Schedule to Succeed: Plan to Fudge It Up

In this post,

Before each term begins, colleges ask students to sign up for classes. If you are a student who wants to routinely set and achieve your academic goals, your scheduling decisions are crucial to your long-term success. Unfortunately, schools seldom provide useful guidance on how to think about this high-impact decision. In this post, I break down a subtle aspect of making a class schedule. Specifically, I highlight the concept of a fudge ratio which quantifies the difference between how much time you budget for a task and how much time the task actually takes. We will use this work in later posts on scheduling traps, creating academic calendars, and making your institution work for you.

Learning Takes Time

A nuanced aspect of college-student life is your ability to create your own schedule. You decide which classes to take, what times to attend, when to study, and how much time to dedicate to your learning. This is an awesome level of autonomy. However, with great power comes great responsibility. Whenever possible, I encourage you to make scheduling decisions based on your learning needs. This entire post is grounded in a simple yet profound principle of learning, stated below.

LEARNING PRINCIPLE: Learning takes more time than you think you need.

You get the most out of your learning when you engage in slow, healthy struggle. To optimize your learning, make deliberate reaches, embrace deep practice, build connections between new ideas and your previous understanding, think flexibly and creatively, interpret ideas from multiple perspectives, and attentively repeat these steps.

Another way to state this principle is: when learning something new, make a conscious effort to go slow (much slower than you think you need to). Ample evidence in neuroscience indicates that when we focus on short-term strategies and try to increase the speed at which we think, we can actually impede our ability to learn something new. Instead, the more deeply you want to learn something, the slower you should study. This learning principle has profound implications for students making scheduling decisions.

Each time you choose your courses, you are literally projecting into your future to impose time constraints on your learning. The problem is that for most students, the act of signing up for classes is like agreeing to marry someone that you’ve never met. This is not a perfect comparison since each class only lasts 3 – 6 months while some marriages can last a lifetime. But the point of this analogy is to highlight that when you sign up for a class, you are making a substantial commitment with limited insights into the actual demands that will be imposed by the pledge you are making.

In this way, the act of scheduling is an estimation game, a high-stakes gamble (just like getting engaged). When you choose classes, you are implicitly asking yourself: how much time will I need to spend learning each week during the next academic term. You place your chips on the table the day you hit that “Register for this class” button. My recommendation to you is to think about how errors in your estimations will affect your learning before you cross the Rubicon and officially register for classes.

The Fudge Ratio

This is where we can leverage a fun idea: the concept of a fudge ratio. Following the lead of Steve Pavlina, the man who came up with this terminology, we define a fudge ratio as follows:

Definition of fudge ratio

Put another way, a fudge ratio is a way to quantify the accuracy of your estimations. Let’s take a look at three important scenarios for fudge ratios by running through a semi-realistic thought experiment.

Suppose you are planning to “learn” a new concept covered during lecture in week three of the next academic term. Of course, it’s not possible to deeply learn a new concept in one sitting, but we’ll ignore that fact for a minute. Suppose you estimate it will take you four hours to complete this task and you schedule this time accordingly. When you actually sit down to learn, there are really only three different possibilities for the fudge ratio.

Advantage Scenario : Fudge ratio < 1

This circumstance results when the actual time it takes you to complete your task is less than the amount of time you budgeted. In our thought experiment, you might land in this scenario if you complete your task in two hours even though you originally budgeted four. That situation would lead to a fudge ratio of 2/4 = 0.5 < 1.

Any time you create a schedule that leads to fudge ratios that are less than one, you put yourself at an advantage (hence the name : advantage scenario). When you are in this position, you complete tasks more quickly than expected and end up with a bunch of extra time. This is wonderful! You can fill that time with anything you’d like: exercise, socializing, Netflix, romance, sleep, cooking, leisure, etc.

Let’s be clear: the advantage scenario represents an error in judgement. A fudge ratio less than one implies that you inaccurately predicted the amount of time you needed to finish a task. However, the consequences of this error put you at an advantage.

Errors of this type can happen in a few different ways. First, you can overestimate the difficulty level of a task and budget way more time than the task requires. Second, you might underestimate your level of preparation and specifically budget extra time to make up for your perceived deficiencies. Or third, you might get lucky and find unexpected resources that help you complete the task more quickly.

