deadlines

How long should you take to prepare for class?

prepare-for-class

Last week, I talked about deadlines.

Deadlines are usually reserved for coursework. But it helps to think about the smaller projects and preparation you need to do before class.

The deadline for seminar preparation is the day of that class. Pretty simple. But not always obvious. If you haven’t thought of it as a deadline until now, maybe that’s enough to see it in a new light.

Lectures and seminars usually rely on you having done some work beforehand. It could be some reading, a small quiz, a survey, an experiment, an exercise, or something similar.

I remember it being standard to fit prep in at the last minute. The same day was no surprise. And some people would even do the work as they walked to campus, moments before class started. A frenzy of reading and walking.

That’s not enough time to do the work. Glancing isn’t engaging.

At such a basic level, there’s not much chance to ask relevant questions and properly interact in seminars.

It doesn’t feel like so much rests on doing this work. “I can always catch up and do it in my own time,” you could say.

Problem is, the idea of preparation is to bring out the best in our abilities when the more important work does come along.

So while last-minute preparation for class is clearly a less important version of the all-nighter, it could still leave you worse off than you should be in the long run.

The way to combat this is to prepare for preparation.

What does that mean!? Essentially, it means that when you know what’s expected of you before you attend, do these 3 things:

  1. Plan what you’re going to do (if it isn’t already explicit);
  2. Estimate roughly how long it will take (and leave room for extra time just in case);
  3. Schedule when you’re going to do it.

It’s amazing how free you’ll feel when you prepare for preparation. All it takes is making that solid schedule and having a full understanding of what’s expected of you.

working

You don’t need to schedule it all in one go either. Let’s say your course is heavy on the reading. You have 100 pages to read before next week’s session. Why not find four slots in your schedule to read 25 pages each time? Or five 20-page sittings?

The more you’re in control of your plan, the better you can engage with your learning.

My worst experiences have been the times when I put off the inevitable. My best experiences have been when I have all the preparation laid out in readiness.

Think of your own best experiences. When you enjoy the work and get stuck in, the learning feels easier. The preparation seems to fall into place without effort.

Why does it feel so effortless? Put simply, your enthusiasm allows you to naturally prepare the groundwork.

And since we can’t feel as enthusiastic about everything we do, we need to be a bit more considered in our approach.

The execution is always the same. Set out what you’ll do, prepare for everything, and make it happen.

You can’t fake the excitement, but you can always stay ahead with your prep.

What’s Better than the Assignment Deadline? Making Your Own Deadline.

How do you make your own deadlines? Why are your own deadlines important in the first place?

Whoa there! Let’s back track a bit first.

When you have coursework, what is your relationship with the set deadline?

If it’s like most people, you see a date a long way in the future (it’s at least a week, a month, a term away…) and you put the work to the back of your mind.

That date in the future creeps up much quicker than you realise…mostly because you weren’t thinking about it.

And BAM! You’ve got to play catch-up.

Then you have those wonderful (read: terrible) all-nighters to endure.

The easy advice would be to tell you to start working on your projects the moment they’re assigned.

But you may not want to follow the advice to start working on those projects straight away. You may have other commitments at the moment anyway.

The good news is that you can still prepare without the need for a desperate last minute attempt. It’s the happy medium between insta-work and much too late.

Make your own deadlines.

The Muse has helpfully published a piece on “4 Better Ways to Create Deadlines That You’ll Actually Stick To“. It’s worth reading of its own accord if you’ve got time.

And I’ll put my own take on those tips too:

  1. Make Them Urgent

You know you’re going to have to do that work. It won’t disappear if you ignore it. So set a deadline that works better for you. If you’ve got a quieter week next week, use it. Don’t wait for the official deadline when you’ve got another six pieces to submit…

You have to believe in your deadline, otherwise you’ll just ignore it. That’s why it’s easy for the advice to say “Make them urgent” and it’s harder to convince yourself of that.

My take: If you don’t take your own deadline seriously, you’re not taking the work seriously. Nobody is immune from procrastination, but some handle it better than others. If you slip at this hurdle, it’s time to admit that you need to have words with the little procrastination monster in your head.

