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Managing Time and Motivation

Light up sign showing 'you got this' and laptop in foreground - photo credit - Unsplash @prateekkatyalLearning remotely is challenging when you don't have the structured timetable of lectures, seminars, labs and classes, but have to manage your own time and motivation. It's likely that you also have other priorities and challenges to manage outside of your studies in the current situation.

This page offers some tips on how to build some structure into your day, work your studies around other priorities and keep up continuity with your learning as far as you're able, while still looking after yourself.

The iNCLude Wellbeing App is designed to help you take small steps to improve and maintain your wellbeing. The app has been designed with specialists, using evidence-based methodology and looks at how to maximise your experience at University by creating positive habits to ensure you’re focussing on more than just your academic studies.

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If you need to pick up your studies again after disruption

If you’ve had to move home to study, been unwell or had to take some time out to focus on other urgent priorities, you might be finding it hard to know where to start or how to get going again.

  • The main thing is to make a start, less so where to start. Make your first step small so it feels do-able, whether it’s just digging out your module or programme handbook or any other information you need, or filtering through your emails or BlackBoard notifications to pick out important communications about changes to teaching and assessment, or assignment deadlines (maybe just a week’s worth if there has been a deluge of them!). Even just logging on might help you feel back in the swing a little.
  • Figure out first if there are any priorities you need to be aware of such as assessment. Your lecturer may have posted these already, but you could also check with friends on your course or contact your module leader if you’re uncertain or concerned.
  • You might have several modules or assignments competing for your attention. Does one of them have a more urgent deadline, or is there one you feel more behind with?
  • You might begin by going back to your module handbook and any other information about the module to refresh your memory about its learning outcomes, topics covered already and those yet to be covered. You could gently review work you’ve already done, lecture notes, ReCap recordings or past assignments just to familiarize yourself again with the topic, activate that learning again and remind yourself that you do know things! Don’t see this as revision or worry if you can’t remember details, you’re just refreshing your sense of it and reactivating your memory.
  • If you feel you’ve missed a lot of content, you might just watch any video content for each week to get a sense of what’s been covered, rather than working through all of each week in turn. You can then go back and undertake any activities that have been set, or pursue any reading, for previous weeks. This will even help you synthesise your understanding across the module so far, getting a better overview to help make connections and prioritise.
  • Try doing a bit of freewriting to get back in the flow, either to warm up for writing or just to get your thoughts moving again. Set a timer for 10 minutes and write, as a stream of consciousness without stopping, whatever comes to mind about the studies you’re picking up again, and see what comes out.

If you’re finding it hard to concentrate, or only able to work in short bursts

Stress and worry are completely natural at the moment, and will impact on your ability to focus and think straight. You might also be trying to study in less than ideal circumstances, having to share a computer or fitting it around other priorities such as caring responsibilities or managing daily chores.

  • Be mindful each day, and as the day progresses, of what your concentration span or demands on your attention realistically are, and work within that. Don’t put expectations on yourself to work for an hour or more if it’s not going to happen – it will make you feel worse. You can achieve a lot in shorter slots of time.
  • Break tasks down into as small chunks as possible, and be specific about what you’re aiming to achieve. Big, vague goals in your mind then become manageable concrete tasks with a clear output.  If you only realistically have 10 mins, ‘read the article’ might not be achievable, but ‘skim the first page and identify 3 key points’ might be.
  • When you break, take a moment to leave a ‘note to future self’ about where you got to or what you were intending to do next.
  • A to-do list with all your tasks easily becomes overwhelming and can become a displacement activity in itself. You might use a ‘next action’ list, keep it short and make it on the day, just to cover the immediate future. What’s the next thing you need to do to take a step forwards?
  • Set concrete criteria for when a task is ‘finished’ or even just ‘good enough’. What exactly would that look like in practical terms?
  • Make sure your learning approach is active – we quickly disengage if we’re just passively watching or reading something. When reading or watching a lecture, try summarising paragraphs, making a mindmap, leaving notes to self about ideas, connections or questions that occur to you, etc
  • Is there anything you can do with your environment that might make it easier to concentrate undisturbed? This might mean negotiating with other members of your household, or just thinking about what helps when you are on campus and recreating that, from background noise apps to setting up your table to remind you of working in a university study space.
  • Find a way to block distractions. Repeatedly having to make yourself ignore them will drain your energy to say no to them, so see if you can avoid them altogether (ie a social media blocker, turning phones off, studying somewhere with few temptations).  Of course, some distractions, such as children, can’t be handled in this way!
  • Make sure you’re only doing one thing at a time. For example, if you’re writing, make sure that you are EITHER writing a first draft OR planning it OR editing it OR checking it – don’t try to do all those things at once, but separate the process out. If you’re reading, EITHER skim to find the relevant bits OR read marked sections in depth to foster understanding OR critique the whole.
  • Try freewriting for 10 minutes. Set a timer and write, as a stream of consciousness  without stopping, whatever comes to mind about what you’re reading, revising or thinking, and see what comes out. It might be the first draft of something, it might move your thinking on, or it might clarify a sticking point.
  • If one of your short working blocks doesn’t go as planned, let it go and see the next one as a fresh start. Short working blocks are low risk, whereas if you try and work all afternoon and it doesn’t go to plan, you might feel anxious that time has been wasted.

