Schedule to Succeed : Beware of Scheduling Traps

A powerful and nuanced aspect of college-student life is your ability to create your own schedule. You decide which classes to take, what times to attend these classes, what you will do to learn, and when to study. This is an awesome level of autonomy. However, with great power comes great responsibility. By enrolling in a college course, you sign up to learn at an accelerated pace. In each of your college classes, you will be asked to perform under challenging circumstances on assignments, quizzes, exams, projects, term papers, and during in-class discussions. At the end of the term, your teachers will likely assign your final grade based on your performance on submitted work. Part of accomplishing your academic goals is to acknowledge that learning takes time. When designing a course schedule, it is very easy to underestimate the amount of time you will need to accomplish your academic goals. In this post, we discuss some strategies you might use to avoid common scheduling traps.

A scheduling trap is a situation in which you create an academic schedule that causes you to suffer. In other words, you fall into a scheduling trap when you budget less time than you actually need to do your work. This is related the idea of a fudge ratio. All of the following are situations can lead to scheduling traps:

  1. You create an overly-demanding weekly schedule and do not leave enough time to fulfill all of your commitments.
  2. You overestimate your level of preparation for at least one of your college courses.
  3. You underestimate how much time you need achieve your academic goals.
  4. You underestimate the difficultly level of at least one of your college courses.
  5. At least one of your college teachers is extremely punitive and does not provide any flexibility in due dates.
  6. At least one of your college teachers creates assignments that are way beyond your current capacity.
  7. At least one of your college teachers spends very little time coaching you on their expectations for your performance.

Our Schedule to Succeed project is designed to protect you against these and other issues that arise when working towards your academic goals. One way we do this is by coaching you to make a first draft of your weekly schedule in our Schedule to Succeed : Draft Your Weekly Schedule post. We also have you complete the Weekly Schedule Analyzer. Using your first draft of your weekly schedule and weekly schedule analyzer, look back at your answers to the leading questions in Table 7.2: Identify Symptoms of Scheduling Traps.

Figure: Leading questions to help you identify symptoms of scheduling traps. Each of the questions in this table are designed to help you figure out if you’ve created a schedule that might lead to suffering. If you answer yes to any of the questions above, you may be falling into a scheduling trap.

STEP 9: IDENTIFY POSSIBLE SCHEDULING TRAPS

Each question in Table 7.2 above is designed to help you identify possible symptoms of scheduling traps. We believe you are genius, you are capable, and that you can thrive in every one of your college classes. However, many college students never learn how to earn the grades they want because they struggle to accurately predict how much time they need to spend studying to accomplish their academic goals. To address these type of scheduling issues, we want to help you build your self-awareness and to provide some gentle guidance.

Let’s start by looking back at your responses to the questions in Table 7.2 above. If you answered YES to any of these questions, you may have created a schedule that will lead to suffering this academic term. If you answered NO to all of those questions, you’ve probably created a schedule that avoids common scheduling traps that many college students fall into. In either case, keep your draft weekly schedule for future use. We will return to your weekly schedule as we continue to hone your skills to conquer college. For now, let’s finish our work in this post by helping you think critically about your weekly time constraints.

STEP 10: REALIZE YOUR TIME CONSTRAINTS

As you analyze your schedule, it’s important to remember that there are 168 hours in one week (24 hours per day times 7 days per week). When considering your academic term, you might partition your weekly time into different categories:

Weekly Sleeping Hours:         Number of hours per week that you spend asleep
Weekly Waking Hours:          Number of hours per week that you spend awake

If you sleep 56 hours per week (8 hours per night times 7 nights per week), then you have:

Weekly Sleeping Hours          =          56
Weekly Waking Hours           =          112      =          168 – 56

In creating a schedule that is designed to conquer college, I encourage you to plan to get 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night. Learning requires deep thought and critical thinking. Also, to reach your academic goals, you will need to perform well on graded work. Regular sleep empowers you to produce your best results consistently. If possible, avoid all-nighters like you would avoid the bubonic plague. Instead, work hard each day to create a consistent sleep schedule during the week. Healthy sleep habits are a crucial part of reaching your academic goals.

