Study efficiently with a timer


Photo Courtesy of Tim Gouw

A student uses his laptop. Columnist Tommy urges students to set study timers for themselves in an effort to stay focused after a summer without classes.

By Tommy Block, Columnist

As another semester falls upon us, so does the eternal, burning question: How do we get back to focusing on school again?

We can’t answer that question easily after having spent three months without classes on our radar. We’re a little rusty as students; it’s not like there were any deadlines on the beach, nor did our vacations gave us any take-home assignments. For a lot of us, it still feels like summer, even when our brains desperately need to kick it into autumn gear.

Maybe we can come closer to solving this problem if we redefine the problem itself: What if we didn’t need to re-establish focus as much as we needed to re-establish urgency?

Many of us may feel as though our habits themselves lead to a clunky transition back to school: It’s hard to redefine certain habits as distractions — napping, exercising or just simply lounging around — when they’ve become our daily rituals over the long break. 

That can’t be the full scoop, though. Research has shown  even when classes are in full swing, these same activities during study breaks can be beneficial to productivity (using social media, however, can have the opposite effect). 

    Sign up for our newsletter!

    My theory — perhaps a little unscientific — is our productivity reflects the level of urgency we allot to our tasks. This is true year-round: we can all agree, for example, spending an hour on homework is very different than spending an hour on an exam. We’ve had days when we can’t stop checking our phones long enough to finish one sentence for an online discussion response. On the other hand, we’ve taken tests so draining they make us forget our phones even exist. 

    The difference? Of course, one assignment may be worth less than 1% of our final grade, while the other might be worth as much as 40%. 

    A point that supersedes grades, however, is you only get an hour or so to finish an exam. You get a couple of days to complete homework, which might lead to the illusion that you can take as long as you want on it, even when you might only need an hour or two to finish it.

    Summer is one big time vacuum. The first step toward curing a back-to-school slump, therefore, must be to reintroduce yourself to the concept of time constraints. 

    A solution is to use a shot clock.

    On average, it takes me about two to three hours to write a single column. Using that as a baseline, I began a timer for an hour at the moment I started on this piece, making sure I had a clear view of the countdown as I worked. 

    As usual, nothing kept me from scrolling through Spotify or cleaning out my inbox. In this instance, however, I had a heightened awareness of how much time a detour would cost me.

    The results? Promising. Although I couldn’t quite bang the whole thing out in under an hour, my time didn’t look bad compared to the two- to three-hour baseline. That’s not too shabby, especially right after a week in which the most intellectual thing I did was read the back of a cereal box.

    Some words of caution: A homework shot clock shouldn’t be used to rush your work. The end of your time limit could mean different things depending on what you want to accomplish, whether it’s a set number of problems or paragraphs. (I guess I should have defined what I wanted to get done in an hour before starting the clock, but honestly, just the idea of a countdown got my adrenaline pumping so hard I wanted to write a novel.)

    This should simply be a tool to pace yourself. Give yourself just enough time to complete your task, but if you’re still chugging away when the timer beeps, it just means the shot clock is doing its job.

    So before you enroll in an online time management class, see what a simple stopwatch can do for your schedule. It might be well worth your while.

    Tommy is a junior in Engineering.

    [email protected]