When I was a kid, my family went on lots of drives in the country. That was my dad’s way of getting away from the demands of life and relaxing for a while. Normally it worked.
On one memorable occasion, though, it didn’t. We got lost.
Five hours into a one-hour drive, it was pretty clear that we had a problem. We could probably have asked for directions, but apparently that violated some kind of man-code. So we just kept driving. And, to make matters worse, we got caught in a lightning storm. In the mountains. At night. Too young to know better, I thought it was pretty cool. It’s not every day that you get to see lightning up close like that.
Obviously we survived. But it would have been much easier and resulted in less emotional scarring if we had just mapped the journey from the beginning.
If you’re heading into a new school year, you need a good map. Without it, you’ll end up getting lost in the mountains and quite possibly fried by lightning like crispy bacon. (Great, now I’m hungry.)
Fortunately, it’s not difficult to avoid that unpleasant outcome. You just need to map your semester at the beginning of the term.
5 Keys to Mapping the Journey
1. Map Your Syllabi
In the last post, we talked about the importance of reading your syllabi carefully. But just reading your syllabi doesn’t help if you can’t keep track of what you’re supposed to do. So after you’ve made sure that you understand everything in your syllabi, write down all due dates.
I don’t care if you write them on an old-school paper calendar, type them into a high-tech smart phone, or shave them into your hamster’s back. Just come up with a system for keeping track of what you’re supposed to be doing.
Go do it now. I’ll wait.
Seriously, do it. Don’t assume that you’ll remember. Your brain is too busy keeping track of which nights your favorite TV shows are on, so it’s not going to remember. And don’t think that you’ll just check your syllabi regularly. You won’t. Syllabi are boring, and your brain will desperately trick you into spending time on Facebook instead.
Write the due dates down. If you’ve never kept a calendar before, this is the time to start.
2. Map Your Other Responsibilities
I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that there’s more to your life than school. And that probably means you have responsibilities beyond your school work. Write those down too. Whatever system you used for your schoolwork, use the same system for your other responsibilities. (Hint: you might need a bigger hamster.)
Just writing down your school responsibilities would be like mapping your car trip but only including some of the turns. That’s not terribly helpful.
Life is complicated. Everyone knows that. But people tend to underestimate how complicated a student’s life can be, juggling multiple classes and countless assignments, often alongside work, family, ministry, and hopefully at least a few friends. That’s a tough act. If you’re going to survive, you need a system for keeping track of it all.
3. Highlight Trouble Spots
One of my favorite things about using Google Maps is the way it alerts me to traffic jams and constructions zones. Those road hazards can quickly turn a short jaunt into an extended trek.
The same is true for your academic journey. Once you’ve plotted all your major responsibilities, look for those places where multiple responsibilities align and the stars predict your imminent demise.
Remember, this only works if you’ve been thorough in step 2. Are you going to visit family for a couple of days when you probably won’t have time to study for the test you have the following Monday? You need to know that now. Do you have a major paper due the day before you’re preaching at church, leading a high school retreat, or hosting your small group? Are you celebrating your best friend’s birthday the night before your reading report is due? All of those things affect the journey. So look over your roadmap and see where the hazards are. Otherwise, you’re in for a rough ride.
4. Plan for Regular Progress
When I planned our move to Illinois this summer, you can be sure that I made sure we didn’t spend too much time driving on any given day. A car trip with five 8-hour days is very different from one with two 2-hour days, a 4-hour day, and two 16-hour days. Sure it’s the same number of hours, but trust me, the second would be far more exhausting.
Once you know what you need to get done this term and where the trouble spots are, you can plan your trip. Of course, some days are going to be longer; there’s no avoiding that. But you can minimize the difference with good planning.
But here’s the key, make sure you plan for regular progress. Figure out how much you need to get done every day to make the journey a good one. Many of my students even calculate exactly how many pages they need to read each day so they don’t have to cram it all in at the end. Feel free to put your daily tasks on a calendar or chart somewhere and cross them off as you go. That will help provide a sense of progress and give you a quick way of knowing whether you’ve begun falling behind.
5. Get Help Quickly
If my dad had asked for directions as soon as he suspected that we were lost, our drive would have been a lot shorter. Granted, I wouldn’t have a cool story to tell now about the time we got lost in the mountains and ended up nearly being struck by lightning. But that’s not the point.
As soon as you think you might be getting a little lost on your journey, you’ve wandered off course, or you’re not making as much daily progress as you’d hoped, get some help. That can be as simple as talking with another student about working together or it can be as involved as finding out what resources the school has available for helping you make it to the end of the term. Either way, don’t wait. The longer you go without help the more likely you are to end up like crispy bacon.
[This post is part of our Back to School series, exploring a variety of things we can do to get the new school year started right. Follow along and let us know what you think.]