• Top tips on time management for university applicants during lockdown

    We’re back with more tips from Rhys E J Danino who offers top tips on time management during the lockdown period..

    I mentioned on a preious Holland Park blog post that university study is a little unlike school, in that – for the most part – you will have more control over your own schedule.  Whilst there are certainly advantages, it can take a while to get accustomed to this new responsibility.  There were certainly times at university when I spent less time focussing on work than I should have done!

    What’s interesting about lockdown, as it relates to education, is that students not yet at university are being given a taste of what this set-up might be like.  Nobody is taking a classroom register.  Nobody is making sure that you aren’t goofing off.  Nobody is giving you timetable for the day, week, or even term.  Now, for some people that’s no problem.  There are some lucky souls out there who have the discipline to say to themselves “it’s time to study now”, and actually manage it.  I am not one of those lucky souls.  Most of us are not … and that’s okay.  The world – especially the online world – is full of distractions.  Fun distractions, too.  There are entire industries out there which exist purely to capture and dominate our attention.

    What can be difficult is the sudden switch from school life to home-school life, where the environments are one and the same.  This isn’t a gear-change that’s exclusive to students, by the way.  Adults suddenly asked to work from home are in the same boat!  If you’re used to thinking of school as “where work happens”, and home as “where other things happen”, the shift in expectations can be hard to manage.  That’s what this blog post is for: making that shift easier.

    What follows is a set of things that I myself find useful.  That’s an important clarification, because I’m not trying to lay out your schedule for you.  I’m not trying to say “you should work exactly like me”, because I don’t think that’ll be effective.  There are all sorts of guides out there for managing your time: books, apps, courses, and time-trackers.  But I’m sceptical of them.  Like for many tutors, my home is also my office, and it has been for nearly a decade.  The books didn’t help, so I’m not going to recommend them to you.  Instead, this is just a series of small tips and pieces of advice; I trust you to take the ones you think will be most useful, and to jigsaw them together in the way that you think will work for you.

    1: Create work” zones and fun” zones

    I’ve put this first, because it’s the most useful one that I’ve found so far – by quite some measure!  I mentioned above that most people will have had a sharp physical distinction between “where work happens” and “where other things happen” – usually school and home.  Many university students find it useful to recreate this distinction for themselves: work in the library, don’t work at home (or in halls).  This, of course, is the case for many adults, too: their work stays in the workplace, and they (rightly) ignore it when they’re not there.

    When you’re at home all day, though, this distinction isn’t so clear-cut and ready-made.  So do it yourself.  Carve out a space in your home that you use only for work.  Draw up some lines in your mind.  You might already do this for homework: is there a desk you use to do homework in normal times?  Turn that into your work zone.  Draw a line, and stick to it.  Your work zone might be somewhere with a door, or it might just be a desk.  Make an imaginary border around that physical space – wherever it is – and us it only for work.

    I’d like to emphasise that it doesn’t have to be a separate room.  I don’t have one of those.  Our living room is also our dining room (basically, it’s a room with sofas and a table in it).  For me, the dinner table is the work zone.  That’s where I’m writing this post.  The sofa is only for recreation.  Social media, YouTube, TV, gaming … those only happen on the sofa.  Never at the table.  Because the table is the work zone (okay, we also use it for eating dinner – at which point I clear all work stuff off the table; keep those lines distinct).

    Try and be strict with these lines.  If I find myself scrolling away to YouTube, I force myself to get up, and I take my laptop over to the sofa.  Because that’s the not-work zone.  In the same way that you (probably) don’t watch Netflix in your school classroom, don’t watch it in your work zone.  Lapses are okay (more on that later), but if you catch yourself working in the not-work zone (or vice versa), get off your backside and move yourself.  Try and stick to those lines.

