The College Student Guide to Getting Work Done

Kraig McFadden
Mar 12, 2019 · 12 min read
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Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

I both loved and hated doing work when I was at school. It was great because I could set my own hours, but it was awful because I could, well… set my own hours. Professors also had no mercy when it came to handing out work, so the end result was too much to do and not enough willpower to slog through it all. To get by, I had to do the same thing all students have to do — adopt some work habits and figure out my schedule.

For some background, I recently graduated from Princeton University with a degree in Electrical Engineering. That’s not to say I’m “smart” and “just get it”; quite the opposite actually! I felt like I didn’t “just get” anything during my time at school. I always had to fight to get through my work, so none of it went quickly. On top of that, there was always more work to do than I felt I had time for. Students, myself included, could easily work upwards of 80 hours a week. So while I can’t promise the work habits I’ve gathered will be perfect for you, I can promise they have been battle-tested and are effective! Here are five to consider:

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1.) Morning is your new work time.

If you’re a college student, morning should become your most productive part of the day.

Right now, you’re probably thinking, “Morning? I haven’t been awake to see one of those in a while!” and I’m right there with you! I would stay up late to finish assignments due at midnight, relax for a little bit, maybe work on something else, then get ready for bed and finally be turning in around 2, or 3, or later. Many students operate this way.

You can take advantage of this common student schedule though and use it to enhance your own productivity! If you know many people are going to be sleeping in, then you know many people will not be around to distract you first thing in the morning. Libraries and other study spaces will be open and quiet in the morning. Friends will not be making plans with you or otherwise spontaneously derailing your schedule in the morning. Events and activities will not be taking place in the morning. So what should you do if you want long, uninterrupted stretches of time to focus and get work done? Start working in the morning!

Another overlooked aspect of getting up early and using the day fully is the lighting. Humans are designed to be woken up and refreshed by light. Waking up late and doing your work when it’s dark is already fighting an uphill battle because your body thinks it’s time to sleep! Using the daylight to energize yourself is a free boost to your productivity.

But of course, this advice might not be helpful if you have classes filling your mornings. In that case, I would suggest moving your classes to the afternoon, or trying to get more afternoon classes in the next semester. Here’s why: the focus it takes to sit in a class is very different from the focus it takes to do work. If you are working, you’re engaged. Engaging work helps wake you up and energize you. If you’re sitting in a class listening though, it’s very easy to become disengaged. Then next thing you know, you’re dozing off because your body wasn’t fully awake yet! So for me, working was good in the morning when I was fresh, and then listening was good in the afternoon after I was fully awake. Also, afternoon class can give you a mental break from assignments before working more in the evening. So given the option, I would suggest shifting your classes to the afternoon, and then be diligent about using the morning for work.

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2.) Don’t take that hard class you “might need”.

This is a piece of advice I would give to any incoming college student: just because a class looks cool doesn’t mean it will be cool. Also, unless you know for sure you will need it for your career, the reality is you probably won’t need it! Knowing those two things frees you from taking unnecessary, difficult classes.

From my own experience, I would say I use the content of only about 4 of my 37 classes on a day to day basis. The rest of my classes certainly served me indirectly, by sharpening certain skills or ways of thinking, but the content itself was pretty unimportant. That number might be higher or lower if I switch jobs, but by the time I do, I’ll probably have to relearn a decent portion of the material anyway! And on top of that, a class tends to only give a general overview of a subject, whereas a job will require a pretty specific application of a topic. So to work for them, they will have to train you anyway!

As a rebuttal, you might say you should take a certain hard class anyway because it could help you be considered for a job. I would say you should only do that if you a) know you will need it for a certain field (say, an image processing class for a computer vision job), or b) you think you’ll do well in the class. What matters more to an employer is a general demonstration of competence, especially when you’re right out of school. They want to see you have worked on projects, received good grades, and can function as a team member. In fact, much of the time, being qualified for a position doesn’t matter at all if you’re a lousy team member! So demonstrating you can work on a team and take a big project to completion will get you much further with an employer than any individual class will. Also, because an employer will often give consideration to a good GPA, you do yourself another favor taking an easier class because it means your GPA will likely be higher!

Overall, don’t waste your time on classes you think you’ll need, because you would be much better off taking an easier class, reducing your workload, and doing all of your work better with your extra time.

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3.) Get enough sleep.

This habit should be pretty self-explanatory and pretty much common sense. Unfortunately, no one seems to be able to do it!

Sleep is absolutely essential to performing well and being productive. Lack of sleep can lead to trouble focusing on your work, and trouble focusing in class. If you can’t focus on your work, you can’t get it done, and if you can’t focus in class, you can’t be prepared for the work to come. To catch up, you will have to work twice as hard or twice as long, lose sleep, and thereby exacerbate the problem! It’s a vicious feedback loop and you don’t want to get caught in it.

Lack of sleep also leads to memory problems, both with recall (can I remember this thing I need for my assignment or during my test?) and with memory formation (will this thing I learned be stored so I can remember it later?). On top of that, there’s just the risk that you might fall asleep in class! Or, even if you’re awake, you might not have the mental energy to take good notes. So what’s the point of going to class at all if you won’t remember and can’t take good notes? Don’t set yourself up for further failure — take the hit on whatever assignment you’re on now, and get a good night’s sleep. Don’t let yourself fall into a sleep debt!

