5 Tips For Staying Afloat in a Busy Semester

Francis Piche Student Software Engineer, McGill

01 October 2017

I apologize in advance for the terror this next statement might cause… Midterms are coming up…

Midterms are weird. You have to review and practice everything covered in the last month or so, while simultaneously keeping up with new material, assignments and everything else you have going on. They’re also usually about the time that you might realize you’re way in over your head this semester… Whether you’ve been working hard this whole time, or you’ve been hiding from your responsibilities, I’ve put together this post to help prevent you from falling behind this midterm season.


While it should go without saying, I’ll make it explicitly clear. These tips are just what works for me. If you’re someone who works or learns better other ways, by all means you do you. These tips are just what I’ve personally been doing to try and survive this semester through hell.

Organization, Organization, Organization:

You’ve heard it a million times, and you’re about to hear it again… ORGANIZE YOURSELF.

It’s not a magic cure for all your productivity problems, and it won’t get you a 4.0 GPA by itself, but having external systems that relieve some pressure in your brain-RAM will do nothing but good.

Relying on your brain to keep track of all your important dates and to-do’s is seriously slowing down your machine. Externalizing what needs to be done reduces the stress of juggling them all.

Priority. Writing down everything that needs to be done (whether on paper or electronically) lets you take a clear look at the big picture. Maybe you don’t have as much on your plate as you thought! Or maybe there’s way more than you expected and you’ll need to work double-time to get it all done. Either way, getting a clear overview of what lies ahead will let you take priority into account.

You can compare your tasks based on:

-Importance (what will happen if you miss it)

-Time (when is this due, how long will it take)

-Difficulty (how much it’s going to deplete you)

Getting your tasks out of your head makes it way easier to figure out exacty which ones to do, and in what order. This will help maximize your performance on these tasks, and minimize the time taken to do them.


To give an example, heres how I organize myself:

When I’m out and about, in-class or on the metro, and I think of something that I need to do later, I write it down in a plain text editor on my phone. It’s quick, and now it’s saved somewhere it won’t get lost. It’s messy, and gets cluttered over time, but it’s only the first stop.

At night, when I get home, I go through my list and pick out all the ones that are to be completed tomorrow. These tasks I put into a more robust system, something with priority rankings, due dates, reminders, etc. Again you can use pen and paper, but I’ve found Habitica to be pretty entertaining if you’re motivated by “leveling-up” a virtual character. There, I’ll mark down all the tasks, in order of expected completion (chosen by ranking of the above traits).

Side-note on making task-lists:

I make my tasks as small as I can, so that at any given time, I know exactly what the next step is. For example: if I need to study for my upcoming math test, I’ll write: “read notes on Cauchy-Schwarz, do problems 2-5 on pg26, do problems 10-14 on pg27”. This also helps keep motivation high by achieving small milestones towards a larger goal.

Sadly, all the organization in the world won’t make you actually do the things you said you would. But it’s a good place to start.



Estimate how long each thing should take. (Or just the maximum amount of time you want to spend on it for today). Keep in mind that while you’re organizing, you’re far more optimistic about what you can get done, and will probably underestimate the difficulty of your tasks. Regardless, the night before, make a day-plan of the next day. Not on an hour-by-hour basis either. Break it down to the 15.

The reason is simple: time pressure. Your attention span sucks. Everyone’s does. Breaking your work down into shorter, more tangible periods of time will allow you to remain focused. Knowing that you have all day to finish your C++ assignment leaves room for distractions to take over. However, knowing that you only have 20 minutes to finish the first problem will force you to concentrate for every single one of those minutes.

The other thing that will happen when you timebox to the 15th minute, is that friction between tasks will be greatly reduced. I’ve always found that, upon completing one task, I waste valuable minutes wondering and deciding what to do next. When you know exactly what you should be doing at any given time removes this friction. You know when you’re ahead, and you know when you’re behind.

An issue I’ve found with timeboxing, however, is when things start to fall behind. Inevitably, you’ll need more time with a particular task than expected, and suddenly everything behind it needs to shift. It’s easy to fall into thinking “now my whole day is ruined! I’m not going to finish all the stuff I needed to get done”. Once one thing falls behind, it can quickly spiral downwards and affect everything else in the day. Easy fix. After completing (or post-poning) the task that couldn’t be completed, take 5 minutes to re-evaluate the rest of the day. Does this change your priority rankings? Does this affect how much time you were going to spend on some other task? Simply re-arranging the rest of your schedule can mitigate a lot of the damage caused by overshooting.


“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

-William Durant

Work With Intensity:

There are two ways to approach cardio workouts. The classic, hour-long jog, or the 20-minute high-intensity interval workout. Of course, each has their advantages and disadvantages, but which would you choose, given you’re trying to maximize your time?

