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Time management 101: Or how to plan your time when you have no time

You might have seen that Venn diagram meme, you know, the one where it tells you to pick two: study or sleep or a social life. Often uni can feel like that. There’s so many things to juggle- assignments, exams, classes, readings, sleep and social engagements – it can feel like you have to shaft something if you want to stay sane. Throw in work or a family like many students do, and you’ve almost got a perfect recipe for burnout.

However, it doesn’t have to be this way! Time management is one of those skills that sounds a bit dry, but it can work wonders for improving your uni experience. In fact, we would argue that it is vital. It’s also a lot more straightforward than people think. While it takes some effort to implement, mastering time management can help to ease work-related stress, free up time so you can do things you enjoy and help you complete tasks more efficiently.

What is time management?

At its core, time management is all about knowing what you must do (e.g. assignments, homework or exams), when you must do it (deadlines – both true and self imposed) and how to do it (creating a set of goals that will get you there). In this article, we’re going to break down each of these 3 things and give you some tips to kick-start each one. The examples we use are uni specific, but you can use these strategies in all areas of your life (in fact, we recommend it!).

What do I need to do?

The first step to managing your time is working out exactly what you have to do with your time. The best way to do this is to use a calendar. A calendar will help you keep track of what you have due in a nice centralised location. A calendar is universal in its basic concept, but you should tailor the specifics to your preferences. For example, if you have your phone glued to your hip, consider a digital option. If you love writing things down, consider a paper calendar. Whatever you go with, make sure it is as easy for you to use as possible.

Once you have your calendar, spend some time to put in all your deadlines (for our purposes this would be your uni work, but it should also include your work and social commitments).
Next, use your calendar. This might seem dumb to say, but a calendar only works if you use and review it regularly; make your calendar a part of your daily routine. A good rule of thumb is the 10 minute rule:

  • 10 minutes each month – on the last week of each month, look at the events for the upcoming month like major assignments
  • 10 minutes each week – at the start of each week review the things you have coming up that week, draft a more detailed plan of how you will spend your time
  • 10 minutes each day – Each evening, take a look at what you have on the next day and create a schedule

Check out this video of how ‘college study smarts’ Jessica Shield’s uses her calendar with this method:

Some other tips:

  • Put in new events immediately – Add every date to your calendar as soon as you get them. This helps you avoid forgetting and helps encourage you to use it in your daily life.
  • Pin your calendar to your browser or enable obvious notifications on your phone – Really a no-brainer for a digital calendar, make it as in-your-face as possible!
  • Consider a pocket to do list – A calendar can be bulky to carry around (especially if you opt for a paper version). If you’re having trouble lugging things around, consider using your daily 10 minutes to transcribe your to do list onto a small piece of paper that you can keep in your pocket. When you finish something, tick it off, and when a new date comes up jot it down on the other side. At the end of the day, transcribe what you haven’t done or any new dates into your main calendar.

The next part of working out what you have to do is understanding what you have to do. After all, writing a deadline in your diary is useless unless you know what it is you have to submit. Often lecturers give you guidelines for assignments, some better than others. Scour these guidelines, look for key bits of information:

  • What type of assignment is it? – Is it an essay, a review, a quiz? The type of assignment will inform how you approach getting it done.
  • Is it major or minor? – Have a look at how much it is worth for your overall grade, this will inform how much time you spend on it
  • How much time will it take? – Think about similar assignments you have done in the past, how long did these take? If you don’t know, err on the side of caution and overestimate.
  • What kind of background work is required? – Some assignments require no background, some require scores of research papers and abstract hunting. Background takes time and effort, so make sure you know what extra work you might have to do.

If something is unclear or you have questions, ask, and sooner rather than later. Often someone else will have similar questions, so consider putting yours on FLO rather than emailing directly.

When do I need to do it?

Working out when you need to do things is a little more complex than just setting and forgetting a deadline in a calendar. Building on from the previous points, the next step to managing your time is prioritizing what is most important. The key point for prioritizing is that it is not always about what is due the soonest. Often, investing small amounts of time over longer periods can reap more benefits than proceeding in a linear, deadline based fashion. Still, prioritizing based on what is most imminent is important – you shouldn’t be working on something due next month, if you haven’t started this week’s readings.

