Do you really have no time to study?

(This post by Mr Alex Yeo first appeared here on Domain of Singapore Tutoring Experts on 6 February 2013.)

No Time to Study – Really?

In all my years of tutoring, I dare say the most common complaint I get from my students is that they have “no time” to study. My answer to them is always, “It is not that you have no time, it is that you do not know how to use your time.”

Here, I’ll share two exercises I do with my students to help them squeeze more time out to study.

Time Used, or Time Wasted?

There is a very simple exercise I teach my students to do on a daily basis that helps them practise their grammar, sentence construction and vocabulary at the same time, all in about 10 minutes a day (it takes a little more time when they first start out but it speeds up with practice and experience)

Yet, everyone will say they cannot even find the 10 minutes, what with their already-busy school schedule and tons of homework they have to deal with. But when I do a time-usage exercise with them in which we list down in detail how much time they spend each day on every single thing they do, including eating and bathing, they are always amazed that I could identify an average of three to four hours (sometimes more!) of wasted time each day.

To give you a very rough idea, do a time log and list down exactly how much time you spend for every single thing you do during the day, including how much time you spend showering, walking to and from the bus stop, on Facebook etc. 10 minutes eating and then 30 minutes gossiping with friends about the latest KPop star should be recorded as 10 minutes eating and 30 minutes gossiping about the latest KPop star. You don’t lump everything as 40 minutes recess time!

Do this for every day of the week, and at the end of each day, tabulate all the time spent into productive and non-productive hours. I define a “non-productive hour” as any hour spent doing an activity that does not contribute to reaching your goal (and I assume in this case to be the A grade at the end of the year).

Productive hours are obviously time spent doing things that help you get that A, like studying. Be honest here though. One hour in lesson in school is not one productive hour if you only spend 10 minutes listening to your teacher and the remaining 50 minutes dozing off. Neither is four hours studying with friends but 3½ of them are actually spent on talking or listening to your mp3 player.

For every day of the week, tabulate the time spent each day and you will see very clearly how you really use your 24 hours. It is my experience that every student has three to four wasted hours each day, even more on weekends. What can you do to minimise non-productive hours and transform them into productive ones (excluding appropriate number of hours each day for eating, sleeping, spending time with family etc.)?

Making Full Use of Every Single Hour

After identifying the non-productive hours and, hopefully, doing something constructive about them, the other thing students can do is to maximise their productive hours.

What do you do when you’re waiting for your bus, or travelling in the MRT train? What do you do while walking to school or queuing up for food?

Most students today will have earphones glued to their ears listening to some pop music. Either that, or they will have eyes glued to their smartphones watching a video clip or updating their Facebook statuses.

Instead of doing all these, how about spending that time on studying instead?

When the 2012 O Level results were released, the Straits Times featured a girl, Abigail Sim, who did well despite her less-than-ideal circumstances. She said that she would study every moment she could get like while waiting for and travelling on the bus to and from school.

In a Straits Times interview with Mdm Halimah Yacob, current Speaker of Parliament, Mdm Halimah shared about how she grew up poor and she didn’t have time to study because she had to help her mother hawk food to make a living. When she was threatened with expulsion from school if she didn’t get better grades, she said she squeezed out every moment she could to study, including during travelling to and from school.

These are real-life people who made the most use of their time so as to do better in school.

What about me? When I was doing my Master of Education programme at NIE/NTU, I was juggling studies, work and family (two children then) at the same time. I literally had stacks of notes to read and prepare in every single week of the course. How did I get through all that? I was reading my notes while queuing for food, while waiting for the bus or train, while travelling in the bus or train, while having my meals. I did what Mdm Halimah before me and Abigail after me did – I squeezed out every available moment I had to study while still working and fulfilling my roles as a husband and father.

How Desperate Are You?

Every student claims to want to do well, but how many students actually are willing to put in the effort to do it?

I mentioned earlier I teach my students a simple exercise to do to practise and improve their English language. It takes only 10 minutes, and once you’re used to it, it can be done anytime, anywhere, while walking to the bus stop, while eating your lunch, even while you’re doing your business in the toilet.

Yet, out of the so many students I’ve taught over the years, only a handful will actually do this simple exercise. It is very simple to do, it hardly takes any time, it virtually guarantees the student to do very well in the English paper, whether O Level English or A Level GP, but hardly anyone does it.

It boils down to motivation, or as my teacher used to ask, “How desperate are you?”

An ex-student was from a neighbourhood school and doing badly in his English. He went on to score an A1 in the ‘O’s. Later, he barely scraped through his GP in the promos and came to me for help, and then went on to get a distinction for GP.

Another ex-student, a Korean, in his three years with me, went from not speaking or writing English properly to getting into New York University and now serving as an English interpreter for his national service in South Korea.

Why did these students do so well while others did not despite having the same tutor (i.e. me) teaching the same thing to everyone?

It all boils down to self-motivation. A person thirsty enough will drink water scooped up from the ground. A person hungry enough will eat food that has dirt dropped into it from the tree leaves above. A student desperate enough for success will find ways to do what they have to do, not find excuses for not doing what they have to do. Mdm Halimah said her fate if she were expelled from school back then was that she would be a hawker for the rest of her life. She could not accept such a fate and therefore she worked very hard to do well and not be expelled form school. As we all know, she is our Speaker of Parliament today.

Final Words

God is fair. Everyone has exactly 24 hours a day. No one has one minute more, no one has one minute less.

Barring exceptional circumstances, every student does have enough time each day to study and do well. It’s all a matter of spending our time wisely, and most importantly, of about how desperate we are for success and doing what we need to do, no matter how hard it is or how unpleasant it is, to succeed.

And yes, during my NS, I did drink water scooped up from the ground and food with dirt dropped from the tree leaves above me.

Alex Yeo


About The Author

Alex Yeo is a full-time tutor who has been tutoring since 2005. However, his experience dealing with youths go way back with his professional experience in youth work, training and development.

His background, expertise and professional training have been in English, with a BA (English) (2nd class Honours) from the University of London, Diploma in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) from the London Teacher Training Centre, and a Master of Education (English Language) from National Institute of Education, NTU.

Alex has taught the full range of English language courses, from Singapore’s local examinations of PSLE, N Level, O Level and A Level English, to international English courses like IELTS, IGCSE. He has taught in local schools, private institutions and also lectured in the local polytechinics in Communication Skills, Personal Development, General Studies and English Language modules.

As part of his Master of Education programme, Alex studied how best a student would learn language, and he has used this knowledge to help his students improve their English from the usual C, D or E grades to A and B grades. So far, at time of writing, Alex has had students every year who score distinctions in O Level English and A Level General Paper.

As of December 2012, Alex has about 9,600 hours of face-to-face teaching hours, roughly what an MOE teacher will clock in about 18 years of service.

More information about Alex Yeo as well as testimonials from past students can be viewed at


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