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I'm a first year master student currently taking courses on the second semester. For the most part I did pretty good on the first semester except that I got behind in one course which is specially demanding and hard.

Now I'm taking the equivalent amount of work as before plus I'm trying to finish my assignments for the other class in order to get my grade. And I'm also collaborating in a research project which I wasn't doing last semester.

I'm having a hard time trying to manage my time in order to accomplish everything. As I don't want to get behind in another course I try to be on top of what I'm seeing in class. However I find that this consumes a lot more time than I expected and I never accomplish the goals I set for the day.

As an example, if I have some class the next day I try to really understand everything we saw the previous meeting, and by the time I manage to do that (if I do), there is only about 3 hours left to do everything else. In a normal day I expend all the time doing my "academic stuff" and I only stop for eating and sleeping. Where the sleeping time could vary from 0 to 6 hours depending if I feel I'm getting too far behind or if I managed to finish all I wanted for that day (rare). I have to admit that I always try to get the most miniscule detail and expend a great deal of time thinking how to go from point A to point B on the text which in some sense is a pedantic attitude. However, I find that if I don't do this, then the ideas are very shaky (there are holes in my understanding) and I tend to forget those very easily, which is not good for doing exercises or taking an exam.

I have tried to split the day in blocks and only expend a fixed amount of time doing an specific task. However, this way I feel I go so slow that I'm not accomplishing anything. So basically what I end up doing is working nonstop in one task (which can take more than one day) and then try to compensate for the other tasks I didn't do by cutting sleeping time or further delaying other work.

I sometimes think that if I'm working that hard at this level, I have no chance of getting a PhD or continuing in academia. I see that some of my peers have time to have fun, go out and still get good grades while I barely have time to enjoy a meal. I also get good grades (I have to in order to keep my scholarship) but I feel that the effort I'm putting is too much for the reward (not exceptionally good grades).

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Do you spend any time talking about what you've done in class with other students? This can be a really helpful way to understand the material, and you get some bonus socialising in as well! –  Tara B Feb 18 '13 at 11:36
What is the relative course load between yourself and your peers? Have you seen the relative quality of the work they produce that nets them good grades (compared to yours)? –  Mr.Mindor Feb 18 '13 at 17:36
Their work usually satisfies all the requirements for a good grade. I'd say that the difference lies in the deep understanding of the concepts. Clearly, by not paying much attention to the details it is possible to solve most of the exercises either by themselves or by discussing among us. The worst case scenario they'd ask the course assistant or the professor. In my case, I always try to go beyond the coursework either by studying the abstract mathematical structures that we encounter or by expanding the syllabus. I've found that by doing this, the exercises become very easy as...(cont) –  Barefeg Feb 18 '13 at 18:20
...I get the whole picture and I feel confident that I also understand the details. Of course this gives me an advantage when solving problems fast but the disadvantage is that in order to get to that point, I have to expend an equivalent (or larger) amount of time studying extra material. Unfortunately this doesn't usually get reflected on the grades but I feel that in the future (when doing research) I won't waste too much time trying to understand the fundamentals. The course load for people on my program is almost the same. @Mr.Mindor –  Barefeg Feb 18 '13 at 18:24
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5 Answers

I want to give you one piece of advice which I think is very important: Sleep more.

If you don't get enough sleep, your brain won't work as well and so it will take you longer to understand things. You will be able to work much more efficiently with enough sleep. Also, your brain does a lot of important work during sleep, helping reinforce connections made during the day etc. So the time spent sleeping is not at all a 'waste of time' as far as your study is concerned.

Try not to view sleep as something optional that you can leave out if you don't have time. Have a go at sleeping at least six hours every night for a couple of weeks (I need at least eight most nights, myself, but six would be a good start at least) and see if you feel a lot more on top of things after that!

In my Honours year I found that it was hard to get to sleep if I had been doing maths within the last two hours before going to bed, so I made a rule that I had to stop doing maths at 10pm every night. I mostly stuck to it, and it worked very well.

