Blogging in School

Disclaimer: I’m not going to claim that this is a tell-all blog on the secrets of blogging while under serious time constraints. I don’t have all of the secrets, and of the ones that I do have, many are specific to my particular situation, my particular daily routine, my specific mindset… But I’m going to share what I have here, in hopes that some of it may help you out too.

I’m a full time undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, taking 12-13 hours per semester, double majoring in mathematics and computer science, and working ~10 hours each week as a learning assistant for various math classes (This semester, it’s a probability class.). I love going to school, but the schoolwork in addition to the work work takes up a massive amount of time, probably 80-90 hours per week (All of my classes are upper division), and I place them as my top priority. In addition, for the first time in my life, I’m living in an apartment–with an utterly worthless roommate. This means that I have to make time for grocery shopping, cleaning, cooking, etc. regularly, which cuts heavily into my remaining leisure hours. On top of this, because I’m not satisfied with having even a single free waking moment, I am trying to walk 10k+ steps per day, maintain a vigorous reading schedule, and review and post actively on this blog.

Last semester, I didn’t do a very good job of it. I slacked off on the blog, on the cleaning, heck, on pretty much everything except school and work. And occasionally sleep. It kind of sucked, so part of my project over the break was to get things in order so that I could have a better semester. I’m also taking classes that, hopefully, have a lighter workload, so I won’t be quite as overwhelmed, but that’s not enough for me to stay on top of blogging. Here’s a few of the things I’m doing to stay ahead and be able to write regular blog posts, including this one. While this is written to help find blogging time, it may help with your schedule even if you’re not trying to fit in blogging.

The largest, most obvious piece of advice is to use every waking moment. I make myself do this by writing up a schedule every day, usually the night before, where I list out activities by the 30 minute or hour level, such as right now, 8-9, Bus to campus and work on writing this post. I have found that if I don’t pre-specify what I should be doing at a specific point in time, I’ll just sit around and do nothing, or pick something easy and ignore the stuff that really needs to be done. I will also overestimate the amount of time I’ll have later, and that leads to late nights and very little sleep.

I also have to get enough sleep. I’ve spent several semesters of college operating on a very limited sleep schedule, with perhaps 5 hours of sleep per night, and it just makes me miserable and unproductive. I have found that I’m much happier if I make myself stop what I’m working on and go to sleep earlier, even if it means more activities for the next day. I’ve also found that reading before bed helps with this, and if I can grab 30 minutes of something—recently, LotR—while I’m lying in bed trying to get to sleep, it makes it much easier to fall asleep, calming my mind after a crazy day. I actually find I *save* time by doing this; without the reading it often can take me that much longer to fall asleep, unless I’m completely exhausted.

Once I have enough sleep and a schedule, I also have to find the time in my schedule to write the blog posts. Sometimes, it seems as if schoolwork takes up every hour of the day, leaving no time for non-necessities. I have to consider two more things that make it possible for me to do this. The first is knowing how to schedule efficient study time.

I am a block worker on many, many projects. It will take me a while, perhaps half an hour to an hour, to get into the mindset of difficult subjects, like my advanced mathematics class, and I find that there are simply some subjects where I cannot get anything done in a half an hour or an hour long block. When that’s all the time I have, I have to schedule activities that fit. Things that are self-contained, and perhaps not incredibly taxing. For example, taking a short online quiz for a class, or finding and printing a news article to turn in, or doing a 5 page assigned reading. Or doing part of a blog post. I schedule the more challenging subjects for longer blocks of time, such as when I’m home in the afternoons or over the weekend. This is one of the things that took me the longest to figure out—I have to use my time chunks efficiently, even if that means putting off the most difficult and urgent tasks until I can give them my undivided attention. Your methods may differ from mine, but you have to figure out what they are in order to schedule your time most efficiently.

You also have to learn to multi-task. I’ve started doing this to a large degree this semester by adding a few activities to my chart. My blog posts are done almost exclusively on the bus, with the exception of giving myself half an hour to an hour after they’re written to edit and post them on my blog, something that requires internet access. When walking, I am also listening to audiobooks, which is an immense help with my reading schedule. (Thanks Jessie!) I have to make myself do cleaning while dinner is cooking every day, and usually I’m messaging people and setting up my schedule for the next day while eating dinner. I take books with me to the bathroom, and as already mentioned, reading right before bed does double duty of calming my mind before sleep. Look for the opportunities to always be both physically and mentally engaged. Perhaps the most extreme example I have seen of this was a classmate in my calculus class a few years ago. The professor handed out notes, so it was not necessary to be writing during class, so that the we could pay closer attention to the lectures. The student (whose name slips my mind at the moment) spent the entire class, every time, knitting, and by the end of the semester, she had several scarves and good grades to show for her efforts. It was pretty cool.

