Productivity Rules for Students : How to get Better Grades While Working Less

The goal of this productivity article is to teach you how to manage your time, meaning how to prioritize and build attainable goals as a student. In order to turn you into war machines of efficiency, you should first of get rid of two demons: procrastination and akrasia.

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You may be more familiar with the first than the second. If that’s not the case, here is the definition according to the Larousse dictionary : « Procrastination: feminine noun (Latin procrastinatio) Pathological tendency to differ, to postpone an action to the next day. ». Have you heard of that?

Everyone has experimented with this phenomena when there are countless valid reasons to postpone doing this important task. But if procrastination intervenes when you have decided to work on a task, akrasia, the second demon, is even more deceitful. Akrasia is a Greek word for «  the weakness of willpower » and more precisely, the fact of doing nothing when you know perfectly well what would be best for you.

A example? You know that cigarettes are bad for you, but that won’t make you quit. Or, you are exhausted at the end of your day and need sleep, but you will spend two hours on your phone and go to bed at midnight. You know you shouldn’t do it for your own good, but you can’t help it. There, you can put a name on this phenomena, it’s Akrasia.

Rest assured, this problem is an ancient one Aristotle, Socrates or Plato already debated about during Antiquity. But that doesn’t make it an excuse. The goal of this article is to help you get rid of these two drags, and increase your capacity to manage the work you have to do quickly and effectively.

Student Productivity Tip #1 : The Not To List 

As we’ve just seen, the worst thing you can do when you have a math problem to solve for the next day is to start playing on the computer, watch reality TV shows or texting your crush.

In order to definitely kill Mr. Procrastination and Mrs. Akrasia from your habits, take a piece of paper, and write down all the things you SHOULD NOT DO . It’s the same principle as a « to do  list », but with the ones you should stop doing in order to regain productivity. Be honest with yourself and don’t forget any of your little habits or things that could distract you. Done? Are you ready? Let’s get to the next step.

Student Productivity Tip #2 : Time Management 

You have ten hours to write an essay. Do you really think you will write continuously for ten hours non-stop?

Certainly not. According to Wilfredo Pareto ( Italian economist ), you will actually use 20% of your time to accomplish 80% of your work. That’s to say two hours to white your essay. The rest of this time could have been spent on doing something else.

This is what we call the principle of Pareto. It is the fundamental concept that we find in all books about productivity. It involves that 20% of the causes lead to 80% of the consequences while 80% of causes only create 20% of consequences.

So, you should focus on the 20% of causes that have the most impact. What exercise has the best hourly productivity, which question gives the most point during an exam etc. You need to identify them, complete them, even if this means giving up on the others. If a few tasks allow you to have 80% of the grade out of 20, you simply need to do that and set aside the rest in order to have a good grade.

Subject by subject, exam by exam, I advise you to identify a principle of Pareto. A good way of understand what are the triggers to productivity is to ask people who have been there before you. The best way to know how to have a good grade at the baccalaureate or to pass the first year of medical school is to ask a person who has succeeded to give you their « secrets ». Don’t underestimate how much these tricks are kept secret!

You aren’t convinced by the Pareto principle? You should then associate the principle of Parkinson (1909-1993) to it. This American work psychologist had a theory according to which, the more time we have to do something, the more time if will take to accomplish it. Our mental representation is taken into account here. For certain unpleasant tasks, minutes feel like hours. Another reason to spend as little time as possible on them.

To summarize the principle of Parkinson, if you give yourself an hour for a task, you will do it in an hour. But if you give yourself 30 minutes, you will do it in 30 minutes.

You don’t believe me? Try it and you will quickly be convinced!

By putting together the principles of Pareto and Parkinson, either by reducing the time you give yourself to accomplish a task and being convinced that this period of time will be enough,  you will be much more efficient.

If you are incapable of reducing your working time alone, a few techniques can be helpful:

  • Work without your computer charger. Providing that you save your work regularly, you will be forced o accomplish your task before your computer dies.
  • Force yourself to change your workplace during the day. Change your workplace every two hours and give yourself specific tasks to accomplish during those periods.
  • Stop working late in the evening or at night. Stop working after 9pm for example, after that you won’t be productive and being slow will only stress you more.

This method of optimizing your time should of course be prepared before your work. You cannot wait until 11.30PM on a Sunday night to start your essay. Similarly, try to be selective with the information given in class, 80% of it is not crucial and you will not use it. Though they are theoretical, these two principles have the advantage of giving you time for activities that seem more pleasant to you.

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Student Productivity Tip #3 : Managing Priorities 

Every morning you wake up thinking about the ton of things you have to do during your day. And every night you go to bed with an even longer list of things than the day before… Stop!

