Top 5 Productivity Tips for Students
Increasing your productivity levels at university can improve the quality and quantity of your work output while freeing up more time for socialising.
During my time at Harvard, I learned a number of invaluable lessons about time management and prioritisation. Check out this piece on 5 key life lessons I learned during my university experience.
In this article, I’ll take you through my top 5 productivity tips for students, from setting aside time to exercise and relax to creating an optimal work environment in your dorms, halls, or flat.
1. Top 5 Productivity Tips for Students: Make Time to Get Outside and Exercise
The first of the top 5 productivity tips for students might not seem conducive with enhancing your efficiency levels: after all, if you’re working out or outside on a walk, you won’t be working on that assignment or drafting up that important email.
However, scientific research shows that spending time outdoors can increase your sense of mental wellbeing drastically while exercising is proven to strengthen your cognitive function, sharpen your focus and bolster your overall creativity.
My most productive days at Harvard were the ones that began with a morning work-out with my rugby team and as part of our team’s programme. We’d stretch out, do some plyometric activations, lift weights, do some body work, and then a bit of extra conditioning or resistance running at the end of the session. We’d then shower and head back over the river for breakfast at 9am.
On these days, I felt a real sense of achievement before I’d even had my breakfast, and this pride translated into deeper levels of motivation and focus during my lectures and studies. I found that my post work-out buzz lasted for several hours, sometimes until early afternoon. By that point in the day, it was far easier to sustain the momentum that I’d generated during the morning and to continue working effectively throughout the afternoon.
Several years on from Harvard, I still find that working out increases my productivity levels pretty drastically on any given day. However, I appreciate that some students won’t have time to exercise on some days, or don’t enjoy working out and lifting weights at a gym.
Here’s a few ideas for increasing your productivity via some mindful physical movement, without having to head to the gym or go too hard on the exercise component:
Even if it’s just a walk around the block or down the street to grab a takeaway coffee, taking some time to get outside in the fresh air can make a huge distance to your sense of wellbeing. I find longer walks really useful if I want to mull over a more complex set of ideas or reflect on work I’ve already done.
Stand up, or better still, get a standing desk
I appreciate that many students won’t have the luxury of being able to afford an ergonomic, automised standing desk, so check out the work environment section at the end of this article for budget-friendly tips on how to feel more physically comfortable whilst working. If you know that you’re going to be sitting at your desk for a while, try to make sure you get up every 30 to 40 minutes and have a walk around your room or flat. Head to the kitchen to make some tea, or stretch out a bit.
Have a dance study break
This might sound a bit ridiculous at first, but we used to do this all the time in our dorm rooms at Harvard. A group of us would meet up in a friend’s common room, blast out some noughties classics, and dance like maniacs around the room for a few minutes. Even dancing for one single song tended to reenergise us and allowed us to get back to our work with a newfound sense of motivation and enthusiasm.
Do a bit of yoga
This one is a game-changer. I never used to enjoy yoga when I was younger, but our coach made us do sessions as part of our recovery during my last few years at Harvard. Ever since then, I have tried to incorporate some yoga stretches into every work out routine I do. If you don’t fancy doing the work out bit, take a few minutes to practice some yoga poses. You can find a number of excellent yoga tutorial videos online for free to help get you started.
2. Work in 90-Minute Blocks for Intellectually Challenging Tasks
There’s a lot of scientific evidence that working in 90-minute sections is actually the most productive way to get things done. I tend to agree, as I find that 90-minutes is the perfect amount of time to get stuck into the meaty section of a task without burning out or losing focus and becoming more susceptible to distractions.
When I have an intellectually challenging task to complete, one which requires me to focus pretty keenly on abstract ideas and complex theories before attempting to articulate these ideas in a way that’s relatively clear to the reader, I’ll remove technological distractions and work for a 90-minute period.
This section of time gives me space to sit with the ideas without feeling too rushed: it also feels like a manageable length of time to concentrate for, especially if I’m struggling to come up with anything good.
Once I’ve worked for 90-minutes, I’ll try to give myself a 30-minute break. I find that I need this length of break to reset and reenergise myself before another 90-minute block. I tend to use this time to get outside or to watch an episode of my favourite TV show on catch-up or Netflix.