Perhaps the best blog-specific advice I can offer is to think and write an outline ahead of time. This post is one of the best resources I’ve ever found for improving my word-count when I have time to do fiction writing, but the advice applies equally well to blog posts. If you write posts that you’re excited about and you’ve outlined and you know what you’re doing ahead of time, the writing will go much, much faster. Take those two minutes in the middle of class when you’ve finished the quiz and you’re waiting for everyone else to make a rough sketch in your mind–or on paper–of what you’re going to write about on the bus ride home that day. It really does help.

Turn the internet off while writing. That one doesn’t need any explanation.

Never lose track of your long-term goals, and at the end of each day, think about them for a few moments. If you’ve done your day right, scheduled in all of the productivity you can, and done your best to stick to the schedule (It’s impossible to do it perfectly and get *everything* done that you want to. Try anyway.), allow yourself to feel proud and satisfied with yourself. I’ve found that when I’ve had a good day, and I sit and reflect on it, even for a few moments, it leaves me in a good mood for the next day, which helps to boost my productivity. It’s a happy feedback loop, and once you get it started, it’s addictive.

Also, take time to enjoy yourself during the day. Yes, I say to schedule every waking moment. And my current schedule looks something like this…

The schedule is a few weeks old, but it's a good representation of my regular schedule.
The schedule is a few weeks old, but it’s a good representation of my regular schedule.

But I have to give myself some moments to relax and enjoy what I’m doing or else I’ll go insane. Lately, these have been my walks, during which I listen to and enjoy audiobooks, but once I get caught up with my schoolwork (I had a bad weekend. Bad days happen, and the best thing you can do is try to make the next day better.), I’m planning to schedule in a little more relaxation time every day so I don’t go from 50% to 100% utterly insane. 😉

This post was more rambling and less-blog specific than I had hoped, but hopefully there’s a few nuggets in here that may help you with your life, even if it’s not as insane as mine. I know that adopting the things I’ve mentioned here has gotten me off to a much better, and more productive start this semester than any in the past, and I’m really hoping that if I can stick with it, the feedback loop will keep me going and I’ll have a good semester.

Also, please comment below, and let me know what your favorite time-saving or productivity hacks are, especially those that help with your blog posts. Or, if you take one of my tips and it works, let me know!

Reflections – 4 Weeks

This post is my reflections and thoughts after four weeks at a “real university.”

It’s been an adventure already. I expected it to be this way. I’ve always been told that it would be totally different and new. And it has been. But not in many of the ways I expected. Some of the ways, yes, it’s been exactly what I expected. And in others, where I expected it to be different, it was totally the same as what I’m used to.

Girls in general here have been about what I’d expect. To sum it up, I’ll paste my Facebook status from yesterday.

A note to the ladies: If I can see your pockets sticking out beneath your shorts, and they aren’t big enough to hold, say… two copies of the A Memory of Light hardcover, then your shorts are too short. If they are that big, then you should cut those things out of your shorts and use them as a backpack. If your shirt is so long that I can’t tell if you’re wearing shorts or not, then you either need to have the shirt re-tailored into a dress, or your shorts are too short (Or you just aren’t wearing any shorts, in which case you have other problems.).

My math classes are all good, though very different from each-other. My probability class, the teacher wrote the text book, so he knows it front and back and for the FIRST TIME EVER, we’re actually doing things in the exact order the book covers them. He has a great sense of humor, and likes to play probability games in class, and gives out rewards to the students who do well. I’ve “won” $2 so far. I’ve only really met one other student, one of the only other students who really seems to know what’s going on. We sat near each-other for the first time last class, and when he told us to get new groups for our quiz, started working with each other. He told us that we had to split and work with other people, basically because we are his best students, which was fine with us. (Tip: If you’re going to tell someone they have to do something, telling them they have to do it because they’re too good for what they’re currently doing is a great way to get them to do what you want and make them happy at the same time.)

My Geometry class is interesting. It’s the first, and probably last, math class I’ve ever had with more girls than boys. It’s built for a teaching degree, but still fills an elective requirement for me. Most of the students are there to be teachers. I’ve met only one other person in that class as well, and I’m not sure if she’s older or younger than my mom. The person I’ve met in my probability class is at least ten years older than I am, married, has kids, and is coming back to college. I don’t know why, but I seem to get along a lot better with people who are older than I am in my classes. I think it’s because they’re more mature, and they really care about the material they’re learning and want to learn it. Also, I have been told in geometry that I am answering too many questions. It took about four weeks to get to that point, so I’m slipping. Usually this happens in the first two weeks.

