One of the big benefits I have gained from my Open University studies is improving my time management and self motivation. These skills will continue to benefit me long after I have finished my studies and they have been really useful in my work too.
In a web development or IT role, emphasis is often placed on the individual’s technical skills. However, in my career I have found that effective time management, motivation and the ability to learn new skills are just as vital.
Dividing my time between studying for an Open University degree, a full time job and parenthood isn’t easy but I find its a lot simpler with the right approach. Here are some tips that help me during my studies and can also be applied to your work life.
No matter what you are doing, its easier if you are genuinely interested in it. You will put more effort in and will get better results. If you don’t enjoy what you are doing then it is difficult to do it well over a long period.
Break it up
If I focused on the end goal of achieving an Open University degree then I would have become disillusioned because it is not something that can be achieved quickly. Instead I focus on individual modules and achieving a good mark in the next assignment. This breaks the big task into smaller chunks that I can achieve within a couple of months.
The same approach can be used for large projects. It can be daunting if you focus on the end product but manageable if you divide it into sub tasks.
When you achieve a target it is important to reward yourself. I find its good to celebrate the little achievements as well as reaching big milestones. The rewards don’t have to be very much. Sometimes the reward might just be watching a film or a night off but it gives me something to work towards and another incentive to do well and get the work done.
Life is more rewarding when you have something to aim for.
Remind yourself why
It can be easy to get bogged down with deadlines and piles of work and you forget why you are doing something in the first place. Reminding yourself what your ambitions are or why you originally wanted to do something can help you get back on track.
Sometimes it is possible to turn frustration or failure into positive motivation. For example, you can use a difficult time at work to drive yourself on so you do well outside of work. That is much more productive than moaning or letting yourself feel frustrated.
Achieving any long term goal can be difficult so why make it even more difficult for yourself by being disorganised?
Some people appear to thrive on panic and pressure and use that to motivate themselves. Personally I find this counter productive and a waste of energy. It can be disruptive in a team environment too where not everyone works in the same way. I’d rather be organised, plan what needs to be done and work an extra half an hour a day than spend the weekend rushing to meet a deadline.
I make a lot of lists to help me. I prefer to have them written down on a pad of paper, rather than in digital form. Having a visible reminder of my tasks or targets focuses my mind on what needs to be done and makes it easy to change my To Do list as my priorities change.
I start with a short list for today and I put anything that I know I won’t get done today on the next page. I amend the list as I complete tasks or new tasks arise. That way I know how much I have to get done and I can set myself a target for what I want to achieve before the end of each day.
At the end of the day, I review the list and update tomorrow’s list on the next page. Then I’m able to start the following day organised and feel in control of my work.
This works well for my studies too. I only have a limited amount of time each evening so it is important to spend that time productively. I set a target for what I want to achieve in each study session and that prevents me spending too much time on Facebook or Twitter! Its only a target though so I try not to get frustrated if an evening’s study goal turns out to be impossible, for example if an exercise is more difficult than I predicted or I’m feeling tired.
Get ahead and stay ahead
I aim to start each Open University module a week early and get ahead of schedule at the start when the course content is generally easier. This means I am not playing catch up and gives me time to spare in case I struggle, get ill or something unexpected crops up.
Assignments are usually available long before they need to be completed so I complete them as I go along rather than leaving it until a week or two before the deadline. If an assignment tests your knowledge of four units then you can normally complete the first couple of questions before the end of the fourth unit.
Whether its study or work, don’t leave it too late to meet your deadlines and don’t underestimate how long something will take. I have seen so many people say something will be easy and not take into account the extra time required if a problem occurs.
Find what works for you
These approaches work for me but they might not work for you. I find that short amounts of regular study in the evening suits me but someone else might prefer to spend 8 hours studying at the weekend instead.
Having a routine makes studying easier because subconsciously I know that I will be sitting down to work at the end of the day.
A quiet environment is a must for me, whether I’m studying or at work. Having music playing or the TV on in the background means my attention will wander.
A clean work area also helps me. My workspace starts tidy and then over a couple of weeks its gets more and more cluttered. Stopping to tidy up and organise my desk makes me feel less distracted and more in control.
Whatever your approach, review your progress regularly. Ask yourself whether your approach is working and if not, change it.
Be positive, not stressed
Think positive and don’t worry about failing. Recognise that you can’t do it all and it is inevitable that you will be disappointed with your results at some point.
Personally I don’t find my Open Uni studies stressful. It really doesn’t matter if I don’t do well. I already have a degree and a job and my studies are separate to my work. Maybe if my employer were paying towards it then I would feel under pressure to pass or do well but they are not so I see my degree as a welcome distraction rather than another thing to get done.
Find positive people
Surround yourself with positive people, particularly when you are finding it difficult to motivate yourself. Their positive demeanour will rub off on you and you can use this to motivate yourself.
If you have a vision of what you want to achieve then that helps too. If you picture yourself failing or a project not being a success then the chances are you won’t succeed.
Take a break
If you have a young child, the amount of sleep you get will inevitably be reduced! Combine that with a job and study and it can be easy to not realise just how tired you are. This can really affect the quality of your work. You become less effective because it is difficult to retain new information when you are tired.
Sleep is really important to staying sharp and feeling positive. Its amazing how much of a difference a few early nights can make to your mood.
I find that if I really lose motivation then spending a few days doing something completely different and catching up on sleep helps me regain it. After a couple of days I normally get impatient and restless, I start getting new ideas and want to get back to whatever I was doing. That is a sign that I’ve got my energy and motivation back.
I find it important to have some quiet time at the end of the day too. If I’m working on the computer and then go straight to bed, I find it difficult to switch off and sleep. Because of this, I have a rule to not work beyond 10pm. But rules are made to be broken of course, particularly if I’m in the zone and making really good progress!
If you are a perfectionist then it can be difficult to recognise that you can’t do everything as well as you want every time. You will have to learn to prioritise and accept that not everything has equal importance. Its OK to put off some tasks or partly complete them if it means a more important job is done well.
Keep an open mind
Be open to new ideas and ways of working. Maybe you work in a certain way because that is how you have worked in the past. Perhaps you have ideas that would change how I work and study?
And remember, life is more rewarding when you have something to aim for.