Studying abroad can be challenging
In many ways, studying abroad is like freshman year all over again. Learning about staying productive during studying abroad is a lot like learning about how to be productive as a new college student. At most, you might have a few friends from home or have chatted with some people online, but beyond this, everything else is new.
By your senior year in high school, you had solid routines in place for living your life. There was a rhythm for managing competing priorities between working, studying, exercising, socializing, relaxing, and adventuring. When you study abroad, just as freshman year, you are faced with a brand new set of circumstances, and the routines and habits from your previous life are likely not suited to where you are now. Everything is different: different people, different living situations, different transportation, different teaching styles, different gyms, different food, different stores, different cultural norms, and different languages.
You’ll get the hang of things – Here’s how!
After a few weeks, navigating the key logistical differences (eating, getting around, shopping) become second nature, but one problem remains: getting your work done.
Media coverage of studying abroad sets the expectation that every moment is pure joy and adventure. With such a high emphasis placed on having fun, the question becomes how to balance doing work while having fun.
In the following list, I offer 5 tips for minimizing stress and time given to work while maximizing results. These are the tips I used for staying productive during study abroad in Thailand, but I hope they’ll be helpful to you no matter where you go abroad.
5 tips for staying productive during study abroad
1. Seek Clarification
Nothing creates stress quite like not knowing what it is you need to know for a test or do for an assignment. The problem is when it’s your first time taking classes at a school or in a new country, you don’t have a credible basis of comparison for what a professor might expect from you.
To combat this, regularly chat with your professor about the exact details relating to the task at hand.
For exams, ask what materials they would recommend studying, what concepts are most important to know, what types of questions will be asked, and where relevant practice can be found.
For assignments, drill down as many details as possible. Is there a word count, a requirement for how much work needs to be shown, a minimum number of references, the expected level of detail, what students have lost points for in the past, or anything else to minimize uncertainty about what it is you are being asked to do.
These conversations are best had in person. Either arrange for a meeting, or ask after class if your professor tends to linger.
In addition to having a pointed conversation with your professor, make sure to befriend a few locals in each class. I’d recommend having phone numbers for 2-3 students in each class that you can reach out to with clarifying questions.
Having these resources can make completing an assignment or preparing for an exam much less daunting and will likely improve your performance.
2. Make Healthy Choices
Energy management is a key consideration of mine, especially while studying abroad.
As much as we want to view ourselves as superheroes who can stay out all night, sleep for three hours, and then score 100’s on tests, reality usually plays out differently.
Unless you are an elite athlete, cementing a strict diet, drinking, and exercise routine in a temporary environment is likely more effort than it’s worth. For most people, the goal is to not move backwards on their health goals and keep up with class.
Even if you aren’t the party instigator, count on at least one invite per day to go hang out “in a few hours.” Nothing is wrong with loosening up and going out every so often, consider limiting to 1-2 days per week.
In terms of health and fitness, maintaining your current level of physical and mental health is a pretty decent standard. To minimize the effort going into this approach, I recommend an 80/20 attitude, where you focus on making the minimum amount of decisions required to maintain this standard.
My realization of this is simple. I try to follow a simple set of 5-10 rules relating to health, then as long as I hit the marks on those rules, pretty much anything goes.
Here are a few potential goals you could try out and see if they work for you:
- Schedule 9-hour sleep blocks during the school week, in reality, you’ll get about 7.
- Turn your phone to do not disturb at least an hour before you sleep.
- Read a book.
- Leave your phone across the room and face down when you sleep.
- Dark mode your tech whenever possible.
- Stop drinking coffee 8+ hours before you want to sleep.
- Workout three times a week.
- Focus on compound exercises (back squat, deadlift, bench press, dumbbell snatch, kettlebell swing, running, barbell shoulder press or row).
- Stairs not elevator (5 floors and below)
- Eat clean breakfast and lunch and dgaf about dinner (about 60% healthy choices) OR
- Eat well during the week and dgaf about what goes in during the weekend (71%) OR
- Eat well during the week and Sunday and cheat as hard as you want on Saturday (85%)
- Eat as many green vegetables as you want.
- Fruit, not fruit juice.
- Don’t buy anything unhealthy in bulk.
- Avoid processed food whenever possible.
- Avoid drinking calories (unless you are bulking).