    For this reason, I would advise against (if possible) turning your bedroom into the work zone.  All psychological research shows that you’ll sleep better if your mind associates the bedroom with sleep alone.  But what if your bedroom is the only option?  Maybe your house is small, or loud, or crowded?  That’s no problem.  Just draw those imaginary lines inside your bedroom.  Zone off your desk as “work land”, and your bed as “not-work land”.  Put your textbooks on your desk, and your phone on the bed.  Make yourself get up and walk between them, to help your brain establish a separation of tasks.  Those lines of separation can definitely be imaginary, but they’re more important than you might think.

    2: Get some variety in your day

    I’m not going to lecture you about exercise.  We all know what it is and why we should do it.  So I’ll limit discussing exercise to its importance for getting work done.  How long do you think the average person in an office can stay productive in a standard work day?  It’s only a few hours.  Maybe two or three, according to most studies.  Staying on focus is difficult for almost everyone.  It’s very hard to pull extra productive hours out of your brain.  So don’t try.  Don’t chain yourself to your work zone; you’ll just get frustrated, and that’s unhelpful.  That’s where exercise comes in: clearing your mind.

    I have an exercise zone, as well as the work zone and the not-work zone.  It’s called “outside”.  I’m not a gym bunny, and I don’t want to be.  But even gym bunnies have an exercise zone: the gym itself.  For me, keeping fit means going outside for a long walk.

    It’s fine to acknowledge that you can’t stay focussed on a single task for hours on end.  Almost nobody can.  So when you’re aware that you’re losing focus: stop.  Go to your exercise zone.  It doesn’t have to be long or strenuous, but – just as with the work zone and the not-work zone – it’s useful for it to be distinct.  Even a ten-minute change of pace will do.  It’s more important to be able to separate tasks in your mind than it is to force yourself artificially into doing work.  Get the separation sorted first, and focus will follow.

    3: Find and keep a routine

    This is the other big one.  Keeping tasks separate is one of the two key tools; the second is a routine.

    The next-door neighbour’s cat knows this.  She comes around to our house a few minutes after we usually wake up, and sits on the wheelie bin until we let her in.  She usually gets a cat treat.  Why?  Because of routine.

    I didn’t mention when wake-up time is.  But suffice it to say that it’s not at the crack of dawn.  Most people are not natural early risers; I’m certainly not.  A study in Washington, USA showed that schools start too early for most teenagers’ natural rhythms.  During lockdown, though, you’re not in school – so there’s no need to stick to a standard schoolday routine.

    This is where you’ll need to do the most experimenting for yourself.  Some people are fully capable of being productive and cracking through work at 7 A.M., and others at midnight.  Most people fall somewhere in the middle, probably at their most productive in the late morning and early afternoon (which is, coincidentally, when I’m writing this post).  You know yourself better than I do, so take a try and see when you get most work done in your work zone.  This might take a few days’ practice to figure out.

    Once you do have an idea of when you’re most productive – a dawn chorus or a night owl – take advantage of that.  Set a similar time every day, and be in your work zone at that time.  Take your exercise at a similar time, too (for me that’s between 4 PM and 6 PM, when I start to get bored of my laptop).  You don’t have to set long spaces of “work time” for yourself; don’t be overambitious.  No point in saying “it’s time to work for three hours!” if you start to goof off after forty-five minutes.  Instead, schedule only a solid hour of time in your work zone.  A good hour is superior to three “meh” hours.

    Consistency is more important than the particular length of time.  It’s 3 PM as I’m writing this.  I know that it’ll be time for walkies in an hour or so.  My brain knows this subconsciously too.  It makes writing easier, because I know that writing won’t last forever.  In the same way, your brain probably thought “oh, it’s work time now” when you arrived at school in the morning.  Your task is to get your brain to react in that same way when you enter the work zone.  When precisely is the best time for that?  That’s up to you.

    I’d like to add one caveat, though: building a routine that works for you shouldn’t come at the expense of sleep.  You know what they say about seven or eight hours of sleep a night, and this building of a routine shouldn’t violate those rules.  I don’t care if your sleep schedule is 1 AM – 9 AM, as long as you’re getting the sleep.  Try and avoid naps, too – tempting as they are.  The jury is out on whether naps are beneficial for productivity – but I never found them especially helpful.

