A Brief History of Time (Management)

When I was in my final year of A Levels, I made the terrible mistake of falling in love.

Well I fell in love twice, actually. Once with a boy and once with a girl, but if you want thatsort of story I’ve written about it plenty of times on my other blog. I asked both of them out and, probably because there weren’t so many lesbians around and she couldn’t afford to be fussy, the girl accepted. Her name was Debbie. We first got together at a Rocky Horror party and I basically popped my cherry while wearing a lab coat, which probably explains more than you’d like about the title of this blog.

Because Debbie and I met in the early spring and were due to sit our A Levels in a few short months, we made the biggest mistake of our academic lives. We uttered those fatal words that fall from the lips of besotted teens everywhere.

“It’s OK, we can do our revising together!”

It still seems odd to me that nations across the world expect their young people to knuckle down and do the kind of studying that will affect their future just as their hormones are quietly exploding, but I suppose if we waited until after that time we’d never get anything done (particularly me, as I’m 42 and my hormones haven’t stopped exploding yet). So Debbie and I dutifully made our revision timetables, and equally dutifully ignored them as we strolled hand in hand and drank cheap cider on Brighton beach.

In compulsory education, in the UK at least, we’re not taught to manage our time. In fact, none of my lessons at school or college were given over to study skills at all. We were simply left to sink or swim. Nobody told me how to research, plan, and write all those essays that were suddenly expected. As long as I handed them in on time, I could fudge it through any way I liked. Although I didn’t go to university straight away I had no reason to believe, from speaking to friends, that anything changed once they entered academia’s hallowed halls. Fresher’s week is more about persuading students to organise their social time than their study time.

Which is why, when I started studying with the Open University, I scoffed and snorted when my first courses seemed to be as much about how is was going to study as what I was studying. I’m reasonably sharp, surely it was up to me to sort that out? To cram for that test at the last minute, to squeeze in a few paragraphs of required reading while the children’s baked beans were warming up? What, you mean the study diary is part of my required work this week?

The idea of learning how to learn seemed almost like an insult to my intelligence, I vowed to skip it and fudge it in favour of the much more interesting stuff, and I suffered for it. Because learning, just like many success stories, is about acquired skill as well as natural intelligence. You can be highly intelligent, but so disorganised it counts for very little when you’re sitting in front of an exam paper. You can spend your time plugging diligently and, while not shining as a beacon of genius, do OK.

Could you imagine entering a tennis tournament when you haven’t lifted a racket in 25 years? A marathon when your sum previous experience is a 5k fun run? No. You’d expect to do some training. Why should embarking on the rigours of a science degree after twenty years away from education be different for me? Luckily I saw that I was going to struggle without listening to the advice quickly, and I now devote some time each week to…. well, learning how to learn.

The hardest thing about returning to the world of education for me has been keeping away from the massive time-hole that is the internet. Which is kind of difficult when we rely on the web so much for research, and Twitter for sources of information on our special interests. Sometimes, when I just can’t seem to concentrate, it takes a far stronger person than me to step away from gossiping on Twitter with my friends and get down to that reading on quantum electron pathways.

But through self-examination, tracking my own habits and jotting down times when I’m at my most alert I’m getting there. For instance, I’ve realised that the best time for me to read and absorb information about quantum electron pathways is about 6am, before my children get out of bed and request cornflakes. After about 2 in the afternoon my brain activity seems to slow right down (a little something called post-lunch-slump), and although I have a brief recovery around 7-8pm I really am best off using all my brain power in the morning.

There are various levels of concentration you use for student life, of course. That concentration you need for the Krebs Cycle isn’t necessarily required for sorting out your notes or figuring out what the hell your timetable is going to be for the next week (working alone has its own dangers). I can use these small organisation tasks either in short bursts, for my brain to recover from trying to list amino acids from memory, for instance, or in longer stretches when I know I’ll be frequently interrupted by family life. In this way, somehow, most of the things I need to do get done.

Having a vast amount of unstructured time during which I’m just supposed to…. well, gain knowledge has been disconcerting, and even more so because none of my time is really unstructured. I have school picking up times, times for my job, times when I’m supposed to be cooking dinner because it’s not socially acceptable to be living on instant noodles at 11pm when you have young children… I have a new life of learning to fit in with my existing life and they spend a lot of time rubbing against each other uncomfortably (for instance, I’m writing this post while I can hear my children arguing over whose turn it is to use the PC. I’m doing my best to ignore it). Everyone in my family has had to make some concession to my studies and it takes effort on their part as well as my own.

But the point is, it can be done. And if you really want to, and you have the right support, it will be done. But it won’t always be easy, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say there are some times I wonder why the hell I’m doing it.

By the way, I managed to pass my 4 A levels and was offered a place at university, as was Debbie a hundred miles in the opposite direction. And that, sadly, was where the romance ended. Distance relationships are always tough. I sometimes wonder if we would have stayed together, drinking cider and learning Michelle Shocked songs on the guitar, if we’d both failed our A levels miserably and she’d stayed in the same town. But I’m glad she didn’t. Our time management was obviously better than we thought.