But how do you study faster? Well, as much as I’ve tried, you can’t really. But! You can boost your focus immensely by:

-Eliminating distractions (turn off your phone, put up site blockers, work in silence etc)

-Introducing time-constraints (as in-last section)

-Preparing your work environment (notes, food, water and nothing else)

-Mindfully working as fast as you can (pretend you’re taking a test)

-Disregarding unhelpful information

-Getting help when you need it

-Taking breaks


If you begin every block of work time with these things in taken care of, you’ll find that (with practice) you can finish assignments faster, review more efficiently, and fly through gruntwork/chores with assembler efficiency.


To give an example, this is what I do before, during and after a task:


First, I turn off my phone, close all tabs unrelated to my task, clear my desk, and take out everything I could possibly need for the task. Checking your phone, getting thirsty, realizing you have to go get your notebook out of you bag, needing to pee, or whatever else all interrupt your precious focus. Simply answering a text can lead your train of thought down a deep, deep rabbit hole of distraction. Actually, a study from the University of California Irvine found that on average, it takes workers 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to a task after being interrupted. Brutal.


Next, I set a 25-minute timer. If for some reason by now you haven’t heard of the Pomodoro technique, read the wiki (unless you’re supposed to be working right now, in which case stop reading this article!!!!). This introduces another level of time constraint, and gives a definite end to my period of concentration. Before I start, I remind myself to pretend that this is an exam, where, when the time is up, pencils must come down. Having the timer next to you gives you a constant reminder to keep chugging along, and to not waste a second.


While I’m working, I’m constantly assessing the relevance of what I’m looking at. By this I mean, don’t waste an hour reviewing something that might only be worth 1 point on a 50 point exam. Similarly, don’t waste time looking at concepts you’ve already mastered when you’ve got other, weaker concepts to go over. It seems like common sense, but I don’t know how many times I’ve caught myself doing this. It feels like you’re working, but you’re not getting the most out of it, and it’s close to the same as wasting time tagging your friends in memes.


Along the same vein, don’t stay stuck. I say 15 minutes max. If you haven’t made any progress on a problem for more than 15 minutes, put it aside. Move on to easier problems, and come back to it. If you still can’t do it for another 15 minutes, maybe it’s time to get help. Recognizing when to get help will save you HOURS. That being said, nothing can replace the value of struggling and working through difficult problems. Hence the 15 minute, double attempt approach.


Finally, take a break. I like to take frequent breaks because it allows your brain and body to recharge after such an intense bout of exertion. Get up, walk around, refill your water bottle, answer your messages. It also serves as a great time to remind yourself to attack the next session with the same intensity as the last. I find that in long, dragging sessions we tend to forget to give our best effort.


I’m a strong proponent that us humans are almost entirely governed by our habits. In that same light, I believe that it’s imperative that, as good students, we should have good habits in all aspects of our lives. What’s the first thing you do in the morning? Do you hit the snooze button? Or do you jump up and attack the day, even though you’re tired?

The decisions your make, whether consciously or subconsciously, translate everywhere. If you’re used to choosing fast-food over home-cooked, procrastinating, wasting time on social media, complaining about work, or whatever else… That is you. You are the person that takes shortcuts, self-sabotages, makes excuses, and has a negative attitude. Your bad habits in one area can manifest themselves in other areas of your life, especially your school work.

I used to hit the snooze button every morning. Or worse, I’d just turn off my alarm entirely. On the surface it seems somewhat harmless, but what was I really doing? I was setting a commitment the night before that I would wake up early. Then, the first thing I did the next day was fail. By hitting snooze, the very first decision I made in the morning was to give up on a commitment to myself.

This is why I think it’s so important to be strong in all aspects. Keep your room clean, dress nicely, wake up early, eat healthy, exercise.

To fail at one is to fail at all of them, because at their root they are all commitments to yourself, and to break them is to break discipline, which will in turn spill over to your study habits.

Of course, this isn’t true for everyone, I know some immensely smart and successful people whose bedrooms are a disaster and wake up at 10am. But as a general rule, willpower as a habit is a powerful habit indeed.


Have fun:

Seriously, humans are social creatures. Schedule some time to call up a friend and talk for a while, go see a movie with the guy from your Systems class. Skipping out on fun and socializing is a one-way ticket to burnout.

And no, scrolling through memes doesn’t count.

There’s not much I can say here; you know what you like to do most. The one thing I can say, is make sure it’s QUALITY. Do the things that bring you the most joy. See the people that make you the happiest. Don’t waste your precious fun-time on people that bring you down, or on things you like, but don’t really bring you real fulfillment.


What do you think?

Do you have any tips on staying afloat when you’re way in over your head? Let me know in the comments, or send me an email

Keep chugging along!


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