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How to work more productively

Full of enthusiasm, bright ideas and good intentions, but somehow never seem to get sh*t done? This guide will change your life (or your uni work, at least).

man studying at laptop with lightbulb background

Credit: fizkes, Ilya Sergeevych – Shutterstock

Even if you go to every class and spend hours at the library each day, low productivity levels could render all that meaningless. Just being present, or sitting staring at a screen all day with the intention of working doesn't qualify as getting work done.

Nailing productivity is probably the most important skill you'll develop as a student, and we're confident that if you manage to take some of these tips on board, you'll see a massive improvement in how you perform – both at uni and outside of academia.

Take some time to work out what helps to improve your productivity as a student, and you could even find yourself on track for a first class degree.

You can improve your uni work further by checking out our guide on how to take better lecture notes.

13 hacks for keeping on top of your university work

These are the best ways to increase your productivity and manage your uni workload:

  1. Create a work routine

    Fresh Meat character in bed

    Credit: Channel 4

    One of the most effective ways to work more productively is to get into a routine where you wake up, work and have breaks at around the same time each day.

    Particularly with the student lifestyle of deadlines, nights out, and TV marathons, it's not always easy to get to sleep at a decent hour each night. But, it's always important to wake up at the same time each morning if you can, as this helps you start your day on the right foot.

    Getting up early might leave you feeling a bit groggy initially (try Sleep Cycle if this is a problem for you), but you should find that it gets gradually easier to fall asleep at night when your body clock's adjusted to the new morning routine.

    If you use your phone/computer/iPad a lot in the evenings, make sure you put them away 30 mins before you go to bed. The blue light from these devices tricks your brain into thinking it's still day time, making it harder to fall asleep if you use them at night.

    As well as regulating your sleep pattern, eating your meals and snacks around the same time each day will work wonders for both your digestive system and productivity levels. Stick to eating brain fuel foods that don't make you crash and feel rubbish an hour later.

    And, if possible, factor in 15–30 mins of exercise each day – even if it's just a brisk walk around the block before you sit down at your desk, or ditching the bus to walk to the library.

    Check out our guide to keeping fit on a budget for more inspiration.

  2. Set achievable work goals

    Boy looking determined meme

    Credit: KnowYourMeme

    Setting yourself a range of goals is the perfect way to motivate yourself – whether it's gunning for some first class grades on coursework, staying within your monthly spending budget or even just making it to every class that week.

    The key is to set yourself some realistic and achievable goals. Set too many targets that are overly ambitious, and you'll just get used to the idea that you won't reach them and gradually stop trying to, which is totally unproductive.

    Instead, focus on SMART goals, which are: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound.

    Begin with an easily attainable ‘trigger goal’ (e.g. dragging yourself out of bed to go to the gym before your morning lecture). Trigger goals are the perfect push you need to feel more motivated, and the rest of your goals will feel more easily achievable when you've hit the ground running.

    If you're someone who tends to set goals but struggles to stick to them, setting some small consequences for not meeting goals can be a great source of motivation (although this doesn't work for everyone).

    For example, if you don't manage to finish your first draft of an essay before Friday as planned, you can't go out on Friday night (even though the deadline isn't until Monday).

  3. Make detailed plans and stick to them

    I've got a foolproof plan meme

    Credit: TruTV

    Planning everything, from your daily tasks to your monthly calendar events, will make your life a whole lot less chaotic.

    Getting yourself a diary (like these) is the first step in the right direction, and the second is actually using it!

    Breaking down bigger tasks into bite-sized efforts and listing them in your diary each day will help you prioritise and avoid procrastination (e.g. Monday: essay research; Tuesday: essay plan and introduction; Wednesday: first draft completed, etc.).

    This is another example of setting yourself achievable goals so that you get a sense of progress every day. It's great for your motivation to know that, as long as you follow your plan, you'll reach the bigger goal in X amount of time.

    Don't forget to include things like exercising and socialising into your weekly plan too – without downtime, you'll see your motivation drop.

  4. Choose where you work carefully

    Woman in library studying with laptop books

    Credit: Solis Images – Shutterstock

    This might seem like a no-brainer, but carefully choosing where you work can make a big difference to how much you actually get done in a day.