Also, I'd like to offer some encouragement that having to work this hard now doesn't mean you couldn't do a PhD or continue in academia if you wanted to. I am now doing my second postdoc, and have never worked as hard as I did in my Honours year (that's like the first year of a two-year Masters).

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+1: I would also recommend not to see exercise as optional. My brain tends to work a lot less efficiently when I skip exercise, not to mention the fact that I usually get some of my best ideas while running. –  Leo Feb 18 '13 at 14:40
@Leo: I agree that exercise is also very beneficial. –  Tara B Feb 18 '13 at 16:04
@Leo I also agree with that, thanks for the recommendations. In fact I used to workout regularly (I still have my gym membership) but it is just impossible to find time to go. –  Barefeg Feb 18 '13 at 16:54
@Barefeg: Exercise needn't take the form of going to the gym or something structured like that. Even if you just go for a little walk every now and then (perhaps thinking about your work as you do so) it will help. –  Tara B Feb 18 '13 at 17:18
While exercise certainly need not be structured, if you find yourself skipping it you could try a structured, other-people involved environment: team sports, martial arts classes, dance classes, anything where people will miss you if you are not there. But that is a matter of your temperament and you have to figure out what works for you. Of course, for many people getting your exercise helps you both to get that rest and to function without it for short spurts if needful (but don't try to continue that way for long). –  dmckee Feb 19 '13 at 1:56
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One of the biggest challenges in any professional career is mastering time management. It's a tough assignment—and in recent years has become even tougher.

The most important thing to realize is that there is never enough time to do everything you want to do perfectly, unless you tackle a very small number of things in aggregate. For instance, if you are a professor, your list of tasks probably includes some combination of:

  • Supervising research of your students
  • Teaching classes
  • Performing committee work
  • Writing grant applications
  • Networking with colleagues
  • Writing, revising, and reviewing papers

And there may be a whole host of other administrative duties that eat up a lot of time, but don't otherwise help you get things done. Unfortunately, the day is currently limited to 24 hours [1], and you still have to figure out how to do all the other tasks of daily living (eating, sleeping, exercising), and having some semblance of a social life as well (so that other people know you're still alive!).

You can do many things well; the trick is to realize that you can't do everything perfectly. After a certain amount of time invested in working on something, you will hit the point of diminishing returns: an additional unit of time spent will yield a smaller incremental gain than the preceding unit. That's the point at which you should start moving on to other activities. It can be frustrating to have to stop working on something (it's certainly intellectually unsatisfying!), but it's the only real way to get everything you need done.

One other thing to think about: most of your tasks (in academia, at least) are known somewhat in advance: classes have an established duration, papers are in progress for a while, meetings with multiple groups do not happen at the drop of a hat. Thus, you may be able to at least get a rough schedule for your week planned at the start (or at the end of the previous week). Leave yourself a few blocks of time that aren't completely scheduled, and schedule a block of "personal time" (whatever you choose to do with that that helps you to "recharge your batteries," or get in touch with your inner self, or however else you relax).

[1] Days will get longer eventually, thanks to the slowing down of the earth's rotation, but not quickly enough to help us out!

