A few months ago, a student of Ethos Legends, our competitive online debate club, asked me a fascinating question.
@Justin you’re definitely the best person to ask this lol, because I’ve known you to research the absolute most while also having an even more packed schedule than I do. How did you balance that? Do you have any tips on how I could balance my life in such a way that I could also maximize research while also taking care of everything else that I have? — Joseph
Now, this is my kind of topic 😂 In the fall of my last season of debate, I took 24 college credits of engineering classes and worked a 20-hour per week part-time job, but still managed to spend at least 40 hours a week on debate (including time for practice rounds and club calls), with 20-30 hours of that going towards research.
How did I manage that you might ask? I did it by becoming proficient in three categories:  effective time management,  effective researching, and  “cheating” the system.
Tip #1: Effective Time Management.
This is the biggest way you’re going to free up more time to research: by being more effective and responsible in time management (which is a universal struggle for both teens and adults alike). There were a couple of things that helped me be more effective with my time.
First off, wake up early. It doesn’t matter how late you sleep, always wake up at a set time every single morning. It’s healthier and gives you more time to do things, whereas sleeping in wastes precious time. Even waking up 30 minutes earlier could get you like 4 or 5 solid arguments in a brief on a random case, and that’s every single morning. Now I do caution you — please get 7-8 hours a night, it’s not going to go well if you don’t😂 But sleep earlier to get that, never sleep in or change your normal sleep schedule.
Second off, create to-do lists, and set goals. I recommend using an app such as Microsoft Todo… Figure out which briefs you want to brief, and then set deadlines and time limits for how much time you should be devoting to it. If you go over the time limit, or the deadline, no worries. Just set new ones. Having written to-do lists ensures productivity. Those who write down their goals have a 1.4 times higher chance of succeeding. The mind battle that this helps you with is huge — at least for someone who is a procrastinator and puts things off until the last minute like me.
Third off, focus without excess distractions. This is the hardest of them all. You should strive to spend less time at parties, hanging out with friends, playing video games, texting, etc. All that stuff is awesome let me tell you, but at the same time… it’s not productive. I’m not saying don’t have fun in life… just have less fun (you can tell I’m Asian XD). But in all seriousness, that will give you a massive amount of time back. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you shouldn’t spend time relaxing — all humans need to after all. But just spend a lot less time than you normally would have. You have the summer to do whatever you want, but for the school season, you’re going to have to sacrifice certain things.
Last but not least, and this is the impact of the above three points, DO NOT PROCRASTINATE. If you do, fire will fall from heaven and you could be responsible for thousands of innocent women and children dying. Do you really want to kill innocent people? Do you? Do you?? 😱
Just kidding, but for real, I beg you — ALWAYS do assignments from school as soon as possible. Finish it right as you get it and then submit it. This is important for two reasons.
First, because you have a ton of flexibility and if needed can fill that space with researching a fire brief for the team who decides to run a really bad squirrel the day before the tournament.
But second and more importantly, avoiding procrastination speeds up your work. For instance, if your English teacher told you to read pages 5, 18, 48, and 78-100, write a narrative essay on the experience, and then write a 10-page research paper on Rick Astley’s dog — and that’s all due at the end of two weeks — you know exactly what to do if you start the minute you get home. If you wait till the end of two weeks, you’re going to forget what your teacher taught in her lecture as well as the required homework. You’re going to have to go back to your notes and waste countless hours of precious time trying to remember.
Tip #2: More Effective Researching
Something I regret during my high school debate career was not being able to speed research early on. If you’ve ever got the chance to watch or research with the teams of McDonald/McDonald or Burson/Negron — you REALLY need to. Both teams are super fast and effective at researching. You could give them the most obscure case and they’d be able to pick it apart quicker than you can say “Rick Astley.”
Both these teams have something in common: experience. They’ve been doing TP for quite a while and know how to effectively research.
Normally experience takes a lot of time to garner, but there are ways of learning it faster. My biggest suggestion to getting there faster is by doing something called “planning.” Even though I was only twelve years old at the time, I will never forget what my programming teacher (who was fourteen at the time) taught me.
5 minutes of planning will save you 5 hours of coding.