These rules have worked for me, but that’s just me! Choose or come up with 5 easy to follow rules of your own that would help you stay productive while abroad.
3. When You Do Work, Work Effectively
When you work, avoid being perpetually distracted. When you see somebody in a library on their phone, pause and ask “Does what they are doing on their phone relate to what they came here to do.” I’d argue that 90% of the time, it isn’t. That number quickly approaches 100% if you can see what they are doing and it’s Social Media or Clash Royale.
The key to spending less time studying is to spend less time being distracted.
So how do you beat distractions?
- Block everything not relevant to the task at hand. If you are taking notes from a book, block the whole internet. If you are just using a few websites, use a tool like Freedom to blacklist most of the internet. Also, consider White-listing only what you need using a chrome extension like Whitelist Manager.
- Get some noise cancelling headphones or earplugs and play instrumental music. Lo-fi hip hop seems to do the trick for most people.
- Use the Pomodoro Technique: Work for 25 minutes, and then take a 5-minute break. During the 25 minute work interval, work only on a specific task, and document all distracting thoughts on a side note, but don’t entertain them until the 25 minutes are up.
- Turn your phone on do not disturb.
- Make a detailed, extremely specific list of what you are going to work on and in what order, then start.
If you are intrigued by this thinking, read Deep Work by Cal Newport or check out a more detailed article I wrote about this.
4. Leverage Habits and Routines
Having clear processes for when and how you handle life’s obligations will greatly reduce the amount of effort it takes to go about doing them. When studying abroad, it is worthwhile to design a few routines that take advantage of consistent chunks of your schedule for getting things done.
Here are a few opportunities and potential routines.
Usually your morning sets the course for the whole day. Start the day off with a win and either get your exercise done right away or do an hour of work before moving on to the chaos of the day. Avoid checking your phone or email until you’ve accomplished at least one important task.
Have dedicated spots for specific activities
Find a specific corner of a building, a specific coffee shop, or an outdoor spot where you have successfully gotten things done and make this spot holy. Use it only for productive purposes and avoid it tarnishing it by going there and then engaging in unproductive behavior.
Schedule most variety for nights and weekends
The more simple and routine your week is, the easier it is to handle everything on your plate. If you can establish a routine for the first 6-8 hours of your day that covers dressing, eating, commuting, working, and exercising, you can then be very stress-free in your evenings and weekends and engage in all the shenanigans you desire.
5. Embrace the idea that Imbalance Creates Balance
A lot of my advice above converges around a central idea: Imbalance Creates Balance.
Be disciplined, live simply, and work almost mechanically during mornings, school, study sessions, etc to free up space to be extremely care-free and spontaneous outside of this time.
I find this to be much better than being in a constant state of worry. When you are in school, you worry about not having enough fun during your trip abroad, when you are out enjoying, thoughts that you are behind in school creep into your head and block you from having the fun you should be having.
If, instead, you go all at it during the week and behave semi-monastically, you can quite literally rest-easy. Take a weekend trip somewhere, eat a whole jar of Nutella on Saturday, sleep in on Sunday, but then buckle down again during the week.
Here are a few more tips for embracing this attitude.
Imbalance during the week
- Quit social media during the week (or altogether). If anybody needs to contact you, they can text you. You can catch up on the weekends.
- Check email once per day, more if you’re using it for schoolwork.
- Hide social media apps on school days.
- Wake up early and do something difficult right away –the rest of the day will feel easy!
What it allows on the weekends
- Don’t worry about what you eat on Saturdays.
- Sleep whenever and however much on Friday and Saturday nights.
- Don’t feel pressured to exercise on weekends.
- Work for a few hours every school day even if caught up. This way you can get ahead.
- Only do homework in extreme circumstances, or if you just feel like it.
I hope you take these tips for staying productive during study abroad and find a few high leverage changes to make to your current approach to balancing life and work. It’s important to note, though that you shouldn’t try everything I’ve suggested. That would be too much.
Find a few simple rules or habits that sound easy for you to follow and give them a try. Refer back for more ideas if you need them, and have a fun time abroad!
If this line of thinking interests you, check out some of my other posts on Medium.
Want to put these tips for staying productive during study abroad to use in Thailand like Louis did? Head on over to our program page about our Semester in Thailand at Mahidol University to start your adventure!