University can sometimes feel quite overwhelming and like there is far too much to do.
But if you follow these simple tips, you will be able to find an easy balance between completing all your work, enjoying time with friends and doing the things you love.
1. Look after yourself
University can be an exciting time, packed full of new experiences, friends and opportunities. It can also be long, challenging and stressful, particularly when things don’t go to plan or meet your expectations. I‘ve seen both sides. Whatever and wherever you are studying, make sure that your well-being remains front and centre.
You cannot study effectively without being healthy and happy, no matter how hard you try to convince yourself otherwise. Enjoy the good times, but be ready to lean on your friends, family and loved ones for help if things start going wrong. Acknowledge your feelings and reach out early if you need extra support. No university degree is worth getting burnt out over.
2. Take control of your time
When you start university, the years of your degree can feel like a near-infinite expanse of time stretching ahead of you. You think, “Why should I rush to study today when I’ve still got another three years to go?”
One of the most important things you can do from day one is to fight this feeling and recognise that you are in control of your time. Make active choices about how to spend it, rather than passively drifting wherever the tide takes you.
And instead of viewing each day in isolation, try to think of university as one long process in which individual days add up to a much larger whole. By doing so, you can start to build into your day good routines and habits that, however small and unimportant they seem on their own, will add up over time to deliver huge pay-offs over the longer term.
3. Strike a good balance, week by week
Once you realise that you are in control of your time, you can start to divide each week into slots for studying and “me time”, such as socialising, relaxing or playing sports.
These slots can take any form from a free hour between lectures to a whole day off on your timetable. Strike a good balance between studying and me time, and don’t exclusively fill your slots with one or the other.
Be disciplined and honest with yourself: if you’ve already been out four nights of the week and done no work, can you really justify the other three nights out as well? Surely you can spare a few hours for studying?
But the reverse is also true: you will rapidly burn out if you study every hour of every day without allowing any downtime to recharge. Never feel bad about taking time to relax, provided you have done enough work that week to justify it.
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4. Mix up your techniques and resources
I used a huge range of approaches to studying while at medical school: everything from viewing online video tutorials to reading textbooks, listening to podcasts, building electronic flashcards, drawing mind maps and writing notes.
This keeps your study sessions fresh and interesting, and also helps you in exams because you can recall information from a much wider range of different sources. Setting narrow limits on the way you study, or doing the same thing over and over, will get boring very quickly.
5. Don’t blur the boundaries
An essential part of balancing your study time and me time is to actually use time slots in the way you have intended, rather than wasting them by accident. If you’ve allocated a morning to study, put away your phone, turn off notifications on your computer and study properly and efficiently without distractions.
On the other hand, if you’ve decided to take an evening for yourself, be sure to actually switch off and relax – don’t half-heartedly skim through a textbook while watching Netflix just to make yourself feel like you are studying. Blurring the boundaries like this is inefficient and frustrating because you will constantly feel like you’re not really achieving anything.
6. Study with friends, not just on your own
I’m a huge believer in study groups: get together regularly with your friends, preferably in a room with a whiteboard, a steady supply of snacks and good internet access.
Decide in advance which topics you will cover and make sure everyone does some preparation. Then take it in turns to pick a topic at random, stand up and break it down for the rest of the group, using drawings, tables and loads of interactive explanation.
Listen to and respect each other, ask questions, swap ideas and resources, fact-check any uncertainties and make sure everyone understands each topic. This is way more fun than studying on your own all the time, and you will find you learn a huge amount.
7. Exercise and eat healthily
This is a personal choice, but I found that I could never have made it through three university degrees without looking after my body as well as my mind. I make sure to exercise twice a week as an absolute minimum for my mental as well as my physical health.
Whatever your choice of activity, you’ll find that your mind feels sharper and your studying fresher if you can make the time to burn some calories, particularly doing something outdoors with fresh air thrown in.
Likewise eating healthily: university is a great time to discover your inner chef and start whipping up some fresh, wholesome meals to offset the late-night takeaways and junk food.
8. Study in short bursts and take breaks
There exists something of a myth among students that you need long periods of time free in which to study. Anything less than a few hours isn’t worth getting the books out for, according to this view.
This isn’t true: you can, in fact, study very effectively for an hour here or 20 minutes there if you really put your mind to it. Build these little bursts of studying into your daily routines: do some electronic flashcards for 15 minutes in the morning or spend half an hour whizzing through some online multiple-choice questions before dinner. You will really find these short slots start to add up over the longer term, expanding your knowledge while freeing up time for other activities.