Effective management of study hours is a pending issue for many university students. In addition to its impact on grades, it helps prevent stress and anxiety
There is no more effective way to see how powerful your imagination can be than to sit down one afternoon to study. It is standing in front of a book or some notes and the excuses to get up from the chair multiply: I am going to stretch my legs to clear my head, I have to answer that urgent WhatsApp message that they just sent me, a look at Instagram does not It doesn’t hurt anyone… But the advent of the exam is as inevitable as that feeling of overwhelm and lack of control that grows as the date approaches. Effectively managing study time is a pending issue for many students, especially at university. But it is also the perfect formula to prevent stress and anxiety before exams , without forgetting the direct impact it has on grades.
And although the world sometimes seems to be full of procrastinators capable of getting an A with a few hours of study the night before, the reality is very different. «The key variable of academic results is the sum of the number of hours that one dedicates to study and the set of activities that accompany that study time», enumerates Francisco Pérez González, professor of Evolutionary and Educational Psychology at the University of Valencia (UV).
The recipe seems simple:
sink your elbows for hours and do it in such a way that this time becomes effective learning and not minutes lost in front of the book. But in between classes, the mobile, the afternoons lost in an infinity “in five minutes I’ll get on” and that list of what experts call distractors or time thieves sneak in. That is when the feeling of not reaching everything appears. “University is the first stage in which you set your time and your agenda”, explains Modesta Pousada, professor of Psychology and Educational Sciences Studies at the Open University of Catalonia (UOC). “Students are usually aware of how important it is to learn to manage their time, but they don’t know how to put it into action”.
Getting organized to get to everything and get there well requires a thorough reflection of how you use your time, planning well in advance and a commitment to oneself to fulfill what was promised. The good news: like any habit, it can be learned, polished and maintained over time. The bad: there are no magic formulas or shortcuts. But it is possible to follow this process in five steps to achieve it.
1. Start planning as soon as possible
If you don’t get your planner out until the quarter is over, you probably have a problem. Although it is usual to start organizing the study when the exams begin to appear on the horizon, it is advisable to worry about it much earlier. And here, it’s never too early. If you organize yourself from the first day of the semester or the course, much better. “That is when we have the opportunity to intervene and improve the use we make of our time,” says Pérez González.
Planning from day one is also important because of what psychologists call distributed practice. «Studies on the functioning of our memory show that dividing study time into shorter sessions and longer sessions over time increases performance,» says Pousada. In other words, if you plan to spend 10 hours preparing for an exam, it is much more effective to spend two hours each day for a week than to concentrate on two five-hour sessions the weekend before.
2. Analyze how you use your time (and what you waste it on)
To learn how to take advantage of time, we must first know what we invest it in (or where we lose it). “Time management is an awareness of the reality that I have in my hands”, summarizes Noemí Merchán, coach and talent expert who has just given a workshop on this subject at the Carlos III University of Madrid . There, she asked the students to calculate how many minutes that they could have dedicated to studying ended up disappearing down the drain from unimportant activities (answering WhatsApp, watching Netflix for the umpteenth time in search of a series to watch…). The answer? Hour and half. Every day.
With the students who arrive at his office, Francisco Pérez González puts into practice a similar tactic. He asks them to write down all the things they do for one or two weeks so that they can analyze how they distribute their time. “From this monitoring, one can be aware of everything he does in a day, beyond the study. Then, when managing and planning, you have to consider all those activities.”
This initial analysis also serves to identify all those time thieves and eliminate them or reduce their impact as much as possible. And if we go down to detail, mobile and Instagram. «Also the last minute plans and the lack of an agenda, not having a specific plan and going adrift,» explains Merchán. “That ‘after eating, yes, I’ll wear’. If you have to study and you never do it, that’s a bomb idea that machine-guns your head”.
3. Set goals and learn to differentiate what is urgent from what is important
Spending hours in front of the book or browsing between pending assignments for an entire afternoon is of little use if you have not set a goal beforehand. “We must stop looking at how long I study and focus on what the results are and the objective of that time that you are going to dedicate to studying,” says Elena López Cobeñas, professor of Psychology of Educational Intervention at Camilo José Cela University . (UCJC).
Before starting each study or work session, ask yourself what you want to achieve when you finish: advance two topics? Find all the documentation you need? The objective must be concrete and attainable, since if it is too ambitious it will end up generating frustration. And if the planning is being done in the long term (an end-of-degree project or preparing a subject from the beginning of the semester), Modesta Pousada, from the UOC, recommends defining simple milestones along the way and expanding on them. “A small milestone could be that, during the next month, you are going to leave your cell phone in another room when you start studying,” she exemplifies. “When you get it, you can set a more ambitious goal: besides, I’m going to plan to study for an hour every day. If I set small goals that I can achieve,
Knowing how to prioritize pending tasks is another important point when setting goals. Here it is essential to learn to distinguish what is urgent from what is important, two concepts that do not always go hand in hand and that can cause too much time to be spent on tasks that are not very relevant. University students often have problems navigating this distinction, especially since the subjects are usually accompanied, in addition to the final exam, by assignments and practices that they have to deliver throughout the semester. “They feel that they have to hand in a lot of work and that this reduces study time. They are not capable of making the transfer that work is a way to internalize knowledge”, explains López Cobeñas.
4. Plan with paper and watch
All those goals and to-do lists, well prioritized, have to be reflected in a plan. And the mental speculations that on Monday I study for a while and on Tuesday I finish that pending practice are worthless. You have to take out paper and a watch to paint the month, the week and the day and place the tasks in each hole, with an assigned time. «If you don’t put an expiration date on a task, your mind seeks to postpone it,» explains López Cobeñas. It’s about spending some time planning and then earning it. «In an hour of planning we save between three and four hours of management,» says María Jesús Martínez Silvente, director of students at the University of Malaga , which organized its first time management course last October .
There are two levels of planning, according to Francisco Pérez González, from the UV. And the two act in parallel. On the one hand, long-term organization. “It is a window open over an extended period, such as a course or a semester, in which you have to place all those activities that are already known from the beginning of the course: beginning and end of the semester, exam dates…” says the teacher. On the other hand, weekly and daily planning. It is carried out based on the initial analysis and distinguishing between two types of obligations: the fixed ones (classes, sports, appointments or commitments…) and the flexible ones, which can increase or decrease depending on the time available (the time dedicated to studying, meeting friends, to do housework…). “This planning is reviewed to gradually generate the habit.
5. Do not forget about rest
Just as important as reserving time for studying is planning the moments of rest . During work sessions and outside of them, to balance study with other activities: sports, leisure… Experts recommend avoiding marathon days and binge eating. “Studying requires being focused and attentive. We are not capable of being like this in a sustained and infinite way over time”, explains Modesta Pousada, from the UOC, who recommends planning 45-minute sessions with 15-minute breaks in between. «Breaks also help to be flexible because plans always have to be changed on the fly, but incorporating an unforeseen event into something that is already scheduled is easier,» she adds.
Elena López Cobeñas, from UCJC, even recommends reserving a whole week at Christmas for rest, despite the fact that this is usually the time to press the accelerator before exams. “If you program your mind knowing that you are going to have a few days off, when you return to the studio you do it from another perspective,” she explains. “The bottom line, though, is to instill in students that they can’t say, ‘I don’t have time.’ That cannot be an answer because there is room for everything”.