Counting the Clock: Some Tips on Time Management

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“Oh no, yet another article on productivity written by a self-proclaimed expert for super driven and motivated people whose lives revolve around studying.”

If you’re thinking that right now, I hope to change that impression. This article is still for you. To me, time management and productivity is especially important for those who don’t overtly care about school. I spend time thinking about productivity not because school is my life, but because I have so many other things outside school that I want to do. Perhaps counter-intuitively, my unwillingness to do work served as my motivation to think about how I could finish work as quickly as I could; hence this article.

I’ll outline some general guidelines that I used to plan out my work through the course of IB, and then cover random (and somewhat eccentric) practical tips that I managed to stumble upon. Of course, time management methods differ from person to person, and I don’t expect any of my suggestions to work for everybody. I’m not particularly experienced or qualified to talk about this topic anyway. Most of the stuff here is common sense, and you may already be doing many of the things I suggest. These are just the methods that worked for me when I was in school, and I hope that they will be useful as considerations in tackling schoolwork. I’ve include many IB specific references here, but the broad principles can be applied whether you’re in IB or in Express.

A caveat first – the suggestions I’ve written vary according to how extreme they are (and accordingly the amount of self-discipline needed to stick to them). It’s entirely possible to go through IB/O Levels without any of this (possibly unnecessary) overthinking how to do this. In fact, most people have probably done so and  did well in the end. To me, however, what differs is (a) how much time you have left for other things that you truly love doing (b) how stressed and sleep-deprived you get along the way. Making life easier for myself was enough motivation for me to think about how I could manage my time better. There’s also the sense of self-fulfilment that comes with doing things well (which my friend Aik Hui has communicated very well in his article To My Fellow Procrastinators).

So, on to some general guidelines.

General Guidelines

Decide what your priorities are. It’s probably worth it at some point in the near future to sit down and think about what you want to make time for. It could be something as simple as rescuing a subject/EE/mountains of homework, or even bigger goals tied to what you value in life. For me, I wanted to set aside time in IB to talk to friends, because after all, there will never be a better time than school when you will have a (relatively) relaxed environment, with lots of free time to spend with friends I enjoy being with. This helped me motivate myself by knowing why I wanted to finish my work quickly – not because school was my life, but because I wanted to get school over and done with so I could get on with life.

Finish work the day it’s given. While this doesn’t apply to everything (EE comes to mind), I found it useful to challenge myself to finish small assignments (Math worksheets, Langlit essays and the like) the day that the teachers assigned them. This was somewhat a personal thing (I get an adrenaline boost trying to rush things), but I also feel the sense of fulfilment is worth it, especially if you know that there won’t be any new work until the next deadline. Preferably, finish your work in school before going home, because that gives you a good mental separation of school-work and home-lepak when you don’t have to worry about work by the time you get home. That allows the bus/train ride home to become a time of relaxation instead of worrying about what work still needs to be done. My parents happened to be fine with me staying in school till 7/8 after CCA to finish work (at least some of the time), and if you have freedom to do something similar I would think it’s worth a try.

Think about when you’ll be free before free time itself. There’ll always be gaps of free time, so plan for how to optimise them. One regular source of free time for me was track competitions, which if you’ve ever been to them have an incredible amount of waiting between events. Accordingly, I could factor this into my work schedule. What’s important, however, was that I remembered that I had free time beforehand, which reminded me to bring work there to do in the first place.

(As a side note, this principle of planning beforehand can be extended indefinitely. For example, if you know you have free time without access to a computer for a couple of hours, you can plan to do all your electronic work earlier in the week so that the written work can be finished during the free time. Alternatively, subjects like math can be done in short bursts, while essays generally need long stretches of time, so you can use that to plan accordingly.)

Choose commitments carefully. If you want to involve yourself in extra activities, try to choose those that don’t have too much of a fixed time commitment, in the form of meetings or set schedules. There’s nothing wrong with fixed commitments, but you have to really consider whether you can cope even when there are sudden deluges or work, or if you fall sick

Keep a To-Do List. I used Google Keep throughout IB to keep track of what I needed to do, a practice I suspect most people do already. What was more important was having the discipline to write down every single thing, no matter how small, immediately once I knew I had to do it. A 5 minute conversation I needed to have with somebody/sending an email to a friend/packing stuff for tomorrow? – having it on paper helped take away the stress of trying to remember minute details. If you’re involved in creative work like writing/composing, keeping a notebook or using an app is a useful practice to jot down random thoughts that come to you throughout the day. Even though I wasn’t involved with such work directly, my practice of writing down random thoughts has been the catalyst for many things I wouldn’t have otherwise done. I’ve used it to cultivate ideas for starting a mentorship programme, joining random economics essay competitions, find the topic for my Math Exploration, and even in starting this website. You never know what might happen.

Go the extra mile to find the right place. Generally you should know what kind of locations are conducive for yourself to do work. Even if you can’t find the ideal place at home or in school, set about making a place conducive for yourself. This can take the form of trying many different bench locations around school, or moving your phone wall charger out of your room permanently. As a somewhat more extreme case, I spent an entire day during EE Day outside the Dean’s and Director’s Office forcing myself to do my EE after not getting anything done for the first two days. Sounds crazy, but it was actually quite a cool way to motivate myself because (a) You don’t want some important teacher looking at you watch EPL highlights on your computer (b) Few of your friends will come join you and distract you when you want to be alone. Oh and also (c) sometimes random teachers start asking you why you’ve been at the same bench for so long, and you can ask them for ideas for what to write.