In order to be really efficient, you must sort your priorities, learn how to define what is really urgent and what can wait for a few days. To do so, there is an easy method by Mr. Ivy Lee.

The story starts in 1918, when Charles M. Schwab, CEO of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, and one of the wealthiest men on earth, asks for the help of productivity consultant Ivy Lee. Here is the method he gave to the employees of the company :

  1. At the end of each work day, write the 6 most important things you should do tomorrow. Don’t write more than 6 things.
  2. Classify these 6 objectives by order of priority.
  3. When you start your work day the next morning, focus only on the first task. You can only move on to the next one once your first task is accomplished.
  4. Treat the rest of your list the same way. At the end of your day, transfer the tasks you haven’t done yet to the new list of goals for the next day.
  5. Repeat this process every working day.

You find this method to be quite easy? After a 3 month trial, Schwab was so satisfied with the progress of his company that he signed a 25 000$ check to Ivy Lee. (The equivalent of 400 000$ today) to thank him.

This technique works well because it’s simple and applicable by everyone. It forces you to make decisions to sort tasks, and eliminates the fear of « starting » which often makes us waste time. This method also improves your concentration levels and productivity since you only work on one thing at a time but are 100% focused on it.

Some people decide to narrow down this list of priority tasks to 2 or 3. You are free to do the same, as long as you complete them. Another recommendation, this list should be the first thing you do in the morning when you get to work. You can’t postpone it to later.

Most Important Tasks (MIT)

We also call this method the MIT ( Most Important Tasks ) method. The idea is to identify 3 tasks that will make your day more productive, and – no matter what – to complete them. For example, you have 10 elements on your «  To do list » of the day, but 3 are MIT. Even if you’re sick or if something comes up, complete your daily MIT and your mind will be at ease for the rest of the day.

Student Productivity Tip #4 : How to Make Goals ? 

If you are part of the 95% of people who make new year’s resolutions and give up on them in February, this paragraph is for you!

Aiming high is good, but in order to make your goals achievable in the long run you should first break them down.

Let’s take an example:

  • Mission impossible: « I need to watch my bank accounts »
  • Wrong goal « I would like to save up 1000 Euros this year »
  • Attainable goal «  I’m going to automatically transfer 40€ on a savings account each month for a year »

By concentrating on the process, you will have a lot more chances of realizing your dreams than if you stay focused on the end result.

Another example?

Instead of wanting to be thin, or to lose 5 kg, make the resolution to eat 3 healthy meals per day and to exercise twice for 15 minutes per week.

In order to be sure to reach your most difficult challenges, dare to start with small goals.

Success with these goals will comfort you with the idea that you can do this and will give you the necessary motivation to increase difficulty.

This type of breakdown of work is applied here to goals in your daily life, but is effective for every project for yourself, alone or in a group. The next step is to write down on your schedule the specific and regular dates to complete these tasks.

To build your goals in a smart way, make sure that they are specific, measurable, realistic, relevant and time-bound. 

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Student Productivity Tip #5 : The Schedule and Planning 

You now know how to organize your daily life, but how will you manage to reach your goals in the long term?

In order to be sure to have enough time to learn the entire program of your baccalaureate or your university exams, nothing beats a schedule. For some of you the countdown has already begun, so don’t wait to start one because organization is the key to passing exams.

Some advice to establish an efficient and realistic schedule:

  • Make a weekly schedule

Write down the number of weeks before an exam ( plan to stop a week before ) and distribute your classes precisely each week. Your schedule should be detailed with your other hobbies, distribute the time you will spend on studying and on your leisure time.

  • Don’t overestimate yourself

No need to copy your sister’s or your friend’s, a schedule is strictly personal. Take your learning speed into consideration and focus on the concepts that are difficult for you. You don’t have to spend more time on the subjects that you know well to reassure you. On the contrary, focus the subjects that you had problems with throughout the year.

  • Don’t mix similar subjects

Be careful when organizing the subjects you will study not to study similar subjects in one day. For example, avoid studying for physics and biology on the same day. Rather, vary scientific subjects and literary subjects to make sure you aren’t getting confused.

  • A schedule is a marathon

It is useless to finish your program in 4 days. If you have «  learned » the entire philosophy program in 48 hours, you are guaranteed to fail on D-day. Ideally, you should study intensely on a short period of time, and alternate subjects. Don’t study indefinitely. As the Pareto law demonstrated, 20% of your study time will make up 80% of your grade. Focus on a short period of study time but be consistent in the long term, and you won’t even find it complicated.

Variety and consistency are the keys to a good schedule.

( Technical detail: a schedule on an A3 sheet of paper pinned to your wall allows you to maintain an overview of your revisions and will make sure you don’t lose your motivation )


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