outline

Outlines Are Not All Equal

A short essay is not the same as a long essay. A presentation is different too. So is a dissertation.

That means your preparations need to vary. How you approach each assignment is important.

Outlines are a great way to build an idea of what you want to produce. Here are some brief notes on how your outlines could differ, depending on which type of coursework you are working on.

(photo by anselm23)

Post-It Outline. One way to prepare that essay. (photo by anselm23)

Short essay

Start with bullet points of the major arguments you wish to make. If you have too many ideas, either condense them into themes or brutally remove all but the very best. Your main tasks are a clear focus and awareness of key points.

Be aware of brevity needed in such a short space and plan accordingly. There’s no need to outline with the aim to cover every possible base. Highlight your most important areas with one or two clear examples.

Work from there and continue working concisely and to the point. When you’re getting too detailed, it’s time to scale back.

Long essay

This essay contains more room to explore. Most essays tend to come under the ‘long’ description, so stay focused. It’s easy to ramble and move away from the question under discussion.

An outline allows you to stay on track and on message.

Ensure each bullet point you make is related to addressing the question. At each stage of the outlining, refer back to the question.

For every major argument you wish to tackle, give sub-headings that relate to proof, examples, counter-arguments (and how you’re dealing with them), quotations and references, and key descriptions of topics and themes.

Presentation

You’re dealing with more than text here. You’ve got your voice, use of technology and slides, interacting with an audience, and so on.

In terms of outline, you need to prepare for all these things. That means a sharp eye on admin and peripheral issues. Your initial outline must cover use of equipment, size and layout of room, handouts, software use, Internet availability, and so on. While none of this is about your actual subject, it’s all relevant to the way you’re conducting yourself. Best assess the situation early, rather than five minutes before you’re due on stage!

As for content, think like you should a short essay. Your main aim is usually to highlight major arguments and workings as effectively as possible. Alternatively, you might be discussing an experiment or some findings you’ve made. All these examples require bold points and clear detail.

If you need a vague outline to play with, pick a start, middle and ending. In other words, introduce, elaborate (tell stories), and conclude. You may also like to quote something in keeping with your presentation at the beginning in order to set the scene.

Dissertation

Assuming you have agreed a dissertation topic, the most important initial outline is the structure. In what order will you present the themes and arguments? Work out the flow of the dissertation before anything else. Each part should follow on from what has come beforehand.

Spend considerable time outlining for your dissertation. It’s worthy of a post in itself, because a dissertation outline is far more detailed than that of a single essay.

Thankfully, in finding a topic, you should have developed some form of basic outline as part of the process.

Practical work & experiments

First off, develop a plan of action and a rough order of play. What needs doing, how should you prepare, and why are you doing this?

Next, explain what comes afterwards and what you’re going to do with your results and outcomes. If you are being assessed for a written element of this work, make another outline plan for that subsequent assignment.

Seminars & weekly reading

Advance outlines work for some students. Think of it like a timetable without rigid times. The timetabling aspect can come later. What matters in your outline is getting to grips with what you want to know at the end of your week, the books and papers you have earmarked, the questions you want to cover before, during and after seminar sessions, and any problems you may encounter.

You may have a better way to prepare for your regular work. If so, great. If not, see if an outline helps get you closer to the work at hand.

For some, a list is enough. For others, a strict timetable is required. Whatever the case, you can outline anything, so give it a go no matter how small your project is.

Are you a keen outliner? Share your outlining tips in the comments below.

How You Can Do What You Keep Putting Off

Ah, distractions!

Distractions are a lovely way to do anything other than what you should be doing.

Distractions are plentiful and a recipe for forgetting. You have an ever-expanding list of things that are hard to resist. Then you have Facebook and Twitter (and the rest!) all bringing a steady stream (or a heavy flow, perhaps even a tsunami) of tidbits that can take you to every destination imaginable, and from every direction you care to come from.

Why is it so difficult to get rid of distraction and stop procrastinating?

  • Fear of missing out;
  • Everyone else doing it;
  • No natural end;
  • It feeds your pleasure centres in the brain;
  • It can *feel* useful, even when that’s an excuse.

Sid Savara’s procrastination survey shows that, overwhelmingly, people just don’t feel like doing the things they’re meant to be doing. They put it off because they *want* to put it off.

What can you do to stop this spiral from going further and further out of control?

photo by Bernat Casero

Tick, tock, putting it off… (photo by Bernat Casero)

Set an incredibly short amount of time

Ten or fifteen minutes should do it. Push yourself for just that amount of time and see how you feel. You may be happy to continue after that set time.

