Scarce Resources

Public education is like a gigantic sponge. Classes soak up free time, but don’t use it efficiently. However, professors make allowances for people who come to class. This semester, I am increasingly facing the dilemma: How do I best use the time left over?

On average, I’m busy from when I wake up at 8:00 or 8:30 until the time I finally stagger back to the apartment after noon. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, I don’t get free until 3:00, or even 5:00. This means I have seven to twelve hours to absorb all the information I need to learn. It sounds like a lot, but I have to use that time to do everything else besides studying. On average, I lose two hours to eating and washing up, at the very least. Then there’s two hours used to de-stress, because you can’t study for more than three or four hours without coming up for air or going some weird kind of insane. That’s four hours right there, and I have plenty more distractions and obligations to prevent me from doing any sort of work.

So I’ve developed a quick list of ways I try to stay on target, and, hopefully, efficient.

  • Multitask within reason. As I mentioned in the Ranks of Lazy, it’s really easy to lose track of time when eating and surfing the web, so be careful. In addition, I try to limit the number of tabs I keep open. I’m really bad about building mountain ranges up there, but I’ve found that if I focus on one thing, and only one thing, out of a list, things get done faster.
  • Minimize down time. One exception to the multitasking rule is working while waiting for something to finish. For example, I work in a lab where we have to wait ten minutes for the machine to settle down and give us good data on our sample. It’s a prime time to read and do homework. Similarly, my hour between classes isn’t nearly enough time to go back to the apartment, for a relaxed lunch, so I use it to work on problems.
  • Take time to de-stress. See above. Too much school induces mental illness, but don’t let yourself get carried away with the breaks. The best use for breaks I’ve found is talking to God. Music also helps when it feels like everything has gone off kilter.
  • Punch in. Write a schedule throughout the day, listing everything you do, including starting and stopping times. My dad introduced this concept in middle school when he wanted to make sure I stayed on task. I find it makes me consciously think about what I’m spending time on. It’s also a pain in the neck to add starting and stopping times so oftentimes, my laziness will force me to continue working on school rather than bother to update the list. This won’t work for everyone, but it’s worth a shot.
  • Work the problems first. As soon as possible, start working on the homework associated with classes. Not only will this give you as sense of accomplishment, and help alleviate deadline stress, but it will also boost confidence, build skill. Obviously, you should take time to read the textbook before doing problems, but as soon as you finish a section, flip to the problems on that section. This routine keeps things interesting and helps cement concepts before they escape…into the mountains.
  • Write summaries. I am very forgetful, so I outline the definitions and equations. I also write summaries for a future me who has the intelligence of a fifth-grader. The notebooks and binders containing these things are some of my most cherished tools: maybe I’ve forgotten how to speak Spanish–but I past me can remind present me exactly how I learned it in the first place.
  • If possible, link ideas. For example, time management is a giant metaphor for economics. Just as there are limited resources, and specialization makes the most efficient use of these resources, time is limited, and people should look into not only how much time they spend on school, but whether that time was spent productively. The ironic thing is, the more time  or resources spent on a task, the less productive that time or those resources tend to be–a principle known as decreasing marginal benefit.
I’ve also been reading several blogs on productivity and learning. These include
I borrowed a few ideas. I hope they don’t mind. 😉

Finally,

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil.”–J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
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