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Time Management, Harvard Style

Kenny Tao, Harvard 

As a current college freshman and former high-school student, there were times in my academic career when I felt simply overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work that seemed to hit me. I’m sure you’ve felt this way at times. I had to balance academics, tennis, and friends, and it seemed that at some points I wouldn’t be able to handle it all. Yet, all the trials forced me to develop some techniques to manage my time. Here are a few key aspects of what I learned after years of experimentation.

During my freshman year at the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, my grades suffered slightly. There was so much freedom as a result of being in a boarding school for the first time, without parents constantly telling me what to do! I felt like I was at a summer camp where all I had to do was just go make friends and have fun. No one would tell me when to sleep and no one would tell me when to do homework. As such, I’d spend time chatting with friends late into the night while letting my homework slide on the side, or spend time playing video games when there was an essay due the following day. By the end of the year, however, I was obviously unhappy with my grades. Something needed to change immediately. I analyzed myself and my schedule, and decided to tackle my lack of time management head on! What did this mean? Well, I’ve come to narrow my time management with a few key aspects.

 

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  1. Prioritize.

As a student, you will have all kinds of opportunities to try new things, which is why prioritization is SO SO SO important in your life. For me, I always had a small list subconsciously imprinted into my thinking: Academics, Tennis, and then Friends. Whether this list is similar for you or not, the approach is the same. I had to make sure that – come what may – these things were completed in order of importance. If I hadn’t finished my homework, I would do that first thing when I came back from classes or tennis practice. Only until after that was done would I allow myself to have fun with friends. Obviously, there were RARE exceptions. There was a particular game my dorm at the boarding school played after dinner, which was essentially our dorm sport. I wouldn’t have had any time to get work done prior to that because of classes, but I’d allow myself thirty to forty-five minutes to wind down and prepare myself for the studying that would happen later. Nevertheless, I see this as a form of prioritization; in order to maximize my work efficiency, I couldn’t be tired or stressed out all the time. If there were conflicts between one of the areas, I’d pick the more important one to ensure my priorities stayed constant.

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  1. Be Efficient.

I saw a lot of my friends in high school spend so much more time than I did on schoolwork, yet still receive worse grades. I noticed that I was often faster at finishing assignments than some other kids, and the reason for this is that I try to be efficient in the way I think. Now, I don’t mean cutting corners, but rather that when I learn something new, I try to solidify my understanding RIGHT THEN AND THERE rather than wait until I’m tired and at home the night before a test. I cannot tell you how much time and stress this saves in the long run.

However, this means figuring  out more than just the basics. You cannot just memorize disconnected facts and apply formulas; you have to actually understand the complexities and nuances so that when harder problems arise, you already have the critical thinking required to solve them. It can be tedious and tempting to just let it slide, but the work put in in the beginning really comes to fruition at the end of it all. It allows you to get things done faster, which usually ends up being a good thing!

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  1. Ask for Help

The final key thing I learned at the Phillips Exeter Academy was that I should fully utilize the amount of help that was always available there. Teachers are almost always willing to meet with students outside of class to spend a few minutes going over the harder concepts. Moreover, older students can help with some problem you may not be able to figure out by yourself. WARNING! This doesn’t mean you should give up at the first sight of a hard problem; you need to develop the problem solving skills to do this yourself. But if you are really struggling in a class, find whoever is the best in that subject and just ASK them to help you.

I used to have trouble writing English papers. I never understood how to craft a solid paper and never received more than a B+ on one during my freshman year. But a sophomore friend of mine had an extraordinary talent to put words together in the most beautiful sentences I have seen. So I asked him to help me. I read his papers, noted the best parts, and tried those techniques out on my own. He proofread my essays, gave me some comments about the issues as well as the strengths. Soon enough, I earned my first A on a paper, giving me enough confidence to realize that I had the potential to write a strong paper.

These three techniques are what I feel to be the most important in utilizing your time most efficiently, and I wished that someone had told them me when I was a younger student. But it’s never too late, and I know I’ll keep refining my own time management and hopefully keep improving as a maturing college student.

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