STEP 11: RECOGNIZE SCHEDULING TRAPS

If you’ve estimated that your Total Number of Active Working Hours Per Week (from Table 7.1) is more than 55 hours or if you are enrolled in more than 15 units, alarm bells should be ringing. I use the threshold of 55 hours per week because this represents about 50% of your weekly waking hours (55/112 ≈ 0.49). If you work 55 hours in a week, you must set aside one out of every two waking hours to do professional work. This doesn’t include eating, commuting, showering, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, paying bills, watching movies, time with friends, dating, family time, exercise or any other non-professional, day-to-day activity. Also, 55 active hours per week corresponds to eight hours per day, seven days a week working on professional goals. This is a full-time job with zero days off per week.

I use the threshold of 15 units because I have found that to earn above a 3.0 GPA on 15 units likely requires at least 55 hours of work per week during the most demanding weeks of the term. This represents a full-time student workload and requires limited involvement outside of school. In our Get Paid to Learn project, we discuss the use of scholarships, internships, work-study programs, and grants to fund your college education. By maintaining a cumulative GPA above 3.0, you put yourself in a good position to take advantage of such opportunities. 

Young learners who are unfamiliar with the expectations placed on college students will sometimes underestimate the difficulty level of college courses or overestimate their level of preparation. This is the “All Work and No Play” Trap. If you create a schedule that puts you into this trap, you force yourself into a term-long cycle of all work and no play. Students who fall into this trap may:

  1. Work very long hours (more than 55 hours) each week for an entire term.
  2. Have high levels of stress.
  3. Feel burnt out from lack of adequate rest.
  4. Feel depressed, overwhelmed, and unmotivated.
  5. Fail to achieve the academic goals they set for their courses.
  6. Earn lower grades than desired.
  7. Fail at least one class and have to repeat that class in a later term.

STEP 12: PROTECT AGAINST SCHEDULING TRAPS

If you estimate that your Total Number of Active Working Hours Per Week (from Table 7.1) is more than 55 hours or if you are enrolled in more than 15 units, decide now to re-examine your schedule for the upcoming term. Remember that estimate included all of the following activities:

  1. Weekly in-class meeting times
  2. Extra curricular activities
  3. Weekly work hours
  4. Weekly budgeted study hours.

In the case that you’ve created a schedule that is over-demanding, I encourage you to decrease your required meeting times by doing at least one of the following:

Step 12.1: Decrease your involvement in extra curricular activities.

☐ Decide on the extra curricular activities that are essential to you and the minimum weekly commitment you want to dedicate to that activity.

☐ Decide the activities that can be put on pause for this term.

☐ For all extra curricular activities that you can put on pause for this term, contact the appropriate people and decrease your time commitments accordingly.

Step 12.2: Decrease the number of hours you spend working at a part- or full-time job each week.

☐ Calculate the lowest monthly paycheck you can afford and decrease your paid work hours accordingly (make sure to factor in benefits to this equation).

☐ Increase the amount of money you earn in scholarships. It may take some time for you to learn how to earn enough scholarship money to supplement your paid income from non-school-related labor. Our Get Paid to Learn project is centrally focused on helping you learn how to get paid to be a student.

Step 12.3: Re-imagine your academic goals and course load.

All of the following strategies involve re-imaging your academic plan. Please be sure to discuss these decisions with an academic counselor at your institution before finalizing such decisions.

☐ Lower your academic goals in your classes: instead of trying to get A’s in all your courses, consider being more flexible and allowing yourself to get B’s or C’s in some of your classes. That will decrease your out-of-class study time and take some of the pressure off when the quarter gets crazy with exams and due dates.

☐ Take at least one of your non-major classes for Pass/Not Pass.

☐ Re-prioritize your timeline for graduation to lighten your academic load this term.