    Distractions like loud music or overcrowding can really get in the way of your ability to focus.

    Likewise, heading to the library floor where you know lots of people is a no-no. If your friends are around, you'll have to rely on them being just as focused as you're planning to be – otherwise, you could have people disturbing your workflow by asking questions, proposing breaks, or just generally pestering you.

    The solution? Find your quiet zone. Somewhere that faces a wall or a desk that has a surround is perfect (if a bit grim).

    We'd also recommend investing in some noise-cancelling headphones if you have the spare cash. These things are a godsend, particularly during busy (and noisy) exam periods.

  5. Finish a task before starting something new

    Harry Potter Neville looking confused

    Credit: Warner Bros

    It can be really annoying to have small things on your mind that you know you need to do at some point, but haven't quite found the time to complete yet. But, you have to work out your priorities and focus on getting important things finished before starting another time-consuming task.

    If there's a little job you need to do that's likely to take less than two or three minutes to complete – like sending a text, putting a wash on, or paying your rent – do it straight away.

    However, if it's likely to take any longer than a couple of minutes, pop it on a list. Making your way through these mini-tasks will contribute to the feeling that you're really getting stuff done.

    As you've probably guessed by now, the key to getting things done is writing lists – in your diary, on post-it notes, on your smartphone – whatever suits you best.

  6. Read articles related to your studies

    row of lightbulbs with one on

    Feeling inspired is the key to unlocking your motivation.

    We'd recommend bookmarking a few key news sites that are relevant to your studies and spend 15–20 mins reading before you start writing.

    Plus, set up some Google alerts for keywords in your area of interest e.g. 'obesity in teenagers' or 'social media mental health'. Google will then send you email notifications every time something new is published on this topic, meaning you'll keep tabs on all the latest discussions.

    The tone and vocabulary used on news/academic sites will usually be of a really high standard, so getting into the habit of reading articles can improve your grammar and vocabulary. Use this as an opportunity to look out for the techniques writers use to keep things concise – this could help with your essay-writing style when you've got a tight word limit.

    Reading some industry-relevant articles will also get your creative juices flowing and can inform your work. Think of it like going for a run – you'll never perform to your best if you don't do your warm-up stretches before heading out the door.

  7. Tackle the hardest tasks first

    Jim Carrey Bruce Almighty typing fast

    Credit: Universal Pictures

    This might sound like we're contradicting what we said in number 5, but hear us out.

    While it's helpful to do quick, easy tasks early, if you have time and they're important, it's counterproductive if you prioritise them over harder tasks which are actually pretty urgent.

    We all know the situation: you start off with a few of the less painful tasks on your to-do list in order to ease yourself into the day, promising yourself you'll start on the more difficult stuff later.

    But, this process is a sure-fire guarantee that you'll have the mammoth task to deal with just before the deadline, or on a Friday when you’re already starting to wind down.

    Tackling the toughest and least enjoyable tasks first will make your day so much easier (however painful it might seem at first). Once you get that huge initial obstacle out of the way you’ll be so much more pumped to whizz through the rest of your less painful tasks.

  8. Work in time blocks

    hand holding a timer

    Credit: Alextype – Shutterstock

    Working in small 'blocks' can be a great way of increasing your productivity levels, as you can assign smaller bite-sized tasks to each block.

    This links back to the idea of setting yourself easily attainable goals. Rather than just telling yourself, "I have the whole day to write this essay", you're saying, "I have until 1pm to have all my research finished and a plan written up, so I can start writing when I get back from lunch".

    Research has shown that we're way more productive the less time we assign ourselves (within reason). This is why some companies (and some countries!) have introduced the six hour working day – they realised that employees are likely to work harder, be happier and use their time more wisely when they're working for shorter periods.

    Set yourself some time goals and it'll give you a healthy dose of self-assigned pressure to get as much done before you ‘have to’ stop – kind of like you'd have in an exam.

  9. Listen to the right music while studying (or none at all)

    young people at a music festival

    However you work, it's important to be honest with yourself regarding which sort of worker you are. You might want to listen to some tunes while you write an essay quickly, but if you know deep down that you work better without music, turn it off!

