Monday, February 7, 2011

How I started to take my own deadlines and planning seriously

In this post, I'm elaborating on the first way to motivate yourself which I described earlier on. 

The very basis for my habit of taking my own planning seriously dates back to the time when I was studying in Brussels. In the Belgian system, exams only come twice a year, at the end of a (if I remember correctly) a 13 weeks period of classes. When I started, some courses were still year-long courses and if we'd fail the exam after the first semester of that course,  we could still recover the course by taking an oral exam on the entire course at the end of the academic year. After 13 weeks of class, we were having 3 weeks to study and then 3 weeks of exam, with usually 3 days in between the exams. Homework is not coming that often as in the US system, and the amount of theory is typically much larger in my impression. We'd have to memorize entire books with proofs and derivations for every course.

In my very first year I ended up with 50cm of paper which I had to put into my head some time during the next 6 weeks. I was not having class, so I was mainly in isolation, and with an amount of material I  had never seen before. I was not too positive about ever being able to pass any exam at all. And I indeed failed Linear Algebra (I'll never forget that), and I barely passed Chemistry. Before that, I had always passed all exams in school with flying colors, but suddenly I was struggling. I was merely struggling with the amount of material I had to work through, taking my short concentration span into account and my average need for sleep and relatively large need for breaks and creative activity.

In the Belgian system, every class typically leads to two exams: a theoretical exam (about the derivations of formulas or proofs which you should study) and an exam of exercises. I used to do pretty bad on the exercises, since I never really managed to prepare for those. Or I would try to work through a bunch of examples the day before the exam, not giving my brain the time to really master the material.

Bit by bit, I realized I had to change my way of working. One reason was that I wanted to get rid of the insane amount of stress I'd have during those weeks of exams (I'd get sick almost every time) and the other reason was that I wanted to master some subjects - not just study to pass the exam and then forget the material.

So I started to study during the year. With 40 hours of class a week and compulsory labs which need preparation, it was hard to find time to study (and still being able to practice sports, take music lessons, sing in a band, go out and all that). I started to actually understand what we were doing in the exercises, and put all the material together and understand the whole story behind all the theoretical work. I would make a planning half-way the semester and start working through all the proofs and derivations in the books. Some classes I skipped deliberately to work through the material on my own, during the hours of the lecture. I found what was working best for me, but in order to be able to do so, I really had to respect my own planning.

As my planning became better, I started to get better results, started to be respected by my classmates and my self-confidence grew along the way. I also started to enjoy studying. In spring, I would take my plastic table outside and sit in the pleasant spring weather to study during the day, and then I would reward myself with relax-time in the evening.
Getting such positive results from learning to work in advance became my main motivation to start in time and respect my self-imposed deadlines. By now, it has become a habit and I would never want to end up getting so stressed that I am brain-paralyzed again.


  1. Great post Eva -- thanks for writing it, this really makes a lot of sense how that structure would force you to develop these habits on your own.

  2. Sadly enough, most students in the Belgian system just study for the exam, not to actually master the material; and make it a sport to figure out the exam questions in advance.