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Thanks for your recommendations. About the last point, I agree that planning my week from the start is certainly possible. My problem is that sometimes it is very hard to advance in my work using the scheduled block. Specially when working on the research project or some hard problem assignments. I can expend the whole time block and make zero progress. In that case, should I stick to the plan and move on or try to readjust? –  Barefeg Feb 18 '13 at 17:04
It may work better for you to have more of a flexible schedule, i.e. rather than assigning specific blocks of time to certain activities, decide how much time to allocate to that activity in total on a given day, and then you can change to a different activity on your plan if the current one isn't working so well right now (but come back to it later). –  Tara B Feb 18 '13 at 19:42
I think the fundamental issue you need to address right now is the fact that you feel that you have to take a task to 100% completion before you can move on to the next one. Once you've started to allow yourself to move ahead to something else with your present task undone, you can go ahead and begin readjusting. But at first, you need to be able to switch tasks. That means holding to a time table. You can schedule slightly fewer hours than you have available, as Tara suggests, but if you've told yourself to move on, move on—at least at first. Later on, you can adjust more as needed. –  aeismail Feb 18 '13 at 20:17
@aeismail: Maybe I didn't express myself very clearly. I meant rather than say '8-10 A, 10-12 B, 1-3 C', just schedule 2 hours each of A,B and C and don't worry about which happens when or whether you do the hours consecutively (but don't spend more time than allocated on any activity, because then you won't have time for the rest). –  Tara B Feb 19 '13 at 11:59
Actually, on a second reading, I don't see how you got 'schedule slightly fewer hours than you have available' from what I said. –  Tara B Feb 19 '13 at 12:00
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  • Seek contact to other people that work on the same tasks or have solved similar tasks before. An active communication about what you are working on can be a lot of fun, can accelarate learning and productivity a lot, and open a bunch of new chances.
  • Do your best at the moment, don't worry about lost time or chances, since the only time where you can act and use real chances is now. Learn from the past and focus on the future, but don't get obsessed with analysing and planning. The mind set of 'now is the moment' can be both relaxing and motivating.
  • Do some time management. Instead of focusing on tools and life-hacks, I would recommend to focus on the following principles:
    • Get a long term perspective (meaning: picture your own funeral) what you want to achieve in life. Your intermediate goals should have some connection to your long-term goal.
    • Prioritize your activities and goals. Priorization should be dependent only on YOUR goals, not what someone else wants to make you believe is important.
    • Reserve a lot of time to socializing, because most goals you cannot achieve without the interaction with others.
    • Don't exploit yourself, don't ignore your needs. Reserve enough free time.
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+1 especially for the first point. –  Tara B Feb 18 '13 at 16:05
@TaraB I also find that working with others can accelerate learning. The problem is that most of my peers have another set of mind (read->accept->move on) and I'm not compatible with that as I mentioned in the original post. But I appreciate the recommendation by aeismail of accepting that I can't do everything perfectly. The idea of point of diminishing returns is certainly worth trying. –  Barefeg Feb 18 '13 at 16:59
+1 for the long term perspective. –  Ajasja Feb 19 '13 at 11:59
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In general, I've found that awareness is a key part of time management. Here are some tips that can help:

  1. Take the time over a week or two to really log exactly where your time is going, what you're doing, and how long it's taking. While sometimes it is the case that you're working at 100%, often there are snippets of time here and there that you could be using more effectively. It can be difficult to adjust how you're managing your time until you really understand where your time is going. As an example, I know a guy who says he works at least 16 hours a day, but after working in the same room as him I came to realize that it can take him 4 hours to write one paragraph because he is constantly getting distracted with browsing the web, answering his phone, replying to e-mail, and talking to other people. While he is technically "working" the whole time, it makes it easy to understand how he's always missing deadlines and complaining that he doesn't have enough time in a day.
  2. Based on that log, look at what is taking the most time and think about why. For example, maybe it turns out that you spend 120 minutes a day answering e-mails. If you notice trends, consider whether there's anything that you can do to decrease that time or spend that time more efficiently. In the example, maybe you could designate "e-mail time" at two points during the day to aggregate your work in it rather than constantly checking and being interrupted.
  3. Brainstorm other resources that might help you to reduce some of the larger blocks of time. For example, if you're spending a ton of time trying to understand your classwork, can you form a study group that's a set amount of time and perhaps cover the material faster? Are there on-campus resources to help with difficult concepts such as tutoring?
  4. At the beginning of each week, start a prioritized to-do list to manage what really needs to get done and what it would be nice to get done. As others have said, it's normal to have too many things to do and not enough time. However, you can definitely order your time so that the things that need to get done, get done. Don't be surprised or shocked if you always have carryover for the next week. There are some great online tools for this such as teuxdeux and Trello. These tools can also help you track what you've accomplished each week. Sometimes it's easy to think that you haven't gotten anywhere but I find that an archive of the things that I've finished can help to dispel that impression.
  5. Lay out what your ideal schedule would be like. Make sure to prioritize blocking out time to sleep (you work more efficiently if you've had some) and time to eat. You don't need to go overboard on these and there will be times where you'll have to skimp on them, but you should have a baseline to aim for.
  6. Last, learn to know when your schedule is blown and set a goal or deadline for when you will get back on track. Sometimes you have a deadline that makes it impossible to get enough sleep and you need to put in 110%. This is normal, but you also need to have a plan/date for ratcheting the workload back down to manageable levels or you will burn out. Once you've burned out, it can be very difficult to get back on track, so don't think that you can just keep working at maximum levels.

