“But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near”
– Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress”
What’s today’s equivalent of Marvell’s chariot? The day planner? Cell phone calendar? The alarm clock crowing non-too-pleasantly in your ear?
As a college student, you know time is valuable. But what you may not know, however, is how to manage your time well. Time management is one of the biggest struggles among students.
Time management is often the key to success—both in and out of school. Below are eight ways to better manage your time, reduce stress, and make the most of your day (and night).
1. Know Thyself – Recognize your high- and low-energy times and plan accordingly
We all have times of the day when all our synapses are firing full-tilt, when the tank is full and coffee is simply a tasty treat and not the core necessity of our actual survival. And then we have those other times. Everything’s a chore. The amount of mental energy necessary to simply log on to Blackboard could in fact fuel five or six missions to Mars.
The first trick of good time management isn’t about time. It’s about you. Get to know the times of day when you’re at your most productive. Are you a morning person, or do you do your best work in the early hours of the night?
Once you get a sense for when you work best, the trick is to schedule the most demanding tasks for those times and schedule the mundane-but-fairly-mindless tasks for low-energy periods.
2. Trust A Tomato – Pomodoro technique
If you haven’t tried the Pomodoro technique, it might just change your life. Named for the Italian word for “tomato” (for reasons that are unclear to us but surely available to someone with Wikipedia access) this technique breaks longer spans of work time into smaller, more manageable segments.
Try this—set a time for a short-ish amount of time … 20 minutes is a good place to start. Pick a task. Once that timer begins, work on the task nonstop until the timer rings. If you sense distraction creeping into your head, write down that distraction (e.g. “check Facebook” “watch super-short YouTube video,” “compose opera”), then get back to work.
When the timer rings, take a short break, three or four minutes. Do whatever you want. When those three or four minutes are up, set the timer for another 20, and get back to work.
The Pomodoro technique is deceptively simply, but holy wow does it work. After you get used to it, you may even find yourself working through the timer simply because you’ve developed a head of steam or strong focus on the task. It’s effective, and it’s a great way to develop the self-awareness and self-discipline that is essential to all time management strategies.
3. Pay Attention to Your Attention – Record activities and distractions
We never have enough time, right? At least that’s the way it feels when we’re overwhelmed. But have you ever stopped to measure how much time you actually have (don’t worry, Sartre—we’re not talking the “Big E” existential here) and what you do with it?
There’s only one way to find out. For a day (or longer, if you’re really brave and/or a masochist), keep a record of how you spend your time. Keep it down to the minute. Be honest. When you sit down to study for two hours, exactly how many of those 120 minutes are spent studying? How many are spend on your phone, email, and so on?
A ruthless accounting of your time may put the fear of Andrew Marvell in you, but it also will show you what you’re most distracted by and how much time those distractions steal from you. You can’t change what you don’t know. So if you want to manage your time more skillfully, then you need a realistic picture of how you’re managing it now.
4. Procrastinate Later – Schedule distraction
With all this talk about distraction and procrastination, there is something to be said for some mindless mental checkouts. Everybody takes a mental step away from the heavy lifting of college because you have to. Breaks are essential.
But what’s the difference between a break and a full-blown, blowing-every-last-thing-off procrastination session? Discipline. Give yourself permission to take breaks, but give yourself very specific time limits on those breaks. Set a timer (see the Pomodoro technique) if you must.
By scheduling the things that threaten to derail your work, you’ve given yourself time to check out and refresh your thinking machinery while reducing the chance that those breaks take on a life of their own.
Ah yes, if only it where that easy, you might be saying, simply snapping back to work with a single thought. Well … it’s not that easy of course, but it’s doable, if you follow this next tip.
5. Flex Your Self-Awareness Muscles
Self-discipline is half the time-management battle. The other half? Self-awareness. Both are like muscles—the more you use them, the stronger they become.
Being aware of you habits, your strengths, and your weaknesses help you better manage your time. Being aware of these things, however—especially in a world of split attention with hyper-speed pace—is much easier said than done. But it can be done. It just takes practice.
Try this—when you catch yourself procrastinating or being diverted off-task by a distraction, say this out loud: “I am procrastinating” or “I am being distracted.” You won’t believe how much the sound of your own words can snap you back on task.
Giving voice to your mental drifting is a useful way to practice the self-awareness necessary to make the best use of your time. Sure, you might get some weird looks from confused strangers, but isn’t a bit of eccentricity worth a more focused life?
6. Think Small – Break things into manageable parts
If your To-Do List looks anything like this—Write Paper, Study for Final, Pass Class, Graduate—then you might need to practice thinking a little smaller. (By the way, you keep a To-Do List, right? RIGHT?)
A big way time management goes off track is the under-estimation (or plain old no-estimation) of just how much work and time a task takes. Rather than write down big, final outcomes as tasks, try breaking those huge tasks into smaller, more easily accomplished tasks.
For example, instead of putting “Write Paper” on your list, try breaking it up into smaller pieces: Write Outline, Draft Two Paragraphs, Find Three Sources, etc. Here’s a useful rule of thumb: Never put anything on your To-Do List than takes longer than 25 minutes to accomplish. If you can’t get it done in that amount of time, break it into multiple tasks.
7. Schedule Smart – Block your classes to create large chunks of study time
Time management begins before the first day of class. When you think about scheduling your classes for next semester, try to schedule them in blocks. U.S. News has a great piece on just this subject.
If you can schedule two or three classes back-to-back, that leaves you with bigger chunks of time for studying. And while it might seem nice to have that 90-minute break between classes, be honest with yourself. How many of those 90 minutes between classes will you spend studying? Schedule classes in a way that creates big blocks of uninterrupted time for all that work outside of class.
Which brings us to the last tip . . . .
Get Real – One hour of class time = At least 2 hours of prep time
It’s listed right there in your syllabus—the amount of time outside of class you can expect to spend preparing for class. Listen to this. It’s real.
No matter how efficient you are with your time, if you don’t budget enough time for work outside of class, no amount of tomato timers or self-discipline can save you.