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College Chronicles #9: I Help Leena Perform a Time Audit and Establish a Student Work Day

College Chronicles is a blog-based reality series that follows real students attempting to overhaul their study habits. Click here for the series archive.

Time for ChangeTime to Change

Over the last eight episodes of College Chronicles, we’ve met our three students and observed the challenges they face. Their stories are familiar. On college campuses across the country students struggle with the same issues: procrastination, staying up too late, getting stuck on problem sets, running of time to get work done, feeling overwhelmed by an avalanche of work.

It’s time for a change.

Today’s entry marks the beginning of my intervention in the students’ academic lives. Step by step, I hope to transform our students into efficient, relaxed, academic machines. Along the way, you will hear reports from the field on what it’s like to attempt to apply this advice in practice. If you too are hoping to make a change in your study habits, I recommend that you follow along with Leena, Jake, and Welton. As always, keep me posted on how things work for you.

We start with Leena. And apply the first two step in my multi-step transformation process: the time audit and the student work day.

Leena’s Busy Schedule

Last Friday I met Leena at a crowded MIT cafe. Over coffee, she confessed that her intense, double-major schedule, was becoming hard to handle. She found herself working sporadically throughout the day, and often resorting to late night pushes, well after midnight, to get things done. She was constantly over-sleeping, leading her to miss meetings with her research advisor and skip out on classes — putting her farther behind and increasing her workload. The physical stress keeps making her sick. Her body can’t take much more.

Let the intervention begin…

Step 1: Perform a Time Audit

The first step of my study habit overhaul is to determine exactly what you face. I asked Leena to bring with her a weekly time planner marked with every regular class, meeting, lab, recitation session, and office hour that she needs to attend.

Leena’s weekly schedule looked like this:

Leena Schedule

My first observation: she’s busy. In addition to classes she has recitation sessions. She must attend these as important material, not covered in lecture, is often covered only during these smaller gatherings. She also schedule time to work on her UROP undergraduate research project. She can do this work, in theory, whenever she wants. But her adviser demands a certain number hours per week. If she doesn’t treat it like a class that meets at set times, it might not get done. So we added it to the schedule.

The weekly schedule, however, is only the first part of the time audit. The second part is to list, for each class, how many hours you typically spend doing readings, problem set work, regular writing assignments, and lab write-ups. When Leena and I crunched the numbers for her schedule, we discovered the following:

Leena’s Non-Class Academic Weekly Workload: approximately 20 hours

The time audit is now complete. We know, from the weekly schedule, when Leena actually has free time to work. And we know, from the non-class academic workload estimate, how much work she actually has to do each week. It can be scary to see these facts laid bare. But, Leena, as with many students, found relief in facing the beast head on.

Now it’s time to tame it…

Step 2: Establish A Student Work Day

The path from an average student to an exceptionally efficient student ia difficult. It would be overwhelming to deploy a full arsenal of strategies all at once. Too much to remember. Too much change.

The power of the next step in our transformation — establishing a student work day — is that it’s an easy way to reap immediate benefits while also laying the foundation for more advanced efficiency hacks that follow.

Establishing a Work Day

  1. Choose a start time for each weekday morning.
  2. Choose a work cutoff hour sometime in the afternoon or early evening.
  3. Using your weekly schedule (from the time audit), count up all of the free hours between your start times and the cutoff hour for Monday through Friday. Add 3-5 hours for Sunday.
  4. If the total number of hours is much less than the non-class academic work load you calculated in your time audit, then loop back to step (2) and choose a later cutoff hour (or reduce start times). If the hours are too much, then loop back and decrease the cutoff. Otherwise, you’re done.
  5. Every weekday morning, get up 30 minutes before you start time. Get dressed and then immediately get the hell out of your dorm room. Grab a fast, energy-packed breakfast. Then disappear. For the entire day, until your cutoff hour, never return to your dorm room. You are either in class or working. When you get to the cutoff hour, you’re done for the day. Spend the entire evening doing whatever you want — with complete relaxation.

Leena’s Student Work Day

Because of Leena’s unusually busy schedule, we choose the relatively late cutoff hour of 8 PM (we will reduce this in later steps once we begin focusing on the efficiency of her technical habits). Combined with her new plan to get up at 8 each morning to go for a jog with her friend, we came up with the follow free hours in her student work day:

Leena's Schedule Showing Free Time in Student Work Day

The blocks of free time are marked in orange and labeled with the number of hours they contain. When we add up these blocks we find that Leena has over 23 free hours. In other words, if she works her 9 to 8 work day during the week, takes Saturday off, and then works before her Sunday lab, she should have no problem completing all of her regular workload.

Notice, Leena has a heavy a schedule. When I did a similar calculation for Jake — who is taking a slightly reduced course load this semester — we had him done by 7 PM and taking all of Friday and Saturday off.

