My learning method relies on using deliberate practice as the primary vehicle to improve course performance, gain insight, and learn the course material. Since most of the learning happens through practice, you need to prioritize practice, and make sure that you are getting enough of it. This is honestly the hardest part of college in my opinion, making sure you study enough (and don’t waste study time on low intensity studying). For my first few years I felt as though I lived in a perpetual state of work, studying from when I woke up until I was too exhausted to continue. When I started experimenting with my study methods (which led to the development of the method I am describing in this series of articles) and keeping track of my time I realized that I was wasting more than half of my “working-hours”. Then I discovered and started using the time-management method I’m presenting below, which led me to accomplish much more without relying as heavily on willpower, feeling exhausted, or needing to work from sunrise to sunset.
I performed a time-audit on myself, which helped me notice that I spent more time deciding what and how to study instead of actually studying. I have explained earlier how to spend your time studying, and your mega-sets will give you a good idea of exactly what you should be studying (which problems you are doing today), when you decide to study for each course, but even deciding where, when, and what course you will be studying for can be expend a lot of willpower; willpower that you should be using to actually learn something. Willpower exhaustion is a real thing, and when you’re taking multiple classes with tests, homework assignments, lab reports, and projects due sporadically (and weighted differently) simply choosing when everything will get completed can leave you completely depleted of the willpower you’ll need to execute a difficult or unpleasant task that actually affects your grade. It’s also a massive waste of time to switch from topic to topic whenever you “feel like it”, and every time you switch tasks it takes your brain a while to refocus. Deliberate practice requires deep focus, and the 5-20 minute periods it takes you to remind yourself how to row reduce a matrix, or if your code should end in semicolons or newlines can eat away your day. Studying when your brain is only working at a fraction of its full capacity is another time-suck. You end up spending (at least) twice as much time to get the same amount of work done, and the quality is almost guaranteed to be worse. When I see people studying late at night in the library I feel sorry for them, not only have they failed to recognize their optimized study times, but they are sacrificing sleep (which is essential for your memory and cognitive function) and they probably think learning takes much longer and is much more painful than it actually is. The most devastating side effect of being an awful planner is that you miss out on the activities, events, clubs, friends, and experiences you want, and should be a part of, without gaining any academic benefit over students who have automated systems in place that ensure they learn more than you and have more fun than you.
I understand I’m making very bold claims in this article. I’m suggesting that by planning your week you can accomplish more in less time, avoid staying up late and missing out on hanging out with friends, and that it will be easier to stick to than whatever you’re doing now. I firmly stand behind these suggestions because it’s exactly the system I followed, and worked for me, year after year, and allowed me to have my nights and weekends free to learn how to skateboard, run a club gymnastics team, make new friends, and experience the unique events that make life and college so great. I almost missed out on these by being a workaholic and thinking that time spent studying had a one-to-one relationship with course performance. Once I set my ego aside and tried something new I was amazed at how much my performance improved; I prevented myself from burning out and losing everything I had worked for, and I got my life back. So here’s the time management secret of number one students, weekly block schedules.
How to make a Weekly Block Schedule:
How to Start:
Use some sort of planning software, whether it’s google calendar, or just filling out columns in excel spreadsheets, it doesn’t matter. What is important is trying to fit an entire week on a single page, in a bright, easy to understand, color coordinated manner. Start by laying out a week, from Sunday to Saturday, making sure all of your waking hours are visible on the schedule.
Block Out the Mandatory Reoccurring Events:
Here’s where the things you “need to” be at, that happen in predictable times each week, like classes, labs, your hours at your job, reoccurring meetings (even if some of these things slightly change each week, still schedule them first), will be laid out. It is important to do this first because these are the time commitments that are non-compromising, and you need to be sure not to double book any of these times, even though without a block schedule it is unlikely that you would miss any of these activities. I like to pick a distinct color for each class so my study time for each subject is easier to track at a glance. I tend to use a dull or faded version of the color for lectures or labs since they are low intensity learning.
Briefly mark off (but do not schedule) the office hours for each class on your schedule, this will come in handy later.