Accurate-Prediction Scenario : Fudge ratio = 1

Another possibility results when the actual time it takes you to finish a task is exactly the same as the amount of time that you budgeted. You’d find yourself in this scenario if you actually completed your task in exactly four hours and matched your original prediction, leading to a fudge ratio of 4/4 = 1.

A life filled with fudge ratios equal to one is just about as hard as you expect. You don’t have a ton of extra free time but you are routinely able to hit the due-dates for your commitments. Activities that lead to fudge ratios equal to one are quite convenient since they leave you with the ability to plan your life. These allow you to put nice time constraints around your tasks and move from one task to another with relative ease.

Suffering Scenario : Fudge ratio > 1

This last case results when the actual task duration is larger than the amount of time you budgeted. In our thought experiment, this would occur if you needed six hours to finish a task that you originally thought would take you four hours. Such an error leads to a fudge ratio of 6/4 = 1.5 > 1.

I refer to any set of events that leads to a fudge ratio great than one as a suffering scenario. This language relates to one of my favorite ways to think about suffering. That is, suffering is the sense of pain or loss that we endure when there is a difference between what we expected to happen and what actually occurred.

When I complete a task with a fudge ratio greater than one, I experience a definite loss in my life. Specifically, if I only budget 4 hours to complete a task that actually requires 6 hours of my time to finish, I lose time from somewhere else in my life. This might mean that I cancel plans with a friend, miss a scheduled workout, loose sleep, eat processed food, or compromise some other aspects of my week in order to finish the task.

Just like the advantage scenario, the suffering scenario represents an error in judgement. These two types of errors result from the same issue: you inaccurately predict the amount of time it takes you to finish a task. However, this second type of error puts you at a disadvantage (at least compared to your previous vision for how you spend your time). In order to make up for this error in judgement, you have to find time from elsewhere in your life which involves compromise, sacrifice, and struggle.

The suffering scenario is particularly pernicious in the life of a student. Deep learning is a complex process that does not happen on a predetermined time frame. However, most college classes are blind to your individual learning needs. The average instructors will push through large quantities of material, regardless of whether or not you’ve made progress on your previous learning. And, unlike in the working world, it’s very hard to re-negotiate due dates and time scales with average instructors.

Visualize the Fudge Ratio

Now that we’ve explored the fudge ratio, let’s visualize the different scenarios you might encounter as you build your academic schedule. Below we see a 2-by-2 matrix designed to highlight the relationship between the amount of time you schedule for a given task and the actual amount of time you need to complete that task.

Figure: The four fudge-ratio scenarios. A visual description of the fudge ratio. Notice that position (1,1) and (2,2) represent cases in which you accurately predict the exact amount of time you need for a given task. Position (1,2) and (2,1) represent prediction errors in which the amount of time you schedule is not equal to the amount of time you need.

Decide your class schedule : plan to fudge it up

When it comes to achieving your academic goals, one of the single most important days of any academic term is the day you choose your class schedule. Many students fail to realize how big an impact their scheduling decisions have on their learning. Or, more accurately stated, students seldom plan to find themselves in the suffering scenario. To counter act this tendency, I propose the following practice.

LEARNING PRACTICE: Learning takes more time than you think you need

In order to create a class schedule that empowers you to achieve your academic goals, hold the following three thoughts in your mind as you choose your classes:
1. Next term is going to be way harder than I think it will be
2. I might not be as prepared as I should be to do well in my classes
3. I need to extra create time to work hard, think deeply, and be flexible

I’m not proposing that you should believe these things about yourself. Instead, do your best to make scheduling decisions as if these assumptions are true. It is pretty much a guarantee that the amount of time you think you need will not be exactly equal to the amount of time that you actually need. The question is: what type of errors do you want to set yourself up for?

The point of centering this learning practice is to err on the side of caution. Once you have these thoughts squarely in your consciousness, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What class schedule can I create that will give me ample time to study and learn?
  • How much flexible time do I have in my proposed schedule to deal with fudge ratios that are greater than one?
  • What can I do now, before I actually sign up for classes, to create extra flexible time to learn, study, and focus on my academic goals?

In later posts, I’ll address many strategies you can use to answer these questions. For example, we’ll talk about common scheduling traps, long-term academic planning, finding ways to save money on tuition, making money using scholarships, and other mechanisms you can use to increase the amount of flexibility you build into your schedules. Hopefully this will help you decrease the amount of pain and suffering you experience when you hit fudge ratios greater than one.