As an added note, when I first started graduate school a senior professor told me, "Done is better than perfect." Sometimes this really helps me to figure out what's a priority.

Hang in there and I hope that helps!

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Your point 1 has happened to me. Although in a slightly different way. In my case when I'm stuck at something, I try to research other literature, try to fin some book or article and, unfortunately, I can go all day going deeper and deeper on the hunt. Recently I've tried to be aware of the time I expend doing that and one thing that has worked is saying to my self "let it go" when I fell that I have expended a lot of time and haven't made a significant improvement on my understanding –  Barefeg Feb 18 '13 at 17:11
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It sounds like your primary issue is not as much "I don't have time to finish what I need to do." as "I don't have time to finish what I want to do."

Combined from your original post and your comments this is what you currently are undertaking:

  • Normal current course load for your program.
  • Catch up from last semester's exceptional class.
  • Research project.
  • Additional research (expanded syllabuses) on your normal course work.

With your additional research, you are adding extra work for yourself on top of what your peers are doing and then wondering why you don't have time to finish what you need to do. That you have the interest to dig deeper is wonderful thing, but it seems you are getting carried away, and you may not see any long term benefit for your efforts.

Unfortunately this doesn't usually get reflected on the grades but I feel that in the future (when doing research) I won't waste too much time trying to understand the fundamentals.

While this may be true, in the short term you are killing yourself. I say may because by this supposed point in the future, through the normal expected course work for your program, you might find yourself with the same level of expertise. Unless this extra work is done under some guidance, it seems highly unlikely you are choosing the best sources for your research. Worse, you may also be spending all your extra hours mastering some techniques that are even now obsolete by the state of the art but are taught as stepping stones for future topics.

Really, why are you are doing something that is not reflected in your current grades at the cost of something that is reflected in your current grades? Your grades are Academic currency as you said yourself you need them to keep your scholarship.

You mention your peers discuss problems that give them trouble or would ask the the professor or course assistant for help. How often do you? There is limited class time so some things don't get full treatment, or they have to choose the manner a topic is presented out of many options, one of the other options may make a troublesome topic just click for you.

If you continue with the extra research. Discuss it with your professors, they should be able offer advice as to what is worth exploring, what is a waste of your time, and what would be better left for a future point in your studies. For what is worth your time, they'll be able to point you in the direction of the best resources to use. Discussing with them will also make them aware of the extra work you are doing which cannot hurt.

I see that some of my peers have time to have fun, go out and still get good grades while I barely have time to enjoy a meal. I also get good grades

It may very well be that they see better outcomes for the time spent because they take time to enjoy themselves.

  • As others have pointed out, we need an appropriate amount of physical rest to be at our best.
  • We also often need time for things to soak in mentally.
  • Long term retention works best with many short study sessions.
  • Relentlessly cramming on the same subject without break until you master it is almost never the most efficient way to learn.

Mental focus is a finite resource. It can be divided between foreground (conscious) and background (sub-conscious) processes. Both are required to learn. If you work relentlessly, you don't give the background processes a chance to do their part.

By taking time to have fun, they give themselves time for it to settle, for their brains to run those background processes. They give themselves a chance for the 'Ahh Ha!' moment where it all falls into place.

For myself, most 'Ahh Ha!' moments came away from the books, away from actively working on the related topic.

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Great recommendations. Now that I look at it from an external perspective it is clear to me that the additional research is best with expert guidance. I usually ask questions during and after class but I have to definitely start asking for advice on the extra material –  Barefeg Feb 19 '13 at 10:02
+1 Possibly the most important advice so far. –  Tara B Feb 19 '13 at 12:03
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