Seven indispensable tips for effective student time management.
1. Block out your day.
Although you may believe that creating a daily to-do list is a good way to organize yourself, think again. When you use a to-do list, you're planning your day around what you want to get done, as opposed to what you actually can get done. A better way to organize is to use time blocking. Every morning, before your first class, rip a sheet of paper out of your notebook. Moving down the left-hand margin, mark the hours of the day using every other line. Now draw boxes around the chunks of time when you will be in class, meetings, sports practice, or any other planned commitments. Next, draw boxes around the chunks of time when you will be eating your meals, exercising, or relaxing. The open space that remains is your free time for the day. Now you can start to build a realistic work schedule.
First, box this free time into chunks that are at least 30 minutes long, and label each chunk with what you are going to accomplish during that period (e.g., work on math homework, start research for history paper, read two chapters for English class.) Then, fold up this scrap of paper, put it in your pocket, and reference it throughout the day to remind yourself of what you should be doing at any given moment. Unlike a daily to-do list, time blocking provides you with a realistic plan that you can actually accomplish. Carving your time into blocks is a fundamental aspect of successful time management.
2. Schedule at least one "to-do" block every day.
Each morning, when you block out your day into chunks of time, set aside at least one chunk for accomplishing essential small tasks. Next to this block, write out a mini to-do list of the small errands and chores you need to accomplish. Add tasks to this list throughout the day as they pop up. This chunk of time is now your "to-do" block -- a consolidated piece of your day when you can efficiently take care of quick tasks such as returning books and videos, making reservations, or mailing in bill payments.
This works great you can accomplish a lot in one concentrated flurry of activity. You can also consolidate to-dos by location. If you have to head across campus anyway, you should see if there any errands you can do along the route.
By attacking all your small chores during one concise block of time, you will get them done quickly and painlessly.
3. Keep a mini calendar in your backpack if you do not have access to cell phone capabilities.
Buy a pocket-sized calendar notebook that has one page for every day of the current year, and bring it with you wherever you go. When deadlines, exam schedules, special events, or other important dates arise, quickly jot them down. Get in the habit of looking at your calendar each morning so you know what's coming up, and you can plan your day accordingly.
Don't fall into the temptation of trying to keep track of dates in your head -- you'll forget something important. You can use a cheap giveaway from your bookstore or an expensive day planner. It doesn't really matter, as long as it has a space to write for each day.
4. Be flexible.
The astute reader has probably noticed an apparent flaw with the time blocking system recommended above. It seems rather optimistic to assume that the schedule you sketch out each morning will remain accurate throughout the day. As any undergraduate will attest, college life is, if nothing else, unpredictable. Friends drop by unexpectedly, assignments take twice as long as you planned, printers jam, computers crash, and can't-miss events are brought to your attention at the last minute. Don't worry about the danger of becoming a "slave" to your schedule.
The reason you jot down your schedule quickly on a piece of scrap paper (as opposed to a giant organizer) is because your plans will change.
If an unexpected event occurs, wait until you're free again, and then take that scrap of paper out of your pocket and spend 30 seconds redrawing the blocks for the remainder of the day. It's that simple.
Don't let your schedule be anything more than just a convenient and highly adaptable guide. You've just got to go with the flow. So embrace the craziness that is student life. Flexibility will keep you sane.
5. Keep an accountability log.
How do you deal with long-term projects? Perhaps one of the most important attributes of a successful student is the ability to break down large assignments into smaller pieces of work, and then spread these small assignments out over a period of time. This skill is actually not that hard to acquire. Want to know the trick? Hold yourself accountable.
The human ego is a powerful thing, and you can use it to your advantage as follows: As soon as a long-term project is assigned, mark on your calendar the days you plan to work on it. When you get to each of these marked days, block out on your scrap paper schedule the specific work you want to accomplish. Then -- and this is the important part -- at the end of each of those days, jot down on your calendar whether or not you've accomplished your goal. You'll be surprised how motivating this method is.
Accountability logs are not for everyone. If you have no problem working ahead of schedule, then logging your progress is an unnecessary step. But if you constantly find yourself finishing projects at the last minute, get in the habit of keeping yourself accountable. It only takes a few extra seconds a day, and its positive effects are undeniable.
6. Take Fridays off!
That's right, declare Friday a day free from organization. Don't let a daily schedule come anywhere near you. One of the most common reasons people abandon their time management systems is because they begin to feel overwhelmed. Taking time off is critical otherwise you will start resenting your schedule. Then you won't follow it.
After your classes are done on Friday, relax! Although it is often a good idea to try to get some work done on Friday afternoons (so you won't be swamped come Sunday), don't formally schedule any work. Just accomplish what seems reasonable and interesting, and above all, take it easy. On Saturday, start easing back into a scheduled lifestyle by blocking out three or four hours in the late afternoon to get some work done, but leave the rest of the day open. Treat Sunday like a full scheduled workday, and try to accomplish as much as possible. This method will keep you energized for the week ahead, and prevent you from burning out from organization-overload.
7. Create chore rituals.
Perhaps equally as difficult as scheduling work for long-term assignments, is convincing yourself to tackle non-essential chores like doing your laundry, cleaning your room, running boring errands, and calling home. These seemingly simple tasks rarely seem "vital" to accomplish, so they are often pushed aside and ignored.
One of the easiest ways to stay on top of these tasks is to create chore rituals. The beauty of a routine is it prevents you from forgetting to do something important. For example, you could get in the habit of doing your laundry every other Sunday. During the half hour when your clothes are in the washer, you can clean your room. During the hour when your clothes are in the dryer, finish your boring errands. While you fold and put away your clothes, call home. Don't stress -- in a few weeks, your chore rituals will become habitual.
During this learning period, leave yourself constant reminders about the exact time and composition of your routine. Go as far as having your rituals laminated and posted above your desk. Once they become habit, you will no longer have to expend mental energy to get your chores accomplished on a regular basis. Your parents will be so proud!
Though proven and useful, these seven tips by no means describe a complete time management system. However, they do provide a push in the right direction toward a personalized system that is simple, smart, and works well for your particular circumstances.