Dunbar’s Number: How I Manage Large Quantities of Homework


So…a new semester, a new load of reading. And when I say a new load, I actually mean a truckload. The amount of reading that’s been assigned this semester seems to have outdone last semester’s efforts threefold.

At some point, as numbers become progressively larger, the human mind becomes unable to hold the idea of that quantity. We start to group things together out of necessity. Instead of thinking of all the people you’ve ever met as “people I’ve met,” you start seeing them as “people from school,” “people from work,” or “people from that one awful seminar I went to that I hope I never see again.”  We categorize because it’s too hard for us to keep track of everything individually.  This phenomenon is known as Dunbar’s Number, and although it applies specifically to social relationships, I think it does a good job of illustrating how this semester is starting to look for me.

For example: This week, one of my instructors was sick, so I didn’t have my first class.  The rest of my classes (combined) required a total of 24 reading assignments by next week.  If we consider that these 24 readings came from 4 classes, we can average 6 readings per class per week.  Since I have 5 classes total, if we average 6 readings per class per week, and there are 14 weeks (except for one class which only has 8 weeks), we can estimate that my total semester’s readings will be about (14 weeks x 6 readings x 4 classes) + (8 weeks x 6 readings x 1 class), which equals 384 readings.


Now, I know that math isn’t our strong suit at Naropa, but it doesn’t take much to figure out that this will probably leave me about zero free time.

Which leads to my point: with all of this reading, how am I going to keep track of it all?

Well, as those of you who have met me know, I like putting things in (metaphorical) boxes.  Not unnecessarily, and not as a means of stereotyping, but as a method for cognitive organization.  For instance, I mentally categorize the things that I like to do as luxury (playing video games), fun and constructive (scrap booking), fun and necessary (cooking dinner), and not very fun but producing fun results (exercising).

Yes, I actually think like that.

And it helps.  It allows me to see the mountain of work ahead as less daunting.  In order to manage the workload, I break assignments down into the following categories, generally in my mind, but sometimes on paper:

  • Due very soon, and therefore urgent
  • Due pretty soon, but time-consuming, and therefore fairly urgent
  • Due fairly soon, and quick, so not urgent
  • Due not soon at all, but fun, and therefore good to do between tough things

I also categorize things by how important they are:

  • Worth a large part of my grade, so a project to be worked on regularly
  • Worth a fair part of my grade, so worked on occasionally
  • Worth little of my grade, but time consuming, so to be worked on regularly
  • Worth little of my grade, and easy, so to be worked on last

And finally, the readings themselves:

  • Most relevant to this week’s topic (definitely read)
  • Somewhat relevant to this week’s topic (Read when “definitely” pile is done)
  • Not very relevant to this week’s topic, or covered by another reading (if I have time)
  • Not at all relevant to this week’s topic (don’t read)

I know every teacher says that all of the readings are important, but that’s simply not manageable sometimes.  Between my work schedule and in-class time, I am already at 40.5 hours per week.  If you consider that we’re supposed to add 3 hours of homework for each hour of class time, that would put me at about 80 hours of class, work, and homework, which equals two full-time jobs.  Add the half hour commute to school, and I’m easily at 84.5 hours dedicated to this stuff.  IF I don’t have a day off, that puts me at about 12 hours per day of work, school, and driving.  If I do have a day off, it puts me at 14 hours.

So basically, if I did all of the homework that’s assigned, woke up at 7 in the morning, and never had any free time, by 7 in the evening, I would have 4 hours per day left over before I needed to go to sleep.  That’s four hours per day to cook and eat all meals, do all laundry, do all grocery shopping, shower, and any other myriad of tasks that come up during a day, with no free time whatsoever.  If I wanted a day off, or a couple hours of free time, cut that down to 2 hours per day.

It’s simply impossible.  So I have to prioritize.  I have to pick which readings I’m just not going to do.  I also have to pick which ones I procrastinate on and which ones I skim.

And this isn’t cheating.  It’s just how grad school works.  Tons of people have reassured me that this is normal, and after seeing the coming semester’s workload, I have to agree.  We’re only people after all; we’re not superhuman.

What about all of you?  How is your semester looking?  While I hope that it’s a little less crazy than mine, I’d love to hear how you manage your time around the massive amounts of coursework. Feel free to comment!