We’ve all been there. It’s the day before that one important exam and you don’t know if you studied enough – or if you even studied at all – and what’s there to do? Or, you have that one group project but you never feel like you really accomplish anything after two hours of work. What’s going on!?
How to work effective on your own and in a group can make or break a semester. If you don’t know how you work best from the get-go and how can you communicate this best with your group? Yes, sometimes you don’t have to communicate this if you’re working with people you already know, but in new group environments where no one knows the others it can easily become stressful and irksome when it’s not clear how to divide, do, and present work done. So, to help you all out during the middle of this semester, Professor Ella Roininen and I compiled a new blog piece to get straight to the facts: how to prioritize and work effectively individually and in teams.
Let’s get started…
What does it even mean to prioritize and work effectively? Is there a difference with working efficiently?
Not necessarily, but here I distinguish between working effectively as an activity and prioritising as per tasks. The following would be an example of working effectively. When I need to get things done, I divide my day into 4 slots:
- Slot 1, ca. four hours in the early morning: I am most active in mind and can heavily concentrate on work. When writing a paper, here you’d research for the paper and produce text.
- Slot 2, the time right before and two to three hours after lunch: I’ve lost my concentration. This is a good time for more scattered, administrative work, such making appointments and working on slide layouts. When writing a paper, here you could do edits and format your paper and its bibliography.
- Slot 3, afternoon. I am sleepy and get easily distracted, but ready to socialize. This is a good time for meetings. You could meet your work teams here.
- Slot 4, late afternoon and evening. I am mentally exhausted and need to rest and do some physical activity. Now I go to the gym, go jogging, etc. and then watch TV. Meet friends and family. Private life and well-being, not work things. I don’t even go to my work email or respond to any unurgent work messages during Slot 4. You could try out the same; devote the time to your private life to refill your passion and motivation for your work/studies.
Now your task would be to identify similar slots in your day. Perhaps your most focused time is in the evening, and the physically active time is in the morning? Your study goals are best supported if you don’t go against your default settings but work with them. In this way you also avoid getting wrapped up in only one activity, like writing a paper all day, but because of your concentrated use of time, can split your time over the many important things you want to do over the day and weeks.
It also makes sense to study smaller pieces at a time to maintain your concentration and ensure your learning. The so-called Pomodoro technique may work for you. The name of the technique comes from a tomato-shaped egg timer, and it’s really simple:
1) Set a timer to 20 minutes or any stretch of time you like.
2) Work concentrated and without disruption until the timer goes off. No phones, no talking to anyone; it’s work time!
3) Briefly write down (e.g. in four fields, in bullet points) what you learned or any open questions the topic raised.
4) Now your first tomato is ready. Take a five-minute break.
5) Add another tomato or two.
6) After you’ve done a sufficient number of tomatoes, take a longer break of 15-30 minutes and reward yourself by doing something nice. This can be going for a walk, calling a friend, or taking a quick nap.
You decide the number of your tomatoes; sometimes even one is enough to achieve your goals!
Ah yes, I’ve tried this myself Ella. What I’ve also found helpful is to write a list of all the tasks I want to accomplish for 5-10 minutes before I start my first tomato. Then I go through the list and decide in which order I will do the tasks. I just select 2-3 tasks for 2-3 tomatoes to not overwhelm myself. Then I do the 2-3 tomatoes, take my longer break, and then decide what my next tomatoes will be. The good thing about this is, is that if you don’t finish a tomato, you can always put it at the end of your “to-do” tomato list. This allows you to move on to your other tasks without forgetting to finish unfinished tomatoes.
Where should I start if I want to prioritize? Could you recommend a couple steps I can take to get going?
