Tips for working independently at uni

One of the exciting things about university is being able to work independently. This gives you the opportunity to be creative in how you go about designing your work habits. Based on my own experience, here are some tips.

1. Do one thing at a time

While multitasking is often popular and seen as very productive, I’ve found that doing one thing at a time is a more effective way of working. It allows us to be un-distracted, putting all our energy into whatever we’re working on. Hence, the multitasking alternative is often termed ‘task-switching’, because it requires we continually divide up our attention to different tasks. This can make it harder to concentrate, and can be mentally draining. Doing one thing at a time, however, is more enjoyable, as we can get fully absorbed in a single task. This can bring about the experience of ‘flow’, where we find ourselves effortlessly completing our work, feeling totally at one with the experience.

2. Sleep.

This is simple. So simple. But so few of us do it. There are lots of benefits to getting enough sleep and we’re all probably aware of some of them. However, I think what has really motivated me to sleep more is the direct change in how I feel when I get enough of it. Like most people, I’ve found that getting enough sleep means I’m less irritable, can concentrate for far longer, and am generally happier. I’ve also realised how essential it is to being able to work effectively. This is something it took me a while to fully realise. However, don’t feel like you need to find yourself exhausted before resolving to get your beauty sleep – the sooner you can develop the habit, the better. It takes discipline, and certain things can aid the process. I, for instance, try and turn off all my electronic devices an hour before going to bed, to be sure that I won’t be distracted by a last minute email or text, or be dazed by the brightness of the screen before finally closing my eyes.

When to Work?

The good thing about getting to work independently is that it’s up to you to decide when you work. This can be really useful as different people may find that they’re at their most productive at different times of day. As such, I recommend you experiment, figuring out what works for you. Once you know what your optimum times are, you can have a better idea of how to structure your day. In my case, I know I work better in the mornings, and as such try and start work as early in the day as possible – reserving socialising for the evenings. It’s worth emphasising that no time of day is really any better than another, so long as you can get all your work done – and aren’t falling asleep in lectures (need I remind you of step 2?). Thus, if you’re clocking off at 6pm while your housemates are just getting ready for an all-night sesh at the library, don’t feel like you’re doing things wrong.

4. Caffeine?

My housemate’s fancy (if over-used) espresso machine

Caffeine (usually coffee, and of course endless tea) is a student staple. Given its status as a stimulant, this is unsurprising. And, if it gives you energy, what’s the problem? I don’t remember where I heard it but there’s a phrase I really like: ‘there’s no such thing as a biological free-lunch’. I believe this is true of caffeinated drinks like coffee. That is, if coffee is giving you energy, you’re not getting it from nowhere. Caffeine takes the energy you would have later on in the day and gives it to you all in one sharp burst of an hour or two. This can be helpful, particularly if you’ve got a two hour seminar coming up and you haven’t followed step number 2. But I’d advise against getting reliant on these short-term energy hits. Regardless of how much caffeine you consume, you’ll need to replenish any energy you use up; and becoming reliant on it can cause you to develop a tolerance, such that it gives you no more energy than you would’ve had without it. Thus, it’s often over-rated as a cure-all for sleepiness.

5. Meditate

My meditation cushions

As the President of the student Meditation Society, you’d expect me to say this! But full disclosure aside, I believe the advice still stands: meditate! There are lots of helpful instructional videos on YouTube describing the practice, so I won’t go into detail here. But what I will say is that, where working independently is concerned, I’ve found meditation indispensable. Having practiced for a couple of years (specifically, mindfulness meditation), it’s allowed me to get out of my own way when it comes to working – avoiding procrastination etc – and discipline myself to ensure I do what I need to get done. It’s also allowed me to become more present for whatever I’m doing (hence number 1) and reduced the stress I might otherwise feel. I thus recommend it for anyone who wants to be more productive and be happier while they do it!



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Hi, I'm George! I'm a second year currently studying philosophy. I enjoy playing guitar and am the current president of meditation soc at York, where I help run weekly sessions teaching people how to meditate. I'm interested in potentially entering a few different fields from counseling to charity work to being on an ethics committee (I'm also considering doing an MA in philosophy to delay making the decision to do any of that!).

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