Time management for students

Use time-blocking and lists: simple time management that helps students get more done, do better work, and feel better straight away.

All you need is a calendar and a way to make lists. Digital or paper tools are both fine. I use a digital calendar plus a paper notebook, which I’ll discuss later. We’ll use a “time-blocking” method for the calendar, and a custom approach to lists, capturing to-dos, tasks, and ideas.

a calendar and notebook
A simple calendar and notebook are all you need

The calendar:

Use whatever calendar you have to hand (a paper diary or MS Outlook etc.). Use your calendar to time-block. This means you plan and commit to focused activities for specific blocks of time. 

With time-blocking, you will aim to do only one main activity for a period of time. Let’s say 30 minutes up to several hours. For example, “Read chapters 2-3” or “Practice recall for Psych exam.” To achieve this, you must change some behaviours. You may need to learn to focus one thing at a time. This means: Turn off notifications on all devices, put your phone away, reduce distractions, close browser windows, etc.

Below, see an example of a day planned using the time-block method:

time-blocked calendar showing time management for students
Time-blocked calendar

Notice that in the example above all the items are related. This can help you get the most out of each block. It’s good for motivation and focus and it all stems from the biology lecture. This student wants to get the most value they can from the live event. (But if your days are more diverse than this example, that can work too.) 

Notice also the colours used to show different types of activity (self-study, lectures and workshops, and personal time or breaks). Experiment with visual cues like this to give your day a bit of variety and liveliness. 

Give it a try now and see how it feels. Just plan tomorrow. You won’t get the times right at first, but that’s fine. Just learn as you go and aim to get better over time. 

The list: Separately from the calendar, keep a list for both tasks and ideas—things like “e-mail Dr. Costa” or “Essay topic: law and colonialism”. The list is powerful way to capture all the things that pop into your head and try to distract you. Keeping the list means you can keep working on your time-blocked activities confident that won’t lose any idea or drop any obligations. 

notebook showing tasks and ideas columns
A simple tasks and ideas list

You can do this using different apps or just a paper notebook. I prefer paper. It reduces the risk of getting distracted by other things on a phone or laptop. Paper books are also tactile and nice to use. You can devise your own approach, but I like to divide mine into tasks and ideas, as well as work and life.

Notebook page divided in to four quarters for time management for students
Divide your notebook page as you wish

Of course, the list is only useful if you remember to use it and review it. So later, when you are finished with one of your bigger, deeper, calendar activities, tackle some things on your list. 

Execute tasks by a) actually doing them, or b) scheduling them for another time. Have a look at your calendar. It’s fine to move an idea from your list to your calendar for another day.

For ideas, move them to the appropriate place (for example, add essay ideas to a document dedicated to that essay, etc.) Then cross off your tasks, enjoy the feeling, go do something different. 

I like to mark my tasks to show if they are completed or scheduled using a check or an arrow. See below how I’ve added a check to the left of one item and an arrow to the right of another. This means I’ve sent the e-mail but I haven’t booked the tutorial yet. Instead I’ve put a reminder in my book for tomorrow to book my tutorial.

Notebook page showing coloured annotations for time management for students
Use coloured annotations to keep track

The annotation style above is inspired by “bullet journaling”. The bullet journal style is a bit more complicated, but some people love it. 

I should mention here that all of this has been informed by the work of productivity expert Cal Newport. His podcast, website, and books are great for understanding the underlying ideas behind all of this stuff. You can check out his Time Block Planner, which brings the calendar and list approach together in one hard-copy book — you don’t need a digital anything. Newport’s planner is a great tool but you can achieve the same thing with a blank notebook too.

Planning big projects

A key third part of time management for students is project management. Here’s an approach borrowed from project management experts that can help you think about long-term projects. Use a work breakdown structure. This method used by project managers uses a tree structure or spider chart to break a project into smaller pieces. Try this so you can plan better, hit your deadlines comfortably, achieve better results, and feel calmer right away. 

Here’s a simplified version to show you how it works (you would need to make a more detailed plan to make it actually useful):

Tree chart or mindmap of a project work breakdown structure for project management for students
A work breakdown structure can help you plan projects

As you see in the example above, break your project into phases and then into small tasks. Make a good guess at how long each thing will take. Then work backward from your deadline, and put everything in your calendar. (It’s fine if you don’t guess the right times at first. This takes practice.)

I use a tool called Miro for creating this type of graphic mind-map for a work breakdown structure. Miro is also great way to brainstorm, collect ideas for a project and collaborate.

So those are the basic time management strategies for college and university students. Many who use these techniques absolutely swear by them. And a lot of disorganised students try this combo of time-blocking and to-do lists and are amazed how good it feels. 

To sum up

So those are the basic time management strategies for college and university students. Many who use these techniques absolutely swear by them. And a lot of disorganised students try this combo of time-blocking and to-do lists and are amazed how good it feels.

Give it a try now and see if it makes sense. I think it will, but if you’re not convinced you’ll find more ideas in the blog articles and podcast. Neuro-diverse students, for example, might benefit from trying other approaches that involve cue cards, timers etc.

Why this works

Your brain is designed to do one thing at a time. But the environment we live in tries to make you do too much at once with your attention. The information-rich world we live in wants to disrupt the way your brain likes to work. This has a cost on your ability to get things done, do good work, and remain calm and happy. It’s stressful.

But the time management methods above provide a structure to help you focus on one thing at a time. Essentially these methods capture the many thoughts in your head so you can calm down, get things done, and still remember to do all the other stuff you have to do tomorrow and the next day and next month. Working more deeply on one thing at a time is really satisfying.

Try it and let us know if it worked!

Do you procrastinate and put things off?

Procrastination is natural when you don’t know why you’re doing something or can’t visualise how to do it. So if you find yourself putting things off, find your motivation and figure out the first step in getting it done.

Find motivation: The first type of motivation is intrinsic. That’s when you are just really interested in something, or you value the activity in itself. Like maybe you just love gardening. If you haven’t found that, don’t give up. You can often learn to love something with time.

The second type of motivation is extrinsic. This means you value the outcome of the activity. So if you don’t love gardening, you do it because you enjoy the flowers when they come.

Figure out your first step: Often we just need to get started. Before we get started we need to visualise of conceive of how we can accomplish something. Visualising may take a bit of research, planning, and trial and error. This can be a bit uncomfortable.

Perhaps the biggest skill you can learn, however, is comfort with discomfort. If you can accept the bit of friction you feel when trying to get started on a new activity, it’s easier to take the first step.

A life hack for procrastination: There’s another interesting hack for procrastination discussed by scientist Andrew Huberman on his podcast. This involves hacking your dopamine levels. To sum it up: If you’re putting something off like writing an essay, do something else for 5-10 minutes that causes you discomfort. For example: intense exercise or a very cold shower or focus-oriented meditation. These types of activities modify your brain chemistry to make it easier to write the essay afterwards. Try it and let us know if it works.

OK, so take some time right now to find a good calendar and notebook and get started. Or if you want to learn more, check out our page on reading strategically to make better use of your reading time.

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