If you’d benefit from a bit of structure to keep things going

It’s not always going to be possible to carry on as normal, but if you’re able to, you might find it helpful to create a bit of routine to stay motivated and regain some control.

Time

Without the full structured timetable of campus learning, your day can become a bit shapeless. Some teaching will still be synchronous (everyone participating at the same time), but much may move to ‘asynchronous’ where participants engage with the learning activities and resources at different times, so it’s more up to you when you study.

  • You might find that keeping to a similar schedule as your normal studying week is helpful, if that’s possible. You don’t have the commute, so you can get up a little later, but a routine that starts with setting the alarm and getting up, and getting on with learning as soon as possible, might work for you. Take regular breaks, stop work at a specific time, like 5pm, and keep bedtimes regular too!
  • You might find that a regular schedule is not possible for you, however. Instead, you might build in structured elements into your day, for example, a set number ‘blocks’ of work of a couple of hours (or more, or less, as works for you), to be fitted into each day where possible.
  • Make sure you get down to a study task as soon as possible when you start work– you might find it helps to make it fairly small and specific, and easy to do – something like re-reading notes from the day before, or answering three emails, and perhaps decide what it’s going to be the night before.
  • Far-off deadlines are not motivating. Set smaller deadlines which are closer in time and more frequent. This could be the date by which you want to achieve or finish a task, or a time by which you want to move on to a different phase of work ie from reading to writing, or from exploratory thinking to deciding what you want to focus on.
  • Build in cycles where you revisit learning, especially if you have exams to revise for so you can build up your memory, but also if you’re writing an assignment, to check your planning and original reading. This helps deepen your learning and keep a focused direction. Revisit it after a day, three days, a week, two weeks etc.
  • If ‘work expands to fill the time available’, meaning that it seems to take forever, then try factoring in some time to do other things first –whether they are urgent priorities such as daily chores or something more pleasant, like exercise. Once part of your day is earmarked for those, your studies will have to fit around them, meaning that you’re likely to be more productive when you do work as time is more scarce.
Space

Going into uni for the day clearly marked study from leisure time. When you’re spending all your time at home, making that clear distinction is going to be harder, but if you can find a way to mark ‘study’ from ‘other’ time physically or symbolically, it will help.