By prioritizing I mean prioritizing the tasks, which you need to complete within the time slots described above. Here it’s important to ask: what really needs to get done and by when? I manage this by calendar entries on Outlook. I create to-do’s list for all tasks – no matter how big or small – I need to complete and plan their dates and durations. For instance, I block my ‘concentration time’ on Monday-Tuesday for preparing my ethics lecture, Wednesday morning for reading and grading a thesis. On Thursday I have a bunch of small tasks, such as, “Schedule a meeting with Eva”, or “Reference letter for Noah”, or “call Dad” on the list. All are important activities and I want to get them done, but not all have to be done at the same time. I don’t even need to think of the later tasks now. If I know I won’t forget any, and that I’ll have time to do all of them on time if I work systematically, my mind is at rest. I am going to work focused on the most urgent task and get it done. At the end of the day, I then remove that day’s to-do’s and take a look what’s in store for the days ahead, which helps me to relax and feel in control over my upcoming work. Of course, it’s important to leave time for recovery and unexpected occurrences as well!
The same goes for business meetings, e.g. if you are working in a company etc. or with “urgent” tasks assigned to you. People like to set up meetings and create a sense of urgency when it comes to their own work, I’d say. But not all meetings to which you get invited or all tasks which you are asked to complete are equally important. If you already know by first-hand experience that the meeting you’ve been asked to join isn’t going to be productive, its content unimportant to you, or your role in it is ambiguous, don’t accept the invitation. Or just make sure to ask: “What is this meeting for; what is my role in it?”.
If it’s not clear why you were asked to complete a task ‘by today’, communicate it: “Why do you need this by 4 pm today? I’m currently busy, but I could deliver it by tomorrow at the end of the day, is that ok with you?”. Asking never hurts. Communicating your needs is always ok. Don’t participate in a meeting that brings you nothing but takes away your valuable time. Don’t rush yourself into an activity whose urgency is not clear to you. (Needless to say, you must participate your group work meetings at the university and complete the tasks you agree with your group or professor!).
Moreover, if you cannot deliver what you agreed to by the date you agreed to, fast and accurate communication about the delay and when you can deliver is the key to maintaining your reliability among your supervisor and colleagues. People are much less annoyed by the delay itself, than by the fact that they may not be able to trust you. One of my most prominent experiences as a professional and manager is that reliability is one of your key assets and fasters roads to professional success. Trust capital inevitably creates new opportunities to you. But remember here: Try not to be the one who agrees to do everything. Sometimes you keep getting more than your share of tasks because people know you’ll do them, even at the cost of what’s best for you. Again, prioritize and be a skeptical receptacle of what you are given to do. Consider and do with joy what needs to be done.
To be able to judge which business meeting or task is worth your while, you of course need professional experience. However, prioritization has first and foremost to do with a) self-organizing, b) self-confidence and c) good, timely communication. Meaning, you can rely on yourself to know what needs to get done and what can wait or be put aside. You can communicate this accurately with confidence and respect. Without these skills crucial in today’s working life, you likely end up trying to accomplish too much and please everyone — at a very high cost to your own priorities and wellbeing.
What about all of these course readings? How am I supposed to read ALL of these scientific journal articles while working on projects, staying social, and sleeping?
I’m probably not supposed to say this, but you cannot read all of them. Even if you love all of it, you need to match it with the time available to you. Again, you need to prioritize. One way to do this is to trust your interests. If you are trying to get through a text, reading and reading and reading the same paragraph over and over again without getting anything out of, it’s probably not for you. You are spending lot of time on an activity that brings very little to you. Better take another text, one that keeps you focused, and study that one. You get a feeling of success, of “I can”. This article you will also remember, because it works for you at this point of your life. Put the difficult one aside and return to it later, as your knowledge grows. Or never return to it if you can get away with it…
One way to prioritize readings is to focus on what speaks to you and then work your way up from there. Another way to prioritize is rational calculation: What is the minimum I need to study to pass the test? What is the must-do’s of these readings, what are the nice to have but not required? Since you won’t have time to read and absorb everything, anyways, focus on the must-haves. To figure this out it is always useful to talk to your professor. They can give you details on how and what needs to be read. Some professors, for instance, give specific questions about the readings, which help you to focus on the crucial stuff. Others organise the readings per thematic areas to help you estimate when and for what purpose you are reading each article or book. But make sure you always read the most important stuff. You need the input to come out with sensible output. In the lectures you learn the core of it, and that’s very important, too.