☐ Drop at least one of your classes to lighten your academic load.

Making these changes may effect your progress towards your degree, impact your ability to be accepted into academic programs in the future, or push off your graduation date. These decisions may also have a financial impact by requiring extra time in school. In other words, as you think about these options, please consult with an academic counselor, someone in your institution’s financial aid office, and other people in your network who are part of your college planning team (like your parents or family members who may be paying for tuition).

Step 12.4: DO NOT decrease your budgeted outside-of-class study time (see below)

A core principle for academic success is to budget more study time than you think you need to achieve your academic goals. There are at least three good reasons to adhere to this principle including:

  1. Learning is a process in which you actively exceed the frontiers of you current knowledge. When working to understand a new concept, you accrue relevant experiences, compare new information with previous understanding and actively form new knowledge via critical thinking. These processes take persistent reflection on a day-to-day basis over a period of days, weeks, months, years, and decades. In other words, deep learning works best when you engage in well-structured practice on a daily basis over long periods of time (rather than by cramming). If you don’t have enough time to practice on a day-to-day basis, it’s easy to put off learning tasks until right before due dates. However, this leads to decreased performance, decreased learning, and increased stress.

  2. College classes assume certain prerequisite knowledge. However, it is almost a guarantee that you will have some gaps in knowledge from previous courses. By budgeting extra time, you enable yourself to strengthen target areas from previous courses while progressing through current course content.

  3. Flexibility is very important when studying. Your academic workload will vary from class to class and from week to week.To conquer college, we want to help you create a schedule that gives you more control and enough flexibility to perform even during the most difficult weeks in the academic term. Scheduling more time than you need allows you extra flexibility during difficult weeks. This will also enable you to get some rest and relaxation in your personal life during less demanding weeks.

One of the most common strategies that young students use when they find themselves caught in an scheduling trap is to push off daily studying. Such students might spend the minimum effort needed to finish required assignments and push forward in the class independent of how strong a grasp they have on the material. In the short term, this strategy seems to work and creates a false sense of security.

However, as the quarter goes on, the lack of learning practice and consistent reflection builds up. This might show up as low scores on midterm exam or on graded assignments. In these cases , many students make false judgements about their own ability. They may begin to doubt themselves, tell themselves they aren’t cut out for hard classes, think about changing majors, or even think about dropping out of school. However, in so many cases, the problem has much more to do with the schedule the student created and how the student spent their time working towards their academic goals. In other words, when you struggle to achieve your academic goals, it may well be the case that the source of that problem is the schedule you set for yourself before the quarter began.

The sooner you can create highly effective scheduling routines that give you plenty of flexible time to learn slowly and deeply, the more control you’ll have over your academic life. Not only will you be able to achieve your academic goals but you will do so with less stress, more freedom, and by scheduling fun/joy into your life on a weekly basis.

STEP 13: DEALING WITH FRICTION

Our Schedule to Succeed project is designed to help you learn to identify potential scheduling traps before the term begins. So much about learning to conquer college depends on making academic schedules that empower you to spend the amount of time you need to create the experiences you want in your classes. Scheduling decisions you make before you term begins have huge impacts on your academic performance later in a term.

Over the past decade, I estimate that I’ve used this schedule to succeed activity with at least 1000 students and I’ve had hundreds of conversations about this work in individual office hour appointments. During this time, I have noticed some interesting trends.

First, a majority of my students create over-ambitious academic schedules. I bet that at least 60% of my students fall into the all-work-and-no-play trap every single quarter. The fact that this is so common tells me something is fundamentally not-right with the way we support students in college in making scheduling decisions. Specifically, way too many students are not prepared to create academic schedules that support the type of achievement they desire. I plan to write a lot more about this issue in a future posts. For now, I want to say this: if you find yourself answering yes to many of the questions in Table 7.2 above, you’re not alone. In fact, I bet more at least 60% of your fellow students in this class are in the same boat.

