This is one of my favorite stories. Not only because it puts me in a great light (OK, OK – I admit, this important too) but because years later, when I have started to read books on time-management, focus, achievers, etc I found that I have applied all those techniques without any idea about those well-defined frameworks for “successful people”. This is also a nice story that helps explaining these techniques that, maybe, may seem quite abstract and difficult to be implemented in day-to-day life. However, if a 19 years old student with no prior knowledge on the existing theory (e.g. “Getting Things Done” or “Zen To Done”) was able to successfully apply them, I would claim that anybody can.
My first college year was quite challenging: I ended the year with average or low-to-average grades which for me was not good enough. During vacation I have spent some time and looked back on what has happened (… yeah, I was a nerd those days – you just caught me…) and soon I have discovered that the main reason for these poor results was that I had no time to study all exam material. Between two consecutive exams we had 6 days and that was not enough for me to understand all the 12 courses. Really??? No – that was not the real problem at all. The real problem was that 6 days to study for the exam seems a huge amount of time – so you start reading half a course a day until you only have 1-2 days until the exam and another 8 courses to read.
I was quite enthusiastic about this discovery (… yeah, I was the king of all nerds…) and starting with the second year I have defined an “exam studying” system. The first 3 days I have allocated for the reading and understanding of all 12 courses: this means a 4 course per day norm. The 4th day was allocated for my first review and the 5th day was allocated for the second review. The 6th day was a risk buffer – now I call it risk buffer but during these days I called it relaxation time.
As you can see, meeting my daily mini-milestones will allow me not only to read the entire material but also to review it. Has this approach changed anything? Well… starting from that moment I have received the maximum grade for ALL my exams for the remaining 4 years of college (… a new word should be invented for me… nerd is too soft…)! And I cannot say that I was very stressed during this period – I’ve always felt that I had things under my control. And the 6th day was a great bonus for me…
What was the real key success factor in this example? Was it the plan? For sure the plan was an important factor. However I will have to say that the plan execution was the real key of success. You may create the most brilliant plan and will still mean nothing if you will execute it miserably. Once I have set as a goal to go through 4 courses per day then this was what I had to do: not 3 courses, not 3 and a half – it must be 4! For me the day could not end if that goal was not achieved. In fact, I’ve always tried to do a little bit more: 4 and a half or 5 courses per day. Being a little bit ahead of the plan kept my morale high and this helped keeping my productivity level high too. Being a little bit ahead of plan also helped me in situations when I was not able to understand a certain concept and I had to go to the library to find more information about that. This was an unplanned effort which could have messed my overall plans – here the time gained by executing activities a little faster than planned helped me a lot. Let’s put it this way: I never had to use the 6th day for studying (“Heroes 2” was an awesome game at that time…).
For a long time I was convinced that the sole ingredient for this performance was the solid plan execution. At some point, however, when my day-to-day responsibilities increased in complexity, I saw two other very important ingredients. The first one is focus. Even if I had to study for 5 exams throughout a month, I’ve never studied for 2 exams at the same time. I remember that I had 5 files full of courses (one for each exam) stacked on a big pile on my desk. I took the first file only, processed it during the 6 days period, took the exam, and throw it to the processed files. Then, only then, I took the following file, and the process was repeated.
The other very important ingredient was the relaxation period. The fact that I never had to use the 6th day for studying really helped me a lot in doing the transition from one exam to the next one. That was the day were I could disconnect from the “learning” effort and really re-fill mentally for my next exam. It was like a reset that allowed me to go through the hole month of exams smoothly.
Now that you saw the routine, I wander if this was new information for you. I bet it was not. These advices have already been heavily presented in so many Time Management books so I do not pretend that I can take you by surprise. Still, what continues to surprise me every-time I tell this story is how easy it was for me to apply these techniques when I knew so little about the theory behind them and how hard it is to do the same now when I know so much. Why? I’m not sure I have the true answer but sometimes I feel that the reason is that sometimes I am focusing on solving the wrong problem. Back then, my goal was to take a great grade at my exam. That was the goal, the problem to solve. Now, it feels like my goal is achieving great time management… I sometimes forget that time management is just a tool, a framework. It should not be seen as the end goal but something that will help you achieve something really important to you. Makes sense?