A third way to prioritize is to rank the texts. There is a lot of text written in the world. Some is well written, some not so well, even if the topic is good and important. Here I encourage you to use your healthy judgment. First always check out the intro and conclusion of an article or chapter. This already helps you evaluate how much and how closely you need to study rest of the text. Second, if you find the text poorly constructed — scattered with jargon or put together in incomprehensible sentences, let alone biased, racist or sexist — look for a better source. Focus on texts that are written with care and respect to the reader.
To this end, especially if you are member of a minority or marginalized group, it is possible that the text simply is not ‘made for you’, literally, it doesn’t feel relevant to you. A lot (most) of text is written from Western, white, male perspective, with the corresponding world view. This matters. I give you an example: When I was in school, we were assigned to read the so-called world literature, which mostly meant books by white, old men from the Western hemisphere, such as, The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, The Red Pony by John Steinbeck, and Lord of the Flies by William Golding. I’m not lessening the literary value of these works, but how relevant are they to a teenage girl or young woman? The canon in schools have hopefully changed over the years, but the problem remains. We learn to normalize some ways of talking about topics over others, and this closes people and their interests out, and at worst has them study things that are irrelevant to them. This goes for the professors and lectures too: pay attention to the material you are provided and challenge us as mentors to look for a greater and more relevant variety.
So, in sum, before you start your arduous studying job, do some preliminary ordering of the work. Self-organizing, self-confidence, accurate communication. The prioritization mantra. It may seem like an additional time spent, but at the end can be very helpful for you in terms of achieving your study goals and sense of control over your learning.
Scholarly or scientific English can be challenging for non-native English speakers. Can you recommend some ways to stay up to date with course readings with this in mind? (Maybe speed reading for non-native speakers or something like that?)
I would say that the best advice here is to accept that you won’t understand everything you are reading. Try to be comfortable with some level of ambiguity about it, knowing that your skills will improve over a relatively short time. Don’t go for the translator or dictionary for every single word and expression that you don’t get, only for those that you really, absolutely need to know; otherwise, your reading gets too slow.
Personally, I am not very good at skimming or other speed-reading techniques — seems like things don’t stick in my head that way — but maybe they work for you. Generally, the faster you read, staying mentally in the text of course, the better you can keep your concentration.
We have different learning styles, some for example learn better by visualizing things, others by their auditory channels, and others yet by placing them in words for other people or in writing. Perhaps a combination of these is the strongest way to leave a lasting mark in your brain. For me highlighting, making notes in the margins, drawing images and tables work the best when needing to clarify either the language or content. Writing, formulating sentences about the topic I am learning about or preparing a presentation, revising the content over and over again, helps me to internalize and process it the best. Even editing a text or slides is not time wasted but an important part of your learning process.
Also, don’t forget to read texts outside your studies, e.g. fiction. And keep critically reading journalistic articles on topics that interest you. This improves your general reading speed, linguistic skills, and gives the possibility to apply your theoretical learnings.
What do you find personally helpful when you have a lot on your plate but little time?
I may be repeating myself, but the magic is in self-organizing. I need to know where I am with my work at any point of time, especially when it all feels overwhelming. Therefore, the by-day organized calendar to-dos are crucial to my professional wellbeing and efficiency. As soon as I know when I am going to get what done, be it this or next week or month, I am more confident about being able to achieve what I need to achieve. And here, again, steps prioritization into the picture. Things need to be done, but not all at the same time. If something is not a question of day or two, or a week or two, or even month or two, let it wait. Don’t worry about it at all. This, as said, requires experience and inner confidence, but those skills you are here to develop, too.
