Prelims or Mains Prep? Time Allocation and Management before Prelims 2020

I often wondered how it feels when you can’t move a step forward, neither take a step backwards.

These are called crossroads of life – where we don’t know which direction to go.

With the Covid-19 induced delays in the exam, many people are at the crossroads of their Civils preparation.

In fact, some people have built a home and have started living there for quite sometime. Sometimes doing nothing. Sometimes doing too many things.

In this article, I try to come up with suggestions as to what can be done to make key decisions for your preparation in the coming days, so that you don’t have to stay there any longer.

Hear me out.

First, remember that any decision you take is a good decision, because only you ( or your test series objective performance over a period of time ) know your exact preparation status. .

And as you will grow old, you will realize that there are no good or bad decisions when we make them. Decisions are good or bad only in the hindsight.

There is a second thing about decision-making. Making mistakes in making decisions is okay. Not making decisions however is usually more expensive than making wrong decisions.

Before I convince you to actually study for the next 3-4 months, here are some basic premises, which we shall begin with. I expect that most of us will agree to them irrespective of our preparation status.   Let us call them the basic premises.

Premise 1

The exam is on October 4, and everyone – right from people with Rank in 100s+ and looking to upgrade service to IAS will at least need to study for 30 days for the Exam.

This brings us to the grand conclusion that at least September is to be completely devoted for Prelims.

Premise 2

We must peak our performance on October 4 .

Not before that.

Not after that.

But just about the first week of October.

This means that we must design our schedule in a manner such that we are neither too tired nor too unprepared by the time of October 1st week.

Flowing from these two premises, we can further delve into the issue of time allocation for Prelims and Mains in the next 4 months.

( Obviously, the easy answer is to study for both prelims and Mains at the same time ( and also the interview ). You must do everything, and I have said that before – if you have ever studied for long hours – you would know that in trying to do everything – we end up doing nothing. )

Extrapolating previous premises, we can say that depending on our preparation

  • Even the super duper dudes with 4 time prelims cleared will / and should devote September to prelims that is about 30 days.
  • Most people who have cleared prelims once, should at least give the last 60 days to prelims as prelims does offer benefits of recency effect ( that is, better memory with respect to recently read things )

The question, however is about what we should be doing in June and July .

We will also agree that people who have never written Mains before ( complete freshers as well as people who took attempts ) should give more time to prelims than the two types of people mentioned above.

Now here is the catch.

Some of you may have done Prelims quite well already, while others may have considerable chinks in the armour – both know and unknown.

Based on this, in my opinion – and depending on your objective performance, you must give between 15 days to 30 days in  July for Prelims preparation.

The rest of it can be safely given to Mains.

If you are confident, you can go for just last 10 days of exclusive Prelims preparation. Or the whole month.

I would not recommend you to be doing Prelims in June, primarily because of several reasons.

Take a planned Break

One, you need a planned break.

Don’t get me wrong. I am aware that some of you may be on a break already because of low motivation, or because of other lockdown induced reasons.

A planned break is a conscious decision of withdrawing from a particular activity with the intention of resuming it at some point of time.

It is conscious. You decide to do it.

You don’t end up doing it.

There is a difference.

There is an intention to resume

  • with renewed vigour
  • action plan of what to do on resumption
  • have a laser beam focus on doing one thing well

Take a look at this figure

In the end, of all things that you do or don’t do – don’t do one things. The middle graph. That is, after few momths of Prelims, suddenly in August you think that your Optional of GS Mains prep is not on right track. That would be a blunder.

Pre-empt your feelings

If you have even 1% chance of running out of energy due to the extended period of prelims preparation, and getting in I-need-to-prepare-for-Optional-Essay-Ethics-GS-Mains sometime in August, it is a good idea to pre-empt the feeling and actually do it now.

In short your peaking graph should not like this

However,  if you can mainatin the energy till the Prelims – that is a winner.

If it is working out for you, you don’t need the rest of Plan B, and can safely skip to the last part of this blog post.

Don’t fix what is not broke.

( This is for you @Patrick_Jane . If you are already on track, do not change the track.)

But for those of you who need help with planning a break, here is how to plan one.

Don’t take a break from Studies

You don’t need a break from studies.

You need a break form Laxmikant, Spectrum, Test Papers and living life within choices of a,b,c,d.

You still need to be studying. So divide your time into blocks of 5/7/10 days and finish  1-2 things off your Mains Tasklist.

I am saying this because I know deep inside that some of you dragging your Prelims preparation now, will come back and join Mains courses/ start Mains preparation  in the month of August – because you are just so sick of Prelims preparation.

That is the vicious cycle I have talked about here

Learn to close things. Closures are imporant

Do not get me wrong.

I am not asking you to not study for Prelims.

I am just saying do not spread out too thin over so many things such that you end up covering nothing.

It’s better to have done all of Ethics or all of Optional Paper 1 instead of having done half of polity and half of this or that.

Bring things to a closure. A logical conclusion. Closures are important. If you have spend some years of your adolescent life in college, you should know.

A break from Prelims for a periof of 15-30 days is not too bad an idea.

It has some benefits.

(a) you develop fear of not having done prelims for sometime and work hard when you resume. Fear is good sometimes.

(b) you don’t just drag your preparation of prelims for 8 months this year. Quantity is not an indicator of quality. If God gave you an additional year, it wouldn’t mean you would be able to make better use of time.

So that when you resume, you have the appetite and thirst for studying for Prelims.

On the other hand, if you feel like – you may study 1-2 hours for Prelims – just because you are bored of Mains preparation. Always study one thing in a Mission Mode ( Primary ) and a second thing ( Secondary ) in a less than mission mode so that you don’t burnout yourself.