Second, I get a lot of push back from students when I suggest that they re-evaluate their time commitments. Using the work described above, it’s easy to get students to a place where they can see that they are over-committed. Indeed, if you finish drafting your weekly schedule and fill out your weekly schedule analyzer, it’s quite easy to see if you’ve committed to a schedule that might require more 55 hours of work each week.

The harder part of this activity is helping you make concrete changes to your schedule. Part of this friction has to do with timing. By the time you’ve started an academic term, it’s a little late in the game to be making substantial changes to your course schedule. This is like trying to put on your basket ball shoes after the a game has started.

Your academic schedule is tied to your current life circumstances and your larger vision for your future. This might include your desired graduation date which is a choice that requires you to finish a certain number of classes each term. Moreover, your thoughts about when you want to graduate are likely tied to financial constraints since tuition, housing, and food cost money. Many students also need to work outside of school to pay rent and put food on the table. Asking you to change your academic schedule may force you to deal with much larger considerations than simply rearranging your course load or decreasing your weekly, non-school related commitments.

Let me be really clear: I am not advocating that you should disregard your own personal circumstances. In fact, I believe you should be honest with yourself and thoughtful about your current reality. What I want to do is to help you be proactive in creating your schedule. I have seen so many students shy away from a clear-eyed analysis of their time commitments. They rationalize their choices with statements like:

  • I see what Jeff is trying to show me in this activity. But I’ll be fine. I’ve done this type of work before. I can do it again this quarter.
  • I never spend 4 hours outside of class for every one hour inside of class. That seems like way too much work to me and I don’t think I need to plan for that.
  • I don’t want to re-imagine my desired graduation date. That is way too hard to think about. I will push forward with my current plan and see what happens.

If you have a proven track record of earning the grades you want in every one of your classes, then I support of you in continuing to use your strategies. You clearly know how to thrive in school and you have systems to make sure you perform at the levels you want while balancing your other time commitments. I would still push you to think more deeply about your schedule since grades are a not-so-important part of a college degree. In a later project called From the Classroom to the Bank, we’ll talk about how building transferable skills that are more important than grades when trying to get your first job out-of-college. If all you’re doing is getting good grades in school, you will likely be in for a harsh reality when it comes to compete for jobs. However, in the short term, please do continue to use your current skills to earn the grades you want.

On the other hand, if you struggle to earn the grades you want in school, I encourage you to re-visit steps 12.1 – 12.4 above. So many students resist this advice only to realize later in the quarter that they won’t be able to accomplish their academic goals. Instead of proactively managing their commitments by making the types of decisions highlighted in steps 12.1, 12.2, 12.3, and 12.4, these students fall into scheduling traps. In doing so, they force their future selves to react to the consequences later in the quarter.

Every single quarter I do this activity, almost every student I have tells me they want straight As in all of their classes. And yet, so many students end up falling short of their stated desires. Some of those students end up having to drop at least one of their classes, failing at least one class, or feel tons of stress later in the quarter.

I want to put you on notice now. I encourage you to do everything in your power to decrease your weekly time commitments so that you are scheduling yourself to work no more than 55 hours per week. Make that commitment now. Make the painful choices you need to make to re-evaluate your academic schedule, your goals, your financial priorities, and your extracurricular time commitments so that you have more control over your time.

If, for some reason, you cannot or will not do that hard work now, please remember this activity when things get hard later in the quarter. Recognize that when you’re struggling to thrive in your classes and not achieving the grades you want, this has nothing to do with your intelligence, capacity, or ability. Instead, what you may be experiencing are the consequences of scheduling traps. The scheduling decisions you made before the quarter may have caught up to you and now cause you stress, lack of control, and may be the cause of your under-performance. Remember always that you are genius. You can learn anything you want. You can thrive in college. Learning takes time and in order to perform at your best, you have to schedule to succeed. You have to learn how to create an academic plan and academic schedules that give you enough flexibility to think slowly, learn deeply, and have down time each week to recharge.

