The great American writer Mark Twain once said,
“Never put off till tomorrow what may be done the day after tomorrow just as well.”
When we live by that advice, though, we sometimes find ourselves chugging concentrated coffee at 2 a.m. in a valiant effort to stay awake and finish a huge project that’s due in 6 hours.
As productive as I’d like to think I am… I’ve been there.
If you’ve been there as well – or maybe if you’re there right now – this week’s video is for you. I’m not going to waste time lecturing you about the importance of planning, there are other videos for that – let’s just look at the best plan of attack when you find yourself in a time crunch.
Now, we’re going to look at some specific concepts related to planning and willpower in a minute – The Impact Effort Matrix, Ego Depletion – but let’s start with the foundation: location selection.
I think your location is vital when you’re working under pressure, and personally I like to pick my study locations based on their “vibe” – that is, what’s going on around me. I tend to favor coffee shops and libraries – I still go to my university library at times even though I’ve graduated – because I work well when I’m surrounded by other people who are also working. Also, close proximity to caffeine is helpful.
The most important part of location selection, though, is avoiding the “call of the pillow”. When you’re studying in a time crunch, it’s likely you’ll be doing it late into the night. That’s why you want to get as far away from your bed as possible.
The later it gets, the more you’ll start rationalizing how good a nap might be and the more you’ll start deciding that certain parts of your project don’t matter. So pick a place where going to bed would be more effort than finishing the next part of your project.
That piece of business taken care of, it’s now time to plan your efforts. Before you start working, take some time to break down your workload into individual parts. Then, it’s time to figure out which ones should get the bulk of your attention.
Dwight Eisenhower often remarked that,
“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”
In the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey popularized the “Eisenhower Decision Matrix”, which is based on this principle. In the matrix, tasks are categorized based on their importance and urgency.
When you’re in a time crunch, though, everything can seem urgent – so importance is the factor you should focus on in this case. To that end, let’s use a similar but more fitting tool – the Impact/Effort matrix.
Here, tasks in a project are given scores based on their impact to the overall success of the project and the effort it will take to implement them. To illustrate how this works, here’s an example from my life.
When I was a senior in college, one of my final projects was building a web app. My idea was called AMPanic, and it was an app that would require you to log in and tell if you’re awake before a certain time – otherwise it would send an embarrassing email to someone. This was actually the precursor to the early wake-up system I use now, which I detailed in this video.
With this project, though, I found myself in a time crunch trying to finish it. So I broke my project down into different parts that I’d have to code and prioritized them using this Impact/Effort matrix.
The core functionality – the code that would let you set an alarm and an email message, the code that would schedule and send the email on time, and the function to cancel the email if the user checked in on time in the morning – those required a lot of effort to build, but they also had the highest impact on the project.
On the other hand, some parts of the site – like the About, FAQ, and Contact pages – didn’t have as high of an impact, but they were low-effort tasks. Since they didn’t take much time to create, I made sure to include them to make the site look more complete.
The main element of the site that I chose NOT to focus on was the user registration and login system. A proper one needs functions for resetting passwords, but I decided that the core alarm setting functionality would be more important to my grade since that was the point of the whole project. So I used a login system I had written for an old project and didn’t bother creating a way to reset passwords.
In the end, it was a worthwhile decision; the alarm system was more advanced than most of the other projects in the class, so I ended up getting an A.
To assign Impact/Effort scores to each component of your project – or each assignment if you’re juggling multiple – consider the following factors:
- What the core deliverables are
- The grading criteria for the project, what which components count for the most points
- What percentage of your grade each assignment counts for
- How much each component will contribute to the knowledge you need to have for tests, which usually impact your grade the most
Once you’e assigned scores to each component, I think it’s a good idea to tackle the ones with the highest impact and highest effort first. This is due to Ego Depletion – a phenomenon explained in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Citing research from the psychologist Roy Baumeister, he reveals that:
“…an effort of will or self-control is tiring; if you have had to force yourself to do something, you are less willing or less able to exert self-control when the next challenge comes around.”
Use the bulk of your willpower to complete the harder tasks first; that way, you’ll only have to deal with low-effort, high-impact tasks when you’re feeling drained.
That’s where we’re going to close for this week. If you select your location well, plan based on impact and effort, and tackle your tasks in a way that utilizes your willpower effectively, you’ll make if through your time crunch in one piece.
