Monthly Archives: September 2011

Time Management and To-Do Lists

Allow me to convince you why you need to own a time-machine in order to survive university :

[start math]
In university you are expected to build a 15+ credit timetable per semester. This translates to at least 15 hours of lectures and anywhere from 0-6+ hours of labs and 0-6+ hours of tutorials per week. In addition, most professors recommend 2 hours of study for every hour spent in class, so that adds up to 45-57 hours per week. But the best part is that if you are an engineer you will be taking 18-20 credits per semester. So we have a minimum of 57 hours of study for 19 credits, without counting the tutorials and labs.
[end math]

It comes down to 8+ hours of work 7 days a week. Way more than a full-time job!

Therefore, you will arrive at a crossroads: sleep, party, or study – And you will only be able to pick 2 out of 3. You can either:

  • Party and sleep – and have a lousy GPA.
  • Study and sleep – and be a lonely integral solving hermit.
  • Study and party – and not sleep at all.

Therefore, you can’t have all three… unless you own a time machine. Or have access to the technology and facilities to make clones of yourself that will do the work for you. Or have evil minions, Santa’s elves, Oompa-Loompas or the like under your command. Or have time management and organizational skills and some common sense… or something along those lines. Here are some pointers:

  1. Know what’s coming (make a to-do list)
  2. Identify what is important (set your priorities)
  3. Plan accordingly

Check out this guide and you will realize that 24 hours a day is more than enough to get studying done AND to get enough sleep AND to have fun. And it all starts with:

1.) Writing To-Do Lists

A to-do list can be anything you like: a small notebook, your smartphone, a piece of software, even a cleverly folded piece of paper. It really isn’t rocket surgery: if you need to do something, and can’t do it right now, write it down so that you can do it later.

That’s pretty much it. However…

… there are a couple of things you will need to keep in mind about what you write down in your list and how you manage it.

So what goes on your list? The short answer is tasks – “non-routine non-trivial expenditures of effort” (this is my definition of a task, and it is a damn fine one if I may add). By that I mean that you should NOT write down things like “brush my teeth”, “make breakfast”, “wash dishes”, “feed the gimp”, “go to class” or routine everyday stuff like that. Why write those things down, when you do them automatically on an everyday basis? Tasks that DO belong on to-do lists are things like exams, assignments, holding a presentation, paying the bills etc… They aren’t something you do every day, despite the fact that some of them occur predictably (like paying the bills).

Another thing you have to watch out for is not to over-manage your list. While it is true that your list should be organized and relatively “tidy”, you might actually get less work done if you are constantly fiddling about with it. The point of this whole time management thing isn’t bookkeeping but getting stuff done.

And at last, let’s talk about the least important thing about to-do lists: how they should look like. Feel free to ignore other people’s advice on categories, columns, no columns, having one list, two, five… those things really don’t matter, what matters are YOUR preferences. What works well for others might not work so well for you, so do whatever feels best and whatever you feel most comfortable with, because in the end, there is really no “right way” of organizing to-do lists.

Let’s say that after reading this you go ahead and write a to-do list. After writing it, you will know what needs to be done. Unfortunately, by itself that information is of limited use, because this is only step one to managing your time effectively. Your next steps are setting up priorities and laying out a course of action, which you will be able to read more about in the Saturday post.

How To Cut Down On Assigned Readings And Study Time

Assigned readings: if you are like 90% of students, you won’t do them.

Why? Because you simply don’t have the time. You have 6 courses. And every prof has stuff for you to do. And no, they don’t acknowledge the existence of any other course but their own. And you barely have time to study the things that were covered yesterday, let alone study in advance!

But on the other hand, every time you actually do your readings – once or twice a semester, usually at the very beginning while you are still determined that this time it is going to be different and that you are going to put some serious effort into school and have good grades – when you actually do your readings, you feel as if everything you did that day was a piece of cake.

You come to a challenge: “I need to do my readings but I don’t have the time to do them.” So what do you do?

Well, it’s quite simple really. Don’t read. Glance. Just look at the pretty pictures if need be.

