Do you ever feel like you cannot work fast enough? As exams approach, I am feeling a bit like Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory on I love Lucy. This might be the busiest I have ever been in my life. Over the years, some wonderful role models and mentors have given me some very good advice about time and project management. I will share them here because they are particularly helpful to me now, as I prepare for four exams. First, you can only do one thing at a time. Second, if something is unmanageable, it helps to break it down into pieces that are easy to manage. Third, keep the monkey on the other guy’s back. Finally, good time management means doing what has to be done, not a little bit of everything every day.
How should I apply that wisdom to a schedule that, for right now at least, leaves me breathless on most days? Stepping back, metaphorically, and thinking about what my project and deadline calendar looks like is a good first step. Plotting my work and academic deadlines on my calendar along with personal goals and needs is a good first step. For me, it is productive and easy to work backwards from a goal and deadline and break projects down into steps required to complete them successfully.
Besides having completion deadlines on my calendar, like a project due date or an exam date, I plot the steps to completion and assign a deadline for each step to be completed, and think about the workflow for project collaborators. If someone else must complete part of a project, I clear my contribution from my desk before projects I am responsible for individually – that is the very helpful ‘keep the monkey on the other guy’s back’ strategy. Exam prep is all mine, but, obviously, if I can work more efficiently at professional tasks it ‘makes’ more time for study.
For some reason it is not as easy to manage studying and revising with the same efficiency as managing multiple projects. Sometimes I think it is just because how I dedicate my time and limits to my energy and concentration. At other times, it seems like academic work is just different. It helps to manage it in the form of research, for me anyway. If I am researching particular issues then it is easier for me to segment my approach to the work – that is the manageable pieces philosophy. To revise four courses, professional responsibilities, family and personal matters all at once means my focus during revising time has to be very narrow. It is important not to become distracted from key study points for each course like how the texts I am revising fit into the context of the period in which they were written, how key terms and learning outcomes for the course apply to each text, and how does one text compare to another.
My job now, academically speaking, is to prepare a year’s work in four courses in a way that will maximize my success in exams. I have also learned that there is a lot of overlap in my courses because of the topics, texts, authors and their collective influence on each period in question. Although it seems uncomfortable at first, I am studying and revising multiple courses at one time. I have taken this route because it is fastest, easiest, least confusing option. For example, when studying the literature of the American South it makes more sense to focus on nineteenth-century and twentieth-century authors rather than break up the work into two parts. The same is true when studying women writers. It is easier to look at some late nineteenth-century women writer in relationship to early twentieth-century women writers that to try to separate them. Much scholarship looks at them in comparison to one another and it seems self-defeating to insist on considering them separately even though it also feels a little less organized than I would like.
With deadlines that seem to come faster and faster and exam day approaching with what feels like great speed it is inevitable that some things will shift to second priority. About the only things that can shift is my exercise routine and focus on my own business. Instead of exercising an hour or so every day my current goal is three to four good exercise days each week. It is not ideal, but it is better than nothing and it seems to be enough for now. My freelance business has been on hold for a few months now because – you can only do one thing at a time.
After exams, when everything goes back to normal, I am looking forward to applying what I learned this year to my other projects and goals. As difficult as it is to manage four courses I highly recommend it. What I am learning about literature is amazing and remarkable. What I am learning about managing my work and achieving my goals is impressive and priceless. Though sometimes I wish there was a conveyor belt bringing unlimited chocolate to my desk…
Caowrites is studying the BA English by distance learning with the University of London International Programmes. She lives in Pittsburgh in the United States.