Block Out the Necessities of Life:
Waking up and going to bed at the same time every night is important, and without a clear visual understanding of your remaining free waking hours. There are plenty of reasons to try to fall asleep and rise earlier, but pick whatever you are certain you will stick to with little resistance. Block off where you will fall asleep every night and when you will wake up. (If you have chosen to schedule less than 7.5 hours of sleep a night, stop reading now, close this page, and drop out of college. Only a complete and total idiot would sleep less than “a full night”. You’re in college to become smarter, and being sleep deprived is like being perpetually drunk: your body will fall apart, you will burn out, and you will become progressively stupider. Disagree with me, I don’t care, if you didn’t value my opinions you would not have made it this far.)
Now include getting ready for the day, however long that takes you after you wake up. Include your normal grooming/showering time, and pick when you will be eating meals each day. It’s alright to not schedule dinner, since you might not be studying that late on a regular basis.
Leave Saturday Open:
This doesn’t necessarily need to be Saturday, but pick a day where you have no reoccurring time commitments (and if you don’t have a day like this, try to make one), and block the entire day off as a free day where you do absolutely no studying, or work.
Block Out your Deliberate Practice:
Now that you have laid out the essentials of everyday you can clearly see when you have time to study. Different classes take different amounts of weekly study time, but I typically start with an even amount for each class, then cut back or add to certain classes based on my performance, and confidence with the course material. Since studying means doing problem sets, whether they are mega-sets, practice tests, or homework assignments, I write “(name of course) p-set” in each of these blocks. I have found two hour blocks to be most effective for me, but some things (like coding or using engineering software) have an associated start up times and are easier to accomplish when I have some momentum, so I block our longer sections for these subjects. Trying to coordinate your study time with the office hours for a particular course is helpful too, since you will not have to take time away from another course to visit your professor, and if you get stuck on specific problems you can just walk over to the appropriate office and ask for help, without it disrupting your progress for the day. Choose a deeper shade of the same color you chose for each class to represent that this is the intense part of studying, and where most of the learning will actually happen each week.
If you are a serious student, college is and should be your full-time job. Following this analogy I found that 8 hours a day was very appropriate for myself, and most other students. Those 8 hours include class (even though you aren’t learning a ton from class), so the studying should fill the remaining 3-7 hours a day.
Pick a time after which you will not be studying everyday:
The same time every day. Following the full-time job analogy I usually chose 4 or 5 PM, and after this time, do not do any studying. Having a concrete end time every day helps you get more done and waste less time, especially when you have assignments due the next day. Parkinson’s law states that the time required to complete particular task will often fill the time that is allowed to complete it, so by limiting your study hours each day you will become rapidly more efficient, and be totally free to live like a normal human instead of a study slave. The nights (or whenever you want your free time to be) are yours, don’t let poor planning take that away from you.
When completing this step you should have a schedule with 8 hours a day (6 days a week) of study time. And a clear line after which no studying is scheduled (and you are banned from studying until the next day).
Schedule in the Fun:
Just as we recognized that studying that isn’t scheduled is less likely to happen, the same idea applies to fun. Include the clubs you want to go to, concerts and events you want to attend, and whatever else you are looking forward to, or want to do for fun. When looking at your schedule, seeing the fun and the end of your daily working hours, motivates you to keep going. Instead of the perpetual slog though 4 years of college, I find myself thinking “okay just two more hours then I’m off for the night and get to meet my friends at the skatepark”, which really helps me finish strong everyday. Scheduling in fun also gives you a reflective pause to look at your week, and decide what you want to do instead of relying on impulse and circumstance to help you live an interesting life in a proactive and mindful manner. There is no need to fill up the remaining hours in the schedule, unstructured free time is awesome, but if you are the type of person who jam packs their day with eight hours of work followed by eight hours of fun and eight hours of sleep, go for it!
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, undisciplined, or are studying late at night, take the rest of the day off and make a schedule for the rest of your week. I’m very confident that after only a few days you’ll be feeling less anxious, having more fun, learning more, and “working” (or doing what feels like unpleasant work) less. Rule your weeks before they rule you!
If you want the excel file I used to format this (and the rest of my weekly schedules) send me an e-mail at CharlieGriffin@email.arizona.edu with excel schedule file in the subject line, and I’ll send it your way as soon as I can!