3. Top 5 Productivity Tips for Students: Set Aside a Day Per Week for Longer-Form Projects
This is a tip that I wish I’d paid more attention to during my final year at Harvard, when I was writing my Senior Thesis. When I was a Junior, my friend in the year above recommended that I set aside a full day per week during my fall semester of Senior Year to focus purely on my thesis (our thesis was due before Spring Break in spring semester).
She set aside a Friday every week during her fall semester to head to a nearby coffee shop and work solely on her project. This practice helped her majorly when it came to meeting deadlines and keeping on top of thesis-related stress further on down the line when the submission date got closer and closer.
Thinking I had plenty of time during the beginning of my own fall semester of Senior Year, I neglected my thesis work during these months, and ended up feeling overwhelmed with stress during the month or two leading up to my final deadline in March the following year.
Here are some lessons I learned from this period:
This sounds obvious, but it’s so easy to put off work for a longer-term deadline like a Thesis or dissertation. The sooner you get started on this type of project, the better you’ll feel, and the less likely it is that you’ll get overwhelmed or stressed later on.
Respect the project
Give these type of projects and pieces of work the respect they deserve. If you start work on them early and sustain that momentum throughout the weeks and months of the year, you’ll find that your mental wellbeing is far better as a result.
You’re also more likely to produce higher-quality work than what would be the case if you’re scrambling against the clock to turn something in on time.
4. Be Proactive About Making Time for Yourself
When it comes to the top 5 productivity tips for students, you might dismiss this one out of hand.
On first look, this tip might not seem like it has much to do with bolstering overall efficiency, but in reality it’s incredibly important to make time for yourself during busy reading weeks or intensive day-long study sessions.
As mentioned above, research shows that we’re not programmed to work productively for more than 90-minutes to 2 hours at a time. There’s no point slogging through a non-stop 5 or 6-hour study session just for the sake of it: the reality is that we’d spend a lot of that time procrastinating, daydreaming, or producing work that’s not particularly good.
Be strategic about when you take study breaks (see above). I also tend to plan out sections of my leisure time, particularly when I’m really busy with work and impending deadlines.
For example, if I know that I’ve got a long day of writing ahead of me, I’ll make sure that I set an hour-long block for a walk outside or a phone call with a friend.
These activities aren’t only important for my mental health, they’re also great at re-energising me for my next block of studying or work. They allow me to respect my need for self-care while helping me to clear my head of work-related thoughts so that I can return to the task in hand with a fresh, more reflective outlook.
Here are some great ways you can make the most of your downtime and study breaks during university work days:
Go for a walk outside
I’ve already mentioned this a number of times in this article, but getting outside in the fresh air and going for a stroll is such an effective way to reset both mentally and physically.
Call a friend or family member
I’m an advocate of the unexpected cold call to an old mate or family member to have a catch up and bring a smile to their face. You can also meet up with a friend in-person for a coffee or tea break or a meal deal lunch in the park. Chatting with loved ones (especially if it’s in-person) is scientifically proven to be massively beneficial for our mental wellbeing, and it’ll increase our overall productivity levels too.
Watch an episode of your favourite TV show
I love to use this downtime exercise as a treat for when I’ve completed a task I’ve been dreading or have finally got stuck into a longer-term project that I’ve been putting off starting.
Note: be strict with yourself, and allow yourself to watch one episode (or two if they’re shorter) and no more. You don’t want to destroy the momentum you’ve generated by getting started on that intimidating essay or problem set.
Direct your creativity into something else
Another way to have a fulfilling study break or block of downtime is to engage with a creative pursuit or hobby that you enjoy. For example, I write a weekly newsletter for a group of my friends that rounds up some of the activities we’ve done that week in a (hopefully) relatively entertaining way, and if I’m running out of focus on my studies or work, I might turn my hand to that newsletter for half an hour or so.
Have some brain food
At Harvard we used to have a thing called “Brain Break” which ran from 9 to 11 pm every weeknight in our college dining halls. Not only were we able to relax and chat with friends during this break, we also had access to a wide range of whole grain breads, fresh fruit, and unsaturated fats like peanut butter and sunflower seed butter, all foods that are proven to improve your brain health.
5. Top 5 Productivity Tips for Students: Think About the Work Environment That Suits You Best
The final of the top 5 productivity tips for students is also one of the most important. Think about your working environment.
If you’re working out or lifting in the gym, you’ll want to create an environment that’s comfortable and that allows you to perform to the best of your abilities. For example, you’re far more likely to exercise more effectively if you have access to air conditioning or can tune into a playlist that gets the blood pumping. You might also find it easier to run for a longer period of time on the treadmill if it has a built-in screen that plays re-runs of one of your favourite TV shows.