I’ve got 10 ways to bypass procrastination. But if you want to understand loads more about the topic (and procrastinate even more!), Wait But Why has a great series of posts:

I said a procrastination monster. But yes, you may call it an instant gratification monkey. Each to their own. 😉

  1. Make Them Personal

“…consider whether focusing on the task in its entirety, piece-by-piece, or in relation to the rest of your projects will make you more likely to sit down and work on it.” – https://www.themuse.com/advice/4-better-ways-to-create-deadlines-that-youll-actually-stick-to

How you schedule your work is important.

Maybe it’s the task that feels scary. If so, break it down and work on little bits as you go along.

Maybe it’s the way you feel overwhelmed with juggling many deadlines at once. If so, work to your own deadlines rather than those imposed on you by others (see point 1).

Work out what’s stopping you from getting the work done and take action on that.

When it doesn’t feel personal, it can feel like an uncontrollable blob.

When you make it personal, you shape that blob into something cute and fluffy.

Something like that, anyway…

  1. Make Them Actionable

“If ‘finish report,’ will take all afternoon, ask yourself what you could do in 10-minutes: outline the first portion, design two or three slides, or edit what you’ve written so far?” https://www.themuse.com/advice/4-better-ways-to-create-deadlines-that-youll-actually-stick-to

In other words, get specific. Have quantifiable goals and explicit targets.

You can set a number of personal deadlines. A date for having made an outline, a date for a rough draft, a date for references, a date for editing, and so on.

If you start missing your own deadlines all over the place, that official deadline will feel even scarier. This may be enough to knock you into action, even if it’s mostly down to psychological unrest.

  1. Make Them Meaningful

The advice given is to make your goals known. Find a way to be accountable.

I have mixed feelings on this, although the tip to find meaning definitely stands. Without meaning, you’re nowhere.

But while some people thrive off having accountability buddies and promising the world that you’ll do something (or else!), other people become demotivated.

I recommend that you take Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies Quiz, to find out if you prefer to follow outer expectations or inner expectations.

Unless you’re a Rebel, you’ll probably find the best way to make meaning through your deadlines and promises.

And if you’re a Rebel (who resists outer AND inner expectations), Rubin says you may prefer to focus on the reasons why you want to hit that deadline, and even find ways of working that set you apart from what people usually do.

Deadlines can feel icky. Hopefully these tips from The Muse and my take on them will help them feel a bit more manageable from now on.

You may never manage to be deadline-free, but at least you can do it on your own terms now.

Next time, when you’ve finished an essay to your own deadlines, you can sit back and watch as others around you scramble around at the last minute.

But don’t be too harsh. Share this advice with them!

5 Ways to Get Around Essays Without An All-Nighter

Essays. They’re all about the numbers, right? Get that wordcount and you’re free.

writing essay

What would you do to get rid of an all-nighter, just before the assignment is due in?

Perhaps I can interest you in a few other methods…

Even paced

Deadlines are all different. You may have a week, a fortnight, a month, even the entire term before a piece of work is due in. Let’s say you have a couple of weeks from start to finish for a 2,000 word essay. You would need to write fewer than 150 words a day in order to get to the 2k mark.

Okay, you’ll need to leave time to edit and add more when you need to delete some of the less convincing stuff, but you only need to up your game to 200 words a day and you’ll have several days left to play with.

Quick first draft

This method isn’t given anything like the amount of love it should. When you’re set an assignment, it’s worth writing down what you can from the outset. You may get stuck at 100 words or you may cruise toward the limit. Whatever happens, you’ve started. Work from that place and it’s suddenly less daunting.

Outline in advance

It’s easy to lose track of all your amazing ideas. Start with a plan of what you want to say and the important points you need to get down in your essay.

Your plan can change later. The main reason for the outline is to give you a clear structure to work with. You won’t be left flapping about at the last minute, desperate to remember all the thoughts you had buzzing around your head when you were first given the assignment.

When it seems clear in your head, get those ideas down on paper so you don’t forget later.