If something can be done in the next 2 minutes, do it immediately. I copy this idea from David Allen’s book Getting Things Done so blatantly because it is legit useful. Just do it.

Do all your work as if you’ll never get an extension. Ask, but don’t expect anything. You’ll still have to get the work done anyway.

Break down work into quantifiable goals. One unique thing about IB is the large scale projects such as Extended Essay/Math Exploration/IAs that can’t be done in one sitting. Instead of measuring work by time spent, finish each section within a given time limit. That way, it’s easier to motivate yourself once you finish each small task.

Beyond general guidelines, I’ve found that there are specific habits that may be helpful in saving short blocks of time each day. Below is a summary of the stuff I found most useful. Of course, this is particular for each person and you may have a different routine.

Mornings

When you need to do lots of individual work but less group based projects, consider adopting an early sleep/wake cycle, by which I mean sleeping before 10 and getting up before 3/4am. Advantages are that you create a sense of urgency because you need to finish up in time for school, and you don’t waste so much time on social media because you’re not online during peak hour. Not sustainable in the long run if you want any form of a social life though.

You could also try planning for productive/slack days according to training (if you’re into sports especially) or sleep cycles. Since finishing work brings momentum for some people, cramming everything into one day helps make the most of awake/caffeine induced awareness time. You could try sleeping more the night after training, then aim to finish as much as you can before you crash again. To illustrate: In Term 2 of Year 6 there was a particular Thursday when I woke up at 3 to write my EE until school started, then finished my Econs IA during a TOK free period in school, and finally decided to stay in school until I finished A Chem IA and half a LangLit written task before I allowed myself to go back home, whereupon I promptly crashed and did no other work for the next 24 hours.

Going to school earlier helps if you can do work in the morning, especially so for last minute assignments that can be done in short bursts, like non-assessed science IAs. If you take public transport to school, it saves time on travel too.

In School

Leave “quick start” work that can be done quickly (i.e non-essay work) for free periods, which will come readily enough depending on your schedule and teachers. It also helps if you save your least-disliked subject for this so that it’s easier to motivate yourself to get started in free time.

When in class, also try to complete work that you’ll need to ask others for help for (integration comes to mind for the Math HL people). You’ll save time on skype calls/frantic text messages/tuition costs as opposed to trying to doing such work at home.

On Public Transport

If your parents allow/if you can stand doing work in school, going home later reduces the time taken to go home if you wait till after rush hour. Also you tend to get seats which is useful for doing work if you have a small tablet or computer, or MCQ questions to complete. Once I even intentionally took the North-South line from Newton to Bukit Batok instead of a bus on a Saturday afternoon, during which I managed to complete over a thousand words for my EE (which I subsequently had to rewrite anyway but that’s another story).

Try turning off your data on a specific bus ride. It carves out space for self reflection without the distraction of notifications, and also allows you to reply everybody you blue ticked but should have replied at once, starting multiple conversations without being bogged down in the first convo you start. (This applies more to communication for CCA/work rather than actual friendships of course)

At Home

Limit the time you spend on social media/gaming/etc etc etc, this is more about your own self-discipline than anything.

Skype meetings for work should always have agendas and/or cut-off times.

This is a personal thing since I don’t have a regular habit of drinking coffee/tea, but regular abstention from caffeine in general helps to increase its effect when you take it in short bursts when you actually need the energy the most.

Practical Things to Use

If there are any Year 5s reading this, I’d recommend that you get a cheap convertible tablet or laptop that’s small and has decent battery life. It’s entirely possible to go through IB without a laptop of your own actually, just a lot more inconvenient. Also if you’re involved with activities till late in the evening you’ll need to find a way to get electronic work done.

Use Google Keep/Evernote/some other task manager to keep a list that you can refer to easily/conveiniently.

Back up your work online on Google Drive/Onedrive/any other cloud service. I personally don’t think that one spare hard drive is enough, after seeing friends lose their hard drives and having their laptops crash. Even if you do have a hard drive, going back to the state of your work from two months ago is way too hard to catch up with in the middle of Year 6 Term 1.

For most subjects, borrowing textbooks from the library or reading them in the library (if you live relatively close to school) might be a cost-efficient alternative that forces you to maximise the time spent in the library. It’s not as if you read textbooks in your spare time anyway.

Getting Advice

Listen to seniors, especially for what work is important and what is not. In Year 5 , there will be many things that teachers ask you to do. Not all of them have the same priority. Knowing what’s important is invaluable in deciding how you go about planning your work schedule, especially in times of CCA overloads. (Of course this may be teacher dependent as well).

Another useful thing to check with seniors is finding common topics about IAs/ME/TOK. Generally most people in the cohort gravitate to similar topics by the time assessed presentations/essays come. Thinking about ME topics, for example, was a lot easier for me after asking around what the common topics were. Back in my batch when there were 3 assessed Bio IAs, knowing the common topics helped me to plan and do the practical on germination early in Year 5, since that one required more time.

So yes, many of the suggestions I have are rather extreme and may not work, and I definitely don’t suggest that life should be centred around just trying to get things done in the most efficient way possible. But like it or not, if you want free time to spend on the things that matter, you have to get schoolwork out of the way first.

Timothy Ong (6.05) is from the graduating class of 2015.

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