Advanced Tactics for the Student Work Day

A couple notes on building a student work day that works:

  1. Change your sleep habits. An early start time is the single easiest way to get an early cutoff hour. To account for weekday partying, choose a single weekday on which you allow a later start time. At Dartmouth, for example, fraternity meetings go down on Wednesday nights. So Thursday morning can have a late start. At NYU, as with many city schools, Thursday is considered a party night, so a late Friday start makes sense.
  2. Schedule test studying and paper work outside of your student work day. When something non-regular, like a big exam, enters your work horizon, schedule the hours outside of your student workday. Choose one or two evenings, take advantages of an open Saturday, or carve out an extra block on Sunday. (Later on we will work on integrating this work more naturally earlier in the day).
  3. Make a schedule each morning over breakfast of what your are going to do during each free hour in the day. This keeps you focused.

Leena’s First Week

Yesterday, Leena and I chatted about her first week of applying steps 1 and 2. She reported that she was feeling significantly less stressed as the ultra-late nights had been eliminated from her schedule. (Her immune system thanks her).

At the same time, however, she was struggling to keep all of her work within the established work day.

“This morning, for example,” she explained. “I woke up and started working in the butterfly chair in my room, then ended up falling back asleep and missing my first class.”

The advice I gave her is crucial: A student work day only works if you get out of your room and away from your friends and exist only in classes and the library until your work cutoff point. The best way to get started: a breakfast ritual. Go to the same place, get the same breakfast, and leave with the same cup of coffee. Head to the same quiet corner of the library as every morning and get to work. It’s easier to focus when you know that cutoff hour is coming. You just have to make it until then.

Cheat Sheet for Steps 1 and 2Here is a summary of this week’s advice for those of you following along at your own school:

  • Step 1: Conduct a Time Audit
    • Create a weekly schedule that shows all of your regular obligations.
    • Count up the total number of hours you need to spend each week on work outside of the classroom.
  • Step 2: Establish a Student Work Day
    • Choose a start time for each morning and a cutoff time for each evening.
    • Make sure the free hours during this workday are enough to accommodate all of the work reviewed in your time audit.
    • Every weekday, do nothing but work during the work day. Do nothing but relax once it’s over.

Coming Up

In the next steps, we will tackle the students extracurricular commitments and start overhauling specific technical study habits to reduce the number of hours they need to spend working each week. Stay tuned…

18 thoughts on “College Chronicles #9: I Help Leena Perform a Time Audit and Establish a Student Work Day”

  1. This is great advice. Frankly doing something like this has been the only way for me to run my life and actually get everything done.

    I would add that you should make sure that your work day has time scheduled into it for meals and commuting/getting around campus. Meals don’t have to be long, but reading over lunch should be bonus time, not required.

    Also, schedule in your workout/gym time. While this may be extracurricular it will affect your ability to get to sleep if you do it too late (within 2 hours of bedtime). You are better off working an hour later so that you can work out at a different point in the day (namely whatever point you are most likely to do it).

    Finally, if you have an off-campus job you will also need to make sure that it is part of your schedule and include time to get there, change, etc. Keep traffic in mind.

    Be reasonable/slightly generous with these time frames. It can become more stressful if you consistently miss your windows.

  2. Rebecca,

    Great additions. The scan is to crappy to read it, but we did actually include meals on Leena’s weekly schedule — but this definitely should be emphasized. I also agree (whole-heartedly) about the workouts. Leena is running in the morning pre-start time, so it wasn’t relevant for her. But this is crucial to remember for most students.

    – Cal

  3. Cal, it amazes me how often I use your blog as a starting point for an article in my own. I’ve taken my comment and added on to it, posting my own hard and soft landscapes (goggle calendar is great for this) over on my blog….

  4. This is great advice, but I’ve got a question: what about assignments that are over and above the usual weekly work, like a paper due in 7 weeks or a midterm to study for? That’s prolly something that should be penciled in, but how would you do it?

  5. Joyce,

    Good question. Working with Leena and Jake, my advice was that at first, when just getting started with a student work day, schedule exam prep or papers for time outside of thse hours.

    Over the next few steps of the transformation we can get more advanced, and actually start carving out time within the work day for getting a lot of this done.

    – Cal

  6. Why we can not study in the dorm room? I have a single. of course it is distracting but manageable if I have enough determination. I don’t think going to library in the middle of the cold winter is a good idea. Besides, how can we continue study of we just have 3 consecutive classes from 11 am to 4 pm

  7. Hi,
    I have classes from 8am till 4pm with an hour and a half break for lunch from Mondays till Thursdays. For Fridays and Saturdays, I have classes from 8am till 12.40pm. How exactly can I finish all my work and still have my evenings free? After 4pm, I usually find myself drained and cannot do much work. As a consequence, I have been pushing my work into the night. Please advise. Thanks.

  8. My main hours of study will be on Monday as this is my regular day off of work (weekday). I will utilize 4 hours on Mondays- more if needed, 5 hours (1 each on Tuesday, Wed, Thur, Fri and Sunday). All of these days can be adjusted dependent on the workload and how I am responding to the material.


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