Me being me, I promptly went out and refused to follow his advice for the next 2 or 3 years of my life. But then it hit me one day: I was being dumb. There were countless times I had jumped on a project idea of mine and hit the ground running by just opening up a file and throwing code into it. I didn’t take a moment to plan out how things should exactly go. And because of this, I had to re-write the code several times over — and even throw large portions of it out. Planning is an INTEGRAL part of being a programmer. And it’s the same for debaters as well.
You can implement planning by developing a strategy for every new case before you even start to cut cards. To summarize, you should always take four important steps: (1) Get a general knowledge of the case by reading but not cutting relevant articles, (2) plan your strategy and arguments extensively, (3) begin cutting cards for those specific arguments as well as for potential responses to those arguments, and (4) figure out responses and spikes. For a more detailed explanation, see my blog post on the 4 steps you can take to improve your researching method.
Tip #3 Cheat the System
I kinda “cheated the system” so to speak to increase how much time I could spend researching. The reason I say “so to speak” is because it was entirely legal and ethical.
For instance, I used to be a Supplemental Instructor (aka a peer tutor) for a local community college. Every week, I spend 9 hours sitting in on Physics labs to answer student questions and listen to the Professor’s lecture so that we can be on the same page when I run my group tutoring sessions. Since I already studied the topics that the Professor is teaching and since I don’t get many questions during labs, I could spend a significant part of that time multitasking while listening to the lecture and answering questions. In addition, there would be the occasional time where students didn’t show up to my tutoring sessions and I could instead turn to team policy research while I sat there doing nothing (I’m required — and paid — to be there anyway).
Now, this example is very specific to me because the college and professors are totally fine with their tutors multitasking when appropriate. However, I believe that there are multiple other ways in which you could “cheat the system” so to speak into allowing multitasking and more researching — depending on how dedicated you are to get in those extra hours. For instance, you could bring your laptop to places where you spend a substantial amount of time waiting and doing nothing. Car rides, waiting rooms, and study halls are some good examples.
I knew a national-level debater who implemented this well. He’d do all of the examples above to a T. Some other more creative examples were when he would research during registration night or after classes were done at events we did together (while the rest of us were talking or playing basketball or some other fun game). He’d be able to add countless hours to his researching quota per week.
This past year, I put this into practice. I’d have my laptop out on the counter or dinner table researching while helping out, I’d have my laptop out in the car, I’d be listening to an online class while my 1AC was open, I’d be writing an essay while simultaneously multitasking on a NEG brief to a case I was really worried about losing to, and I’d even pull my phone out on walks and text myself important articles. [Which on a side note… Being able to cut cards on a phone is a human right to debaters. It’s outrageous that software does not exist to do this already, but stay tuned, this shall soon be a cry of the past….]
I do want to be clear, however, this is not the best nor the most effective method to acquiring more research time. There’s always a bright line and a limit should impose on yourself. Something I regret is spending so much of my spare time in my senior year researching for debate when I could have spent more time with my family.
DISCLAIMER: The information provided does not, and is not intended to, constitute as legal schedule managing advice; instead, all information, content, and materials available are for general informational purposes only.
In all seriousness though — this is just stuff that helped me and gave me a leg up in terms of time for researching. Every person is different, and so I can guarantee you that you will be different as well. This means that while a lot of my advice might be helpful to you, your won’t find success by copying exactly what I did in my senior year to achieve 20-30 hours a week of researching time.
My advice from here on out is two-fold. First, ask more people for advice! Ask your coaches, parents, siblings, friends, and national-level debaters that you know how they would best recommend increasing the time that you can spend researching under a busy schedule. The second step would be to piece together and then share that information with others and have a discussion on what the best method would be. Feel absolutely free to have that conversation and share all the advice you’ve gathered in the comments below here. We’d love to know how you tackled this problem personally and what best helped you.
I wish you luck in your quest for more researching time!
Justin is a three-year alumnus of NCFCA and a junior at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, hoping to receive degrees in computer science and electrical engineering. In his senior year, he went from never competing in an outround to averaging semis or quarters at every national open, including a 4th place at nationals, as well as averaging finals at regional tournaments. His philosophy in debate is that there are no rules. Providing one is ethical, the most persuasive argument flies. At the end of the day, Justin argues you should honor God & have fun! Debate is not all about winning, it’s about the skills you foster.
You can learn more about Justin by reading his bio, and you can book coaching with him over here.