College life is fun, but it can also be very demanding. Most successful students develop a common skill—one that helps them get work done on time and excel both inside and outside of the classroom. What’s their secret weapon? Time management.
As you were growing up, other people took some or all of the responsibility for keeping you organized. Your teachers kept track of your work and monitored your performance. Your parents may have kept your clothes clean, stored all of your important records, made your appointments and made sure your homework got done. In college, you have to assume a lot of these responsibilities and more. You have to be your own manager.
Of all of the organizational skills you’ll need to develop to succeed in college, none is more fundamentally important than time management. Manage your time effectively, and you can balance a social life that is fun and exciting with an academic life that is successful and rewarding. Manage it poorly and you can fall behind before you can say, “What time is it?”
Making a Time Management Plan
How well do you manage your own time? Do you sometimes feel like your time is managing you? What can you do about it? Creating a time management plan is work, but it’s probably simpler than your easiest homework assignment. And the more work you do up front, the less you’ll have to do later. Let’s start by looking at how you spend your time now.
Be Your Own Detective
First, you want to do some self-analysis. By monitoring how you spend your days, you’ll get a sense of your strengths and weaknesses in managing your time. This simple three-step process will help you see how you use your time over a long stretch—including when you tend to work best, and when you may tend to run into trouble.
- Track a week. In a pocket notebook, track everything you do for an entire week—the time you woke up, when you had meals, when you had class. Include the little things, too—the phone call from mom that lasted 20 minutes, buying a muffin at the coffee shop, checking e-mail between classes. You don’t need to describe things in detail; just mark them down quickly. Pay special attention to how much time you spent on each activity.
- Crunch the numbers. At the end of the week, take a look at how you used your time. How much time did you spend studying each day? How long did you linger in the dining hall every meal? How many times a day did you check e-mail, and how long did it usually take?
- Note the patterns. What conclusions can you draw from your detective work? Did anything surprise you? When were your most productive work periods? Where did you tend to lose time (two hours of TV a day, extended coffee breaks, slow or late mornings)? Did you tend to procrastinate? Find yourself forgetting to do things? How would you rate your overall efficiency as a time manager?
Winners Aren’t Perfect—Just Persistent
Keeping a journal on how you spend time is an excellent way to learn about your patterns and trouble spots. For some, however, the journaling exercise itself becomes a lesson in needing to get organized. Forgot to make entries today? Left your notebook in the car? There are lots of reasons why some of us have more difficulty remembering things and staying organized, but all of them can be overcome with practice.
If you miss journal entries, don’t give up. Just get to your notebook ASAP and write as much as you can remember. As long as you’re reflecting on how you spend your time, you’re on the right track. And once you’re armed with a better understanding of how your time gets spent, you can begin the most important step in gaining control over it—advanced planning.
The Big Picture: Planning the Semester
Now that you’re acquainted with your current patterns, you can start finding more efficient ways of using your time. This three-step sequence will ensure that you’re fixed on what you intend to do, that the semester’s big events are accounted for and that major school-related and personal events do not conflict.
Set priorities and goals. In planning your time, you first have to think about what you want to accomplish and why. Using the same notebook you used above, make a list of all your priorities and goals for this semester. List all things big and small. Make sure your goals meet these standards:
- Positive—Write “Attend class every day” rather than “Don’t skip class”. Positive focus is important for motivation.
- Precise and measurable—Write “Earn a 3.5 GPA” instead of “Get good grades.” You need to know how close to your goal you are, and when you’ve reached it.
- Achievable—Realistically, “Score 100 percent on every chemistry exam” may not happen. Your goals should inspire you, but putting them beyond reach or beyond what is necessary sets you up for failure and discouragement.
- Easily reduced—For each big goal, you’ll need to set smaller, more immediate objectives. If your goal is to earn an A in calculus, what is your objective for the week, or even for today? Measure your success—and identify trouble spots—step by step. Give yourself credit for each small goal you’ve met.
