Time Management for Students: a Psychological Explanation of Why We Struggle

“If only I had more time, I know I’d ace this assignment…” We’ve all thought this at one point. Let’s face it, time management for students is a universal problem.

time management for students

When I was in college and graduate school, I know managing time was not my forte. Work demands plus deadlines for school projects and exams made some times of the year beyond stressful—so stressful that I would forget whether I even did simple things like return a phone call or brush my teeth. Of course, I have to be honest and say that it is not much better today, now that I am a professor and single mother of two pre- and elementary school kids.

I know that I am not alone in this; many people struggle with managing their time to get things done. One reason that time management is difficult is due to the planning fallacy—something that occurs when people underestimate how long it will take to finish a task, even if they have done the task before.1 For example, if I have written papers for several classes in college, this does not mean that I will be good at estimating how long it will take me to write another paper in my class this semester. Not only does this result in there not being enough time to complete the work, but people then later tend to overestimate how much time they actually spent working on the task. I hear this complaint all the time from students, such as how long or hard they worked on a paper that was only average in quality. I know from experience that it is not the time, or our perception of time, that is related to quality—it is being able to meet the instructor’s expectations of “mastery” or application of the material.

Does effective time management really lead to better outcomes? Research suggests that it is not time management per se that leads to better outcomes, but rather it is our belief that we have control of our time. One study found that when college students believed they had control of their time, they performed better in coursework, reported less stress, and felt less “overloaded.” 3 There have been a number of programs developed by psychologists to help people manage their time better, and they tend to result in greater control perceptions. 4 These programs tend to focus on getting organized with lists of what all needs to be done, setting priorities for certain tasks, scheduling time for tasks to be accomplished, and then protecting this time to get things done (e.g., saying no to other demands, which is not something that I am personally good at). People can use different tools to manage their time, such as alarms to alert the person on when certain tasks need to be completed, calendars, and even software programs (e.g., ManicTime). Obviously, there are still setbacks when we underestimate how much time it takes to do something, or when other life demands get in the way, such as having sick kids at home or work demands that interfere with our ability to study for an exam in an online class. But, if tasks lists are detailed and planned out enough, you can include “buffer time” built in to your schedule to offset such setbacks so that you can still meet your goals.

It is also important to consider that people can view time very differently. For example, present-oriented people like immediate, sensory experiences and find it difficult to delay gratification to reach their goals. Managing time is more difficult for these folks, as they are easily distracted by things that they would rather be doing. Compare the present-oriented person to a future-oriented person, and you can see great differences in how they view time. Future-oriented individuals are better at delaying gratification and planning to meet their goals, and they thrive on being in control. They may, however, have a harder time than present-oriented people in being “present” in their relationships and just enjoying the moment. These different time perspectives are important when understanding how different people manage their time. Not reaching a long-term goal or deadline may be perceived as more stressful for some types than others, and actually planning may be more challenging for present-oriented than future-oriented people.  If you’re curious to see where you stand, you can take this survey to see how you perceive time. At the end of the survey is a description of your score.

Managing time to accomplish goals can be challenging for even highly successful people. It is important to consider how you work best, and even to seek assistance from others if you find yourself struggling to meet deadlines and balance work, school, and life demands.

To get started on gaining a better sense of control over your time, try these tips on getting organized for better time management. You can also use these online study resources, including a time management worksheet.

1Kahneman, D. & Tversky, A. (1979). Intuitive prediction: biases and corrective procedures. TIMS Studies in Management Science, 12, 313–327.

2Buehler, R., Griffin, D., & Ross, M. (2002). Inside the planning fallacy: The causes and consequences of optimistic time predictions. In T. Gilovich, D. Griffin, & D. Kahneman (Eds.), Heuristics and biases: The psychology of intuitive judgment, pp. 250–270. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

3Macan, T. H., Shahani, C., Dipboye, R. L., & Phillips, A. P. (1990). College student’s time management: Correlations with academic performance and stress. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82, 760-768.

4Häfner, A., & Stock, A. (2010). Time management training and perceived control of time at work. Journal of Psychology, 144, 429-447.