I’ve recently overhauled my study regimen. I used to try to list everything out that I thought I needed to do every single day, and then expect myself to do them all every day. Of course, this soon becomes too much to do, and so I began stressing about not having enough time in the day. Since there’s nothing I can do about how much time I have, I obviously had to change my approach to organizing my study time so that it wouldn’t be eating me alive.

StudyHacks has been very informative on this front. Cal Newport has written some great articles on successful students (the rest of this post won’t make much sense if you haven’t read that article), the general principles of which can easily be adapted to full-time language students.

For instance, point #1. I’m not doing dissertation research right now, but rather acquiring the tools to be able to do said research. The most important of those tools for me are, as I’ve said, reading ability in both Classical and modern Chinese, so those are my “research”. Thought #1.5 in that article is a good reminder that you are your own best teacher. Don’t let school interfere with your learning (to paraphrase Mark Twain), in other words.

My “fires” (point #2) are things like the blogs and forums I visit regularly. These things are great in moderation, but they can easily distract from the main goal and I have a tendency to devote too much time to them. I will no longer be doing any of these things or checking my email until I return home in the evening. It’s nicely liberating. Find out what your time leeches are and figure out how to reduce them to the bare minimum. It’s easy to waste hours mindlessly checking email and forums, but it’s completely senseless and a waste of time. Spend that time doing something interesting instead, like reading, going out with friends, or spending time with your family.

A fixed work day (#3) is easy for me because I can fit my day to my wife’s work schedule. I leave for school when she leaves for work, and then we meet up for dinner as soon as she’s off. But I feel like it’s essential to have a set work day even when you’re a full-time student. Otherwise you either end up procrastinating and not getting anything done (like my undergrad self), or you feel like you haven’t checked off all the boxes you set out for yourself and so you need to keep working into the evening or night (my current self). You can only devote so much focused attention per day. Anything after that is not quality work, and you’re best off leaving it for another day.

Most of the rest of that article is pretty grad student-specific, but look at #10. Take a day off every once in a while. Go to class, do your homework, and be done with it for the day. Go to a museum, or go for a hike somewhere. Get your classmates together for a few hours of KTV. Take a half-day trip somewhere (if you’re in Taipei, I highly recommend Jiufen). Relax.

With a big goal like learning Chinese, these things are especially important to keep in mind. You have to remember, this is a very long term project, not something in which you can make a lot of progress in the course of one day. Do the most important things first, fill up the rest of your allotted “work day” time with the secondary stuff, and then be done with it for the day. Relax. Go out and have a few beers. Enjoy the evening. Chinese will be there for you first thing tomorrow morning, and you can study then.

Notice I’ve said “Relax” twice now. Nothing good ever came from stressing. It won’t help you study better, speak better, be happier, or benefit you in any other way. In fact you’ll be more successful if you can relax. Streamline your study time as much as possible. Spend the time you need to spend on the things you need to spend it on, and work as efficiently and intensely, and with as much focus as you can during that time. Then RELAX! You’ve done enough for today. You’ll be refreshed for the next round of studying tomorrow instead of exhausted from all the stress of not doing the million things that ultimately don’t matter.

If you organize your study time efficiently and based on the things that are important to you, while of course leaving room for your real obligations like class and homework (you are in school for a reason, right?), and minimize the things that distract you from doing good work, you will be a much more effective student. You’ll be a more relaxed person, too. And that can’t be a bad thing.