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Study Skills

Achieving Balance: Structure and schedule

Start your week with a planning session.

Before starting any tasks for your academic work, start with a 20-30 minute planning session for the week. Review your weekly tasks including what resources you need to read or watch and your assignment instructions.

Estimate how long it will take you to read or watch each resource for the week and how long it will take to complete your assignment. As you move through your courses, monitor how long these tasks take and eventually you’ll master estimating time frames.

  • Sometimes students may avoid tasks with the belief that it will take them a lot of time to complete, only to find it out, once they do it, that it didn’t take as long as they thought it would be. Other times students may underestimate how long it will take to complete a task or spend more time than the task is worth. One tip for managing this issue is to set timers for how long you’ll work on something. For example, you might give yourself one hour to read a chapter. Once the hour is up, move onto another resource.

Create protected class time. After you’ve determined your work load for the week, schedule when you’ll make time for completing all of your tasks and respect the times you set. For example, if you know you have 10 hours of work, build in at least 10 hours into your schedule and block it out on your calendar like any other appointment. Consider these times protected as if you were attending class or a doctor’s appointment.

  • Don’t multitask. Most people overestimate their ability to multi-task, when in reality this type of approach makes it more difficult and longer to complete tasks. Taking one piece at a time will ensure that you are maximizing the use of your time.
  • Order your tasks in your schedule based on the priority of the tasks so that the most important are completed first.

Build in cushions of time for distractions and derailment. Inevitably, something will come up that distracts you from your work. It will be less stressful if you build in extra time into your schedule to accommodate these distractions.

Identify organization tools.

Spend some time thinking about what organizational tools will work best for you. Are you someone who likes a physical copy of your schedule and to-do lists? Or do you prefer everything kept electronically (with a ‘back-up’) on your phone or computer? There are pros and cons to each method. You need to decide which method works best for you and which method you are more likely to use. All of these can be used to keep track of assignment due dates, appointments, time for course work, or personal activities:

Pen/ paper tools

  • Calendars
  • White or chalk boards
  • Agendas
  • To-do lists
  • Sticky-note reminders

Phone and computer tools

  • Reminders/ Alarms
  • Calendar
  • To-do lists
  • Email
  • OneNote
  • Excel

Communicate your schedule.

Communication with your support network is key. It is much easier to maintain a consistent academic schedule if others are aware of when you are or are not available due to class time.

Part of maintaining your schedule involves setting boundaries around your schedule in advance, but also enforcing those limits when others’ push against them. It is critical that you practice and become comfortable with saying ‘no’ when you are requested to be available during your scheduled ‘class time’.

With boundary setting, consider the following three steps:

  1. Identify your boundaries.
  2. Communicate your boundaries.
  3. Reinforce your boundaries when tested.

Create your work space.

A consistent, quiet workspace is key to your productivity. Consistency helps you more quickly get into ‘work mode’ each time you enter that space. Ideally, your work space has everything you need to focus on work with minimal distractions in a comfortable environment. Inform your family members of your work space and its boundaries. For example, you might have a rule that when the door is closed, others can only disturb you if there is an urgent problem.

Part of creating your work space is making sure that you have a technology set up that is comfortable and consistently works. We have a few tips for setting up your workspace to promote this:

  • Make sure your computer software is up to date.
  • Purchase an internet plan that fast enough to properly use the NCU web based resources.
  • Use an external monitor, docking station, and wireless mouse with a desk and comfortable office chair. This will help you stay focused and comfortable while typing and reading on your computer.
  • Consider options for how you will store your data. Most of your work will be stored on your computer, however you may want to look into cloud storage for large files and to back-up your computer. Both Microsoft and Apple have cloud storage options. Dropbox is another free cloud storage option as well.
  • Explore NCUOne and complete any tutorials where you still have questions.
  • For many of your assignments, you’ll be collecting scholarly resources. It can be useful to implement a reference management system to help keep track of these resources. One management system recommended by the NCU library is RefWorks. Learn how to sign up for free here: http://ncu.libguides.com/organize_research/refworks.
  • Most of your assignments can be completed using programs within Microsoft Office applications. Make sure you have Microsoft Office downloaded onto your computer. Download Word for free in your Office 365 account. 
  • Keep the NCU Service Desk contact information easily accessible: 1-888-628-1567, servicedesk@ncu.edu.

Avoid avoidance and procrastination.

You’ll find that in an online program, it can be easy to put off your work when personal or other activities arise or when you simply don’t feel like doing your academic work. This can quickly become a slippery slope of avoidance and procrastination that can ultimately lead to burn-out and submitting work that is less than optimal. When you put off your work to the last minute it is difficult to put in the time needed for assignments and it can lead to exhaustion of you are regularly staying up late or consuming your weekends with work. Here are a few suggestions for avoiding the “I’ll do it tomorrow trap”:

  • Do something, even if it is small, even when you don’t feel like doing anything.
  • Saving all of your work for the weekend will not be effective. This strategy may have worked for your undergraduate studies, but will not be sustainable for the workload of a graduate program. You need to break your work into small manageable chunks to work on throughout the week. This will help you make sure you have enough time to review all resources and complete your assignment without getting burned out.

Identify and address your emotions.

You will experience a range of emotions day-to-day throughout your program. Some emotions are helpful (e.g., excitement, interest) and can motivate you to complete your work. However, some emotions can get in your way. Try to check-in with yourself when you are having a difficult time staying focused or making progress on a task and ask: what emotions am I feeling? Are you bored, tired, embarrassed, overwhelmed, anxiety, angry? These are just a few emotions that can derail your productivity. Acknowledging and validating your emotions can go a long way. Once you’ve identified and acknowledged your emotions, do something to help cope with your experience. Some ideas might be: take a mini-break, try a quick mindfulness exercise, write about it, and connect to why you are doing the program. The purpose is to help prevent getting so stuck or overwhelmed by emotions that you can’t move forward with a task.

Protect non-work time.

Just because you have taken on this important endeavor doesn’t mean that it should be all consuming. Approaching it this way is a quick strategy for exhaustion, burning out, and difficulty completing your program. As a result, it is essential that you make time to enjoy your life, spend time with your loved ones and engage in activities that help you recharge. Because your schedule is likely so full, try to set aside dedicated time each week for these activities. Much like with work or academics, have firm boundaries around this time and limit other distractions.

Evaluate effectiveness of strategies.

Once you’ve established a process of how you structure your academic work, occasionally check-in and ask yourself if the process is still working. It is important to not rigidly hold onto practices that are not effective in managing your time.

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