Time management is something everyone struggles with at one point or another.
If you don’t have a time management system in place, it can become a daily struggle to try to get everything done without feeling overwhelmed. On the other hand, if you do have a system in place but it’s not working anymore, it’s time to reevaluate your strategy.
Look at the syllabus for each class and map out all key dates and deadlines from now until the end of the semester. When are projects due? When do exams take place? Write everything down on a real calendar so that it's cemented in your memory. Don’t have a calendar? Print out monthly sheets from iCal or Google Calendar in the computer lab. These dates provide a framework for your time management plan.
There are 168 hours in a week. How are you going to make the most of them? A weekly routine is a pillar of your success in college. Set up a template in Excel or on paper where you can easily see each day of the week in column headers and hours of the day in rows, or create a new calendar in Google Calendar. Then do the following:
- Schedule daily recurring activities, like sleep (no less than 7 hours per night!) and mealtimes.
- Schedule weekly recurring activities, like class times, work, regular meetings, and exercise.
- Schedule blocks of study time for each class (during which you’ll prepare for class, read, complete assignments, prepare for exams, etc.). For every 1 hour you spend in class each week, plan to spend 2-3 hours studying outside of class. This means for a 4 credit class (~4 hours of class per week), you should plan to spend 8-12 hours studying for that class per week. Spend more time studying for difficult classes and less time studying for easier classes.
- Schedule flexible times each day for things that might come up unexpectedly. If nothing comes up, count this as extra free time (or study time!).
- Schedule free time for social activities and breaks, especially on the weekends.
- Overall, as you schedule each of these activities, keep in mind the most productive time of day for you. Are you a morning person, or does your energy peak late at night? If you’re a morning person, make sure you don’t schedule your calculus homework at 7:00PM :)
Use this guide on a weekly basis as you plan the week and days ahead. If you use Google Calendar, you can also make recurring appointments for each of these tasks.
Every night before you go to bed, take 15 minutes to plan tomorrow. This ensures you wake up with purpose and are prepared to check things off your to do list. Reference the key dates and deadlines you identified earlier, as well as your weekly schedule template, then write down exactly what you’re going to do for each hour of the day. Try out hourly, 30-minute, 20-minute, and/or 15-minute increments to see what works best for you. We’re a fan of 30-minute increments at Propeller - it can be easy to get carried away planning smaller increments of time.
Together, your key dates and deadlines for the semester, weekly schedule, and daily to do lists, are your North Star. Review them daily. Sometimes things will come up that challenge your plan - for example, maybe a friend wants to have dinner at the same time you scheduled study time - but sticking to your schedule is the only sure way to get one step closer to your long-term goals. When things come up that challenge your schedule, consider the trade-offs - Do you really have to go to dinner tonight? Could you reschedule dinner with them for the weekend? If it’s urgent, do have a block of free time available at another time when you could push back this particular study slot? Be careful with this last option though; it’s easy to keep pushing things back.
Doing this can help you focus, work efficiently, and reduce procrastination. It’s called the “Pomodoro Technique.” Determine what you’ll work on, set a timer and work for 25 minutes, then take a 3-5 minute break before your next 25-minute interval. After you complete four intervals (also called “pomodoros”), take a 15-30 minute break to refresh your mind. Before you know it, you’re done. Check out this free 25-minute time at tomato-timer.com.
Another way to increase productivity is to track your time with an app like Toggl. Use it to increase focus by racing against the clock to complete assignments, and use it to audit your time on a regular basis. What you thought was a 4-hour study session at the library could actually have been two hours of study time + two hours of random website and social media browsing.
Take 15 minutes at the end of your work day or before you go to bed to review your progress and plan tomorrow. Look at your time tracker results and your daily to do list. How well did you do today? How can you improve? Based on your weekly schedule template, what’s on tap for tomorrow? What needs to get done by the end of this week and next week? Take a quick glance at your key dates and deadlines for the rest of the semester to make sure you’re on track, then map out tomorrow’s to do list.
Take 20 minutes at the end of the day on Fridays to review your progress for the week and check in on what needs to get done during the weekend. Map out what you’ll work on and when.
Take 20 minutes on Sunday afternoons to plan out the week ahead, using your weekly schedule template as a guide. Take another look at your key dates and deadlines for the semester. This way, you won’t be surprised when things come up out of nowhere.
Sundays are also a great time to check in with the syllabus for each of your classes. The syllabus outlines exactly what you can expect for the semester. Is your class going according to schedule? Did you forget to do a reading from last week? Use the syllabus to double-check that you’re doing everything you should be doing in the course.
Stephen Covey has some great advice on this. In his Time Management Matrix, Covey outlines four quadrants for categorizing activities (see graphic below). Most people are driven by time-sensitive tasks found in Quadrants I and III, but remember that urgency does not equal importance. Many people spend a lot of time in Quadrant I (for example, you have to complete an assignment now that’s due in four hours), but focusing on Quadrant II tasks will help you push the ball on important assignments without leaving them to the last minute.
When you’re designing your weekly schedule, make sure to schedule Quadrant II tasks first. For example, if you have a term paper due at the end of the term, schedule out time each week to work on it throughout the semester rather than waiting until the last minute. Honing your ability to determine the urgency and importance of each of your to do items will help you become an efficiency machine.
The success of your new time management plan will be based on your persistence. Sticking to your time management plan day in and day out can seem like a chore in those first few days, but you’ll reap the rewards of your effort in time. A recent study suggests it takes 66 days, on average, before a new behavior becomes second nature. Be patient with yourself as you incorporate these time management tips into your routine.