Switch off notifications

A beep or a screen notification will stop you from what you’re doing, whether you like it or not. No matter how much you tell yourself to ignore it, you’ve already been alerted to it. The temptation is there, itching away at you at exactly the wrong time. Switch those messages off!

Mindmap

Starting is easier when you have a better overview of what you want to achieve. A mindmap will let you consider ideas and links with ease. It may be what you need to conquer your procrastination. I recently gave mindmapping software, Mindmaple Lite a whirl. It’s free and it’s easy to use, so you can concentrate more on the mindmap than the software.

Outline

If mindmapping isn’t your thing, how about a brief outline of what you want to achieve? Build up your sections and sub-sections to break down your research and writing into smaller tasks. I recently discovered Quicklyst as an online way to create outlines.

Act like it’s a blog post

The pressure of writing an academic essay can lead to procrastination. So treat the writing more casually. A recent post on Lifehack explained that 1,000 words doesn’t have to take a lot of time when you work in the right order.

Try writing a snappy title or headline if the essay question is getting in the way (making sure that you’re still trying to answer the same question!). Then, see if you can rattle off a quick introduction and conclusion to help your own mindset (you may wish to rewrite later, so this is just for you right now). Then make a quick outline of the major points you want to cover throughout the essay. After this, fill in the gaps. Do this with a timer if you prefer, so you challenge yourself to get the bulk written quickly, rather than worrying over every last word and detail. Edit and re-draft later.

Go somewhere different

Location makes a huge difference to your productivity, your attitude, and your outlook. Find places you’ve not been to before and explore where it takes your mind, not just your body.

Watch an inspiring talk or presentation

Find a TED talk and watch it. You’ll be procrastinating (win), and you’ll feed yourself some brain-food that’ll get you more psyched up for work (win).

Well, so long as you don’t just keep watching more TED talks…

Understand what’s stopping you

Okay, so you want to put this off. But why? What is the real reason for your procrastination? Be honest. Are you not interested in the topic itself? Do you have difficulty understanding the subject (time to fire up Wikipedia for the basics)? Have you got loads of friends tempting you away for fun?

If you don’t work out why you’re putting the work off, you’ll keep on putting it off!

Stop expecting perfect

Perfectionism is a recipe for procrastination. When you picture the most amazing coursework to have ever graced this earth, everything you do will be a disappointment. After a while, you’ll feel inadequate and start putting off the work instead of cracking on.

Nothing is perfect. And your first drafts are certainly not meant to be anything other than, well, first drafts. Successful writers almost never finish on their first attempt. They redraft, they edit, they get opinions from others. If established writers need to do this, you can stop beating yourself up over flaws. Even a First Class essay has flaws!

 Believe that you can keep learning

As a child, I was told that I was ‘good at maths’. Children tend to believe what they are told. So I went through school believing I had a good grasp of maths. That was fine for a while, but when new concepts arrived that I didn’t understand, I started to think I wasn’t good at maths any more. I guessed I wasn’t as smart as some people had made out.

The concept of ‘smart’ and ‘clever’ is flawed. Turn the perspective around. We all have to learn. Nobody is born with great wisdom and knowledge. What matters is a willingness to keep learning new things and stop worrying that you’re not ‘smart’ enough.

Don’t discount the future

According to one paper about procrastination:

“…the value of socializing in the present is weighed heavily while the value of getting good grades in the future is discounted. This quirk leads to delays in studying for tests, writing term papers and getting prepared for weekly assignments. As can be expected, students who procrastinate generally discounted future values greater than students who don’t procrastinate.”

The future seems a long way away. No wonder it feels easy to put tomorrow to one side. But the future soon becomes the present and it’ll bite you on the bum if you don’t deal with it in good time.

Forgive yourself

We all fall down from time to time. The occasional lapse is allowed. It’s not uncommon to put something off for ten minutes and then find you’ve put it off for ten days.

So long as this doesn’t happen all the time, you can let yourself off the hook. You’ll probably procrastinate less on the next task if you forgive yourself.

Procrastination can happen when you suffer a delay beyond your control, like when you’re waiting on a crucial library book to be available. Even then, you can find ways to move beyond the initial setback. Sometimes you do just have to wait. That gives you time to spend on other stuff anyway! ­čśë

How will you keep the procrastination beast at bay today?