From Distracted to Productive: Time Management Lessons for Students… and Us

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I was recently chosen as a Spring 2018 Featured Teacher by The Ohio State University Center for the Advancement of Teaching. As a featured teacher, I wrote a blog post for UCAT. The final UCAT version is a more polished and succinct, but I thought I would post the original, longer version here. Enjoy!

From Distracted to Productive: Time Management Lessons for Students… and Us

I recently said to my husband, “I don’t think I could have gotten my Ph.D. if I had had a smart phone! Or tenure for that matter.” Digital distraction is a real thing, and most of our undergraduate and graduate students suffer from it, as does our staff, lecturers, and faculty – actually, just about everyone privileged enough to have digital devices suffers from digital distraction. When we consider non-content related skills that our students need, we often discuss critical thinking and writing skills. But perhaps the most significant non-content related skill that our students need to learn is how to deal with digital distraction and procrastination so that they can focus on learning and achieving their goals.

This spring, I decided teach my students to deal with digital distractions and procrastination by giving them ALL of my own strategies that I use to be productive. My husband and I both work full-time at OSU, and we have four sons between ages 5 and 14. Because I don’t like to work all of the time and I enjoy reading books, watching TV, and hanging out with my family, I read a lot of books, articles, and podcasts about productivity and accountability. Over winter break, I read a book that I highly recommend to everyone: Small Teaching by James Lang. In this book, I learned that to cement my course material into my students’ long-term memories, they were going to need to be forced to recall that material. I decided to add in a cumulative midterm and final to my course HDFS 2200, Family Development, and as such, I also decided that I needed to give my students non-content related skills for studying so that they would be successful! This led me to take stock of the strategies I use to be productive, and I realized that most of my strategies would also work for my students. I created a video script, then recorded a video, and posted the script, to my online and in-person courses. I required students to watch/read the script and held them accountable by quizzing them over the content. I called it “How to Succeed in HDFS 2200.” I also created a generic version of the script called How to Succeed in College.

Strategies I covered included: Efficient Study Skills, Accountability Structures, Distraction Blockers, and Additional Tips. Under efficient study skills, I featured several of the study skills covered in Small Teaching including retrieval, prediction, and interleaving. I also incorporated prediction into the course by requiring students to take pass/fail prediction quizzes each week before consuming that weeks’ materials. They answer four open ended questions designed to prime their brain to receive the content on the topic by activating their prior knowledge on the topic. An example question for the module on love and romantic relationships is “Do individuals have more choices in who they are going to partner with today than 50 years ago? Is this a good thing, or bad thing for individuals? For the institution of marriage?”

I love accountability, and I use it to help me keep focused on my own goals. Write on Site, which is managed by Prof. Inés Valdez of the department of Political Science here at OSU, is a program whereby faculty and graduate students meet in a conference room on campus at the appointed time and write. There is no talking, everyone just works on their own projects on their laptops, but the deal is that there is no social media or email checking allowed, and no interruptions to deal with. I suggested my students do something similar with a study group, either with students in HDFS 2200 or in other classes. Another strategy that has helped me in innumerable ways is my own accountability group. I got this idea from Michelle Boyd of InkWell Academic Writing Retreats.  Three of my colleagues and I meet once a week to review our goals from the previous week, and to set goals for the following week. We have a system where if you meet your goals – for example, one of my goals this week is to spend four hours working on a revise and resubmit for a  manuscript I am leading – you get a gold star. If you almost meet your goals, you get a silver, and if you do not meet your goals, you get a blue star. I find it very motivating to go for gold! I suggested my students do something similar, but set study goals.

Have you ever been in the zone, getting a lot of work done on something important, when you get a notification on your phone or email, checked the notification, and then suddenly its 5 o’clock and you need to leave to get your child from daycare, and you realize that you never got back to that important project? To deal with this, I get almost no notifications on my phone, and have turned off any kind of notification on my email. I want to be in charge of my time, I don’t want my phone or email in charge of my time. I suggested that my students do the same, or try turning their phone on “do not disturb” when they are trying to get some serious studying done. I also suggested that students use apps like StayFocused and Freedom to block distracting sites like the news, shopping, and social media websites when they are studying. I use these, and I cannot even look at Amazon between 9 am and 4 pm. Last December I received an email that someone had ordered light-up shoes on my Amazon account. I had to call my husband to see what it was, and yep, he ordered light-up shoes to go with his Christmas suit. So, it can be annoying at times, but not wasting time on Amazon helps me focus my time on projects that are really important to me.

Something I also learned from Michelle Boyd was that if I am writing and I need a break, one of the worst things I can do is to consume writing! I used to take breaks from writing projects by checking my email or looking at Facebook. Now, I use a fidget toy or take a walk around my office or campus. I try to avoid talking to others or reading anything though. Most of the time when I need a break it is because my brain is trying to work through some sort of problem or logic in my writing. While I am playing with my tangle, or walking around my building, my brain is working out the problem. So, I suggested my students use fidget toys or stretching/walking to take breaks from their studying.

I wrapped up the video with additional tips, like working with an Academic Coach or taking a workshop at the Dennis Learning Center, practicing mindfulness and meditation, getting exercise and sleep, taking care of their physical and mental health, and doing self-care to try to manage stress. These are all important things that we could all do to take better care of ourselves. If we are not interacting in at least a small group basis with our students, we can forget that school is very stressful. In light of the stress that some of us have with balancing work and our personal lives, it is easy to forget that emerging adulthood is also stressful as our students balance schoolwork, paid work, identity formation, intimate relationships, and the uncertainty of their own futures. I want to help my students reach their full potential and achieve their dreams. I solicited some feedback from my students about the video. I had a lot of comments, but the ones below represent the overall feedback well. In their own words:

Online students:

“I found the part about mindfulness and self-care the most useful. These are things that I am continuously trying to improve on and make time for each day. I appreciated one of my instructors promoting this. It really showed how much she cares for her students and their well being. Using meditation apps and remembering to take some time for myself has helped me be less stressed with my class work.”

“Something I found really useful for this course and some of my other courses was the concept of interleaving from the efficient study skills section. After each quiz I would review the answers and then add on to that after each quiz and I would do the same thing for the readings as well. I think that is why I did pretty well on the midterm exam since I didn’t cram and felt like I knew the information pretty well.”

“The most helpful part was the Distraction Blockers part – it seems silly to have to outline how to not be distracted but it really helped. I personally started using fidget toys on my break therefore my breaks were shorter then if I took a social media break. I also appreciated the additions at the end about the importance of sleep and self care – I think too often professors forget how much students have going on and its nice to have someone who cares about how we are doing.”

“I found the information useful on how to eliminate distractions of my cell phone. I wasn’t previously aware there was an app to lock my phone down so that I wouldn’t be distracted during times I should be studying. I also started using the app since my phone is like a rabbit hole for me.”

“The one thing from the video that stuck out to me the most was that reading Twitter of Facebook while taking a break from studying can continue straining the brain. While you continue to read, your mind doesn’t take a break, so now I choose to do something active like moving around when I take a break from studying and stretch a bit.”

In Person students:

“The study break tip has really helped me when studying for all my class this semester.  Usually when I would try and take a study break I would end up in a YouTube hole and waste a lot of time.  Now I like to go for a short walk when I need a break and when I get back to my room I go back to work instead of getting distracted by social media.”

“I like the tips provided at the end of the video. It has made me realize that it’s important to take care of myself in order to perform best.”

“I like the group studying option. I like to make sure I know the material first myself, then explain to others. Teaching them helps me reinforce the material.”


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