    4: Get your devices to boss you around

    This is something of a more drastic option.  I find myself – and I’m sure a lot of people do – guilty of switching to another tab and playing around on YouTube, or wherever it is that people go to waste time on the internet.  Some people are disciplined.  I’m not.  So I get my computer to discipline me instead.

    I have only one app for productivity on my laptop.  It’s called SelfControl (I think it’s for Mac computers and laptops only, but I’m sure there are similar things for Windows and PCs and iPads and everything else).  You tell it a set of websites where you go to waste time – in my case, that means Reddit, YouTube, social media, recipe websites, and cryptic crosswords – and set a working period.  Maybe an hour, sometimes two.  SelfControl will block you from visiting those sites until the hour is up.  Even if you restart your wifi.  Even if you restart your computer.  Even if you uninstall the app.  Now, this might sound draconian and harsh.  It is.  But trust me, it works.  I’m not saying it’s for everyone – but for some people, it will be a lifesaver.  Give it (or something like it) a try some time.  It’ll also help with point 3 above – routine is key, after all, and I find this useful to coax me into a routine!

    There are less nuclear-strength options out there, of course.  More reversible ones, but they’ll still help you stay on focus.  I mentioned putting your phone out of arms’ reach in a point above.  That helps.  Even something as simple as using full-screen mode is useful (I’ve included a screenshot of what it looks like while I’m typing this post).  You’re less likely to open Firefox if you can’t immediately see the Firefox icon (this is also why biscuits belong in a tin).

    A friend of mine used to write her university essays on a website called WrittenKitten.  Every 100 words or so, it rewards you with a picture of a kitten.  Didn’t work for me, but it worked for her!

    5: If something isnt working, try something else

    I’ve left this point until last, because it’s the most counterintuitive – and probably the one about which you’ll be most sceptical.

    Ever tried to fall asleep, but it just doesn’t work?  It’s one of the least pleasant feelings in the world – and it gets worse the longer you try.  The advice on getting to sleep is that you shouldn’t try for longer than half an hour.  If you’re still awake, leave the room and do something else.  Do some reading.  Or the washing-up.  Whatever.

    It’s the same with your work zone too.  Distraction is a natural human tendency, so there’s little point in fighting it if the urge is too strong.  Instead, it might be your routine that needs a tweak.  Get up, go to a different zone, clear your head, and try again.

    There will be unproductive days.  Sometimes your mind just won’t focus.  And that’s fine.  I’ve had days where nothing got done, and you’ll have those too.  This is not a failure.

    Instead, it’s a signal that your routine isn’t working, or that the lines between your zones are not clear enough.  Maybe both.

    That’s why I think this sounds like counterintuitive advice.  How can you both stick to a routine, and allow yourself days when things don’t work very well?  The solution is that you’re not aiming for 100% productivity – and you don’t need to.  Nobody is a perfect worker all the time.  Distraction is one enemy in building your own schedule, but frustration is another.  Having this flexibility – this ability to recognise when something isn’t working – is your key to avoiding frustration.  It can take a while to hit on the right routine for you – maybe even weeks.  But this experimentation is useful and, in my opinion, better than picking an arbitrary time and sticking to it for no clear reason.  Building your own structure is not about perfection.  It’s about optimisation.

    Conclusion

    So, there we have it.  To repeat, these are just habits and patterns that I find useful.  You can take on board as many or as few of them that you think you’ll find useful.  There is no right way to structure your time in lockdown – but I do think that a structure of some kind will be of benefit.  Play around with them.  Experiment.  Don’t be downcast if things don’t work out from time to time.  I’m not promising a sea change in working habits.  But I do think you’ll find an improvement … one which will likely be useful as your studies become ever-more independent in the future.

    About Rhys: Rhys is an Oxfordshire-based tutor who has specialised in Spanish, Linguistics, and Oxbridge admissions since 2012. When not working, he can usually be found in the kitchen or trying to master snooker (it is not going well).

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