Have you ever heard this quote, commonly attributed to the philosopher Voltaire: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.“? As you approach final exams, it can be a good adage to remember. Law students approaching final exams often have ideal goals in mind: I want to have the perfect outlines. … I want to complete a certain number of practice exams for each class. … I want to create flashcards for every key term for each class. … I want to go to my professors’ office hours and make sure I’ve addressed any questions I have about course materials. … I want to meet with my study group and go over what I’ve learned. … You get the picture.
These are great academic goals, and in an ideal world we would do them all. In fact, under normal circumstances, law students start out with plans to do these things and prioritize their time so that they accomplish most, if not all, of them by the end of the semester. But our current circumstances are not normal, and it’s hard to maintain a “business as usual” approach to law school studies. You’re adjusting to a new online learning environment, and some of your course requirements may have changed as your professors transitioned your class to online platforms. There are likely more distractions than normal, such as news updates about the coronavirus on TV, family members or roommates (or even pets) sharing your home space and needing your attention, or neighbors who are noisier than usual. There may be new stresses as well: financial concerns, bar exam uncertainty, fear that you or those you care about getting the virus. And it’s understandable that all of these things are going to have an effect on your study plans.
In these circumstances, attempting to stick to the “perfect” plan may paralyze you. You likely see at this point that your original goals are not fully in reach. For some, that realization can reduce your motivation to try at all. For others, the tasks ahead of you seem insurmountable. You may be struggling to just keep up with the day-to-day work in your online classes, let alone prepare for final exams.
So how can you make progress under these circumstances? I think there are five keys to managing your study time during this challenging time:
First, be realistic. Assess the available time you have each day to study, and create goals that fit within that time. Depending on how much time you have on a particular day, choose one, two, or at the most three things you intend to accomplish. The size of the task or tasks should be dependent on the time available. And budget that time so that each task has a limit and tasks don’t expand past the time you have available for them.
Second, prioritize tasks. Not everything is equal. Rank the things that you hope to accomplish based upon their level of importance, and make sure you focus first on those tasks you’ve ranked the highest. If you still have time available after that, you can tackle lower ranked tasks. But keeping your focus on your highest priorities ensures that you ultimately spend available time on the things most important to you.
Third, minimize the distractions you can control. Not all distractions are within your control. And let’s face it, some of the things (or people) that may distract you from your studies can be more important than your school work. But just as not all tasks are equal, not all distractions are either. So, to the extent possible, create a study schedule that manages distractions, reduce your connection to social media during study times, inform friends and family of the schedule you are trying to keep, and find ways to keep yourself accountable to yourself and your goals.
Fourth, take care of yourself. It’s easy in times of crisis to let go of routines and practices that keep you healthy and able to focus on your studies, but now more than ever you need to do the things that take care of you. Try to protect your sleep schedule as much as possible. Take regular breaks from your studies, so that you come back to them refreshed and able to focus. If you can, try to get some exercise every day, even if it’s just a solitary walk in your neighborhood or a yoga session that you follow online. And eat regular meals – your brain still needs fuel!
Finally, reach out for help when you need it. Sometimes it’s difficult to come up with a plan by yourself, especially when you feel isolated. But although you are studying at home, you are not alone in this. If you are struggling to come up with a study plan that works for you in these difficult circumstances, reach out to your law school’s academic support professionals, student services, or your professors for guidance. Stay connected with your study groups, or even just classmates who used to sit next to you in the classroom – you and your fellow students can be a good support system for each other, encouraging and sharing what works for you.
Ultimately, this semester may not turn out to be perfect, but it can still be good. And good still helps you make progress towards your larger personal and professional goals.