Dictate

Gone are the days when you needed a dedicated dictaphone for a quick voice note. Now your phone will record stuff admirably (unless you’re producing broadcast stuff, of course).

Do you express yourself better when spoken out loud? Then start recording your voice! Speak your essay’s first draft and jot it down later. Even better, dictate it to a voice recognition tool that can print the text up on screen for you.

Whatever you can manage, chatter away about the topic and get that essay going now.

Quote first

I’ve never been a big fan of this one, but it might help you. When you’re stuck for ideas, grab some books on the subject you’re writing about and find some juicy quotations to work around. Let the work of others inspire you.

I’m not that keen on this approach because it may set you down a false trail or lead you to take on someone else’s ideas, rather than allowing you to form your own conclusions. There are dangers associated with this method.

Nevertheless, finding some great leads to use in an essay can be a step closer than simply doing some research before you get started. The very fact that you have some choice quotes typed up can form as a way to get words on the screen, stopping the scary blank white page. You may also stumble upon a theme or outline emerging from what you’ve found.

How do you get started on essays? Which approaches work for you?

Make Your Work Compelling

The difference between compulsory and compelling is huge.

Compulsory sounds negative. You must do something, whether you like it or not.

That’s enough to put you off most compulsory stuff. The psychology is all wrong.

Compelling sounds great. You must do something, because you’re excited to keep going. You’d hate to stop.

Zen at work

University involves a lot of work, so it helps when you want to do it. But when you have deadlines to fulfill and the need to submit thousands of words, it’s easy to switch your attention to what’s compulsory.

Do yourself a favour and concentrate on the reasons why you’re interested in your work. The more compelling you make it, the easier you’ll find the less savoury points.

Terry Anderson sees possibility in this through self-paced learning, especially through “sophisticated social networking contexts” that let students discover each other and interact in realtime as well as through past comments and artifacts from previous students on a course.

You may not have this luxury on your degree for most, if not all of your assignments. But there are other ways to turn your attitude from plodding to probing.

Regain Your Enthusiasm

  • Start with an interesting question – What makes you tick? What would you like to know? Where do you want to explore today?
    Thinking about word counts and submission dates will only fill your mind with stress points. Bring your focus to the assignment itself, not the logistics.
  • Don’t overthink it – Once you’ve asked interesting questions, keep working on them until you start to grow tired of it. When you feel things dragging, stop right there. Pack up. Do something else. Even the most fun activities get boring when you don’t stop. So learn to let go.
  • Team up with others – Deconstruct, discuss, debate. Five minutes may be all it takes to uncover talking points that get you enthused about the task at hand. Whether or not you like to work in a group, an academic chat can get the creative juices flowing. If you’d prefer to do the actual work on your own, that’s fine. Once the urge is there, your mission is to stay in the mood to work with a spring in your step.
  • Space things out – The nearer you get to the deadlines, the more you focus on the compulsory aspect of your work. You avoid this by starting early and doing the work bit by bit. Not too much in one go, and certainly not all at once at the last minute.
  • Make it a habit – The longer you procrastinate, the more likely you’ll see the compulsory over the compelling. As well as spacing things out, as I mention above, find ways to develop habits to ease into the work. Habits can be different for everyone and is enough to be the subject of many texts, including Charles Duhigg’s recent book, The Power of Habit.
    Duhigg says that you should identify current routines for habits you would like to change. What is the cue that leads to your habit taking over? Next, choose different outcomes (it doesn’t really matter what they are) to work out what cravings are truly driving the routine. Then isolate the cue. Are you reacting to your location, the time of day, how you feel, what happened just beforehand? In time, you’ll find a pattern will emerge. Finally, have a plan. Commit to a new habit that you feel is better placed for what you want to change. From first-hand experience, Duhigg found embedding a new habit to be a challenge, but it was worth persevering.

Let the subject excite you and stop the admin from getting you down. So much of the change from compulsory to compelling is in the attitude. Set things up for an activity you don’t want to stop doing. And when you do stop, you’ll miss it.

That will make a change from never wanting to see it again, eh?