How I Found 36 Hours a Month to Learn Something New

It’s May 29, 2017, and I’ve recently joined Udacity to manage the business in Saudi Arabia. I quickly learn that we have something called Project Chewy, where every Udacity employee studies one of the company’s own Nanodegree programs. The initiative supports the idea, common in tech companies, that we have to test our own food.

Uh-oh!

It’s been a long time since I’ve done any structured studying, but I’m ready! I accept the Project Chewy challenge and browse through the Nanodegree program catalog. The Data Analyst Nanodegree program catches my eye. It sounds like a skill that will serve me well in this age of data, so I decide that’s the program I will pursue.

In this post, I’ll walk you through my experience with the program, and explain how I discovered 36 underutilized hours in the month.

Week 1 in the program

On the first day of the class, I opened a new browser window and went to the Udacity website and signed into the Classroom. I went through orientation and watched an interview with a real data analyst talking about what it’s like to earn a living as a data analyst. It seemed pretty cool — I got pumped up and started my lifelong learning journey.

I have a tendency to feel that I spend a lot of time doing something, but that doesn’t always add up in reality. So I’ve started tracking my time to find out how much time I actually spend.

After that first week, I opened up my time tracking software to take a look:

I was shocked: only four hours and thirty minutes! You’ve gotta be kidding me! Does this tracking software even work? I was sure I’d spent more time than this.

(A quick note: I live in Saudi Arabia where our weekdays are Sunday to Thursday. Friday nights are still a thing, if you were wondering!)

I gave it some thought and realized that the problem was likely that I didn’t dedicate and guard specific time slots for the course. Instead, I had just left it open for “whenever I have time”—and we’ve all experienced how well that works (if it’s not on the calendar, does it even exist?).

Week 2 in the program

When week two began, I started to stop telling people that I’d enrolled—just in case I pulled out! Anyway, I started the week with a lot of energy…

…and things went sideways Monday through Wednesday. Here I am around seven hours. I was not used to these hours-long, concentrated study sessions, especially with a challenging topic like statistics.

What do I do? I was definitely not happy with this situation.

Week 3 in the program

Tossing and turning in bed on Saturday night, I said to myself, “This week I am going in with full speed. To be or not to be.” I wanted to make sure that I was progressing and see if the progress I made was linearly related to the time I spent.

Uh-oh! I couldn’t lift my foot from the accelerator and took it to the extreme this time. I certainly can see myself progressing throughout the course. But there’s one problem: I spent so much time studying that I didn’t relax and recharge on the weekend. It was too much to block out two hours in a working day. I felt tense and it killed my other activities, so this definitely is not a sustainable long-term strategy.

Despite this, the main takeaway was that I was progressing. The next step was to optimize. At least I was getting somewhere.

Week 4 in the program

I utilized a different strategy here. Finally, I was close to achieving the ten hours a week mark which is around the average Udacity tells you is needed to finish a given Nanodegree program. What’s cool about this schedule is that I get a chance to recharge on the weekend, but on the other hand, two hours a day is a lot of time for a study session on a workday.

Week 5—when I discovered my secret sauce!

Ladies and gentlemen, I present you the model that helped me graduate with a Data Analyst Nanodegree credential. After five weeks of trying, I finally reached a perfect schedule for me! Less studying during the working week keeps me from getting worn out, and then a couple of big pushes on the weekend makes up the difference.

With this model, I was able to find 36 hours a month that I was previously wasting, and I was able to fill those hours productively, without detracting from the rest of my life.

Conclusions

My main goal with this Week 5 methodology was to move to a sustainable model of time management that can be adapted for lifelong learning. I have a full-time job, a wife, a kid, and I want to live a balanced life. I found 36 unutilized hours in my schedule that I’m now able to use to enrich my life.

Three things to keep in mind as you pursue a strategy for finding time:

  • “What gets measured, gets managed.”— Peter Drucker
  • Ten hours a week can change your life
  • What worked for me won’t necessarily work for you. This might be a good place to start, but be sure to take the time to find the study model that helps you reach your lifelong learning goals by tracking what works, what doesn’t work, and optimizing on your own.

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