Some Advice for Students at “Crunch Time”

Farmers work harder during harvest than at any other time. But they also work happier, because they see every day the literal fruit of their year’s labour. Students during end-of-term put in far more hours per day studying than they usually do otherwise, and they learn far more per hour than they do at any other part of the year. It’s harvest time. So let’s make the most of it.

Harvest is by definition a highly stressful time, and people under stress need to make optimal choices. Herewith, then, a little advice if you’re feeling overwhelmed:

Stop what you’re doing and take time for a little planning. You need to make good choices now, and just trying to work faster and harder won’t bring as much success as working smarter.

Don’t waste energy regretting how you got into this situation. You can reflect on that over the next break and make better choices for what comes next. For now, though, just get ruthless. Set your priorities according to what you feel God has called you to be and to do, and don’t let anyone or anything pull you away from them.

Not everyone will understand; not everyone will like it. Too bad. You alone are responsible for running your life. Run it.

As for interruptions, people can be astonishingly selfish in “little” ways that rob you of an hour here and an evening there, and you can’t let their problems be your problems just because they want to share them with you. God gets to tell you what to do: nobody else does.

It’s a challenge for helpful people to discern when you really should set your planned activity aside to attend to someone’s ostensible emergency. So consider saying something like this: “I’ve got things I need to do right now. Can we talk about this tomorrow/on the weekend/after exams/never?” I’ve found that by asking people that kind of question, I enlist them in the matter of deciding just when we need to talk, rather than feeling I have to make that decision on my own. And usually they solve the problem themselves: “Oh, sure, this can wait ’til tomorrow/the weekend/after exams/never.”

When they don’t, and they say that they need to talk now, I give them five minutes (I don’t tell them that they have five minutes, but that’s what they have) to convince me that what they’re dealing with is so urgent it requires immediate attention and, in particular, my immediate attention. If they can’t convince me in five minutes, they won’t in ten or fifteen. So by the six-minute mark I’m saying, “I’m so sorry to interrupt, but I can’t help you with that/Person X can help you better with that/I’d be willing to talk to you about that tomorrow/this weekend/after exams/never, but I really can’t right now.” You’ve let them interrupt you, you’ve heard them, and they’ve made their case: No one can properly expect more of you than that.

As for approaching the schoolwork left to do: Just aim at high grades. Sounds gross, doesn’t it? What about the love of learning for its own sake? What about personal joy and fulfilment? Yes, those are all good things, and if you make good use of your time in September and January, you won’t be entirely focused on trying to fend off failure in December and April. But for now, consider this. If your instructors have designed their courses properly, then aiming at high grades will give you the maximum learning possible in the limited time you have.

The paradox is that by aiming deliberately for high grades, looking hard at each syllabus and assignment and apportioning your time and effort accordingly, you actually ought to learn the most you can in the time you have left. Another way of saying this is, Let your instructors truly be your guides. Put priority on those things that they have put priority on through the grading scheme of each course. Again, that’s not the optimal way to learn, but for now: focus on high grades, doing only what will optimize your grades, and the paradox is that this unseemly grade-grubbing will actually help you learn the most.

And when you next have a break, read this: Sanford Kaye, Writing under Pressure (Oxford). 

Okay, now. Get off the Internet, get planning, and then get back to work.

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