My Linear Algebra class is dry, but not boring. The teacher lectures for most of the class time, and then hands out problems for us to work on by ourselves or in groups at the end of class, over the material he’s covered. He lectures well, and I end up with 3-4 pages of notes every day, which are more helpful for the homework/in class problems than the book itself. Some of the stuff we’re learning is really easy, but I can see how some of it is going to be really powerful down the line. He’s already promised us that he’s going to talk about, for example, how Google’s search algorithm works for ranking pages, based on the math concepts we’re learning in the class. I yelled at the class the other day because everyone was talking at the beginning of class when the teacher was trying to lecture, and nobody but me was paying attention to him, and I couldn’t hear him. He doesn’t have a terribly loud voice. I do. I told everyone to be quiet because I couldn’t hear the teacher, and the room went dead silent. 😛 I haven’t met anyone in there, and they probably don’t like me after that, but eh… Hey, I wanted my lecture.

My computers class is kind of sucky. The teacher covers things very disjointly, and I don’t think he explains much of what he wants very well. Half of his lectures consist of reading the slides and writing programs on the projector. I can understand what’s going on as he writes the programs, because I’ve had a programming class before, but I’m not sure how the others students are doing. The only other guy I’ve met in there has a Bachelor’s Degree in Mathematics and more CS experience than I do, so he’s not having any troubles at all.

As far as my classes go, I’ve been most surprised by one thing. Everyone told me that I did well in my classes at the community college because I was smart, but things would get tough and I would be a normal student in all of my university classes. I don’t know how the other students are doing, but in all of my math classes, I ask/answer more questions than the rest of the class combined, most days, and I’ve made an A on every assignment that’s been handed back so far. I’m not really feeling that the classes are really any harder than they were at the community college, or that some of my classmates are any smarter. I’ve over-heard conversations about which class days people can miss, and people cussing out the teachers and TAs because they’re failing already by the 4th week.

Oh, and yes. The profanity levels are about what I expected. I’m glad it doesn’t bother me, and I’m equally glad that I seem to be able to get along fine without using it at all. This is one of the things that I predicted would be different and was.

My roommate. Ehh… Yeah. We’ve exchanged maybe 5 words in the past 2 days, and that’s pretty much typical. We exist in the same room. Oh, we don’t hate each other or anything. We just… Do our own thing. Which, given the things he says when he’s on the phone with his friends, is perfectly fine with me. I expected a room-mate who would be out partying, maybe, or hooking up with girls way too often. I did not expect a gay room mate who gives bad relationship advice to all of his friends and spends every minute he’s not out hooking up with a guy or in class, when he doesn’t skip, on his computer. At least he doesn’t bring girls back to the room or come back drunk, so I guess that’s something positive. I can live with him, for sure, and don’t think there will be any problems. He’s just not what I expected.

On a more personal levels, I’ve been struggling with depression. I know why I’m depressed, and what I’ll probably have to do to get out of it. I suppose I will, at some point. How soon that happens may depend on how desperate I get. It’s just… hard to do anything when you don’t care about it, if you know what I mean. And it’s also hard to do things when you know that if they don’t work, you could end up more depressed than you are now, more hurt. That’s never fun.

I haven’t socialized much, which is fine with me. I’m not that kind of person. That being said, I know basically the entire classical guitar department, and some of them go out every other weekend or so to play ultimate at the park. I’ve been invited along with the group (which has plenty of other people with it too), and that has been genuinely loads of fun. I’m glad I’ve been invited, and getting out has been one of the best parts of my time here so far. I know I should be in more social things, because I enjoy them when they’re like this, but I want to be in a good group, too, doing something fun. Half of the people in the ultimate group make me look poorly behaved. They’re just genuinely good people, and it’s hard to find other groups like that. Not finding many groups is about what I expected. I never really have socialized much. At the community college, I usually hung out with two or three people I’d known for semesters from various classes, and almost always the people who made A’s in those classes.

Random comments on other things. Half of the cafeteria ladies know my name at this point, and they’re very nice. And then there’s a few that seem to hate me, so… Whatever. The food isn’t bad, but it isn’t good. It’s plenty to exist on, and I eat ice cream daily. And then walk up the stairs to my 24th floor room so I can justify doing it again tomorrow. Being a nerd still doesn’t seem to be as cool as I hoped it would be. There’s about a million people here, and they all walk very slowly around campus between class times. And every two minutes, there’s a midget with long, wavy hair. Game of Thrones is about the only book I’ve seen people reading. My shower head is so low I literally have to kneel down to wash my hair. Concerts are free for students, and I’ve enjoyed some really really good ones already. The concert hall is literally just across the street from my dorm, so it couldn’t get any better. The dorm internet gets really slow in the evenings when everyone else is streaming porn, and that gets annoying because I’m trying to watch writing lectures or listen to streaming music and it keeps freezing. Random groups of people in the cafeteria abduct me to come sit with them. I mostly sit there and listen, and still only hear half of what’s going on. I would much prefer to sit with single people, where I could actually have a real conversation and hear what’s going on.

So yeah. That’s been my life at college so far. Interesting, and mostly fun. We’ll see how I feel about it in a few more weeks.