Student time-management (TIPS for working SMART)

Student time-management (TIPS for working SMART)

If you have read our previous two articles on project planning and being productive you should know how to work efficiently, but how do you make sure that you are working on the right things?

Student time-management tips

To work smart, you need to know the value of a piece of work before you make a start on it. A question you want to answer before deciding where to focus your efforts is does this piece of work form part of my grade for the module or year and, if so, how much?

Some work is “summative” (it counts towards your grade) and some is “formative” (it teaches you concepts and develops your understanding of a subject but doesn’t count towards your grade). You don’t want to spend all of your time focused on formative work at the expense of your summative work, and you don’t want to spend a disproportionate amount of time working on something that counts for 5% of your grade at the expense of something that counts for 20% of your grade.

Use the 80/20 rule

While you shouldn’t ignore the ungraded (formative) work, you should focus most of your time and effort on the summative work as this is what counts towards your final grade.

An efficient way to approach formative work is to use the Pareto principle, aka the 80/20 rule. This rule states that it is common for 80% of the outcomes in a system to be delivered by 20% of its inputs.

Examples of this include:

  • 80% of a business’s revenue will often come from 20% of its customers
  • 80% of the wealth in the world is historically owned by 20% of the population
  • 80% of errors in a piece of software will come from 20% of the bugs

You can apply this idea to your study by clarifying what the key learning points of a topic are with your tutor. Identifying which 20% of the work or source material will deliver the most important 80% of these learning points, then focus your efforts on them instead of trying to do or learn everything.

This way, you can gain the most important knowledge from your formative work in about a quarter of the time it would take you to cover all of it in depth.

You can use the time you have saved to focus on maximising the quality of the stuff that counts towards your grade. If you find you are missing pieces of the puzzle from your formative or research work, you can go back and look it up on a need-to-know basis.

This approach comes with one major caveat – you have to correctly identify the core 20% of the work or information that is fundamental to your understanding of a given topic. Focus on the wrong 20% and you will be at a disadvantage. You must speak to your tutors to clarify what the most important concepts and information are before you choose what to focus on and what to discard.

Getting straight to it

Famous author Ernest Hemingway developed an unusual technique for avoiding writer’s block. He would often finish writing for the day in the middle of a sentence or paragraph. Then, when he sat down the next day, he could easily pick up where he left off and start working straight away.

You can apply a variation of this technique to your studies by taking a few minutes at the end of each day to make a To Do list for the following day. That way you will know exactly what to work on when you sit down at the start of your next work session, which will help you avoid procrastination and get you focused without wasting time.

Making to do lists that work

First, take a step back and decide what you need to achieve by the end of the week then break this down into a series of simple tasks. Figure out the best order to tackle these in and how long they will take, then schedule them across the week so that you know what you are supposed to be doing each day.

Be realistic about how long things take and build some slack into your system. If you think that something will take one to three hours, plan for it to take three hours, not one. If you get it done in one hour when you planned for three, great – you’ve just bought yourself two hours to either get ahead of schedule or take a break and do something else.

Don’t underestimate how long things take – as soon as you encounter a problem you will end up behind schedule and will have to find a way to get back on track. Regularly review your progress to make sure you don’t drift and run out of time.

Write it down

Schedule your tasks using whatever method works for you – in a notebook, a calendar or notes app on your phone, or a mosaic of sticky notes on your bedroom mirror. The actual method doesn’t matter. The key thing is to write them down somewhere you will see them every day.

Studies have shown that writing down tasks makes you about 40% more likely to achieve them. That is an amazing way to tip the odds of success in your favour for such a small amount of effort.

Spending half an hour doing this on a Sunday evening is possibly the most effective half hour you will spend all week. See this article for a more detailed walk-through of how to structure to do lists and project plans.

Don’t get fancy

An idea related to the 80/20 rule is KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid). People often assume that producing high quality work requires a complicated approach but this is often not the case.

In interviews, high performers such as CEOs, business founders or professional athletes are often asked to share the secrets of their success. There is an underlying assumption that they must be doing something unusual to get their spectacular results, however the answer they give is commonly along the lines of “Oh, nothing fancy, I just focus on the fundamentals and do them to as high a standard as I can”.

What they are doing is focusing on the core 20% of tasks that really matter and executing them extremely well. The opposite is generally true of average performers – instead of focusing on the core fundamentals, these people try to get better outcomes by wasting their efforts on the 80% of stuff that has very little impact.

Execution is everything. If you want to give yourself the best shot at great results, keep things simple, identify the most important aspects of a piece of work and focus all your efforts on executing them to as high a standard as possible. It’s counter-intuitive so most people don’t do it. But doing things differently to the majority is, by definition, the only way to avoid being average and come out miles ahead of the pack.

This approach may be simple but it is not easy. It takes hard work and self-discipline to stick to the fundamentals and execute them to the best of your ability.

By being aware of this approach you can hopefully apply it to your workflow and avoid being distracted by the superfluous details that don’t really help you. Just focus on the end goal and the key things you need to do to get there. That way, you shouldn’t go too far wrong and can enjoy consistent results.