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Avoiding distractions and staying motivated

This guide is about dealing with the things that distract you from study. It includes advice on:

Printable version of this guide (this is designed to be printed double-sided on A4 paper, then folded to make an A5 leaflet).

What makes it difficult to manage your time?

"I know what to do, but I can't make myself do it…."

Many of the strategies needed to get time under control are obvious: for instance, making a timetable. So why don't we do them?

"All my deadlines are at the same time – why can't the tutors spread them out?" – So take control yourself - set your own early deadlines to spread work out.

"I'm just naturally disorganised – I always have been!" - It's a fallacy that organisation is an innate skill. It's just a set of practices that can be learned.

"My friends / family / teammates rely on me to get things done – who will do it if I don't?" – Perhaps someone else would like to try? Maybe they've never been asked?

"It's so much easier to waste time than to use it for study." – It's not so easy when you end up with two days to research and write three essays.

In the end, the only person responsible for managing your time is you. Setting targets, avoiding distractions and learning to say no will help you to do this.

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Thinking about goals and setting targets

You're much more likely to stay motivated if you break your work down into realistic and manageable chunks and work through it one thing at a time. One way to accomplish this is called the Pomodoro technique: using a 'tomato timer', you work for a maximum of 25 minutes at a time, then take a break. If you break down your work into things you want to achieve within 25 minutes, then you can use the timer to give you a target to aim at.   

It's also important to have a clear view of what you're trying to achieve and why. The fact that you're reading this page means that you want to know more about managing your time when studying, so you are already taking responsibility. The next step is to think about why it would be a good thing to do this: what is it all leading up to? Identifying your goals and the rewards you hope to get in the future will help to motivate you to commit yourself to studying now.

What are your goals and targets?

Draw up a table with three columns. List long-term goals in the first; what you have to do to achieve them (i.e. medium-term goals) in the second, and short-term targets to aim for in the third. Put it somewhere prominent - on the wall in your room, the inside of your wardrobe door, above the kettle. Tick each off as they're completed.

Your long-term goals might be things like:

- Become a graduate

- Make myself more employable

- Get a job doing something I enjoy

- Prove to myself (and others) that I can do this

To do these, you have to achieve some medium term goals:

- Improve my study practices to get better marks

- Get my work under control so I feel less stressed

- Make a study timetable that works so I can balance my work/life commitments better

- Meet my assignment deadlines so I don't fail my module

You can break these down again into short-term targets:

- Learn how to plan my essays; arrange session with a Study Adviser.

- Make a list of everything I need to do; think about what I could leave out; prioritise what's left.

- Print off a week planner grid and write in my commitments; book my study periods into the gaps; try it for a week, amend if necessary.

- Get organised earlier; list all my deadline dates and set some artificial deadlines if necessary; list tasks needed, and when I need to start; tick each task off as I do them.

Not everything works for everyone – see a Study Adviser if you want to talk through your ideas for short term goals.

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Dealing with distractions

It can be difficult to focus on studying when your mobile's ringing, new emails keep popping up, the washing-up needs doing and your friend wants you to go for coffee. On top of that, you found a really interesting website while researching your assignment…

If you make yourself aware of the things that distract you from studying you can think in advance about strategies to deal with them. Use the time-use diary technique to see what is really soaking up your time. Then decide how to manage them. For instance:

  • Stay focused on reading by thinking about the questions you need answers to (e.g. "What are the main points of/objections to this theory?") and looking for answers. Break down reading to one paragraph at a time, and write any notes at the end of each.
  • If you find yourself spending a lot of time on a particular website, use a website-blocking application like LeechBlock or SelfControl to control the time you spend on it without blocking it altogether. 
  • You won't be motivated if you feel like you're studying all the time. Fix times when you won't study and set an alarm for the end of each study or leisure period to remind you to stop and change mode.
  • If your friends keep interrupting you, set a definite time and place to have a break and go for coffee together.
  • Put the voicemail on and fix times when you will return phone calls or read and answer emails.
  • Disable the pop-up alert on your email so you're not tempted to read them as they arrive. Alternatively, if you don't have the alert enabled and that means that you keep checking, try switching it on to see if that makes you more focused on the task at hand.
  • Some people prefer to do chores like washing-up and shopping first thing in the morning so they have a clear day ahead. If you do this, have a fixed 'finish time' so they don't spread out to fill the whole morning. Better still, keep chores for your worst time of day for thinking – after lunch for most people. Use your best thinking time for studying.

Here's a great visual map of how to deal with distractions.

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Learning to say no

You've planned your termly and weekly schedules; you're working as effectively as you possibly can; you've found ways of dealing with the things that distract you - but you still don't have enough time! Maybe you're just trying to do too much. Learn to say no…

University study is a significant commitment, like doing a full-time job – you know how hard you're working. If you feel that you have to take on extra tasks to prove that you're doing something useful, you're tacitly agreeing with the people who think that you're "only a student".

Value yourself and value your studies. You only have a short time at university, and you've worked hard to get here. You deserve to give yourself the time to do your best.

Remember:

  • You're not expected to read everything on the reading list.
  • If you don't organise the social / game / party, it will probably still happen. And if it doesn't, the world won't stop.
  • If it needed an immediate answer, it probably wouldn't be on email.
  • A real friend won't mind waiting a bit longer to chat.
  • If you're trying to mix study with commitments you really can't say no to, like organising a family, caring for an elderly relative, and doing paid work, you will be overwhelmed. So ask for help.
  • However - don't forget that an un-vacuumed floor doesn't make you a bad person!

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For more advice on managing your time, see...

Getting organised

Making more hours in a day

Time Management for University Students (LearnHigher)

How to beat procrastination - quite long and detailed explanation of why strategies for beating procrastination work, explained in an engaging and lively way.

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