Productivity at University: A Skill Not a Talent

25/09/2015 11:44 BST | Updated 23/09/2016 10:12 BST

Many people first struggle with time management at University. Most courses aren't as strictly timetabled as school, and potential of being free for the vast majority of those 168 hours a week, lulls most of us into a torpid 'I'll do it later' attitude. As Freshers arrive at their universities for the next three years, I've asked current undergraduates and recent graduates what they would pitch as their top tips for being productive at uni. This is what they said.

1. Have goals.

Davide Allen once said that "[E]veryone can do anything, but not everything". Great advice but it still doesn't tell you how to pick what to do. A goal has to challenge whilst being realistic, said those who answered my calls for productivity tips. How to find this happy middle? Think of the perfect outcome, think of the worst possible outcome, then find the middle. Move slightly towards the perfect, and there is your achievable, if challenging, goal.

Be warned, says a second year; lists are dangerous. Goals, just like priorities, can change. Be happy to be honest with yourself: if looking back at what you're doing gives you a sense of achievement you are heading in the right direction. If not, it might be time to change tack.

2. Communicate well.

For those who are involved with societies at university, be prepared to handle a lot of communication traffic. As impressive as answering emails and messages within seconds can be, it is massively inefficient, says one finalist who is involved with half a dozen university societies. Create a routine for answering messages, especially if you are someone who receives a high volume. For example, checking emails and messages five minutes every hour on the hour, means that you don't have to keep interrupting whatever else it is that you are doing. An urgent email might force you to break the rule, sure. But having a routine means you are much more efficient when you are answering queries.

On a similar note, learn to handle meetings effectively. If there is no agenda, chances are that it will be a waste of time. Always remind people of when and where the meeting is, and when it starts clarify who is taking minutes. Without minutes, you might as well not bother having the meeting: Tom will plead that task X was actually Jane's responsibility, rather than his, Jennifer will say she wasn't listening and Tristan was probably playing Candy Crush anyway.

3. Give work the time it deserves...

Playing catch up (an inevitable fact of some courses admittedly) sometimes makes you think that you can't hack it. If you are getting left behind, pause, and reflect on what the causes are and act accordingly. Starting to revise early is important, but so is adapting to the changing requirements: make sure you understand what essays require of you as soon as possible. Organisation is key: having all your notes and teacher's feedback in one place is invaluable when you are freaking out a week before the exam.

Work also means non-academic work. When it comes to seeking jobs, the earlier you get your CV in order the better. It is important to have a master document where you can keep all your experiences and grades up-to-date. Speak to your University's career advisors. But also speak to recent graduates working where you would like to end up.

4. ...but reserve some for socialising.

The cliché is always "work hard, play hard". But how do you figure out if you have worked hard to justify going out? Making a list of things you've had to do (and marking how many you've actually done) since the last time you took time off can be a good way of ensuring you maximise your free time. Take the classic case of the one hold out in a group of friends who refuses to go out - because going out with all your friend can sound like the start of a good night out. But it can also be the start of night, where a grumpy you follows your friends half-heartedly, knowing that you really are supposed to be finishing tomorrow's work (because your goals say so, because you read this article). As your increasingly intoxicated friends tease you your grumpiness turns into irritation and you decide to call it a night and angrily stomp home (or fork out on a taxi by yourself if you're really feeling awful).

In the words of one elite athlete who has just completed her first year as an undergraduate: "time for wasting time and doing nothing is crucial".

5. Media isn't the root of all evil.

It can be easy to get swept up and make grandiose promises of never touching Netflix again during term time (good luck). A more balanced approach might be to average how much time you spend doing activities you class as entertainment. Then cut it down, if your work suffers, or if you find you need motivation to start a new club. A 10% reduction is a good increment to reduce the time you dedicate to anyone thing, apparently.

On the other hand, if you really can't miss your dosage, try dedicating some of the time to watching live news reports, documentaries etc. - equally as distracting as soap operas, they have the distinct advantage of being helpful for interviews.

6. Take opportunities.

Realise that there is a difference between sport as a hobby, and sport as an athletic pursuit. The distinction is much like the difference between playing music as self-advancement and practicing to go professional. This difference can be to your advantage. Training to be the next Usain Bolt, but decided that you are going to place academic development first? Doesn't mean you can't carry on doing what you love - at a less elite level. Equally, bear in mind the difference between taking part and leading an extra-curricular activity. The fundamental skill to learn here is delegation, says a recent president of a Cambridge Ball. It is crucial to talk to your predecessors to find out what kind of commitment you are taking on.

In the words of a fifth year however, remember that first term is absolutely about trying to cram as much as possible in: dropping extra-commitments is always an option when the going gets harder.

7. Be willing to ask for help.

Especially in the first term, there are lots of things that can be intimidating. But asking for help can make the difference between making a solid start and wasting time and energy stressing.

A great technique for escaping from it all, says a recent graduate, is to phone friends from home. Often, she says, they are vital in reminding you that life does not depend on whatever it is that has you fixated.

In short, the cardinal rule of efficiency is prioritisation. If missing a deadline means that another, more important one is met, don't hesitate.

If you have different experiences, or additional tips for juggling degrees with other activities available at university, don't hesitate to comment below.