I also find the 80-20 rule a good one to almost anything in life: when you do 80% of the things you are supposed to do well, you can just cross the bar on the remaining 20%. Identify what the 80% means in terms of your studies and put your effort there. By the way, I think the same works for healthy eating, exercising, etc. It helps you to maintain a healthy distance to things.
Here’s a good rule of thumb: When you least feel like you can take a break, you probably need it the most. That’s when you are so stressed that you can no longer see the forest from the trees. It’s not helpful to work yourself into a state of agitation, in which all you can think of is work. Take a break, go to the woods, lift some weights at the gym, have a (virtual) dinner with friends, and then start fresh again tomorrow or the day after.
How can I “try out” new methods of efficient work? Should I change methods every week?
It may not be helpful to study a new method every week. You need to get forward with your studies, after all. Experience with them over time and trust yourself to find your way.
What should I do if I keep lagging behind in my classes?
Many people experience difficulties in reading and concentrating. First, in today’s world our attention is scattered all over. So many different ways of constant communication and quickly available information is available to us, that we have lost our ability to just be and stick to one thing at a time. Secondly, studying means going out of your comfort zone. I, for one, have always found it a bit difficult to focus on academic texts, unless I really love the odd one out, yet I’ve made it this far. Tolerate the unease and keep going anyways. If it’s easy to you, you are not growing. Embrace the challenge.
If you nevertheless suspect that you may have inbuilt learning difficulties, attention deficiencies or dyslexia, get in touch with us: myself, Serine Enstad (a fellow student), or Dr. Franziska Kretschmer at Admission, and we’ll support you in finding solutions to your particular issue. These things are not unusual, and there is no shame to talk about them. Quite the opposite. Your goal is to learn in your own individual way, and this is what counts!
Help! I haven’t done anything and it’s almost the end of the semester. I’m feeling overwhelmed. What can I do when it feels to late? Is it better to just not try?
Definitely not. Just bite the bullet: Organize yourself and get to work. Save what you can save of it — it’s likely more than you may think at the first glance. Don’t aim for perfection, aim for barely crossing the bar. Leave out what you absolutely cannot do (even go for a retake if must do), and make sure to be better prepared next semester! You are learning to take responsibility for your use of time, and panicking is part of the learning experience that most of us have to go through, several times, before we learn to time ourselves properly.
How does COVID-19 play into work and prioritization? Is it a positive or negative event? Or even a bit of both?
In my experience it’s mostly positive. With the unfortunate consequence of having less interaction with people, with spending more time at home, I can devote more time to work. But here I advise you to go to our previous blog and think of ways you can ensure your wellbeing during the COVID-19 time. How can you reduce your anxiety? In addition to the tips given in that blog, I think the old ‘protestant’ proverb “Hard work beats even bad luck” is always valid. While you are working, you are feeling more secure and good about yourself, which contributes to your faith in the future, while embracing your interests, satisfying your curiosity, and getting yourself forward with your studies. There may be a sunny side even to the isolation :)
Anything else to add here?
Studying is like a muscle that you can train. Switch off your cell phone, log out of the social media, and spend time with your studies. Over the next weeks you’ll start noticing how your muscle is getting stronger, meaning you’ll read longer and more concentrated at a stretch. Your thinking expands and you start finding unusual connections in the topics you study. You create new theoretical assumptions. Trust me on this. Trust yourself on this. Make note of these little successes. It’s rewarding to wrap your head around new things and get curious for more! You have more capacities and capabilities than you may believe of yourself!
Find what works for you. If you’re an early bird, a night owl, or something in between adjust your work and play. Especially since we’re getting into our exam stage of the semester, it’s more vital than ever to work effectively. Working effectively with your time and prioritizing your to do’s can give you a sense of accomplishment in knowing your purpose, reaching it, and then taking “you time” to recharge and do whatever it is that brings you peace.
Take care of yourselves and be mindful of how, when, and why you work – & when you play.
Until the next blog,