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Monday Master Class: Control End of Semester Chaos with the 4D Method

April 21st, 2008 · 8 comments

Winding Down into ChaosChaos

Here at MIT we’re rapidly approaching the worst part of the semester: the last 2 – 4 weeks. Just when I think I have everything under control — my autopilot is humming along, my fixed schedule is keeping my stress low, GTDCS is herding my little tasks — the end of the semester looms and threatens to destabilize my whole world. I know that my work load is about to spike as all my large projects become due simultaneously and every class initiates their own scramble to tie up all the loose ends.

I’m sure this experience sounds familiar.

Worry Not, I Have, as Always, a System to Help

I thought I might share with you the cobbled-together collection of big-picture strategies that help me navigate the end of semester crunch. I call it the 4D method because each of its four components — after some linguistic wrangling — starts with the letter ‘D’. The end of semester will remain hectic. But the four D’s will help you maintain your sanity.

The 4D Method

The method consists of four general strategies:

  1. DROP
    In preparation for the increased load: drop or defer every activity or obligation you reasonably can. Early in the term, when life seems tame and under control, it’s easy to start initiating projects and agreeing to participate in events and activities. Then things get busy. Now is the time to undue that optimistic obligating in preparation for the battle to follow. Be ruthless.
  2. DASH
    Many small obligations in your life resist dropping. Maybe you owe an article to a campus publication. Maybe you’re supposed to present the readings in an upcoming class. Before you transition into full on scramble mode, focus on dashing through as many of these remaining small obligations as possible. Purge the small and urgent off the face of your to-do list. Be a relentless completion machine — clearing your plate of the little things that might later gunk up the wheels of progress during the critical weeks ahead. Do this even if it means you are finishing small tasks well before they are due (the horror!)
  3. DENY
    If someone tries to rope you into a new obligation, give them one of only two answers: “no” or “after the semester ends.” Stick to this. No matter how small or how tempting it is to offer up your time. For now, you need to keep things simple.
  4. DIVIDE
    Once your schedule is cleared of the small stuff, start dividing up the final days of the semester between your major projects and obligations. Put aside, for example, an entire weekend just for studying for a given class. Maybe Monday and Tuesday will be for finishing the rough draft of your research paper and Wednesday for studying for another class and Thursday to polish the paper. These finalizing work pushes require a good consistent block of non-distracted time. Don’t let them muddle all together.

Clear Schedule, Clear Mind

The philosophy behind the 4D method can be summarized: simplify, simplify, simplify. You want your entire working life during the final weeks of the semester to be just about the major things you have to finish. You want to provide these major final projects uninterrupted blocks of concentration — unhindered by mosquito tasks sucking dry the life blood of your focus. The 4D method will get you there.

Keep in mind, however, this does not replace the ESS Philosophy — you still need to start major projects early. But even projects that have been thoroughly pulverized typically require major pushes at the end to finish them off. Combine this with the other big tasks that loom around this time of the term — test studying, final problem sets, class presentations — and even the most conscientious student will have her hands full. Let the 4D’s guide you home.

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