Look at the answers to the previous questions. Let these guide how you prioritize. For example, as we’ve said, the more complex an assignment, the more time you need to give it. Maybe you have a big literature review to do, consider prioritising small blocks to chip away at it over time, rather than setting aside large blocks of time to ‘smash it out’. Even a few hours a week in the early days to research papers and gather ideas will go a long way to improving the quality of your work. Not only will this protect against unforeseen issues, like illness, but it will help you maintain a sense of progress, building confidence and avoiding the anxiety of an assignment you haven’t started.

Some other tips:

  • For minor assignments, try not to be too precious – always do your best, but don’t lose sleep over half a percent. Ask yourself: is this assignment worth all the angsting I’m doing? A good rule of thumb for minor assignments is 100% done, 80% perfect.
  • Create some self-imposed deadlines – this could be for a first draft or an editing pass. We know, we know, it’s but challenge yourself. If you find it hard to stick to deadlines, consider tricking yourself by putting in a fake deadline a week before the real deadline. This will jolt you into gear a bit earlier than you might have (especially if you forget you moved it earlier!)

How do I do it?

So you know what you have to do and you know when you have to do it. Now it’s time to make a plan of action. As we’ve said, deadlines alone don’t make for good time management, to get yourself organised you have to make a plan, and stick to it. Goal setting is a great way to help focus your attention and increase your confidence in reaching your long-term goals. Goal setting is also very scalable. You can set goals for your study session, your day, your week, your…well you get the idea.

Here’s where we loop back around and bring back your calendar. Remember when we told you to spend 10 minutes at the start of the month/week/day to schedule out your time? Incorporate some goals into that and stick to them. Remember to incorporate the SMART method we talked about in our small skills blog. Here’s a reminder:

Specific: your goal should be clear and well-defined.
Measurable: a good goal is one that you can ‘measure’ to see if you have achieved it or not.
Attainable: the goal should not be impossible to achieve.
Realistic: it’s good to be ambitious, but be realistic about what is attainable for you.
Timely: the goal should have a deadline .

Goal setting example:

Task: I have a major literature review due at the end of this month Monthly goal: Submit my review on time, Get an HD Weekly goals:

  • Week 1: Review all the requirements for this assignment, ensure I know what I have to do, begin brainstorming topics and researching ideas – By the end of this week I should have settled on a topic
  • Week 2: Start refining my topic, begin collecting key papers and evidence, draft an outline – By the end of this week I should have a collection of key papers I can base my paper on
  • Week 3: Draft week! Write like there’s no tomorrow – By the end of this week I should have a draft of my assignment
  • Week 4: Finish final draft, do an editing pass, let it sit for a few days and review again – By the end of this week I should have submitted!

Daily goals:

  • A day during week 2: Read at least 3 of the papers i have on my list (2 hour study block at uni)
  • A day during week 4: Spend 2 hours editing my final draft

Another key part of your plan of action is going to be getting the things you want to get done in the time you designate. We’ve all had the experience where we severely underestimate how long something will take, it’s not fun. Here we recommend studying smarter, not harder. Getting more out of shorter sessions (think 30 minute bursts) can be hard at first, but it is the most efficient way to spend your time.

Avoid ‘pseudo work’, defined by Cal Newport as when you spend a lot of time studying but don’t actually accomplish much because of lack of focus and concentration. This usually comes about because of mind-wandering, phones, friends, the internet, you get the idea. Pseudo work can be very demotivating because you are spending time studying, but you’re not getting much done.

Find out more about how to avoid pseudo work here

So how do you avoid pseudo work? One answer is to compress your work into short bursts of high intensity focus. These sessions take a lot more effort, but they are a lot more time efficient and you will get a lot more done.

Here are some tips:

  • Time yourself and take breaks – Time a session for 30 minutes, and commit to doing nothing but work during this time. At the end take a quick 5 minute break, then get back to it. Rinse and repeat a few times, then take a longer break to refresh.
  • Use aids – Download a blocker on your browser, or an app on your phone that will leave you no choice but to focus on your work.
  • Change your environment – go somewhere quiet or different that will jolt your brain into work mode (this is especially helpful if you have something looming that you just.need.to.get.done)
  • Plan your session – Before you begin, plan out exactly what you want to do during the session (hello goal setting!) This will help you keep focus.
  • Reward yourself – When you complete a session, even if it wasn’t perfect, give yourself a reward (preferably healthy!). This will help motivate you and give you some positive reinforcement to keep going.


Time management can sometimes seem counter intuitive. However, it is an investment in your overall uni experience. Here, we’ve discussed some strategies and tips that we hope will help you refine your own time management skills. Remember, everyone is different, so one time management strategies will work best for everyone. Experiment with what works best for you!

Author: Rosie Coleman

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