We’ll end with a final suggestion. One strategy I hope you’ll consider in the future is doing this activity as you get ready to sign up for classes. The earlier you can plan your schedule, the better. Thus, I encourage you to make this process part of the way you schedule classes every academic term. Don’t wait until your classes start to think this way. As you’re putting together your academic plan, remember the lessons you learned in this exercise and plan ahead.

Community Challenge

  1. In your own words, define what a scheduling trap is.

  2. What are your experiences with scheduling traps in college? Describe a time that you’ve fallen into a scheduling trap? What led to that trap? How did that feel? If you could go back and talk to yourself before the academic term began, what would you tell yourself? If you haven’t fallen into any traps, what habits do you use to help you avoid over commitment? Please be as specific as you can be.

  3. What are your experiences avoiding scheduling traps? Specifically, describe a time where you felt that your academic schedule gave you enough flexibility, freedom, and time to learn slowly and deeply. What was it like to be able to achieve your goals while having enough time to rest, relax, and play? If you haven’t yet had this experience, what would it take for you to create such a reality in your life?

  4. What changes do you plan to make in your current academic schedule in relation to steps 12.1, 12.2, 12.3, or 12.4? If you don’t plan to make any changes to your current schedule, please describe why you will not make any changes.

  5. What was your favorite part of this blog post? What new ideas, techniques, or knowledge do you have now that you plan to use in your future? Why?

  6. What can you do to incorporate this activity into the way you schedule your classes each quarter? Specifically, the course schedule for next term usually gets published in weeks 3 – 5 of the current term and registration dates usually happen during weeks 6 – 8. What can you do during those times to use this Schedule to Succeed activity to set yourself up for success in the future?

    EXAMPLE: Here is are some examples from my (Jeff’s) life: When earning my undergraduate degree (BS in Mathematics), I had a bunch of rules for myself when signing up for classes. First, I did everything in my power not to take more than 2 STEM classes in a single quarter. When I did take two STEM classes, I worked with my academic counselor to plan my third class to be academically light. This might be taking a GE class for pass/not-pass or taking athletic classes that required little academic work outside of class. In my undergraduate life, there was one quarter that I took three STEM classes, one of which was graduate-level. That quarter was extremely busy and I had to cut back on extracurricular activities to achieve my desired grades in those courses. I also set a hard limit of no more than 13 quarter-units each academic term. This required careful planning and a bunch of work on scholarships to help afford tuition, housing, and food. I also did take two summer classes to distribute my course load. When I took summer classes, I would only take one class per summer session since summer classes at UCSB happened on an accelerated time scale (5 weeks instead of 10 weeks). There were at least three quarters that I took more than 13 units and one quarter where I took 16 units. Those quarters, I planned ahead to spend a lot more time studying. I also made sure to build in extra trips to office hours and completely eliminated some extracurricular activities from my life. I also had to cut back on socializing. Knowing that those quarters were going to be rough, I made sure that the next quarter was much lighter so that I could find balance again after I finished final exams.

    In graduate school, life got crazy. During my course work, I allowed myself to take three STEM classes each quarter and increased my commitment to earning scholarships, fellowships, and grants. During that time, it was common that I worked 60 – 70 hour weeks. There were a few times that I worked 90 hour weeks which was brutal. During the 90-hour weeks, I would do math or write code all day (using 2 and a half 90-10-90-60-90-10-90-120 study cycles in a single day). Then, I ride home, sleep, wake up and do this over again. That is not sustainable for the long run but got me through finals weeks during the first two years of my graduate program. During that time, I was also judicious about the types of extracurricular activities I engaged in. Graduate school required a way-more-intense lifestyle that is not realistic nor fun for most undergraduate students. However, at that point in my life, I was ready for the challenge and enjoyed my time in graduate school immensely. Moreover, I was getting paid to be a student by that point so that 100% of my tuition, housing, and food were paid for by scholarships, internships, and work-study programs. Part of my motivation to help you learn to conquer college is so that you can get paid to learn what you want and to develop skills to launch a career that you love.  

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