I spent my first Cambridge year doing everything except work

Here’s how I did it

Art and poetry societies? Absolutely. JCR? President. Revs? Weekly. Journalism? You’re reading it. I even had a splash of ballroom.

I did my work. Out of the 32 supo essays I was obliged to write during the year, only one was submitted as an essay plan and none were late. I also (as far as I know. Maybe I lost an email somewhere) am in fact going into second year.

But when I broke down where my time was spent each day, it wasn’t in the library.

Here’s how.

Documented proof that I’ve been in the library at least once (image credit: Amelia Dixon)

*A DISCLAIMER – This may not be for you.

And that’s fine!! Do as you please and don’t compare yourself to a system that doesn’t come naturally to you. This is simply the way I made my first year a bit easier.

Also, I take HSPS (social sciences), which is completely essay-based. I dunno how STEM subjects work and at this point I’m afraid to ask.

This is also NOT the way to top tripos, get firsts in every essay, or generally be a particularly rigorous academic. This is a very particular philosophy of doing well enough and enjoying yourself at the same time.


1. The Pareto Principle: there’s no funny tagline this is pretty much my life motto

This relies on you not being a perfectionist. (Sorry!)

The Pareto Principle is the general rule that 80% of consequences come from 20% of the effort you’ve put in.

I got into the habit at a very young age of seeking out the 20% of my work that would make up 80% of my outcome. My rule was I had to know roughly 80% of the content before I started practice papers. I’ll be 80% sure of my conclusion when I start the essay. If my essay looks 80% of the way there, I press “submit”.

Not sure what 80% actually looks like? For me at least, it seems to be the point in my learning / research / planning where I look at the page and could call it ‘a rough idea’.

Sure, I ended up with a few typos here and there. But I’ll trade in an uncapitalised “i” for hours of pouring over every last word of my essay.

My supervisors weren’t such a fan of my technique (image credit: Ruby Cline)

2. Selective laziness

In my History A-level I didn’t make notes, I annotated my textbook and blacked out the irrelevant bits. It meant I never had to write out stuff that was already written.

Make your laziness work for you.

I wouldn’t call myself a lazy person really, I just don’t see the point in doing something the hard way when there’s an easier way of doing it. There’s no moral value to making life more difficult for yourself when you don’t need to. The digital copy of the book is fine. A translation is often good enough.

I particularly valued reading the Wikipedia of a thinker before any of their actual texts. It is unbelievable how much time you can save when you already get the gist. I <3 the gist.

3. Working from dawn till…dawn

While there may be 24 hours in a day – Molly-Mae is nodding at me approvingly from the corner – not every hour is equal. So it’s worth finding out your most worthwhile hours sooner rather than later.

I regret to announce that I am in fact a morning person, that horrible breed who loves a brisk walk and a mindmap before breakfast. This admittedly daunting realisation occurred when I woke up at 5am to arbitrary screaming somewhere in college (#unithings) and noticed that my no-point-sleeping-now 6am-9am study session got through double the content I could have done throughout the rest of the day.

You may not be a morning person, that’s absolutely fine. But there will be a period of the day where you Get Things Done and a time where Nothing Is Getting Done. If you don’t know them already, find out those times by working to a different schedule each day for a week or so.

When you have this information, do not underestimate it!! I cannot tell you how many evenings I have wasted attempting to work in the library because my mates were, when really I should have had a cup of tea and an earlier start the next day.

4. Parkinson’s law (aka, do loads of stuff and you’ll get loads of stuff done)

Parkinson’s law is the principle that work expands to fill the length of time you allot to it. This means that if you give yourself three days to research for an essay, it will take three days to research for that essay.

Try giving yourself two hours for that same three-day task – see what happens!

I accidentally did this by overwhelming my calendar to the point that I regularly ended up with 45-or-so-minute “slots” in which literally all my work had to get done, often between events in a coffee shop or park. I’ve never worked so efficiently in my life, because I didn’t really give myself another option.

Meet my February (screenshot taken of Google Calendar)

This isn’t to say I recommend that particular method by the way – you may prefer to induce a hardline “end of work” time which you just have to abide by. I called mine “tea at ten”, where I wouldn’t work after 10pm (I’ll admit, though, that it became “tea at ten thirty” pretty early into exam term. Still alliterative).

5. Love what you do and you’ll never work a day

I love my degree. I’ll admit it! I love what I do, I find it fascinating. I apply things I learn every day and (you can ask my long-suffering mates) I never shut up about it.

“But Ruby!” I imagine you’re shouting into your phone, “If you love your degree, why spend all this time doing literally anything else?”

That’s precisely why, my friend. Because I love what I do, I attract the sort of hobbies and roles which relate to the subject, which I do admit is pretty broad given that my degree is quite literally a game of Let’s Study People, As A Concept, For Three Years. It can get quite general.

And all the other stuff I do reminds me of what exactly I love so much about my subject. The wonderful Ella Sheddick describes how her DoS advised her to spend a day looking around Cambridge for interesting bits and bobs related to her degree.

Sometimes taking yourself out of the library and into the city can renew your passion for what you love to do in a really important way.

Izzy has actually never seen this book before. A real life biohazard (image credits: Ruby Cline)

6. You Don’t Actually Have To Be That Good

I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that you’re quite good at being excellent at what you do. That ends here. Welcome to your new life…“Good enough.”

It’s a controversial statement to make to a Cambridge audience, saying that you’re good enough. Not excellent. Not exquisite. Certainly not the hotshot-tripos-topper-who’ll-take-over-the-world-one-day.

You’re good enough, and so are your grades, and so are your essays, and so are your problem sheets (hey, women in STEM! I didn’t forget about you). Leave it at that. Once you internalise “good enough”, you can never go back – and you’ll never want to.

So there it is. I can’t promise you immediate results and I certainly won’t be promising you perfection. But that’s how I had a really bloody good time amongst the first year of a Cambridge degree.

Get excited for my inevitable return to this article in two years, when I will angrily yell at myself for being so naive.

But for now, get yourself out the library for a bit.

Feature image credits: Ruby Cline

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