It’s often said that the most successful students aren’t necessarily the cream-of-the-crop brightest, or those who burn the candle at both ends studying for exams. The common denominator amongst almost all high achievers is good time management. While (of course) you need to throw a bit of natural ability and hard work into the mix in order to do well in your exams, being able to effectively manage and prioritise your time is one of those high-impact skills that anybody can learn.
Now, that’s not to say it’s easy to master: many people make to-do lists with the best of intentions, but usually these lists will grow so quickly (and items are crossed off so slowly) that they’re screwed up and thrown away in frustration. There are entire industries devoted to helping people make better to-do lists, so if you feel like you’re struggling with something that seems pretty simple, you’re definitely not alone.
Here’s a student-first guide to effectively prioritising your time and staying on top of all the tasks that get thrown your way. Read on!
Keep a to-do list – and keep it up to date.
If you don’t already keep a to-do list in some form, this is by far the most important step. It might seem like a simple thing to do, and in all honesty, it really is – even jotting down a few bullet points on a piece of paper will do the trick. The important thing here is that you get all of the different priorities and tasks swimming around in your head on paper. This will allow you to focus on whichever item you feel is most important without worrying about whether you’ve forgotten something else.
The other important point to note here is that you should keep your to-do list as up to date as possible. If you’ve got a number of Maths questions to complete for homework, and then you remember you urgently need to do some prep for a debate tomorrow, you should make sure both items are written on your to-do list. Only then will you be able to sit back and ask yourself which of these activities is most deserving of your focus right now.
Consider the difference between ‘important’ and ‘urgent’ tasks.
Have you ever thought about the difference between something being ‘important’ and ‘urgent?
Some things are important, but not urgent. For example, you might have a long-term goal to pass your Grade 8 piano exam in a few years’ time. In order to do this, you know that you’ll need to do a few hours of piano practice every week. This might be really important to you, even though it’s not necessarily urgent – you can always delay practising until tomorrow. But if you keep putting it off day by day, you probably won’t be in any shape to sit the exam when you’d hoped you would!
Many things are both urgent and important. For example, if you’ve got your Chemistry exam tomorrow and you know you’ve got a couple of hours of revision left, it’s important to do this and urgent that you do it today!
A third category of tasks is those which might seem urgent, but aren’t necessarily important. For example, replying to a friend’s message as soon as you receive it can be tempting, but in most cases it can wait until later on if you’re busy!
So, after you’ve categorised each different task according to its importance and urgency, how should you prioritise your time? The key part here is to make sure you’ve budgeted enough time for your important, non-urgent tasks. If you know that every Monday and Wednesday afternoon you’ve got a couple of hours of piano practice booked in, you’ll start to manage your other urgent tasks around this. On the flip side of the coin, you should always avoid letting seemingly urgent but non-important tasks interrupt your other work. Give yourself the focus to get things done! Speaking of which…
Give yourself some undistracted focus time.
No matter how good you think you are at multitasking, the human brain can’t actually think about more than one thing at a time – it’s physically not possible! Sure, you might be able to write an essay at the same time as you wonder what you’ll make for lunch tomorrow, but at any one point in time, you’ll only ever be thinking about either your essay or your lunch.
Whenever you stop one activity to start another, your brain goes through an exercise most commonly known as ‘context switching’. It might sound complex, but it’s actually pretty simple: it refers to your brain trying to set aside one activity and pick up another. This takes a little while – at least five to ten minutes if you’re trying to seriously get ‘in the zone’ for another activity. If you’re changing tack too often, this is five to ten minutes of time you’ll waste every time you decide to focus on something else!
The upshot of this is that working on a single thing at once is the best way to get through your to-do list as fast as possible. If you’ve got an English essay to write, but you keep thinking about your History homework which is also due in a couple of days’ time, chances are you’ll flip-flop between the two and end up getting neither of them done! However, if you give yourself a couple of hours to focus on your essay and nothing else, you’ll make some really good headway (if not complete it). You can always come back later for another focus session on the rest of your work!
If you can’t get something done, communicate it.
We know all too well: sometimes, everything just gets a bit much! If your to-do list keeps growing more quickly than you can cross items off, you might get to the point where you need to make some tough decisions about what you can and can’t get done on time. Of course, going back to our first point, you will need this to-do list in order to make those tough decisions, or else you’re only ever going to prioritise what you can remember, instead of what you actually need to do!
If you do get to this point, don’t let it stress you out too much. Everyone’s been there, and you might find you’re pleasantly surprised at how accepting most people will be if you can communicate in advance that you won’t be able to get something done for them. Even your grumpiest teacher will probably give you an extension on your homework if you have a quick word with them and let them know how much you’ve got going on! It’s always worth telling people these things, rather than just letting the deadline lapse and getting even more anxious about not being able to deliver on time. It’ll keep everyone in your life happier, and most importantly, it’ll keep you happier!
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