How to Manage Your Study Schedule – The Waterfall Method of Time Management
Let’s talk about the waterfall method to help manage your study schedule. Time is our one finite resource. Every week we’re given just 168 hours to work towards our goals, pursue our passions, and spend time with friends and family. And this is more like 80 or 90 hours once we’ve accounted for sleep, eating, and the other menial chores we complete on a daily basis. Either way, it’s not a lot of time.
As such, many of us say things like “I don’t have time” to study, to read or learn an instrument. We believe that our lack of time is a reasonable excuse for not doing something meaningful.
But the real problem isn’t that we’ve got no time. It’s that we’ve got no time management.
Put simply, if we want to learn more, achieve more, and enjoy a more balanced lifestyle, we need to be smart about our schedules. Especially when it comes to studying.
So let me introduce you to the Waterfall Method of Time Management, which I’ve found to be a particularly effective way of organising my life.
“It is not that we are given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it” – Seneca
🎯 1. Study Goal (Yearly Time Management)
The first level of the Waterfall Method of Time Management is about appreciating the big picture, staying aligned with our dreams, and taking control of the direction of our life.
Figure Out What’s Important
We need to recognise the important and meaningful aspects of our studies to ensure our daily work flow actually brings us closer to our goals.
For example, let’s say we want to be a doctor. By having this goal in mind we’re able to make better study decisions. So if we’re not sure whether to study a particular subject, we can ask ourselves “does this bring me closer to my goal of being a doctor?”. If not, it may be best to avoid it. Although, having said that, there’s always room to learn things you enjoy that may not directly contribute to these goals. Just try to find the right balance.
If we don’t set a long-term study goal, we run the risk of thinking everything’s important. We’ll tell ourselves that we “just need to answer an email” or complete some other important (but unrelated) task first, unaware that this constant distraction is taking us further from where we want to be.
The solution then is to set a clear study goal and make a clear plan for achieving it (as we’ll look at in more detail in the next few levels of the Waterfall Method).
“You will never clear your plate so you can finally allow yourself to get to the good stuff. So you have to decide. What do you want to accomplish in this life? What’s important to you right now?” – Brigid Schulte
Scope The Subject
Once we’ve figured out what’s important and know what we need to focus on, my advice is to begin by scoping the subject we’re looking to study. I came across this idea when I was studying at Cambridge, and personally I’ve found it to be totally worth it.
Scoping a subject is the process of outlining the big picture of what we’re trying to learn and understanding how each subtopic connects to that main subject and our eventual learning outcome.
It’s also pretty simple. All we need to do is hop on to Notion or Google Sheets (or even pen and paper) and write a list of all the subtopics we need to cover within the subject. Here’s how I did it at medical school:
Having scoped the subject we now have a clear overview of the work we need to complete, an obvious learning pathway, and a super helpful guide to manage our day-to-day study time (as we’ll see in a second).
📆 2. Study Schedule (Weekly Time Management)
With a study goal in mind, we can begin breaking it down into weekly targets. This is something that studies have shown to be crucial in completing work efficiently, and helping us to manage our time well.
Mapping The Week
Why Map Our Week?
One of the staples of good time management is ensuring we’ve carved out enough time in our week dedicated to working on our chosen study goal. This helps spread out our workload and maintain consistency, allowing us to stay productive, relaxed, and stress-free.
It gives us more time to do the things we enjoy too. Making time for productive study lets us see the gaps in our schedule, which we can then use to attend social events, pursue our hobbies, and be guilt-free wastemen. It’s a win-win.
How to Map Our Week
When it comes to actually planning the week, I’m a big fan of using a version of Roger Seip’s method of categorising our time into 4 categories (from his book Train Your Brain for Success):
- ✅ Green Time – time to work on important things that align with our study goals e.g. studying science if we want to become a doctor
- 🧰 Red Time – time to work on things that support our ‘green time’ e.g. having a zoom call with a surgeon to offer us career advice
- 🏖 Flex Time – gaps in our schedule to prepare for the unexpected and our bias towards being overly optimistic about what we can achieve in a given time frame (also called the planning fallacy)
- ⚽️ Recreation Time – time for hobbies, exercise, and relaxing
But, regardless of how we choose to manage our weekly plan, the most important thing to remember is pretty simple: we should be making time for goal-oriented tasks while also staying flexible enough to keep a healthy balance in our schedule.
The Retrospective Timetable
With our weekly plan in place, we can start thinking about how we spend our ‘green time’.
Most people enjoy creating a fixed study timetable, where they study specific subjects in regular time slots throughout the week. I don’t like this method personally. The problem with fixed timetables is that they require us to look into the future and decide how many hours we’re going to dedicate to certain subjects before we’ve actually done any work.
For example, if we’re at school studying maths and physics, it’s impossible to know (at least to begin with) how much effort each subject will take to learn. Ideally, we’d have a weekly plan that takes this into account and lets us adapt our schedule depending on what we’re struggling with most.This is where a retrospective timetable works wonders.
With a retrospective timetable, every time we study one of our subtopics from our ‘scoped’ subject list (as seen in the image below) we put today’s date next to it and colour code it based on understanding (e.g. red if we found the subtopic hard or green if it was easy).
Then when it comes to planning out the following week’s schedule, we should mainly fill our ‘green time’ with those subtopics that we find hard (those coloured red). That way, we’re practicing our weakest areas and completing cognitively demanding tasks more often, which increases the productive output of the time we spend studying.
It really is a great time management hack.
If you prefer to make a more forward-looking timetable, my friend and fellow YouTuber Simon Clark has a great method called The Spaced Repetition Diary. It combines the comfort of a schedule with the evidence-based power of Spaced Repetition. You can find out more about it in this video (it’s tip #1), or in my How to Study for Exams – An Evidence-Based Masterclass on Skillshare.
