Over the years, I have been a student in different circumstances — full or part-time, online or on-campus, undergraduate and graduate. Along the way, professors, advisors, and mentors have always shared a common piece of advice with me as a key to managing stress, to achievement, and to success: it always boiled down to time management.
“But,” I thought, “I have a weekly planner and I write out to-do lists, and I’m STILL stressed out and have to stay up late the night before something is due. So what’s missing?”
Struggles with time management are common for everyone: students, employees, and people of all ages. But research suggests we can overcome these struggles. And when we do, stress levels are more manageable, satisfaction with work is greater, and grades and study habits improve.
There’s plenty of time management advice out there, but what actually works? The following strategies are backed by research as effective ways to becoming a master of time management.
1. Time Assessment
Before you can improve your time management abilities, you have to think about how you are actually spending your time. You need to realize how your daily activities align with your priorities, and when and if you can take on additional work if asked to do so. Here’s how to do a time assessment:
- If you don’t use a planner (or a notebook where you can log activities), get one. Begin keeping track of what you planned to do, compared to what you did in that time — appointments, studying, relaxing, social time, whatever it might be. It is important to be honest with yourself in order to see where your pitfalls are. If certain tasks tend to take longer than you budgeted, or if you were procrastinating on something, this should become clear through this process.
- Once you have a sense of how you actually spend your time, see how it aligns with your priorities. Are you investing enough time in your highest priorities? If not, what would need to shift?
- It’s a good idea to approach this task with the understanding that you will probably uncover some habits that aren’t helpful for your stress or academics, and that is ok. We can’t improve what we aren’t aware of, and giving yourself a hard time makes it more difficult to make improvements.
2. Setting Goals
Now that you have a realistic picture of how you use your time, you can set some goals for the upcoming week. Here are a few tips as you set your goals:
- Keep your To Do lists short and focused. You can keep one list for the week and a second list for the day. List no more than three or four goals per day to keep them manageable, focused, and realistic.
- Remember that realistic goals are flexible goals. Unexpected illnesses, computer problems, whatever it might be — life is unpredictable and it’s important to integrate adaptability into your plans.
- Keep the big picture in mind. What made you decide to go to school? Seeing how your weekly goals tie into your big picture goal will help you stay motivated and focused as you work.
Popularized by Steven Covey in his book “First Things First,” this approach is a helpful way to approach prioritizing tasks. Often we find ourselves perpetually responding to the most urgent tasks, instead of what is really important. This approach can help limit that problem. Here’s what you do:
- Create a 2×2 table. Across the top, write “Important” over the first column and “Not important” over the second column. On the side of the top row, write “Urgent” and “Not Urgent” for the second row. Then categorize your tasks according to how urgent or important they are.
- The most important quadrant includes the tasks that are both important and urgent. You want to focus on getting these done first, and keeping this quadrant as empty as possible.
- Your quality work, however, will fall in the quadrant for important but not urgent. The lack of urgency means that it can be easy to put these tasks off for less important work with immediate deadlines. This quadrant is the area where you want to invest most of your time and energy to avoid the “tyranny of urgency.”
- Busywork, or tasks that are urgent but not important, can easily swallow up most of your time if you let them. Clearly separating them out by using this matrix allows you to prioritize them lower than the more important, quality work. It’s best to keep your list of tasks to a minimum.
- The last quadrant, that of tasks that are neither important nor urgent, should be disregarded if possible.
This component of time management is key. Good planning will keep you organized, prepared, and in control.
- The first step is to get a planner and record all important deadlines and events, as well as mandatory time commitments. Block out time for class, sleep, exercise, and a few breaks to relax and see friends and family.
- Then plan out exactly when you will focus on accomplishing the goals that you listed in the previous step. Writing this plan down will allow you to see if you realistically have enough time to accomplish everything. If you are overcommitted or on the verge, you may need to learn to say “no.” We all have limits to how much we can accomplish effectively — learn your limits, and respect them.
- Tip: Work according to your circadian rhythm — that is, when you are naturally most awake and alert. Plan to tackle your hardest tasks then.
- Tip: When it’s time to get going, spend an hour on your most important task first, BEFORE reading your email or doing anything else that could get you distracted or pull you away to other work.
- Tip: Use the free tool Trello as a way to organize and stay on top of your task list. You can use the color codes to prioritize tasks, create checklists, due dates, and organize around a specific topic (e.g., a particular class) or more broadly according to theme (e.g. academics, work, home).
If you have followed these steps, you will have a pretty strong time management system set up for yourself by this point. However, the best plan accomplishes nothing if you don’t stick to it! Monitoring means that you observe how you use your time to create a feedback loop. Essentially, it is an assessment again, but after you have worked to address some of the challenges that you identified.
- Tip: RescueTime has a limited free version that allows you to track your activity on websites and applications to give you an honest look at your habits. The paid version can block your access to distracting websites.
- Tip: When evaluating your use of time, remember that your ultimate goal with time management is productive use of time. Compare it to the goals that you established earlier. If you can meet your goals in a shorter amount of time than you had budgeted, great! If it turns out a task is more difficult than you anticipated, remember that for next time so you can plan and prepare more effectively.
- Tip: While working, stay focused on a single task and don’t try to multitask (because it doesn’t work).
- Tip: Use the Pomodoro Method to build in short breaks so that you can pace yourself and stay focused over a longer period of time (Marathon study sessions don’t really work).
- Tip: If you want to strengthen your focus skills, try mindfulness as an approach.
These five strategies have been found through multiple studies to improve time management. However, everyone will have their own unique tips and tricks to improve their own productivity. Got any tips of your own? Share them in the comments.
Find more articles on time management for students here:
Time Management for Online Students: Getting Organized in 3 S’s
Time Management: A Psychological Explanation of Why We Struggle