If you’re unable to see the video above, you can view it on YouTube.
Some viewers let me know they’d like wallpapers from some of the animations in this video, so here they are! I made them 1920 x 1200 – feel free to re-size them as you like.
Click each one to enlarge it, then right-click the full-size version and hit “Save As” to download it.
Looking for More Study Tips?
You’ll find more tips on planning, study environments, and maintaining willpower in my free 100+ page book called 10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades (While Studying Less).
The book covers topics like:
- Defeating procrastination
- Getting more out of your classes
- Taking great notes
- Reading your textbooks more efficiently
…and several more. It also has a lot of recommendations for tools and other resources that can make your studying easier.
If you’d like a free copy of the book, let me know where I should send it:
I’ll also keep you updated about new posts and videos that come out on this blog (they’ll be just as good as this one or better) 🙂
Here’s a Pinterest-worthy image for sharing this video 🙂
What other topics related to working under tight deadlines would you like to see covered in the future?
Do you have any additional tips? Share them below 🙂
If you liked this video, subscribe on YouTubeto stay updated and get notified when new ones are out!
Images: Eisenhower, Twain, Twain living room, James Cameron, ocean trench, Everest, wall of books, Big Ben, coffee shop
Have you ever written an essay in 25 minutes? You have if you have ever sat for the SAT. While the stakes may be higher for a last-minute academic essay, the point is this: do not panic! Instead, read this six-step guide to writing an essay in a day:
1. Understand your goals
Whether you are writing a personal statement for a college or graduate school application, or an essay for a high school or college class, your assignment will have specific goals. Before you begin to write, review these goals. Clearly understanding your objective is essential when working with a shortened timeline.
2. Choose a topic
Under normal circumstances, you might devote several days to brainstorming a promising topic, and then you might write a detailed outline before writing and revising your essay over a week or two. When you are on a tight schedule, this is not possible.
So—write down the first three or four ideas that occur to you. If you cannot think of an appropriate topic, ask a parent or a friend to review the assignment with you. Do not spend more than 10 or 15 minutes on this part of your essay, as the execution ultimately matters more than the idea itself.
In addition, do not stress yourself about selecting the “perfect” topic. Without a topic, you will have no essay to turn in, and any essay is better than no essay. (It naturally follows that any topic is also better than no topic at all.)
3. Set deadlines
Establishing deadlines for a one-day essay is key. Budget 5-10 minutes for brainstorming, 15-20 minutes for creating an outline, and several hours for writing. You can also set aside an hour for feedback and review, and another hour for any necessary revisions. You should also allow for an hour-long break to recharge your mind. Finally, plan to submit your essay several hours before the deadline. A schedule with some flexibility will allow you to adapt to any unforeseen complications.
4. Arrange for reviewers in advance
Whenever possible, arrange for reviewers (such as your parents or friends) first thing in the morning, and let them know when they can expect a draft. When your deadline is in several days or weeks, you have the luxury of finding reviewers after you have finished your draft. With a shorter deadline, you will not have this ability. Be clear on the short turnaround time to ensure as smooth a review period as possible.
5. Outline your essay
There are many resources that can advise you on how to write a wonderful essay, but the purpose of this article is to shape that advice to the demands of a very short timeline. This includes resisting the urge to abandon the outline. Having an outline is even more important for a one-day essay than for a week-long project with a similar word count. A strong outline will keep your essay focused and organized from the start—which is critical when time constraints will limit your rewrites.
Your outline should not be detailed, and it should take no more than 15 or 20 minutes to complete. Determine your hook (see below for more information), and then jot down the threads that connect this moment to your central argument or idea.
6. Stay organized
When you are under pressure, your tendency may be to start writing and to see where your essay goes. Try instead to use a brief anecdote or emotional impact statement (i.e. the “hook” in your opening paragraph) to set the stakes for your essay. This is essentially your opportunity to state why your argument or idea is worth your reader’s attention.
Finally, remember that “perfect is the enemy of good.” Manage your expectations. Your goal should be to write a good essay, not a perfect one. If you have a compelling hook and a well-organized flow of ideas, check your writing for errors, and then send it in.
Brian Witte is a professional SAT tutor with Varsity Tutors, a live learning platform that connects students with personalized instruction to accelerate academic achievement. He earned his Bachelor of Science from the University of Washington and holds a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University
More from Varsity Tutors: