The big takeaway to fit study into the busiest times

Picture of decaf espresso

Just because you’ve given up caffeine, does not mean you have to give up coffee!

A few months ago, I gave up caffeine. My addiction was come by honestly, as I remember nipping espresso from the unguarded cups of grown-ups since I was able to hold a cup.  Now that it’s time to ‘fall back’ in most of America, it occurred to me I have never faced a time change without caffeine to power through. I will save the humorous details of the week for another time and focus on how to get through the busiest time with study, work, and the coming holidays.

The end of daylight savings time marks the beginning of the holiday season, my busiest professional time of year, and a few weeks away from registering for exams.  Instead of gaining an hour of sleep on at least one night I seem to have lost two or more every night this last week. I started to wonder if, perhaps, holding onto my espresso until May, or at least January, might have been a better plan. I am coming to you a bit sleep deprived and without caffeine but quite contemplative and very realistic about getting it all done, and making sure there is time for effective study. Jelly Bean and I put our heads together, assessed our options, and came up with a plan.

We are ‘up and at ’em’ as they say here in America, every morning between four and five, thanks to Jelly Bean’s amazing internal alarm clock. Although she wakes me, she is definitely not a ‘morning’ dog. She would much, much rather burrow into her blankets for a slow, lingering start than launch into the day with a nice walk, and a hearty breakfast. Within half an hour of waking up, our kitchen and the thoroughly necessary ‘mud-room’ are lively with dog coats, leashes, and towels, and my mittens, parka, muffler, and boots.  After our walk and her breakfast Jelly Bean settles onto the sofa beside my desk, and expresses her contentment by squeaking her toys. Very soon, she begins snoring and I begin the first study session of my day.

For me, these uninterrupted morning hours are best used for detail work like research and essay writing, reading theory, summarizing my general reading notes from the evening before, doing a little text analysis, and making short notes comparing various texts.  After a few hours of intense concentration, it’s time for my daily exercise then my professional responsibilities fill the hours until six or seven in the evening.

Luckily for me Jelly Bean sees to it that I have breaks every four hours or so during the day. A short romp around the neighborhood really helps keep my concentration and energy level steady. Still, by seven in the evening, my energy can be flagging. A little yoga, instrumental music, a good meal, and a collie cuddle are refreshing but my mind is nowhere near as keen as it is in the early morning.  I devised a strategy to compensate and still use the hours effectively.

Five nights a week, I read primary texts or watch short lecture videos for an hour or two, leaving two evenings free for rest and relaxation. Normally I like having the same two nights, Monday and Thursday, unscheduled. As the calendar becomes crowded with family and social events during the holiday season these unscheduled days vary more than I really like. Often my professional responsibilities require my attention after six or seven in the evening. Having two unscheduled nights helps absorb the weekly variables, helps keep me rested, and really helps keep my study plan on track.

For example, it does not do a bit of good to read aimlessly, and it is equally unhelpful to take super detailed notes. My study strategy is to read with a stack of 3 x 5 index cards at hand. When something relevant to my critical reading or study plan pops out I note it on the card with page number and reference it to exactly how it will help me with an essay, or compare to another text. The size of the index card forces me to summarize. Each ‘reading evening’ produces a very helpful set of cards to add to morning study.

This week, after falling asleep right on ‘Daisy Miller’ and resting my head on ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ for much longer than I planned, my somewhat tightly managed schedule allowed me to read ‘Daisy Miller’ and four of Hemingway’s short stories, several pieces by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, a critical essay on Willa Cather’s work, some modern and postmodern theory, and background work on 19th Century American Literature. Not too bad considering there was no caffeine involved.

Here is my big take away for the busiest times: Prioritize, break projects into manageable pieces, set a timeline and schedule you can stick to, and then just do it. Now if I can just get through a caffeine-free exam week.

Caowrites is studying the BA English by distance learning with the University of London International Programmes. She lives in Pittsburgh in the United States.

2 thoughts on “The big takeaway to fit study into the busiest times

  1. May I ask, if you get up at four, how much sleep are you actually getting? I would love to be able to do that but I find with all this “brain” work that I need a good 8 -8 1/2 hours sleep. How do you manage to do so muc with less?

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