The same concept applies to your university studies: if you can create a working environment that feels comfortable and also allows you to focus properly on your writing, revision, or problem sets, you’re stacking the odds in your favour when it comes to being more productive.
Here are some examples of how I created an effective working environment in my room at Harvard and how I’ve modified my desk setup in recent years to increase my productivity:
Well-placed photos and pictures
I would take the time to pin up some of my favourite pictures or quotes on the cork board behind my desk, as these mementos and memories tended to inspire me when I was struggling with work or a heavy reading.
I made sure that my desk and computer screen was always well-lit, so that I was never squinting to read smaller pieces of text and straining my eyes. Scientific research also shows that the type of light you use will affect your productivity levels depending on the time of day.
For example, blue LED light is really effective for these levels in the first phase of your day, whereas your body will respond better to a more ambient, warm tone of light in the afternoon and evening. It’s worth investing in a blue ring light or something similar for more analytical-type work in the morning.
Keeping my desk clear of clutter
I find that I work a lot better with a clear desk. Ideally, I’d want to only have my laptop, keyboard, mouse tracker, laptop stand, and a desk light and coffee mug in this space. Clearing away any and all excess clutter seems to clear my mind and allows me to focus on the task at hand, which is my work.
I also have a real tendency to get distracted easily, so removing this clutter also diminishes that chances of that happening whilst I’m writing an important email or working on a longer-form essay.
Raised laptop stand and wireless keyboard and tracker
This is a modification I’ve made in the last year or so. I found that when I was sitting at my desk and looking down at my laptop, it was making me slump in my chair, which was having a negative impact on my posture and causing some painful muscle knots in my shoulders and neck.
Therefore, I invested in a laptop stand and a wireless keyboard and tracker so that I was holding my neck and body upright and in the recommended ninety-degree posture whilst doing work.
This has made a massive difference to my productivity levels, as I don’t get as physically tired when working as I used to when I had to slump over my laptop for hours on end.
Sitting upright opens up my body and makes me feel more alert both physically and mentally. It’s also worth noting that you don’t have to get a specialist laptop stand for this to work: a few hardback books or binders should work just fine.
Ergonomic office chair
This is another game-changer. Investing in a proper office chair with built-in lumbar support for your back and comfy arm rests has allowed me to work pretty painlessly and, again, forces me to sit upright and feel more alert and motivated as a result. Aim to find a chair that provides ample support for your lower back and elbows.
A suitable playlist
This might not be related to the physical working environment you create, but it’s an important tip to consider when it comes to producing and sustaining an atmosphere that inspires you and keeps you motivated.
I’m someone who loves listening to music when I study, but if I’m doing something that requires a lot of thought and concentration, I’ll listen to a movie soundtrack or classical pieces so that I’m not distracted by lyrics. Some people prefer not to listen to music at all when working, so find out what works best for you.
Here are some other tips for how you can make your work environment more conducive with productivity.
Sand timer or manual timer
I’m a big fan of the 15-minute sand timer. It’s a great way to force you to focus purely on one thing for a small and manageable section of time. Chuck away your phone, remove any and all distractions in your path, and just focus on something that’s really, deeply important to you for 15 minutes.
Often you’ll find that after the 15 minutes is up, you’ll feel in the zone and will want to continue for another 15, or even for an hour or so.
I tend to incorporate this technique when I’m planning out an essay or trying to formulate a complex idea or project plan: this way, I don’t have to use my computer, which is also a hotbed for distractions and videos of funny cats or rugby highlights on YouTube.
A lot of us have a tendency to get distracted by notifications lighting up our phones while we’re meant to be concentrating on our work. To combat this, I tend to put my phone on the other side of the room or switch it to airplane mode.
You can also get different apps that cut off your access to the internet for a certain amount of time, allowing you to focus more keenly on the task at hand.
TL; DR: Final Thoughts on Productivity
Hopefully, you’ve found some of this information to be useful when it comes to increasing your productivity levels as a student.
If you didn’t manage to read all of this article, here’s a quick summary of the top 5 productivity tips for students:
- Get active, and get outside.
- Work for 90-minute intensive blocks, then take a 30-minute break.
- Get started on longer-form projects as soon as you can.
- Prioritise your mental wellbeing and take time to relax.
- Create an optimal working environment.
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