Sit for 3-4 hours at a stretch

About 2-3 months back, I happened to meet an old forum founding member.

When I asked her why she thought she got IAS the first time she got a service, she said something that is worth sharing.

She said that after studying in the library for 7-8 hours, sitiing on the stiff chairs made her tired.

So after coming back, in her room she should sit on the floor, turn on the cooler (having an AC was a privilege even in crowded coaching classrooms, leave individual rooms in those days) and use her bed as a table, lean on it and study for 3.5 hours everyday after getting back from the library.

She had bought colourful curtains for Rs. 15o each from a shop behind Gaffar market in Karol Bagh to decorate her room. Unlike an AC, an air cooler does not require you to close your windws. She would open the windows – and she would study till the moon shone high in the sky. Like Madhuri Dikshit’s room in a film called DTPH, she said. I chuckled.

She had 2 bottles of water within reach so that she wouldn’t need to get up and get distracted. Those additional hours beyond midnight was something, she felt was the extra she was doing.

And hence IAS.

People do a lot of things to get what they want.

Build a good and conducive – but most important – poistive environment around your study table / room.

In the end you will be spending hundreds of hours there.

And make sure that you develop the habit of studying distraction free for at least 3 hours or so to get things done. Keep two bottles of water within reach. Design your study table well. Or we will have too much syllabus and to little time at the end of the month.

10 Suggestions for your time ahead

So here are 10 suggestions for you, as you proceed on your journey

#0 Don’t study 12 hours a day right now. Maintain sanity at about 8-9 hours of quality studies in a day. There will be a time when you will need to escalate your preparation to 11-12 hours, but that day is not today. Don’t burn out before the battle begins.

#1 Maintain laser beam focus on what you are doing. Focus is the ability to undertake and complete a planned activity without picking up something new in between. Stay focussed. That itself takes lot of mental energy, if you know what I mean.[1]

#2 Sit in blocks of 2/3/4 hours. Do some deep work in this age of distraction. Deep work is priceless. Deep work begins after finishing 4-5 hours of studying. Not many people do deep work these days.

#3 Today, you will have too many choices / courses / websites / people / initiatives to follow. Follow one or two of them and do it well. You will succeed. Not everyone benefits from having too many choices.

#4 Have a mentor. A mentor can be a  human, an article or even an idea. It is something to you resort to when you have a confusion. A good idea is a more powerful mentor than a human mentor.

#5 Keep a picture of your parents in your room, if possible. Sounds antiquated and stupid. And I fear being judged like a relative for saying this.

But in the last 3 years, I have met at least 20+ students under 50 Ranks who shared that they had pictures of parents in their  rooms or phones. So sometimes, when you forget why you are doing, what you are doing ( or why you should’t do what you are doing – depending on what you actually do ) , the picture is a good motivation. Helps get back on track.

#6 Stay emotionally healthy. The Civils preparation is often a lonely battle. You will spend days and nights in solitude, lose friends, question yourself, go through the trauma of waiting and what not. Have a good support system. Speak to your family and parents. You will need them. We all do.

#7 Laugh at whatever you can. When you stop laughing, you sometimes forget how to laugh. So if you are surprised by those 6AM laughing uncles in Delhi Parks, you are unaware of the fact that some people have not laughed their whole lives.

#8 You will make progress if you try. There is no bigger strategy to crack this exam except that of sitting down everyday and trying. I can get every Rankholder from ForumIAS to write a testimonial saying that.

#9 Hard work is the single greatest competitive advantage. Getting your notes organized is hard work. Making notes is hard work. Writing at least 20 pages everyday and about 500 pages every month is hard work. But more than, hard work is what gets you at the Top.

#10 Start studying within the first hour of waking up. The whole program of SFG was based on the idea that get people to study before negative thoughts get you. I have thank you emails from people writing first Mains and Interview for the first time after five attempts. JNU Scholars.

Last but not the least –  Draw inspiration from things around you. Try to see what is the best in everything around you, and pick those things from there and leave the rest.

I once asked a senior as to how she sustained her motivation during her preparation days.

What she said has stuck with through all these days.

She said that she had a very noisy room, during her preparation. It  faced the Main road and there was no way she could keep the windows open in the day or at night.[2]

She had little choice as she had already paid the rent and brokerage, so she decided to make good use of it. She had lost her father.  Both she and her sister were preparing, and had financial difficulties like all middle class people do when the children are getting education. [3]

She said that all night long trucks would pass outside the window on the Main road disturbing her. she said she couldn’t sleep all night. But then she said something to herself that changed her perspective.

She said that “if these trucks can ply all night, why can’t I study all night?”

And she studied as long as the trucks kept moving all night.

People who succeed do not have lesser problems that you do.

We succeed despite our problems, and sometimes, because of our problems.

Keep walking.

Until next time,



[1] We do not have so much of a time management problem these days, as we have an attention management problem. Time is a scarce commodity, attention is much more scarce. More on that later.

[2] For nerds who love details, it is the same room in 6th Block facing Shankar Road and the iconic Tea Making Uncle, who makes only as much tea as there are number of people in a group.

[3] They grew up, cleared the Civils examination, and are happily married to IAS officers. One of them is an old fourm member, and that is how I recently heard from them.



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By Neyawn

Neyawn is an anonymous member the founder of ForumIAS. He is a coder Mentor & Teacher by profession, and often writes for ForumIAS. You can buy him coffee , if you really really like his work. He has built ForumIAS - the community - twice. You can say Hi to him or ask him a question on ForumIAS, or follow him on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn . You can also write to him at RxAxVxI@FOxRUMxIAS.COM ( remove the small "x" from the email ).