Distinctive study strategies

On Saturday I received my Masters result: I was awarded a Distinction.

I opened the envelope in a slightly dismissal fashion, blissfully unaware that I was due to receive my transcript. I had plans, I had places to be that day, and this was just one more piece of mail to open before heading out the door. When I saw the University letter-head I fully expected to see the word ‘merit’. I had reached acceptance with this. It had been a long time since I’d handed in my dissertation, and in some ways I’d moved on with my life. Unlike GCSE or A-level results, I wasn’t eagerly awaiting the days as if my life depended upon it. Funnily enough, life does go on.

Distinction was unexpected, which made it ever the more sweeter. A grin spread from ear to ear – I literally jumped up and down, and screamed, all by myself. I admit, there was no demure, self-effacing modesty – sod that; I’d worked f*cking hard on it – it almost broke me. And yet here I was: still standing and a bigger, more complex person than I was before.

Studying, especially part-time whilst pursuing a full-time career, is challenging. We’ve all had those moments where we questioned whether it’s worth carrying on – when exhaustion is residing in every bone of the body, and the brain can’t work out whether to pour the kettle into the sugar bowl or the mug (true story). And yet, it’s worth every one of those moments – a million times over. So, based on my experience, I thought I’d put together some top tips for the journey:

Organisational skills have to be top-notch. Treat study like a job and ask yourself, ‘what do I need to get done each weekend/evening in order to deliver and stay on track?’ Plan the time in your diary. Assess your diary for when you have rogue 30 minute blocks scattered between events and use them – every little helps. Be more effective with how you’re using your time; read some articles when you’re commuting, standing in queues, at the hairdresser. Carry around some materials just in case you get the opportunity (we’ve all been delayed on a train and wished we had something more productive to do). There are many periods of dead time that we allow to seep into our lives which can be reassigned to this mission. File your resources or materials so that you don’t waste time searching around. Use colour coding, page markers, highlighting, ring-binders, whizzy software, a pin board – whatever works best for you. Being organised and systematic not only makes you more efficient whilst studying, but it also enables you to pack everything away after your allotted time and have some physical and mental space to breathe.

The irrelevant slips away. When you prioritise additional study (or any sense of purpose/flow, for that matter), it quickly becomes evident as to what can be sacrificed. Those casual acquaintances that used to dominate your Thursday evenings? You stop reaching out. The Sunday morning spent slightly jaded after a few beers the night before no longer seems worth it. The mindless scrolling through facebook or Instagram on your commute also starts to feel like a sacrilegious waste of time, and lunch hours are no longer spent reading novelty news stories on the BBC website. As I discussed in my previous post regarding Flow (post 10/1/19), study can be one of those activities that becomes a magnetic field, and gradually it’s pursued “with such an intensity that all competition for one’s attention is eradicated”. If the study is central to your future purpose, or something you enjoy, the irrelevant tasks/activities that previously padded your existence tend to fall away and release time you didn’t know you had.

The pregnancy principle. Writer Laura McKowen formulated and applied this concept to sobriety – she suggested that one’s sobriety should be protected, nourished and prioritised just like a pregnancy. I think the same can apply to long-term study; you are giving birth to a unique piece of work, which takes months to formulise and create. It is your baby. And so, without feeling like you have to answer to others’ demands, you should do what’s right for this growing embryo of work. Take a nap if exhaustion is enveloping you. Leave social events when you’ve had enough – don’t even bother going to those which are an obligation. If the domestic chores didn’t get done this weekend, they can wait until next. You don’t have to justify it – do what you need to do for the sake of your study.

It’s a marathon – not a sprint. Enjoy the achievements along the way. If the end grade or submission is your only goal then you’re bound to find this tough. Doing degrees part-time can take years, and so it’s important to focus on the most immediate tasks at hand and celebrate the small wins. For example, writing an essay can be broken down into many smaller tasks: lit review, primary research, planning, writing, proof reading. Take stock after you complete each stage. Every one of these is a mission in itself and you should be proud of making it from one to the next. It’s not all about the end game.

Ask for help. To clarify, I don’t mean that you should enlist people to write your lit review; I’m talking about all the other life admin tasks that we have to complete in order for our worlds to go round. Is there someone that can look after your children for a couple of hours to help you crack on with the writing? Can you enlist your children as unofficial domestic help at the weekends and ask that they take on a few chores? Both authors Elizabeth Gilbert and Gretchen Rubin caution about letting excellence or perfection being the enemy of good enough. Does stacking the dishwasher require perfection? No. It needs to get done. Would someone else clean the bathroom exactly how you would? No, but you get an hour of your life back which is much better spent on your studies. See what you can outsource. I know that we can’t all afford a cleaner or a gardener, but there may be marginal costs associated with certain tasks. For instance, I view it in term of my “billable hour”. Is it worth me doing several trips to Sainsbury’s (walking) to obtain heavy goods? For the £4 spent on online delivery, I save vastly more time that can be spent on what I need to achieve. Review how you spend your time doing life-admin/chores, and see whether there’s an alternative solution to getting them done at the most efficient cost of time and money.

Sleep. Sleep. Sleep. Sleep. I cannot stress this enough. And if you don’t believe me, read my review of Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep (post 27/12/18). Better still – read his book. It’s better to do 3 hours of study after a nap, than 6 hours with your eye-lids drooping. Without sleep, you won’t take anything in, you won’t be productive, and creativity will be minimal. Try and do bursts of study as your first activity of the day before your brain gets fatigued with life admin. Be strict with bedtimes and avoid substances that reduce sleep quality (alcohol, caffeine, sugar). If there’s one thing you change in order to pursue study, make it sleep.

Studying part time whilst holding down a job is bloody hard. There’s no magic solution to simplify the process. Instead, you can assess your existing routines, habits and methods to ease the burden. Many small tweaks can make a big difference. Try different strategies and swap things out that don’t serve you; there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. But, do be selfish. Make it your priority because no one else will. Savour every moment.

Photocredit: C. Davey

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