Simply give the material a quick selective read ahead of the lecture. The whole point of assigned readings isn’t for you to study ahead. Studying alone takes a lot of time and besides, schools exist because you can learn a lot more quickly when you have somebody who already knows the stuff (the prof) explain it to you. The reason behind assigned readings is just so that you know what lies ahead, not so that you can study it. Does giving study advice that discourages studying seem odd to you? Let me give you an example:

Consider something you studied in high school, like derivations. By the time university calc 1 rolls around, you have completely forgotten most of the things you were taught in high school and couldn’t derivate if your life depended on it. However, when the prof starts drawing little tangents on graphs, you’ll go “oh yeah, I remember that bit”. Pretty soon you’ll remember details too, like that when a derivation is a flat line that is the minimum/maximum of a graph. So even though you don’t know anything in particular, random details like this are enough to make relearning derivatives a piece of cake.

Now imagine that you are a math mayor and you are sitting in a computer science lecture. You don’t know the first thing about today’s lecture, except that it’s on a new chapter (which you didn’t even open). The lecturer starts by saying that the new chapter is on Turing machines and saying that one consists of:

… an infinite memory capacity obtained in the form of an infinite tape marked out into squares, on each of which a symbol could be printed. At any moment there is one symbol in the machine; it is called the scanned symbol. The machine can alter the scanned symbol and its behavior is in part determined by that symbol, but the symbols on the tape elsewhere do not affect the behavior of the machine. However, the tape can be moved back and forth through the machine, this being one of the elementary operations of the machine. Any symbol on the tape may therefore eventually have an innings.

Wait, what was that mass of words just now? The only thing you know about the subject is this single massive description. You are confused even though the definition isn’t even that arcane: it’s just about a machine that can read symbols off a tape and do operations based on them (a definition of a computing machine). However, you don’t have a pre-existing knowledge base on this subject which would help you decipher this block of text and learn something. That makes the lecture very difficult to follow, so you concentrate more on notes, less on understanding, and you end up studying at home.

By pre-glancing material some things will stick: a graph, an illustration, an application… A single partial read-through will do: You are merely getting acquainted with the material. With those little pieces of information, you will have a base to build on when the prof starts writing on the blackboard (you will already have an image of a computer in your head when you hear the definition). Instead of not understanding a thing and just scribbling notes and learning afterwards, you will be able to prepare yourself with minimal effort in 5 minutes and learn in class. You will only need a fraction of the time you are spending studying now, because the learning is happening in the classroom. You will neither struggle at home reading and trying to learn before the lecture, nor will you skip readings and struggle to learn on your own after class.

Makes sense, right? What do you think? The comment button is below.

Study Tip #1: Sleep

Sleep, or your brain will murder you.

This is a fact that most university/college students seem to forget: sleep is kinda important and should be exercised regularly. Ever heard about REM, the “dreaming part” of sleep? Well, REM turns out to be more important for your grades than books and good notes combined.

That’s because REM sleep is a key part of the learning process. During the day, you pick up an immense amount of information from various sources: lectures, labs, tutorials, but also trivial sources like the billboards on your way to school or stories you hear from friends. Your brain makes neuron connections linking all that info together so that you can remember it later. However, your brain doesn’t really organize anything at this stage. That’s because you are still using your brain. Why is that such a big deal? Imagine you were trying to organize your CD collection, but while your roommate randomly borrows your Celine Dion Ultimate Fan Bootleg Collection CDs ™ – all 50 of em – listens to them, and returns them to you in random order. You wouldn’t be able to organise anything. Eventually your brain will get tired of keeping track of that unorganized mess: then it will start to hate you. It shows that relentless hate by making you sleepy and thus lazy and useless.

Eventually, you give in to the pressure your brain is putting on you and go to bed. Then your brain finally has time to get to work and make sense of all the new stuff that happened that day and store it into your long-term memory – think of it as archiving on a computer: archived stuff takes up way less space, but it’s still there and easily accessible. So when you wake up in the morning, yesterday’s events are clearer and make more sense. Also, you are well rested and ready for more stuff to happen.

In an average 8 hour sleep, there are 4-5 bouts of REM sleep that take up 20-25% of that time. That comes down to less than 2 hours of REM: and you need all of it. So, if you disrupt your sleeping pattern (let’s say with an all-night study run before a test), not only are you making yourself tired, but you are also preventing any new information from setting in. By not giving your brain time to organise all the stuff you are learning, you are ensuring that it won’t be properly ready for recall.