A lot of college students waste a ton of effort doing work that is unimportant. On the other hand, a lot of college students spend too little effort on what is.
A common theme on this blog is being reactive vs being proactive. The typical college student is reactive with their work. They get an assignment, they do the assignment to completion then they turn it in. They get a paper, do the paper, then turn in the paper. They hear about a test, they study for the test, then they take the test.
This might not sound all that bad on the surface. After all, isn’t this what you are supposed to do?
The problem is that your life is too complicated to deal with shit like this. Tasks do not come at you one at a time. One day you might only have one test to study for while the next you might have a paper to write, a quiz, 100 pages of reading and 20 calculus problems. One day you only spend 15 minutes on work that is worth 30% of your grade while the next you’re struggling for 5 hours on something worth 5% of your grade.
Reacting to assignments will not automatically generate bad grades; after all, most college students do this and some of them get exactly the grades that they want.
The problem is that you waste a lot of time. That’s no good- not if you want to have more time for play.
The single best thing you can do to generate good quality work in less time is to take command of your workload and be proactive.
This can be done in two easy steps.
Step 1: Figure out how much time each assignment is worth
Not all assignments are created equal. It would be stupid to spend more time on a 5 page paper worth 5% of your grade than the same sized paper worth 20% of your grade.
Whenever you get an assignment, take a minute and ask yourself how much time the assignment is worth. 10 minutes? 30 minutes? 5 hours?
Obviously, keep in mind what you want to get out of the class when allocating this time.
When you go and do the assignment, spend no more time on it than what you have allocated for it.
What you have just done is something called timeblocking. By giving yourself permission to stop working after a predetermined period of time, you make it much easier for yourself to stay focused on that one thing while you are working on it.
You might worry about not giving yourself enough time to work on an assignment. In reality, by limiting the amount of time you allow yourself to spend on an assignment, you will force yourself to work VERY efficiently in order to meet your artificial time limit.
Have you ever waited until the last minute to do a paper? How efficiently did you churn out that paper when you had a time limit imposed on you? I bet you were pretty focused when you were doing it.
All you are doing here is generating that feeling in a controlled and less stressful manner (After all, you can always go back and edit your work or tie up some lose ends).
Step 2: Work in focused blocks of no longer than an hour and a half
Many college students work on an assignment non-stop until completion. Even more are constantly distracted by their Facebook, email, friends, loud music, cute guys, hallmates, text messaging and other things while they work.
Here is something to drill into your head: multitasking is Satan. It is bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, BAD!
Timmothy Ferris, the author of The Four Hour Workweek, referenced a study which concluded that multitasking is worse for your memory than smoking marijuana.
That’s right, you would be better off smoking a joint while doing your Sociology 101 reading than you would by changing your Facebook status at the same time.
Regardless of whether or not this study is to be believed, it is essential to understand that multitasking is to be avoided (I talk about techniques to deal with multitasking when you absolutely HAVE to do it in another article).
As humans, our greatest power is our ability to focus on one thing for extended periods of time. Multitasking and other distractions prevent us from using our focus.
So how do you focus?
I used to have a really difficult time focusing on one thing for long periods of time. Here is how I went about changing that.
Lesson 1: when you do schoolwork, only do schoolwork. Do one thing at a time.
Your focus is like a muscle. Right now, you might have a weak focus. On the other hand, you might have really strong focus.
Like any muscle, it can grow if you train it. If you can only focus on one thing for 10 minutes, force yourself to focus for 12 minutes, then 15 minutes, then 20 minutes, then 25 minutes, etc.
If you can only focus on one thing for 10 minutes, do not try and force yourself to focus on something for an hour. This is like a guy who has never used his chest muscles before trying to bench press 300 pounds.
It won’t end well for him or for you.
When your mind begins to wander from the task at hand, the easiest way to get yourself refocused is to pick up the pace. That means exactly what it sounds like: work faster. Once you get refocused again, you can ease yourself back to normal.
There is a ceiling to how good your focus can get. Our bodies run on a bunch of cycles. One such cycle is the Ultradian Cycle. The jist is this: you have a natural dip in energy every 1-1:45 hours of the day. It is your body’s way of saying, “Hey, take a break, would ya!”
So… wouldn’t it then make sense to align yourself with that cycle as opposed to going against it?
Lesson 2: Work in blocks of no more than an hour and a half. Take at least a 20 minute break between these blocks.
Breaks are great… if you do them right. A good break is when you do something that restores your energy so that when you get back to work, you can easily get back to a level of peak performance.
If you are doing schoolwork, you are probably using your brain. Therefore, when you are taking a break, try to do something that engages your body or emotions as opposed to your mind. A good walk, talking with a friend, meditation, sex, eating food and naps are all examples of good things to do when you are taking a break.
Some bad things to do during breaks include dwelling on your work, chugging down coffee, yelling at your roommate and contemplating the meaning of life.
Putting all of this together, we get a simple technique for being very focused:
When you do work, do it consciously. Work in focused blocks of time free from distraction and give yourself a clean break when you find it tough to refocus.
You can immediately implement this into your everyday routine. For most college students, this one change will be enough to handle your workload.
For those of you with really difficult workloads, I explain some more advanced techniques in another article. If you master this first, you will have a solid foundation for that stuff.