The six steps to time management success
1. Identify how long things actually take
Research shows us that underestimating how long it takes to complete a task is a very common phenomenon. Quite often, students set themselves the task of reading 3 chapters in one evening, not taking into account that there are 50 pages for each chapter, the chapter is about a very complex topic, and in that one evening there are only two available hours once you exclude preparing dinner, eating, and doing the dishes.
Underestimating the time it takes to complete tasks can leave you thinking that you're not getting very far, so you start feeling frustrated and deflated, and you overcompensate by setting more and more goals!
How do we stop the negative cycle from perpetuating? You could try one or two of the following suggestions:
- Obtain a realistic estimation of how long everyday tasks take. Rather than just guess, try timing how long it actually takes you to iron a shirt, make a ‘quick’ phone call, have a shower etc. You might be surprised!
- Work out where your time is spent. Keep a diary over a period of one week. Every hour, make a note of what you have spent the previous hour doing.
- For each task that you estimate, you may wish to multiply the estimated time by 1.5 to 2 times.
2. Identify how much time you actually have
Now that we know how long tasks actually take, let’s look at how much time we actually have available to us. The reality is that many students think that the time that they have for studying is what is left over after classes, dinner, and work.
Unfortunately, there is a lot missing from this kind of timetable, including activities such as socialising, relaxing, household duties, and travelling time. These are all activities that take up time! A more realistic version takes into account:
- Commitments - Classes, work, sports, gym, committees, etc. Include travelling time.
- Personal Time - Grooming/hygiene, relaxing after returning home from university, watching television, listening to music, shopping, socialising (including Facebook, email, texting, gaming etc.)
- Essential Time - Eating, and sleeping (yes, these are essentials!)
- Housework - Preparing meals, doing dishes, cleaning house, doing laundry etc.
A more realistic timetable may therefore have far few blocks of free time than you might think! Why not download the timetable template from the 'Documents' section on the right and test this out. Personalise the timetable to make it your own. Use colours, typefaces and styles that are meaningful and enjoyable to you.
3. Prioritise your tasks
By now, it may seem that fitting everything into your schedule may not be possible. When this occurs, it is important to prioritise. A useful tool to help you prioritise is Eisenhower Time Management Matrix taken from Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
Quadrant 1 (Important/Urgent) tasks helps you attend to urgent and important tasks, but they can also increase stress and contribute to burnout in the longer term. Putting your main focus on Quadrants 3 and 4 means that you spend time on tasks that do not contribute to your longer term goals.
Quadrant 2 is where you should aim to spend most of your time. These tasks seek to achieve goals sustainably. Tasks that enhance our physical and mental health fall in this quadrant, including making time to exercise, ensuring that you eat a healthy meal, and scheduling time for relaxation to recharge your batteries.
4. Use your time efficiently
The key to using your time efficiently is to know your circadian rhythm - the times at which you are most alert, such as the morning or the evening. Our concentration and reaction time varies with our circadian rhythm, whereas our memory and our ability to do calculations are less affected.
As a university student, even though the focus is on studying and completing assessments, there will certainly be tasks that require high concentration levels (such as reading and understanding a chapter), and tasks that are less demanding on your concentration (such as typing up a reference list for your assignment).
Schedule tasks that require high concentration levels for times when you are most alert.
All other tasks can be scheduled around these high concentration tasks. For example, if you are less alert in the evenings after dinner, you can use this time to format your assignment, find research on the Internet, do housework, socialise etc.
Bus or train time is an opportunity to revise lecture notes, to test your memory of significant theories or studies in your subjects, to plan a timetable for the coming week, to plan social activities or listen to music or re-listen to an audio lecture.
Research has shown that multitasking can actually be counterproductive. Specifically, each time you switch from one task to another, there is a cost associated in refocusing your attention. Overall, switching from a familiar task or switching to an unfamiliar task is associated with larger time costs. Each time you shift from one task to another, such as checking email while writing and assignment, you have to refocus your attention.
These are inefficient because both tasks in each example demand your concentration and attention, and you cannot attend to both simultaneously without your performance on either task suffering.
Be realistic when identifying which tasks are compatible from a multitasking perspective.
Examine where you can eliminate ‘wasteful’ time. For example, if there is a television show that you must watch, rather than try to study simultaneously just add it to the 'Watch Later' list on your DVR, then you can reward yourself with an ad-free TV session.
5. Reward and recharge
Reward and recharge means scheduling in time to do something that you enjoy effortlessly – whether it is spending time with friends, reading, gaming or simply resting. Your mind and body need rest in order to function optimally.
Sometimes students find it difficult to justify taking a break, particularly during exam periods or late in semester when assignments are due. Fun, healthy food and exercise give way to late nights spent cramming or rushing to finish assignments. Just like any finely-tuned machine (that's you, right?), your body and mind need rest, fuel and maintenance to perform!
In the context of the Time Management Matrix above, 'reward and recharge' should fall into the all-important Quadrant 2; don't let it slip into Quadrant 4 by neglecting it or using it to enable procrastination! Remember when you made your timetable back in Step 2 (of course)? If you didn't allocate any time to 'reward and recharge', go back and do it now!
6. Review regularly
A nice easy step to finish on. Circumstances change with increasing workload towards the end of the university semester, but also with changes in work and personal circumstances. These will impact on how your time is managed. Regularly review how your time management plan is working in order to increase its effectiveness.
Wondering where to start with Time Management? Give these quick, easy tips a go and see if you can start being more effective with all of your time, not just study time.
If you can spare ten minutes this video is highly recommended. The Penguin Professor takes you through some excellent points on time management in a friendly, accessible manner.
Learn the Eisenhower matrix for deciding what to do and when based on urgency and importance.
An Excel template for planning your time.