Time Management Tips for Troubled Times: Working in short bursts

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Stress and worry are completely natural at the moment, and will impact on your ability to focus and think straight. You might also be trying to study in less than ideal circumstances, having to share a computer or fitting it around other priorities such as caring responsibilities or managing daily chores. All is not lost though – you can be surprisingly productive in short bursts, and you can still make progress while being kind to yourself and mindful and realistic about what you can take on. This is the second in our series of Time Management Tips for Troubled Times, in which we look at working with, not against, your reserves of time and energy.

  • Be mindful each day, and as the day progresses, of what your concentration span or demands on your attention realistically are, and work within that. Don’t put expectations on yourself to work for an hour or more if it’s not going to happen – it will make you feel worse. You can achieve a lot in shorter slots of time.
  • Break tasks down into as small chunks as possible, and be specific about what you’re aiming to achieve. Big, vague goals in your mind then become manageable concrete tasks with a clear output.  If you only realistically have 10 mins, ‘read the article’ might not be achievable, but ‘skim the first page and identify 3 key points’ might be.
  • When you break, take a moment to leave a ‘note to future self’ about where you got to or what you were intending to do next. 
  • A to-do list with all your tasks easily becomes overwhelming and can become a displacement activity in itself. You might use a ‘next action’ list, keep it short and make it on the day, just to cover the immediate future. What’s the next thing you need to do to take a step forwards?
  • Set concrete criteria for when a task is ‘finished’ or even just ‘good enough’. What exactly would that look like in practical terms? 
  • Make sure your learning approach is active – we quickly disengage if we’re just passively watching or reading something. When reading or watching a lecture, try summarising paragraphs, making a mindmap, leaving notes to self about ideas, connections or questions that occur to you, etc
  • Is there anything you can do with your environment that might make it easier to concentrate undisturbed? This might mean negotiating with other members of your household, or just thinking about what helps when you are on campus and recreating that, from background noise apps to setting up your table to remind you of working in a university study space.
  • Find a way to block distractions. Repeatedly having to make yourself ignore them will drain your energy to say no to them, so see if you can avoid them altogether (ie a social media blocker, turning phones off, studying somewhere with few temptations).  Of course, some distractions, such as children, can’t be handled in this way!
  • Make sure you’re only doing one thing at a time. For example, if you’re writing, make sure that you are EITHER writing a first draft OR planning it OR editing it OR checking it – don’t try to do all those things at once, but separate the process out. If you’re reading, EITHER skim to find the relevant bits OR read marked sections in depth to foster understanding OR critique the whole. 
  • Try freewriting for 10 minutes. Set a timer and write, as a stream of consciousness  without stopping, whatever comes to mind about what you’re reading, revising or thinking, and see what comes out. It might be the first draft of something, it might move your thinking on, or it might clarify a sticking point. 
  • If one of your short working blocks doesn’t go as planned, let it go and see the next one as a fresh start. Short working blocks are low risk, whereas if you try and work all afternoon and it doesn’t go to plan, you might feel anxious that time has been wasted. 

No time to read? Listen to our tips instead! Our tutor Helen will talk you through.

Dr Helen Webster, WDC
Dr Helen Webster, WDC

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