A great way to sum up this entire post is as follows: When scheduling your college classes, plan to fudge it. Do your best to make the fudge taste sweet.

Community Challenge

  1. Think about the learning principle presented in this article. Restate this principle in your own words. See if you can translate each idea presented in the box above into your own intuitive language.

  2. In what situations do you find the learning principle highlighted above to be true for your own learning?

  3. What happens when you need more time to learn something than you have allotted in your schedule? What type of struggles or challenges come up when you don’t have enough time to spend on your learning? How does this make you feel?

  4. What are different strategies you can use to deal with the mismatch between the amount of time you budget to get your work done and the amount of time you actually need? In other words, how might you try to learn deeply if you haven’t set aside enough time to do so?

  5. Conquering College Lab 1: Schedule to Succeed is all about designing scheduling documents that help you be a more efficient and effective student. Why might the learning principle described in question 1 above be helpful when trying to create your academic scheduling documents? In other words, how can you apply that learning principle to your process of creating tools to help you manage your time commitments?

  6. In your own words, define what a fudge ratio is.

  7. Think about the four scenarios presented in the 2-by-2 matrix which is the visual description of the fudge ratio. For each of the boxes in that matrix, come up with a concrete example from your own life of when you found yourself in that box.

    EXAMPLE: Here is some examples from my (Jeff’s) life: Recently, I found myself in the advantage scenario. Specifically, I had to drop something off at the post office. I estimated that this errand would take me about 15 minutes: 6-minutes for the drive over, 2-minutes for drop off, and 6-minutes for the drive home. When I finished the errand, it only took me 12 minutes. I caught two green lights and there were less people in line than I thought. On the other hand, in February 2022, I submitted a paper for publication that took me 6 years of work to complete. When I originally started work on this paper, I thought I would be done by August 2020. Because of COVID and because of the complexity of the work I was doing, it took about 2 years longer than expected. For this project, I found myself in the suffering scenario because I had made plans to finish much earlier. Because I missed my self-imposed due date, I have pushed off other projects while I worked to finish this one

  8. How can you use the idea of a fudge ratio and the four different scenarios to your advantage as you create your own academic scheduling documents? How can you make these ideas useful to you as you prepare to thrive in your academic work this term?

6 thoughts on “Schedule to Succeed: Plan to Fudge It Up

  1. Reflecting on our chat today… we have as much creative freedom (experimenting w content creation, vocal training, humor, storytelling, etc… all in the service of empowering students) on the TLC… as a tenured professor who worked for a decade of their life does! While it certainly IS IN the institutions’ interest to empower their professors (give them more agency, time for course development, incentivized for research in learning etc…) let us show your colleagues and your students (which you do already) who think you are a workaholic, the productivity systems (that are largely driven & centered by your healthy values…) which lead to our ability to focus on the learning while publishing!

    Below is a zoom recording of me reading your written work and reflecting on it! it’s like 93.5% me just reading, and quite bland so no need to listen to it Jeff!
    In the future, I will create sub 5-min synopsis and reflection to treat each of your posts as a published book!

    Podcast transcript of the video of me reading and reflecting:

    As much as I’d love to read your written comment on my blog posts, consider doing a comment (in the far future) in video form (you’ll generate the audio clip for free!). I have full faith that whatever comment you write me, if it’s anything like the comments I’ve seen you leave on your YT, should not be left in the void of the knowledge curse and proudly projected to empower yourself and your fellow students!)

    Extra Credit: voice actor demonstrating how cool learning how to control our voice is! This can be a magnificent pro-development for connecting w our audience/students, and video/media content we ship (Godin)!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It was convenient that I had the weekend to read this post and my registration date was earlier today!

    The inclusion of the boxes with learning principles and learning practices benefit readers like me who like to skim through the reading before and after a thorough reading. Also, I always enjoy a good analogy, and the comparison of locking in an unfamiliar schedule and getting married to a stranger really does the idea justice. There is always room for caution in the presence of so many scheduling and systemic traps we can easily find ourselves in.

    From the reading, I had a mixed feelings reaction when I read the second box about the three specific thoughts to have. These thoughts made my optimistic self feel uneasy about my education, especially with the history of failure I’ve had in my past. It was a relief to see the following sentence mention that you should not believe these things about yourself. Regardless, it was an interesting reaction and I believe worth noting.

    Keep up the good work!


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