Undergrad Seminar: Time Management

Here we are in the 2nd half of the academic year. If the 1st half got off to a rocky start, maybe this is a good time to talk about time management. Not the “The 7 habits of that smugly overambitious go-getter” variety. This is aimed more at the “How can I squeeze school into my hectic schedule of procrastination and binge drinking” style. In other words, for the rest of us. This is not to ignore what I think is the real value of the university experience: the freedom to explore, to question, to learn what you never expected. If you go though school without some kind of an “Ah ha” moment, then you have to ask if you really took advantage of the opportunity. Time management is making sure you have the ability to explore those Ah Ha moments.

What does time management mean? It is simply developing a strategy that helps you set reachable and realistic goals that treats school as something akin to a job. School is not the same as a job, I know that. In the US, heading off to college represents all kinds of milestones and transitions towards adulthood including making a lot of really stupid mistakes. Since stupid mistakes are part of life, you may as well factor this in and manage the parts you can. But if you can put yourself into the mindset that school IS your fulltime job, it might help with things like procrastination (my all time largest problem in school). That part-time job you have in the library, or as a teaching assistant or else-where are something you have to do to make ends meet, but school is your fulltime job. (This is referring to fulltime students. Part time students are often already fighting a massive time management battle).

In addition to getting those “Ah Ha” moments that we all love, there are some very basic tangible goals you want to hit: Graduate in 4 years, 5 at the outside with the GPA, experiences, training and recommendations you need to take you next step, no matter what that may be. School is about more than the GPA and getting out, but school is also expensive and your GPA at the end matters, so it is in your best interest to keep that in the back of your mind.

First rule: Incompletes are bad debt. Very Bad Debt. No matter what else you take away from here, learn that taking an Incomplete at the end of a class should be seen as a last option. You would be amazed at how often someone’s college career gets derailed due to piling up incompletes. No, your instructor will not take pity on you because its 5 days to graduation and that one incomplete is in your way. When you have an incomplete, you have very little room to negotiate. You don’t even have the option to take a lower grade if the instructor decides you have to finish that paper or project to complete the course. Never take an incomplete? Well, that’s strategy isn’t it? It’s much better than an F or D or maybe a C, but if it is a class outside your major and you really don’t want to spend more time on it, would you rather have the B or the bad debt of an incomplete that can become an F? I once knew someone that took an incomplete to get an A+ instead of an A, maybe I am a slacker, but that is insane given how much riskier the Incomplete is. Also instructors talk, if people find out you are taking several incompletes, they are going to stop giving you that option. Remember that taking the Incomplete is not your choice, it is your instructors. They have no obligation to give you one because its it bad debt for them as well! They have to give you a grade, chase you down before it becomes an F and listen to your excuse because you keep putting off that paper or project you owe them. If you are piling up incompletes, you may need to lay out a semester just to get them off the plate. Having an incomplete is mentally the same as carrying over that (or those) class(es) into your next course load.

Oh hell, you already have an incomplete? Weren’t you just reading all that… ok, ok, fine. I’ll calm down. Either you have screwed up badly or some legitimate misfortune befell you at the last part of the semester. All we can do now is move forward. That incomplete is a big pile of rotting food in your kitchen and you have GOT to clean that up before it gets into the rest of the food and really stinks up the whole house. To start with, there is no easy solution that will not increase you workload unless you have some miracle deal with the instructor. You cannot “borrow time” from your existing work load. If you take that attitude you are looking at a domino effect of incompletes. Is it starting to sink in why this Incomplete of yours is a big friggin deal?

There is only one way out of this: give up your free time to finish the job. That it, the only solution.

You can’t take the time from the work you already have to do, like the 500 pages of reading you were assigned over the weekend that you weren’t going to do anyway. I KNOW how hard this is, I am a terrible procrastinator and we are the worse kind of people to have incompletes because the deadline is often vaguely out there, but not quite real. The longer you take, the better the final product is expected to be! Maybe this is one of those “screw it, I will do a little worse work and take a B for the paper” moments on this particular project. But you have to turn in something or risk getting a failing grade. I am not going to even say you are going to feel better getting it off your plate. Having to finish this Incomplete is going to put you behind on your other work that you will have to double up on to prevent it from going incomplete. By the way, if we are talking about a 10 page double spaced paper please don’t write and tell me. I will run screaming from the room. This blog entry is nearly four pages double spaced using Arial 10 point font. 10 pages is really not that big a deal.

Make a plan, set a drop dead date and make your idea realistic: What is the minimum you have to do to get the grade you want. My apologies to my faculty friends, but this is triage and the crass reality of it. Your goal is not to win the undergraduate award for writing, it’s to get the incomplete off you plate. Scale back as much as you can: do you really need 40 sources or will 10 do? Is the instructor looking for regurgitation of their pet ideas or original thought on your part? Being that challenging student during the class is great. But now it’s an incomplete, a pain in the ass and not the time to get clever. Have you got a draft? Great, drop it off at the professors office. You might not get comments, but it shows a good faith effort on your part towards meeting your commitment. If they do comment, you might lucky and they say “hey, if you just add a paragraph about X, we are good to go.” And please dear Lord, don’t drop off an idea they already rejected and this is that same dumbass, irrelevant, unrealistic idea that you stubbornly hung on to and got you that incomplete in the first place. LET IT GO. I have watched people do that very thing. I don’t know what insanity overtakes them, but for the love of Pete, knock that crap off.
Do that incomplete: Do it this weekend, do it over two weekends if you have to. Unless that paper is huge, two hard weekends can cover it.

3 thoughts on “Undergrad Seminar: Time Management

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-mark bypostauthor even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-6437">

    Oh hell, I posted this last year. It was sitting in the draft folder.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-tony odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-6438">

    You really don’t like Incompletes, do you? Is this about your own bad karma?

    The biggest style Incomplete is the MA Thesis which at my university can be carried forward for 4 or 5 years with the grade “In Progress.” This gives the perfectionist the sad illusion that they are not taking an Incomplete, even though they really are. The half eaten food really rots, and eventually it eats the student alive, and they never graduate.

    European MA theses are treated much more like a class with a drop-dead date for when it is due, or the grade turns into an F. Students respond much better to this, especially the perfectionist-types who populate our grad schools.

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