Productivity as a Student – Optimizing your time

If I could describe my university experience in one word, it would be overcommitted. I hated having spare time, and I hated wasting time, so I always bound my schedule to a plethora of extracurriculars.

For instance, one of my busiest terms involved me: Working a 40-hour work week for an internship, Taking two university courses, Working as a teaching assistant for an additional 10 hours, Tutoring 5 students for about 1 – 2 hours each, Freelancing consulting and web development for two local start-up companies, in addition to studying Mandarin and taking painting classes for fun.

Needless to say, it wasn’t easy, and I wouldn’t recommend it, but I managed it. Even during school terms, I typically balanced similar responsibilities – except raise the number of courses, switch the full-time work week to part-time work, and add being an executive member of 1 – 2 university clubs. All this, and I still felt like it was never enough, yet I was extremely busy.

Here are some tips that I suggest if you’re trying to navigate a busy life!

1. Meal prep
This one’s obvious. Meal prepping has become super popular in recent years. I watched a ton of YouTube videos, bought in bulk, and invested in a nice glass tupperware set (getting glass tupperware is ESSENTIAL!) Sundays were dedicated to cooking, and some of my favourite meals to prep are curries, mixed beans and lentils, deconstructed tacos, summer rolls, and pasta dishes. Then I also prepped snacks and breakfasts like overnight oats, chia puddings, baked french toast, toasted granola, etc.

If you’re working hard to make money, don’t waste your efforts by eating out every day at work – your wallet and body will thank you.

2. Understand your work habits
Some people are night owls, but I find that I’m most productive during mornings. I had a routine where I would wake up at 4:30am Monday – Friday, and then sleep in until 7am on the weekend. This allowed me to get in two meals before work – typically a smoothie later followed by toast and fruit. I would work out in between the two meals for about an hour (5am – 6am), then eat and do some grading for the course I’m TA’ing, reply to emails, or prepare readings for class depending on the day. By the time it was 8am, I was ready to leave for work and had a few tasks crossed off my to-do list. This also gives me 4 – 5 hours at night to allocate to other committments.

3. Optimize your spare time
If I had a few minutes before class started or a 30-minute lunch break at work, I rarely wasted time on social media. For example, one of my courses required students to post in discussion groups twice a week and submit a paragraph summary of readings. Which took about 2 – 2.5 hours, given that I had five 30-minute lunch breaks in a week, I was able to knock out this assignments before their Sunday night deadline and made effective use of a seemingly small pocket of time.

4. Say “No” to things, tasks, and people that don’t align with your goals
While it may seem difficult, having a colleague you’ve been doing freelance work for try to convince you to attend a meeting that’s before an exam, or a friend who asks you to join her for lunch when you’re swamped are sometimes worth saying “no” to. It’s important to surround yourself with people who understand that sometimes your life is incredibly busy (after all, whose isn’t?) and who understand that it’s best to spend time together when you can be fully present, and not stressed out.

5. Find a motivational rule
Whenever there’s something particularly groan-worthy on my to-do list, I remind myself to “expect problems and eat them for breakfast” – or to get these tasks out of the way early. Whenever I have a block of time to dedicate to said task, I tell myself to spend 15 minutes working on it and I’ll eventually have two options:
1) Is it more challenging than expected? Continue working at it until it becomes easier.
2) Is it easier than expected? Good. Finish it while you have the time!

And those are some of my main tips! Of course, don’t forget to work out, eat right, and treat yourself when able. Balancing ideal commitment goals and realistic time constraints is a learning curve, but not limiting yourself is key. Try what you can, while knowing when to say no.

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