fantastic way to relieve stress that comes from prolonged periods of sitting while studying.
The school year is best won by small, steady steps. Do not write that essay the night before it is due. Do not cram for that final exam the day before you write. Pace yourself, take care of yourself; give yourself time to study, and give yourself time to live the other important parts of your life.
I will leave you with the wisdom I impart to my students each year:
“Canada in the 21st century is a knowledge-based economy. You will never again be in a position to learn so much so easily, so take advantage of your school years. Drink less beer; watch less television (particularly ‘reality’ TV; if you know more than one fact about anyone with the family name Kardashian, you should be ashamed about how you have misspent your life to this point); spend less time on your PlayStation; don’t linger on Facebook; read more books; and pay attention to Mr. Malek.”
Good luck to everyone in the upcoming school year: teachers, students, and parents!
Jon Malek is a PhD candidate in History at Western University, and lectures in History at the University of Manitoba.