  • You might be lucky enough to have a room that you can keep purely for learning, and turn it into a ‘study’. Make sure you close the door on it for the day, and decide how many hours is a reasonable amount of time to work, for you.
  •  You might be able to repurpose a part of a room such as like the dining table or a corner of the living room and set it up as your dedicated workspace so you’re in ‘work mode’ when seated there. Consider how to ensure your workspace is comfortable to sit at for longer periods, and how to keep distractions to a minimum, whether it’s moving temptations like your phone or displacement activities like laundry into another room, or negotiating times when other household members can’t expect your attention.
  • You might need to negotiate with others in your household to commandeer a suitable space temporarily for periods of the day. You could agree times to suit your best times of day for working (possibly a number of shorter periods might help you take breaks, rather than one longer period). Consider how you might set up your space for this period to create a working environment, even temporarily, whether that’s removing distractions where possible or using ‘props’ to create a focused atmosphere which you associate with study, such as particular music or background noise, a scented candle, or something that reminds you of your uni environment. 
  • You might have very limited space, for example if you’re living in a study bedroom. Where at all possible, avoid working in bed, as this might impair your sleep, which in turn will impact on your ability to study and cope with other things. If you can set up a different corner of your space for study, even for part of the day, you might use cues such as objects that remind you of uni, getting dressed in ‘work’ clothes, or particular music or other background sounds that create a different environment.
  • If you have some flexibility over where you work, you might try moving around during the day – writing at the kitchen table in the morning, reading and taking notes in the living room during the afternoon, for example. This might help recharge up your energy levels and the variety might help keep you focused.
  • If you are living with others who also need to work, whether this is study or working from home, you might find it’s helpful to work together to keep each other momentum and motivation. You could even organize this remotely with coursemates elsewhere through a virtual study group.

If you’re feeling behind and overwhelmed with your studies, losing motivation

  • If you don’t feel ready to start a task (not done enough reading, thinking, etc) or don’t know where you are with it, jump in and start anyway – use this as a way to experiment and find out exactly what else you need to do, rather than a vague sense you’ve not done enough or aren’t sure what you’re doing.
  • Use freewriting as a way to find a bit of focus. Set a timer for 10 mins, and write a stream-of-consciousness exploring the task you will be working on, what the sticking points are, anything you’re worried about, things that are distracting you and how you feel about it. Don’t stop, don’t edit, don’t judge – this is just you warming up and thinking aloud on paper.
  • Break tasks down. This allows you to see exactly what needs to be done, and how long it might all take. It also makes big, vague goals into manageable, concrete tasks, where you can see progress.
  • Build in points where you can reflect, take stock of where you need to be, and check your direction. Try and commit to a goal, even if it’s for a day, rather than switching between them in case you’re worried you’re not doing the right thing.
  • Alternatively, try interleaving – every hour, two hours or mornings and afternoons, switch task. This might help you feel that you’re keeping all the plates spinning, and actually helps you refresh your concentration. It’s also true that if you leave a problem you’re stuck with, your brain is likely to have made progress on it when you were thinking about something else.
  • Think How, not just What. Focus on the actions you need to take, not the things you need to achieve, and make your intention to implement the goal explicit. ‘IF I am going to achieve ……., THEN I will do …..
  • Make each task as concrete as possible, to make it doable and give yourself a sense of achievement. You could frame it in SMART terms:
    • Specific: What exactly will the output be? Which section or paragraph?
    • Measurable: How many words will you write, approx?
    • Achievable: How realistic is this? How ‘finished’ does it have to be?
    • Relevant: how does this contribute to the rest of your work? How important is it?
    • Timebound: how long will you work on it?
  • Build in small, immediate, short term rewards for things where the real outcome is a longer way off.
    • Reward yourself for a job done, or for progress made, whether you feel it is well done or not.
    • Intrinsic rewards: A sense of achievement or pride is a kind of reward, so frame your work in a way that allows you to tick things off or check how well you’re doing.
    • Extrinsic rewards: You could also use rewards that have nothing to do with work. Rewards should be small and also framed in SMART terms so you don’t get distracted from returning to work.
  • You’re likely to put something off if you don’t think you can do it. If you aren’t sure what it is you’re supposed to achieve or how to go about it, list up the questions you have, so you can find answers – friends on the course, a peer mentor, your lecturer, a Writing Development Centre tutor. Identifying what you don’t know is the beginning of finding out.
  • If your planned time didn’t quite go to plan, write a list of ‘things achieved’ anyway – this will help you see where you’re still being productive or where you need to get back on track, without making you feel you’ve achieved nothing.
  • There is often no single right answer, or no single right way to do something at university. If  an approach isn’t working for you, try a different way rather than avoiding a task due to fear of failure or not being good enough. Find your own best way to study.

If you really can’t focus on your studies right now

There may be times when there are more important things than study, and time management advice isn’t what you need. You might wish to talk to your Personal Tutor, explore whether putting in a Personal Extenuating Circumstances form would help, or seek advice from Student Wellbeing.