One of the concerns I frequently hear in a graduate program is not having enough time to get all the research, reading, and writing done. Students working full-time jobs, having family responsibilities, and taking classes experience high-stress levels at best and at worst, will drop out of their online education programs because of it.
How many hours each week does it take to do quality academic work?
That may seem like a loaded question but really, how much time does it take? The answer is both simple and complex: it takes as long as it takes. That could be as little as 5 hours a week or as much as 30 or more hours.
So why is there such a wide range of times? There are several factors that determine the amount of time needed but first, we must recognize one fact:
Everyone has the same number of hours in a week! That is an indisputable fact.
How can I get the most out of the time I have?
Let’s take a few minutes to look at things we can do to get the most from our time. It might take you some time (of course!) to apply these steps but the end result will be fantastic.
Where am I spending my time now?
Before doing anything, you must answer this question. I’m not talking about a general list but one that looks at everything you do and how much time you spend doing it.
If you are working, have a family, have a significant other, and taking online courses, you will need to decide how much time each area should be allocated. Work is the easiest because you must be present during certain hours so do that one first. Next, decide how much time you will need to spend in personal relationships and sleeping. Everything left is available academic time. Note you are doing this analysis from an academic standpoint.
There are several ways to do this. The simplest is to use a daily calendar and note the time you spend during a day. One day will not give you enough information so repeat this process for a week, including the weekend.
Block off work, personal time, and sleep. Remember the focus of this analysis will be on the other time spent, the time you may be able to use for academic work. For most people, this would leave 5-6 hours a day.
How important were the activities in that last 5-6 hour section?
Look at your calendar for the week and specifically, at the possible academic time. If you have 5-6 hours each day, that means that you have more than enough time to focus on your academic work. Not counting weekends, that’s 25 hours not counting weekends that you could use. From now on, I will refer to that as “remaining time.” Most professors recommend spending 20-30 hours a week in a graduate program, so you really do have plenty of time; it’s just a matter of prioritizing to get that time.
Step 1- Group the remaining time
Before prioritizing the remaining time, group that time by major categories. For example, eating, TV time, travel time, phone calls, social media should be grouped with time spent on each. It is important that you be as accurate as possible with these times. Do this on a daily basis and then do totals for the week.
Step 2- Prioritize the remaining time by groups
Think through this part carefully and remember one thing as you begin.
You are the one who decided to start an academic program to further your education so you made it an important part of your life.
Do this part of the exercise from that perspective.
Now label each of the categories as Highly Productive, Slightly Productive, or Unproductive. In other words, could you have been working on your academic goals during any or all of those times? Be honest with yourself for this part as you will be setting your schedule from this activity.
Two Important Topics
There are two things to discuss at this point. Both are about working smart.
Focused Time is a Must
Do you isolate yourself from distractions such as email, cell phone calls and texts, and interruptions by others? The time it takes to answer a call and talk is not the issue here. Focusing is the issue or should I say, Losing Focus is the issue. Once thought to be an acceptable practice, multitasking is really less productive than focusing on a single task for a period of time.Find 2-3 links for this.
There is much more to academic work than researching and writing. It requires thought and as one scholar said, “time for the ideas to marinate.” Completing an assignment is a holistic activity. We readily accept this notion as applied to sports activities, referred to as being in "the zone" or "flow" and we associate this concept with success. A player who is in the zone is intently focused on one thing that may last a few minutes or hours. Nothing else matters at the time. Do you want to spend less time working on an assignment? Would you like to go do something fun without feeling guilty about not completing your assignment? Get in the zone!
Focused academic work is generally quality work so how can you find the focused time you need? Here are some steps to take if you really want to work smart. It’s about limiting sensory stimulation and includes time, place, outside contact, and self-discipline.
- Have a designated amount of time to work and stick to it.
- Close your email app!
- Put your phone in airplane mode!
- Work somewhere comfortable and isolated from distractions.
- Work in 30-minute blocks with 5-minute breaks.
- When you are finished, reward yourself with something special.
I can talk about all of these things because I have problems with each and every one of them!
There are times when I just do not want to read, write, or focus on my work and it is in those times that I need the self-discipline to make myself go through the motions and isolate myself for a given period of time for the sole purpose of writing.
Each time I can create and maintain a focused effort, the next time is easier. It becomes one of the habits of effective people.
Tools for Making the Most of Your Remaining Time
It may not always be possible to have a 1-2 hour block of time to focus on your academic work. Ironically, those blocks of time are not always necessary to be productive. Here are some other tricks to being productive throughout the day.
Keep a Notebook Journal
I probably use more technology than most, but sometimes, pen and paper is as complicated as it needs to get. Having a small notebook you can carry during the day gives you a place to write your thoughts, ideas, and feelings about your work. We all experience “moments of clarity” about our work and unfortunately, those moments don’t last very long. During your research, writing, analysis, and report of findings, you will encounter these “aha” moments when you see something special about your current work, something that links pieces of data in ways not previously considered. You will lose those if you don’t record them at that moment.
Have At Least One Printed Article With You At All Times
During the day, you will have short periods of time with nothing to do. It may be a break, lunch time, travel time, or other “dead” times. During those moments, you can have a mini focused reading session if you have a printed copy of one of your articles. What you learn from the article or the ideas generated by the reading may become significant pieces of a paper or research.
What do you do when you finish reading an article or writing a paper? Where do you put it so you can find it in the future? How do you assign a name to it that will make it easier to find later?
Do you have an efficient filing system for articles, notes, writings, and other documents? Using any operating system, it only takes a few minutes to create folders that can store all your research, notes, and writings. You do it one time and benefit from it as long as you have the folders. Dropbox or other online storage will synchronize your folders and files so that you can access them from any computer, smartphone, or tablet. The basic service is free and should be enough storage.
Instead of just saving a file using the default filename, take a minute to use the “Save As” feature and name the file. For example, instead of "My Paper," consider "Paper x date," where x is a number or identifier, and date is the current date. You could also use the class id and date or if it is an article, save with the title. This makes it easier to find the file you want and saves time. It also creates a series of revisions just in case you make changes and don’t like them.