Collect the big dates. Now start building a calendar for the semester. Start by checking out your school’s academic and events calendars. Then add dates from your class syllabi, including exam dates and major deadlines. Next, make a list of all personally important dates: birthdays, anniversaries, religious holidays, special events or trips. Combine the two lists, noting which dates overlap.
Build the calendar. Put all of the deadlines, due dates, exam times and important personal dates into one calendar. You can purchase a calendar or build one easily yourself, with a month to a page. Mark in red all days that contain multiple items, two or more consecutive important due dates and any double-exam days.
The Daily (and Weekly) Grind
Seeing the big picture won’t do any good unless you manage your time on a weekly and daily basis, as well. We suggest making a weekly calendar and daily to-do lists. Try these simple steps:
- To prepare your weekly calendar, start by writing out your fixed schedule: classes, part-time work hours, sports practice, etc. Next, refer to your “big picture” calendar, and fill in the items relevant to that week, such as studying for an upcoming test. Also, you should allow for at least two to three hours of study time for each hour you spend in class.
- Your to-do list should include everything you want to accomplish in a day. We recommend taking a look at your to-do lists at a fixed time everyday—first thing in the morning or just before you go to bed. You’ll find that checking items off the list can be almost satisfying as completing the task itself. Here are some additional strategies for weekly and daily scheduling:
- Divide “big picture” responsibilities into daily chunks. For instance, review one chapter of your textbook every day in the two weeks before an exam.
- Leave some wiggle room. One thing you can always expect is the unexpected! Things will come up, or sometimes take longer to do than you think. For important tasks, schedule slightly longer chunks of time than you might need.
- Be flexible with study time. Two or three hours, with breaks, is fine for studying—but so is 30 minutes. Any opening is a good time to study.
- Schedule downtime. Relaxation and fun are critical to getting it all done, but you need to gain control over free time to avoid having it run into your schedule.
- Schedule bedtime, too. Lack of sleep can really mess with your success. Keeping your mind sharp makes class time and studying a lot easier and more meaningful. Choose a regular bedtime for each day of the week, and stick with it! The rest and routine will pay off.
Keeping Tabs on Time
Now that you have all the pieces, it’s time to make it work. Keep your calendars and to-do lists in places (such as above your desk) where you will see them often. Keep tabs on your “red-letter” days, and prioritize your task list. Commit to doing the most necessary and important things first. You may need to call friends and family to see if you can rearrange dates to accommodate your school schedule—call now, before you get crunched. The goal is to get as many days as possible out of the red.
Review your calendar every week to make sure you’re sticking to it. Revise dates as necessary and communicate changes to everyone involved. Note your habits, both good and bad, and work to improve.
Tools for Better Timing
There are many resources and tools out there that can help. There is probably a time management tool already installed on the computer you’re using:
- Every college student quickly comes to recognize the importance of time management. Making time management a regular topic of conversation with your friends is a great way to keep it front and center in your own thoughts. Also, most schools’ learning assistance centers offer guidance and coaching for time management. If you are someone who finds developing new routines to be difficult, get someone to help you.
Calendars and Gadgets
- Daily planner—pick one up at the campus bookstore; your computer may also have an electronic version installed already.
- A regular notebook where you keep your weekly schedules and to-do lists.
- Personal Data Assistant (PDA) such as a Palm Pilot; many other devices, such as mobile phones, may include this functionality.
- Microsoft Outlook—The “light” version of Microsoft’s e-mail, calendar and task management solution, Microsoft Outlook Express, usually comes installed with Microsoft Windows. The full version may be purchased separately or as a part of the MS Office suite.
- iCal—Macintosh’s time management solution comes with Mac OS X, and updates can be downloaded for free.
- Yahoo! Calendar—Free to people who sign up and agree to a little advertising on the side. Access your calendar from any web-enabled computer, send e-mail reminders and share your calendar with friends and relatives. If you’re a Hotmail user, you might want to consider its calendar.
- Web destinations: Prentice Hall’s Student Success site, as well as Mind Tools offer useful advice on time management.