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Managing Time and Motivation

Studying independently can pose challenges - explore strategies to help you overcome some common barriers

Building effective study habits

Learning independently can feel like a challenge if you are used to the structure of a school timetable or a work schedule. However, building healthy study habits which work for you can help make things easier and ensure you neither burn out from too much work or fall behind in your studies.

What these habits look like will be different for everyone, but there are two key criteria that any effective study strategy should fulfil.

Firstly, it needs to be realistic. This means understanding how you work best and not forcing yourself to fit an ‘ideal’ mould of what you think studying should look like. It may take time to develop this knowledge and so being willing to experiment and try out new approaches if something isn’t working for you is important.

It also means ensuring that your study habits allow for some flexibility. You won’t always be able to give the same amount of time and concentration to your work each day and your priorities will also change depending on deadlines and other commitments. Therefore, trying to do the same thing every day or sticking to a rigid schedule you created in Week 1 can in fact prevent you from making progress and lead to you feeling demotivated and unproductive. 

Most importantly, you need to accommodate non-study time. Breaks are essential both to your wellbeing and also to your learning as they give the brain the rest it needs to process your learning and focus effectively. Trying to study without breaks is not only unrealistic but unproductive and unhealthy.


You might be tempted to try to produce a weekly timetable that you stick to for the rest of the semester or year, especially if you’ve been used to having your time scheduled at work, school, or college. Whilst this might work for some people you might find over time that this is difficult to stick to as the demands on your time change and unexpected things come up. You may therefore find it more helpful to schedule on a week-by-week basis where you can adapt your approach to take into account your current priorities.


To-do lists

If you find weekly schedules too restrictive or difficult to stick to, it might be better to work from a weekly or daily to-do list instead. These can help keep you focus on your immediate priorities whilst giving you the flexibility to decide what to work on and when. You might, for example, make a master to-do list for the week and then choose tasks from it each day for a more focussed daily to-do list, assigning times to each task on a day-to-day basis.

If your to-do list feels too overwhelming, maybe try a Next Action list where you identify the next step you need to take to progress your work and focus on one thing at a time.

Secondly, for your study time to be effective it needs to be focussed. This means incorporating strategies that help you identify how you will spend your study time and what you want to achieve so that you aren’t left wondering where to start. Part of this involves prioritising your workload. You can’t give 100% to every task and you can’t read every text on your reading list and your lecturers know this. Independent learning comes with the expectation that you will make informed decisions about where to focus your attention based on both your own needs and the requirements of your course.

Prioritisation matrix

Even if you’ve made a to-do list, you may find it overwhelming if you don’t know which tasks to do now and which to leave for later. You might try numbering your tasks by order or importance or urgency or you could try applying the 4 D’s (sometimes known as a Prioritisation or Eisenhower Matrix). This involves assigning each task to one of the four categories: Do, Defer, Delegate and Dump, to get a sense of what to focus on today. 


Schedules are only helpful if you have a good sense of what you’re going to be doing in the time you’ve set aside. One hour set aside for ‘reading’ is not going to be productive if you spend most of it trying to decide what to read and where to start. Identifying a specific and realistic task for each study session can therefore help improve your focus and motivation as well as providing you with a sense of achievement when you tick that item off your list.

One approach to this is using the SMART goals strategy to make sure each task is as clearly defined and achievable as possible:

  • Specific – what exactly do I plan to do? Which text will I read or which section will I write?
  • Measurable – how much am I going to do? Which part of the text will I focus on? How many words will I write?
  • Achievable – what is realistic for me today? Will I skim read the whole article or reading a small section in depth? Am I planning to write a rough first draft or a polished final draft?
  • Relevant – how will this help me progress my work?
  • Time-bound – how long am I planning to give to this task?

Further help and guidance