⏰ 3. Study Blocking (Daily Time Management)
Knowing how to manage our time on a daily basis through ‘blocking’ is only possible once we’ve understood our study goal and crafted a weekly plan that brings us closer to that target. And it forms the third level of the Waterfall Method of Time Management.
There are three components of study blocking:
- Prioritised To-Do Lists (these guide what we do within a study block)
- The Pomodoro Technique (this guides the length of each block)
- Interleaving (this guides the order of our blocks throughout the day)
Prioritised To-Do Lists
Although this may not seem like a particularly groundbreaking idea, writing to-do lists help us to visualise what we want to achieve. And each completed task brings us one small step closer to our larger goal, in the same way that putting one foot in front of the other will help us finish a marathon. It’s simple, but effective.
But we also need to keep the Pareto Principle in mind:
20 percent of our activities will account for 80 percent of our results
In other words, a well ordered to-do list that places the Most Important Tasks (MITs) first is vital for good time management, as it focuses our attention on the 20% of tasks that give us the largest results. Plus, as we then do these tasks earlier in the day or at the start of a new study block, we approach them with more energy and efficiency.
As a side note – I’ve also written an article about the 7 self-management skills I use to take control of the trajectory of my life and manage my time better, which may be worth reading.
The Pomodoro Technique
Although there are many different micro time management techniques, perhaps the best-known method is The Pomodoro Technique.
Essentially, every work block throughout the day is split into 25 minutes of focused study, followed by a 5 minute break. We then repeat this process 3-4 times, before taking a longer break of about 15 minutes.
Splitting up our work in this way helps us to avoid what James Clear calls “half-work”. In other words, by blocking out smaller chunks of time in our schedule, we can more easily eliminate the useless distractions that divide our energy. Such as checking our notifications while writing an essay or reading emails when sat in a lecture.
Plus, studying in narrow 25-minute time frames also places a healthy pressure on us to complete stuff faster and avoid the effects of Parkinson’s Law, where we end up working endlessly on a task.
Parkinson’s Law is the notion that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion
The way we order our individual study blocks throughout the day also impacts the overall effectiveness of our learning. And, therefore, our study time management.
When our time is poorly managed, we end up studying the same subject for many hours straight. This makes it difficult to retain knowledge, meaning we have to spend even more time reviewing the material and learning the subject.
When our time is well managed, we interleave our study. In other words, we mix up the subjects we choose to learn on any given day, introducing variety into our study schedule and not spending too much time on a specific subject – abcbcacba instead of aaabbbccc.
One 2008 study found that interleaved study was a particularly effective technique for students to use in the run-up to an exam. They found that the maths students who mixed up revision subtopics throughout the day consistently outperformed those maths students who blocked out an entire day to focus on a single subtopic.
So, when it comes to our own daily tasks (or Pomodoros), it makes sense to jump between subjects and spread out our learning. That way, our brains have a better chance of strengthening memory associations and require less time to fully understand the material.
🏄♂️ 4. Study Flow (Continuous Time Management)
The final level of the Waterfall Method of Time Management is about finding our study flow – using strategies that keep us driven, productive, and having fun.
- Find our natural rhythm – our circadian and ultradian rhythms are responsible for our natural energy peaks and troughs throughout the day. Understanding how our bodies work lets us adapt to these changes and schedule relevant work at the most productive times. I’m naturally more energetic first thing in the morning, so that’s when I’ll write my book, schedule power hours, and do deep work. But, my energy is naturally lower in the mid-afternoon (especially after a big lunch), which makes it a great time to schedule phone calls as they don’t require much cognitive effort.
- Take regular breaks – good time management doesn’t mean we’ve got to be busy all the time. In fact, if we don’t take regular breaks we’re going to succumb to our urge to procrastinate or face mental burnout. (Which isn’t helpful, obviously). Other than getting enough sleep, I’ve found that exercise is a brilliant way to replenish energy levels and think more creatively when I’m actually working. And don’t just take my word for it. A 2015 study found that exercise actually “induces profound structural brain plasticity”. Put in a less nerdy way – our brain builds new connections assisting our ability to learn.
- Allow flexibility – we touched on this earlier, but we need to keep our schedule flexible. Everything won’t always go to plan, so it’s important to actively leave gaps in our day to mitigate any breakdown in our time management. Even Warren Buffett doesn’t overfill his schedule, making it easy for him to adapt to unexpected events or spend time doing what he enjoys (like playing the ukulele).
Having said all that, some distractions throughout our day are healthy. And being productive and time-efficient isn’t always possible. So yeah, it’s okay if your friends interrupt you at uni because that’s what uni life is all about lol. Don’t feel bad about it. Accept it as a welcome distraction that makes your day more exciting and interesting.
The best students are usually the best time-managers too. They’re very careful about how they spend every moment of their life, carefully mapping out their yearly goals, weekly plans, daily schedules, and finding their study flow.
By following the four levels of the Waterfall Method of Time Management, we can become brilliant learners too. Spending more time on tasks that are planned and meaningful to our study goals, rather than the unplanned and ineffective things that distract us every day.
I’d also highly recommend signing up for my weekly newsletter where I share even more insights as to how we can manage our time more effectively and get more done, without sacrificing our health and happiness.
And if you’re interested in more evidence-based tips for studying, you might like to check out my How to Study for Exams – An Evidence-Based Masterclass on Skillshare (you can sign up for the free trial, and then cancel your subscription if you don’t want to pay the $10/month subscription cost, although it’s totally worth it).