Maximizing our Time: Tips for Students and Faculty
Posted February 28, 2018
By Rodney Schmaltz
It’s almost that time of year again…midterms are here, assignments are due, and students are panicking. In fact, based on the literature, the majority of students are not as prepared as they would like to be. Nearly 70% of students report that procrastination is a problem, with a meager 4% reporting that it is not an issue (Schowenburg et al., 2004). As instructors, we’ve all experienced the frustration of telling students to start studying early, to avoid cramming, and to schedule properly. While these are all sound pieces of advice, I wonder how many academics actually follow them? Perhaps part of the reason that students do not use their time effectively is that they have poor role models – their instructors! Academics are known to struggle with many of the same issues as students. For most of us, there is always that manuscript that can wait another day, or the research project that will get off the ground as soon as there is enough time. It’s not surprising that a small number of academics account for the majority of published work (Boice, 2000). What makes these academics different?
To help both students and faculty, I recommend following the guidance of Robert Boice. Boice studied academics and was interested in what separated those who were productive from those who were not. While his work focused on college and university faculty, there are aspects of his rules that are beneficial to students. I initially incorporated these rules into a lecture at the beginning of term for students in my advanced level courses. I realized though, that students benefit from receiving this information earlier in their studies. As such, my introductory classes now receive a similar lecture. Here is an adapted version of the key rules that I discuss with students.
Rule 1: Wait.
Boice (2000) found that people who managed their time well did not jump into work. This may seem counterintuitive to anyone who has a busy schedule. Often we feel like we are running from one task to the next. By “waiting”, Boice recommends taking a few moments and gathering your thoughts or meditating before starting work. One way to think about this is to consider what you do when you start your work day. Do you turn on the computer and jump straight to email? Does the day begin rushing into the classroom? If that sounds like you, consider taking a few moments before beginning a task and relaxing, while deciding how best to spend the next block of your time. Even as little time as a few minutes to gather and compose your thoughts can be valuable. The mindset of someone who has taken a few minutes to relax and reflect is much different than a person who rushes into work in a panic. The quality of the work will very likely be higher, and the task will be less stressful. This applies to students. Before a study session or work on a paper, I tell students to take two minutes to take a few deep breaths, consider exactly what they want to get done with the time they have allotted to study, and then to begin the work. A student who rushes into a study session worried about all the material that has to be covered will have a much different experience than a student who relaxes, decides what needs to be done, and approaches the material in a calm and focused manner.
Rule 2: Work in Brief Daily Sessions.
Boice was a strong advocate of starting tasks well in advance of deadlines and working in brief daily sessions. It’s well established that binge working is a poor strategy (e.g., Boice, 1989). In fact, Boice (1997) found that binge working is associated with poor health, lowered creativity, and leads to more binge working. By starting tasks early, and in regularly schedule intervals, there is time to reflect on the nature of the task and a reduction in stress. One reason that both students and faculty do not start early is that they do not feel prepared to begin. The reality is that with a difficult task, we rarely will ever feel ready to begin. By this, I mean that if we feel completely prepared to begin a task, it’s likely not one that we consider difficult!
By forcing ourselves to start early, we allow ourselves the flexibility to determine the best approach and have time to consider alternatives. When I discuss this idea in my courses, there is near unanimity among students that this is a good idea. However, when I ask the class a week later if anyone has actually implemented this strategy, the number of students who have started to work in brief, regular sessions is usually zero. To combat this, after I lecture on the value of this approach, I provide students with a handout of a weekly calendar. I ask them to cross out all of the times they know they are busy, such as scheduled classes. I then instruct them to schedule the brief, daily sessions. To help reinforce this, I have students share with each other in small groups when they are going to complete their brief, daily sessions, and on what assignment or task they will be working on. The addition of these social contingencies seems to help, as students start talking about who has maintained their schedule.
Rule 3: Know When to Stop.By knowing when to stop, we can refer to two things. One is the idea that we should recognize when we are no longer productive and either take a break at this point or move to a different task. The other, and perhaps more important idea, is that we need to stop and allow ourselves enough time to prepare for future important tasks. William James, who published over 54, 000 pages during his lifetime (clearly a busy fellow), would stop what he was doing ten minutes before any class that he was teaching. He would use this time to go for a quick walk, clear his mind, and focus on the material and task ahead. Compare entering the classroom with this mindset versus a professor who works until the last minute before class, runs to make it to class on time, and jumps into the lecture material. Who is going to give the better presentation? On top of this, students pick up on the hurried pace of the instructor and can sense the anxiety.
This advice applies to students as well, and ties back to the first point of waiting. Before beginning an intense study session, students may want to consider taking a brief walk, or some other activity to clear their minds and prepare for the task ahead.* That is, they need to stop what they are doing and give themselves enough time to adequately prepare for the next task at hand.
(*I advise against staring at a computer screen. It can be more beneficial to get some fresh air, or even just walk around campus (e.g., Passmore & Holder, 2016).
Rule 4: Moderate Overreaction and Overattachment.
It is difficult to deal with criticism. Boice found that people who are successful are able to take criticism and find value in it. As academics, we receive our fair share of criticism through rejected manuscripts or less than enthusiastic student evaluations. Students receive a stream of criticism through incorrect exam answers, feedback on papers, and grades in general. As instructors, we’ve all encountered students who come to our office hours angry with the amount of red ink on a paper they have written. I always sympathize with students in this situation, as in general, we are not trained on how best to receive criticism. Students do not realize the amount of work that goes into grading a paper and providing feedback, and that the reason we do this is to help them improve. I begin many of my courses by explaining the value of criticism to students, and importantly, what to do with criticism. Nearly all criticism can be of value. Rather than being threatened by criticism, students should look over feedback, and decide how best to use this feedback to improve. This is a valuable skill. As students enter the workforce or graduate school, they will continue to receive criticism. Those that can take this information and use it to their advantage will be more successful.
Boice states that if there is an overarching theme to what he has found, it can be stated as ‘nihil nimus’, roughly translated as “everything in moderation”. By easing into work, scheduling brief, daily sessions, knowing when to stop, and moderating emotions, both faculty and students are going to be more productive and less stressed. I’ve only covered a small sample of the rules that Boice found. I strongly recommend that faculty look at Boice’s book, “Advice for New Faculty Members” (2000). As the title implies, this book is a great resource for new faculty, though I argue that his findings apply to anyone in academia who feel that they are not maximizing their time. As faculty, let’s lead by example, by teaching as well as demonstrating how to manage our time effectively.
Rodney Schmaltz is an Associate Professor of Psychology at MacEwan University. His research focuses on pseudoscientific thinking, with an emphasis on strategies to promote and teach scientific skepticism.
Boice, R. (1989). Procrastination, busyness and bingeing. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 27(6), 605–611.
Boice, R. (1997). Which is more productive, writing in binge patterns of creative illness or in moderation? Written Communication, 14(4), 435–459.
Boice, R. (2000). Advice for new faculty members: Nihil Nimus. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Passmore, H.-A., & Holder, M. D. (2017). Noticing nature: Individual and social benefits of a two-week intervention. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1–10. http://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2016.1221126
Schouwenburg, H. C., Lay, C. H., Pychyl, T. A., & Ferrari, J. R. (Eds.). (2004). Counseling the procrastinator in academic settings. (pp. xiii, 250–xiii, 250). Washington: American Psychological Association. http://doi.org/10.1037/10808-000