Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Get it done, a rulebook

Working hard or hardly working? Hardly working. Playing Block Dude.
On the off chance that I have a great deal of time to think about a homework assignment - say, I've started thinking about a final paper a few weeks in advance - I have a tendency to pretend it's not there until I'm down to less than a week of time before it's due.

I think a lot of people suffer from this affliction. It happens on those days when you feel like the past week has been busy enough and you deserve time off. Once you're in the mindset, there's really no way of getting out of it. You've concluded that there is no need to be productive because past productivity can be used an excuse for future stagnancy.

Yet I remember kids in elementary school, middle school, even high school who never seemed to have this problem. They'd be working ahead on homework while carrying the added burden of piano lessons and dance classes, Kumon and SAT prep.

And I guess for some reason I started to compare myself against them. That's never a good idea.

Unless it means you come up with your own hard work manual, the "Get It Done" rulebook.

Currently I'm three weeks away from arriving home from school for the summer. In that short amount of time I will be turning in a group video assignment, a feature-length article, a 10-page paper, an eight page paper and a take home test. This comes after a whole quarter of only having around one paper or less due each week. I have no idea how I'm going to do it.

But then I look back at my middle school days - those years when I was most productive - and I remember that it can't be so tough. If I could handle homework at 12 years old, why am I worrying about it now? Surely I'm a more intelligent, sophisticated and well-organized individual seven years later?

Nope, that's just not true.

So that's where the rulebook comes in. It's a set of standards by which to measure my progress on assignments. It's how I've managed not to fail college despite spending an hour and a half in the evening watching The Bachelorette in the TV lounge (If you're reading this, Dana, I'm sorry to have spilled your secret) or taking an hour out of every single night to write a blog.

I hope that my rulebook might help anyone out there who happens to be reading my blog - in other words, people on my Facebook friends list - who has trouble finishing their homework assignments earlier than the night before they're due. Because that's what I'm going to teach you.

And in fact, that's the first rule.

1. If possible, homework should be done at least 24 hours before it's due.

The most hilarious - and tragic, I guess, but mostly hilarious - problem that a lot of people I know face is their self-damning choice to leave all assignments to be done the night before they're due.

One of my friends often complains to me about staying up late every night and not getting enough sleep. To her I usually say that it is not impossible to get at least six hours of sleep every night - and here's why:

Homework should always be done as if it is due a day earlier. If that means putting on your work calendar that an assignment is supposed to be turned in the day before, so be it. But by the time the clock strikes 5 p.m. on a Friday afternoon and your professor has asked you to email your assignment to them at that time, it should have been sitting in your Documents folder for 24 hours.

For this reason, I have never been sleep deprived due to homework at school. Granted, I've made myself go to bed late for other reasons. But I've never let my homework stress me out the night before it's due and that's worked out pretty well for me.

2. When you don't feel totally lazy, seize the day.

In my group of friends, we've labeled a lot of different things according to "TV-isms." We now like to use the phrase "stop and chat" from Curb Your Enthusiasm to refer to those moments when you see someone you know walking past you and you stop and chat with them. We also like to talk about having our "special me alone time."

The term "special me alone time" comes from Gilmore Girls and refers to those few hours at the end of the day when you know that you have no responsibilities to other people or to your work and you can choose to spend them however you choose. If this means watching every episode of Seinfeld ever filmed, then that's fine. If it means doing your laundry or staring at Facebook for three hours, that's also fine.

But when you're not in need of special me alone time, then it's time to force yourself to do homework. The best work is done when you don't feel the need to take time off - when, instead, you can see yourself getting enough work done to feel satisfied and not like you've wasted the night away. And it works pretty well with my next rule...

3. Split tasks up into manageable parts.

I've been known to throw words onto paper without much thought in the past. That's what my blog is, really. I don't plan anything except a major topic every night and then I just "go." But when I'm writing something important, I can't do that.

In the past year I've discovered the perfect formula for splicing work up into reasonable sections. It makes most sense when I describe it in terms of a paper I wrote last quarter.

The first thing I did when I decided I was going to start work on the paper - about a week and a half before it was due - was just look up the titles of books and references I would use for research. I looked through the library catalog, wrote down authors and titles and then I was done. But at least I'd done something.

The next step was finding those books - online or in person in the stacks - and skimming through them to pick out important quotes.

After I was done with all the research, I looked through the quotes and found patterns in what the authors were speaking of. It's not very hard to find themes throughout texts, even if they're by different writers on the same topic.

Then I wrote an outline based on those categories, throwing in quote ideas wherever I saw fit. And by the time I needed to write the paper, I already had all my work done. And every step only took an hour or two.

4. If you need a night off, that's fine.

My friends and I argue a lot about whether we have time to do fun things at night. If we want to go see a play, a comedy group or some other event on campus, we go through at least 15 minutes of arguing and bickering before we make our final decision. This happens because at least one of us is always thinking about the work we have due the next week.

The philosophy I've come to harbor about taking time off from work goes as follows: Everything will be finished at some point. Whether that happens tonight or two days from now, it will all eventually get done. And because of the steps before this - it usually gets done well in time before it's due.

Without this philosophy, I'd never do anything. I mean, there really is always more homework, isn't there? The point of taking a night off is to remember that not every night counts - not every night in will be productive. Most of the time that I plan to stay in and do work, I waste it anyway. So why not just plan ahead and do something fun?

5. When you feel inspired to get something done, just get it done.

Sometimes the enthusiasm for getting an assignment done just hits you like a flash of lightning. You realize that there's nothing you want more in the world than to get that terror of a looming paper off your chest, and you can't think of anything but just getting it done.

Then do it.

My "Get it Done" rulebook is based on the notion that you can govern yourself by your own internal forces and that no matter what, eventually they will lead you right. Granted, not everyone has moments when they feel like just getting as much homework done as possible. Maybe that's why many of us end up doing our work the night before it's due.

But for me, this is a simple process that works.

So even though I may not be as organized as those kids with strict parents from elementary, middle and high school, at least I have the discipline to get myself in order and also get a full night's sleep. That's really all I could ask for.

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