Denise Taylor knows a thing or two about planning time.
A chartered psychologist who now runs her own career coaching business, Amazing People, in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, Taylor completed her first degree part-time while working.
The key to balancing study with family, work life, and other responsibilities is to be highly disciplined and organised, she says.
Here are her top tips.
1. Schedule your week
“You’ve got your revision timetable and then you need to think, when am I going to do it?” she says.
Once you’ve worked out how many hours you need, you can plan your week and cut out distractions. It helps to first work out your timetable on a daily basis. I’ve found it’s best to divide your day into blocks of study to keep focused and avoid procrastination, instead of overdoing it, advises Taylor.
Identify what time of day works best.
“If you know you wake up and can’t function until you’ve had three cups of very strong coffee, then that’s not the time to start doing anything that involves brain work, but it might be the time to organise your files,” she said.
If you’re struggling to find time, look out for easy time-wasters.
“Get up earlier, stop watching as much television, stop playing whatever computer game you are now, get off Facebook,” she says.
Taylor encourages clients to switch off social media and view it as a 10-15 minute reward after a block of proper study.
“It’s a treat that you give yourself so that you’ve got something to look forward to.”
2. Think big picture
Taylor also recommends concentrating on the bigger picture. Think about the duration of your course, then break it down and work backwards to divide studies into manageable chunks of months and weeks.
Taylor uses a diary to mark deadlines for assignments and assessments.
“Then I can work things back to when they need to be done, but not everybody is like that. If that doesn’t sound like you, then get a friend or your partner to help you,” she said.
“Breaking each [deadline] down into necessary steps is a trainable thing.” If you know that you have to study 12 to 15 hours a week, then work out how you will slot everything in.
“It’s quite easy to find online time management software to put it all in, but I actually quite like doing it on paper, then you can quite clearly see it at a glance,” she said.
“I have my whole year laid out on one piece of paper.”
By organising your time, for example by using software like My Life Organized, Focus Booster or Toggl, you can successfully juggle study with other responsibilities and rest, using your time more productively and ultimately passing your assessments.
3. Timing is everything
Be strict about timing to keep the mind focused, she suggests.
“It helps to work out how long you can focus on one thing. Work out the optimum time for you. I work for a maximum of 90 minutes, but after that I need to get up and stretch my legs, so I set a timer to remind me to move,” she says.
“For me, it’s all about stretching my legs and getting away from the screen, but for other people it might be about phoning a friend or watching a clip on YouTube, but have that focus, that’s your help.”
Working out the best time slots is a personal choice, although 50 minutes of study with a ten minute break is a general guideline.
Denise recommends setting a timer on to keep track of your study slots. “If you’ve got your timer then you work really hard because you’re up against it. Otherwise you say ‘I’ll sit down and I’ll do some studying’, which is vague. It’s got to be focused.”
4. Know your learning style
Embrace the type of study that works best for you.
The best way to discover the right method for you is simply by trial and error. You can also do research on the various studying techniques and see which one you identify most with.
Some students learn best in a kinaesthetic way, through physical activities, and others are more visual, preferring to use maps, graphs and plans.
Others again are aural and prefer to have discussions and listen to a speaker.
Work out which approach suits you.
5. It’s OK to not do everything
If housework is distracting you then treat it like a game, said Taylor.
“You give yourself 25 minutes and if the kitchen is not done in that 25 minutes then you have to move on to the next room,” she said.
During her own studies, her husband would take the children out for the day when she had an assignment to write, but they’d arrive home at a pre-arranged time. “If I hadn’t got the work done, then tough,” she said.
The same principle applies to the pleasures in life. “If you know you have a 30th birthday party coming up, then do an extra hour of study each day in advance,” she said.
Self-discipline cannot be avoided, but keeping the end-goal helps motivation levels.
“You have to think, ‘why do I want to achieve something’ and remember how amazing it will be if you do it,” she said.
Read more on studying effectively with AAT:
- Learn smarter – which learning style suits you best?
- Choose the best study method for success
- Study tips: Advanced aspects of time management
Nicola Smith has spent a decade reporting for The Sunday Times on both the European Union and South Asia.