Sunday, 9 March 2014


I like lists.  I'm especially reminded of this when I try grocery shopping without one, and end up with a trolley full of impulse buys and forgetting the one thing I actually really needed.

I like them too when I'm studying.  Faced with a large assignment that seems too big, too imposing, too filled with "where do I start?" panic, I write a list.  I break the assignment down into as many small steps as I can, and list them all out:

  1. Re-read chapter in textbook.
  2. Write down main points from chapter.
  3. Work out keywords for library database search.
  4. Search library database for relevant articles.
  5. Download or print out 5 most useful looking articles.
  6. Read first article.
  7. Write notes on first article.
  8. ... and so on.
Suddenly, instead of one huge unmanageable task, I've got lots of little ones that I know I can handle, and the whole thing seems so much easier.  Now all I have to do is work my way through the list one step at a time, and I'll get the job done.

And I can use my list to plan out my time too, working out how long each step will take me and dividing them up between the days I've got until the assignment is due.  So I can be realistic right from the start about how much effort I'll need to put in, and not be tempted into thinking I can start working on a 5,000 word essay the weekend before it's due. 

But my favourite thing about lists?  Crossing stuff off.  There's just something so satisfying about finishing a step and getting to cross it off your list, knowing that part's done and you can move on to the next, seeing the list of things to do gradually shorten as the crossed-off part grows.  When you're tackling the sort of large project where a huge amount of work is needed before you can even start any writing, it's a nice way to see that you're actually making progress.  And for the boring or difficult bits, you can cross them out in your thickest, darkest pen, obliterating them from your life forever - and that's got to feel good!

Do you use lists to help you with your study? How do you cope when faced with a big assignment? Let me know in the comments below.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

A Change of Environment

The new semester started this week, which means I'm back to juggling work and study after my year off.  And I'm feeling very much thrown in the deep end, with already a pile of reading to be done, and a couple of reports to write, and I'm desperately trying to remember how on earth I used to manage to fit all this in around full time work.

Part of the answer of course is about setting up good habits and routines (which I've talked about before).  And I will, over the next few weeks, get myself back into the rhythm of studying and of organising the rest of my life around fitting it in.  And as always, I'll resign myself to having no life until the semester is over.  I'll work it out.

But today, with all that work to be done, and very aware that this was my only free day for uninterrupted study, I just couldn't settle down to it.  I'd made sure the house was clean and tidy (I can't think straight when there's a mess around me), had a quiet and comfortable (but not too comfortable) spot to work in, removed all distractions, and otherwise made everything as conducive to study as possible, but despite all that, for some reason I just couldn't concentrate.  I'd read a sentence or two of a paper and then my mind would start to wander, or I'd suddenly want a glass of water, or to open the window because it was too warm, or to find a jumper to put on because now it was too cold, or to go to the toilet because of all those glasses of water, or... yeah, you get the idea.

So rather than waste my time struggling on unsuccessfully (and with no time to just give up and try again later), I completely changed my environment.  I packed up my books, walked over to a nearby cafe, ordered lunch, and settled back down to my reading.  And spent a very constructive three hours there, during which time I totally broke the back of the work I needed to get done.

Yes, it was noisier there than it would have been at home, but none of it was noise I needed to pay attention to, so it didn't distract me.  And yes, juggling reading material, notes, and my lunch on a small cafe table was a bit more awkward than using the wide expanse of desk I've got at home, but that just meant I had to focus more closely.  Or maybe it was just the fresh air and exercise I got walking over there that helped. Whatever, it worked for me.

Now I'm not saying you should do all your studying in cafes.  I'm not even saying that's where I'm going to be spending much time.  But on this particular day, in that particular mood, that was the right environment for me to be in, not my theoretically perfect study space at home.  And that's worth remembering - that on those days when it's just not clicking for you, sometimes a change of environment is all you need to get yourself back into the right mental space for study.  Give it a try sometime!