    But, if you do find that music can help you work better, it’s important to work out what sort of music works best for you.

    You might not be a fan of classical music, but listening to some Mozart whilst studying can get you in the zone. In fact, research has shown that Mozart has all the right components to improve mental performance – so much so that scientists call it the 'Mozart effect'.

    Or, you may find that music with a strong beat will help you stay alert and motivated while you're working. Try different genres to see which one helps you concentrate on your work most effectively.

    Be wary of listening to music with lots of lyrics whilst writing. This can be quite distracting, as the next thing you know the lyrics might start worming their way into your someBODY once told me writing.

  10. Take screen breaks

    woman on her phone at night

    Credit: tommaso79 – Shutterstock

    Taking breaks doesn’t mean switching from writing an essay to checking Facebook 20 times a day. By 'break' we really mean break – pull yourself away from your computer and do something totally unrelated for a few minutes.

    Go for a walk, do some exercise, have a cup of tea and a chat with your flatmate – whatever it takes to help you switch off for a bit. You might think that working solidly for five hours is a great achievement (and to an extent, it kind of is) but remember that it’s almost impossible to work to the best of your ability for that long – particularly if you make it a daily habit.

    You need to give yourself time to relax throughout the day as it can be easy to forget when you're knee-deep in uni work that you really do have limits (you're only human). Taking breaks will help you stay happy and healthy, and avoid burning out.

    It’s not about how much time you spend studying, but how effectively you use that time. Quality over quantity, and all that.

  11. Do some work while commuting to university

    London tube passing through a station

    Do you have a long (or long-ish) journey to uni or work and back again each day? If so, you can still use this time productively, and it doesn't have to be considered a waste of your precious minutes.

    Your commute is the perfect time to think about ways to develop and improve the assignments you're currently working on. Stick some relaxing music on and have a muse over what you’ve learned or read about that day. If anything comes to mind, write it down.

    Taking notes on your phone using an app like Evernote is handy, as you can then sync it with your computer, meaning any notes you take on the go are transferred. This way, you won’t be hit with the "what was that great idea I had on the bus again?" moment when you next sit down to work.

    Or you can, of course, just use your commute as your downtime for the day – this in itself is productive too.

  12. Backup your university work

    Scrubs character crying

    Credit: ABC

    You’re probably sick of people telling you this, but unfortunately, this error is far too common to leave out of our list. Please don't wait until it’s too late to take this point seriously.

    All of these productivity tips count for sweet F.A. if you haven't backed anything up, and your computer dies along with your entire workload for the last two years.

    Why put yourself through it? We’ve been there, and it ain't pretty.

    Avoid ever having to go through the pain of losing your hard work by either getting yourself an external hard drive or getting into the habit of working on cloud-based office programs like Google Drive.

  13. Avoid social media while studying

    social media apps on phone

    Although social media can be some students’ way of winding down, it’s worth being aware that it might not be the relaxation tool you think it is.

    Studies have suggested that social media actually does more harm than good during times of high stress for students, due to the tendency to compare ourselves with others.

    We worry we’re not working hard enough or feel put out that we’re not going out getting drunk on a Wednesday like our classmates seem to be (seriously, how do they do it?).

    Some students will go as far as temporarily disabling their Facebook during the exam period, but there are other less extreme options you can try.

    For example, simply disabling push notifications for things like Facebook and WhatsApp will do wonders for your concentration. Every time you get a message and look at your phone, you’re pulled out of the zone and it takes a few seconds to get back into it. Think of all that time wasted when you're checking your phone every few minutes.

    You could also try productivity tools like Rescue Time app, which will show you how much time you’re spending on distracting websites that aren’t useful. Then use the Freedom app to temporarily disable websites that are getting in the way of your productivity.

It's definitely worth bearing in mind that the way to make this guide work is to try everything out at least once, and figure out what works best for you.

Everyone works differently, and whilst one tactic might make you batter away enthusiastically at your keyboard, another might result in you staring into space thinking about what to make for your dinner.

Be honest with yourself about what's getting you the best results, and go with it – good luck! 🙂

Hoping to put your spare time to good use? Find out how to learn a foreign language quickly.

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