Besides the obvious problems with concentration and memory, lack of sleep can also affect your mood. This usually hits me pretty hard. I get grumpy and become frustrated more easily when I’m tired. Difficult, unending streams of work are your worst enemy when you’re grumpy and frustrated. You won’t have the mental energy or the drive you need to tackle difficult problems, and if you can’t tackle the problems, you can’t solve them and get your work done. You’ll just get upset and give up, or do poor work. There are absolutely no benefits to being sleep deprived.

So how do you do this in practice? First off, you start doing your work in the morning. If you’re getting your work done earlier in the day, you won’t be scrambling before the midnight deadline. Also, don’t give yourself until midnight to get it done — set your own personal deadline at say, 8pm. Work expands to fill the time it’s given, so if you tell yourself you have until midnight, you will almost certainly take until midnight. Shift your schedule to earlier in the day so you can be winding down at night, and actually getting good sleep.

Also, as a general rule, your work will be higher quality if you just go to bed and then pick it up first thing in the morning when you’re fresh. Don’t revise two more times, don’t sit and try to figure out the bug in your code for another hour — just go to bed and I can almost guarantee you will have insights in the morning.

One final note: certain kinds of work are better to do before bed than others. Programming, for instance, is a process. You write it, test it, debug, write it, test it, debug it, etc. If you try to stop that process because it’s bed time, you will have a hard time falling asleep because your brain will still be working. Reading, on the other hand, is much better before bed because there are clear stopping points at headings and chapters. You are also following the author through it, rather than trying to work out a problem. It is much easier to end a chapter and shut your brain down than it is to be in the middle of developing a piece of code and then shut down. Stopping points are fewer and further between with that kind of work.

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4.) Don’t go back to your room until 8 hours have passed.

This rule is a little bit more arbitrary, but it gets at some important underlying points. For one, you should take your work time seriously, like you would at a job, and two, structure your day so you’re not going to be distracted.

Taking your work seriously and setting aside part of the day to focus on it is critical if you want to get it done. Concentration doesn’t just turn off and on like a switch — you have to get into a state where you’re concentrating and working well, which can take some time. If you’re not giving it the time it needs, you will never be in a state where you’re working well.

On top of that, our minds are drawn to different things in different situations. Having a routine where you’re in the library between classes and you’re focusing on work all morning can help you to get started on work every time you arrive. The library becomes your work space, and the morning becomes your work time. Your body learns to settle in quicker and get to work when it’s following the routine.

On the flip side, trying to work in places that aren’t used solely for work can be a challenge. Your room, for example, is a pretty bad place to go if you want to work! Your room is used for sleeping, so if you’re tired and see your bed, you might end up taking a nap. Or if you have entertainment there, like a TV, Xbox, games, etc. it’s very easy to be derailed. Even just seeing these items can trigger a craving for them, and that’s the last thing you need when you’re trying to get work done.

Lastly, having an amount of time set aside just for work allows you to set your deadlines at better times. Like I mentioned earlier, work will expand to fill the time it’s given. If you have an assignment that normally takes 5 hours, but you give yourself 6 to do it, guess what will happen? You’ll procrastinate for about an hour. Save yourself that time by time-boxing all of your work into your 8 hour day! You might not get it all done, but having a mental deadline will help you to focus more and procrastinate less. This also ties in with what I said before about getting assignments done earlier in the day so you can sleep properly!

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5.) Have dedicated study spaces for each class.

This last habit helps you take advantage of routines and triggers. It is very simple: in the same way that returning to your room during the day triggers distractions, going to a place that you have dedicated for a specific type of work can trigger you into the mindset you need for that work.

For example, I have a friend who would always do his music assignments — funnily enough — in the music building. He would do his chemistry work in the chemistry building, or in the science library. Programming was always done in a study room in the main campus library. After a little while, your body and mind associate each place with its own type of work, and the association can trigger you into a state where you’re ready to concentrate on that kind of work when you’re there.

Ideally, these locations should cater to what you need for the type of work you’re doing. If I ever had readings, I would do them in one of the quieter libraries on campus in a comfy chair. I also looked for places with windows and lots of natural light, so I wouldn’t have to squint to read. For math, my setup would be similar in that it needed to be very quiet, but I needed a hard chair and a desk at a good height to do a lot of writing. If I didn’t have the hard chair, I would end up slouching, not reaching the desk well, and then doing more sitting and procrastinating than working! For other assignments, especially programming ones, I felt it was helpful to draw systems out on a white board or a chalkboard. I could tolerate more noise, but having a writing and diagramming surface was essential.

In the end, it’s about what you need out of a work space, and it’s also about where you can get to in the time allotted. For instance, if you only have 30 minutes between classes, it makes more sense to go to a nearby work space that’s slightly inconvenient rather than try to get to a better spot that’s 10 minutes away. You just don’t have the time, so use your best judgement! On the other hand, if you do have the time, I would recommend going somewhere farther away to work; then it will be more of an effort to come back, making it more likely you will stay out and work for a good chunk of time, rather than return to your room.

Conclusion

If you want to get through college without losing your sanity, you need to stay on top of your work. It just makes sense: you’re paying to do work and get a diploma, so make the most of your money by working hard and working well! Try out some of these habits and see if they work for you. They complement each other, so if you start doing one, you may find the others start to work better to. Above all, it’s not the end of the world if your grades aren’t great or you have a hard time at school. After your first job, employers won’t care about your GPA anymore anyway! Take some classes you like, and try to get something out of them. Even if you don’t learn any of the content, it is much more important to learn how to work effectively, and I hope adopting some of these habits can help you do that. Good luck!

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Kraig McFadden

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Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

Kraig McFadden

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Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the education system

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