Javier Guerra Vence graduated from Nobel International School Algarve in Summer 2018 and is now studying Meng Aeronautical Engineering, a four-year degree, at Imperial College, London. He took A Levels in Maths, Physics, Biology and Spanish, and AS Levels in Further Maths and Economics.

Javier writes regularly for us on his experience of undergraduate life at Imperial College London.

Proactiveness rather than reactiveness: Planning

I want to speak about a fundamental change that I noticed during my time at university. Rather than working proactively and doing things ahead of time, something very typical of me during A levels (I was always a few chapters ahead of the class in all subjects), I started submitting things closer and closer to the deadline. My attitude slowly turned from trying to be ahead of my classmates to trying to keep up with stuff to not lose track of my studies and avoid falling behind. The shift was gradual and happened on a day to day basis, therefore it was harder to notice and it took some time for me to start acting upon it. This shift in habits is not something that has happened solely to me, but also to many of my colleagues. Studying at Imperial, this is to be expected due to the high-pressure environment, however, it happens in many places. The degree to which it happens is a combination of the individual and his/her environment. By the end of this post, I would like you to be aware of the reasons which cause this shift, its consequences and how to mitigate it

This shift in attitude from proactiveness to reactiveness comes as a result of many things. In university, things get more complicated and people start becoming more self-dependent. You tend to have quite a lot more work than in your A level years and many more deadlines throughout the year. The material is also much more challenging, so you tend to have a lot more problems that cause you to deviate from the time you originally thought that things could take. Also, there are many external things to your studies at university; be it extracurriculars, job opportunities, laundry, cooking, social activities and sport. This large number of tasks and the associated time strain is the most important contributor to a shift in attitude.

Although a reactive mindset has some advantages such as the fact that being pushed for time causes you to work faster and be more focused, it brings many more disadvantages, or at least that’s what I can say from my experience. The most important disadvantage is the loss of confidence associated with you feeling that you are no longer “On top of everything”. You feel overtaken by everyone around you and this adds to the stress of having the deadline near you. Also, it can cause you to become desynchronised with your friends, losing the “help and get helped” synergies. On a personal level, being close to a deadline may cause you to stop devoting time to habits like doing sport or specific study slots which you keep fixed, and cause you to stop reaping the long term benefits of such activities.

Avoiding and countering this shift is therefore of paramount importance to your academic success and wellbeing at university. Earlier on I mentioned that the degree to which the shift happens depends on the individual and his environment. Being agnostic to the environment you are operating in, you can develop planning capabilities to better adapt to their particular situation. At any instance, you must have short, medium and long term plans to guide your course of action over the day, week, month, year and lifetime to ensure that you have a predefined timeline for success and that you are meeting your deadlines with time to spare. For short term plans, tasks need to be broken down into subtasks and the amount of time allocated per subtask must be just enough to finish the task with little slack (For example, I know I take 15 mins to memorize a page of my writing, so I plan my study of theory in 15 min slots). Medium-term plans should accommodate for the completion of task groups and fulfilment of immediate deadlines and long term plans should accommodate for the completion of milestones and fulfilment of long term deadlines. It is important to include rest time in your plan as well as to group similar tasks together to create synergies between tasks. You should also make sure that you have done all the “prerequisite tasks” before attempting another task so that you have all the knowledge to carry out that task effectively.

In the subject of your external environment, you need to be in an environment which you can handle. It is important to not overload yourself with stuff such that you need to constantly be pushing yourself to reach the deadline. It is also important for you to ensure you have guidance such that you can get help with problems and solve tasks more quickly. Finally, it is also vital to keep good wellbeing such that you are always able to give your 100%. To do this, schedule some time off for sport and other activities you enjoy… although it seems like you are losing time, in reality, you are gaining it in the long run.

The shift from proactiveness to reactiveness is something very common when transitions occur. If you are just about to enter university, being aware that this is going to happen to you and planning can become a game-changer. If you are in year 12 or 13, I would encourage you to make sure you start building a good planning routine. It is human to work harder as something approaches and to unwind a bit when you don’t have immediate pressure. It happens to us unconsciously but we need to learn to counter it. The key to success is to be able to work with equal intensity and speed throughout your university period, even when there are no close deadlines. This is tough, but having a constant plan and “making your own deadlines” can help. Remember… Proactiveness is the way to go.

07 / 04 / 21