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Introduction to university study: Time management

“Time management is not optional. It is something that everyone who wants to work effectively must consider, whether formally or informally."

Patrick Forsyth,  Successful Time Management

Strict deadlines for assignments, large amounts of unstructured time and new-found independence can mean managing your time at university can be a daunting experience for many new students. Alternatively, you may have family commitments or part/full-time jobs and squeezing in time for study can be a challenge.

This guide gives you some helpful tips to try so that you feel more in control.


Principles of time management

Whilst time management is very personal, with different approaches working for different people, there are some basic principles that are common to all: organisation, prioritisation, focus and self-discipline.

Organisation

Immense amounts of time are wasted and deadlines missed if you are not at least reasonably well organised. There are two main ways to improve your organisation:

Organise your diary/calendar

Calendar with dates added

You cannot organise your time effectively without using a diary or a calendar. This can be paper or online but you must use it constantly and consistently. Don't just rely on the iHull app to organise your time, this only includes some of what you need to consider. 

The first step to organisation is entering all your fixed tasks and commitments:

  • Enter all your deadlines as soon as you have them - your official assignment deadlines should be on the Canvas site for each module you're taking—usually within the module handbook or the assignments section. Deadlines often bunch up together and recognising this can mean you can plan more effectively, perhaps by making earlier artificial deadlines to spread them out more manageably.
  • Enter everything that is unmoveable—your lectures, tutorials, lab work, part-time work, volunteering, sports commitments, regular child-care, family commitments...everything.

These are the framework events that everything else needs to fit around. Once these are in you can be more realistic about the time that you have to complete all the other tasks. 

Organise your stuff

Don't waste time searching for lecture notes, journal print-outs, lost referencing information and so on. 

  • Create a system (physical or online) for organising all your notes and paperwork.
  • Every time you read something, keep a note of the information you would need to reference it (photographing the copyright page of a book for example). 
  • Keep your work area reasonably tidy. 

Spending just a few minutes each week organising your stuff can save you hours in the long run. Consider doing it on a Sunday afternoon and think of it as rebooting to start each week with a fresh and organised system.

Prioritisation

Some things are more important than others. They don't necessarily need doing first - but they need time allocating to them first. Assessed work is the obvious example but quite honestly it depends what you want out of life. For some students (and we probably should not admit this) extra-curricular activities are more important than their university work. It could be that doing a lot of sport or volunteering and achieving a 2-1 is more important than getting a first - or you have a lot of family commitments and you just needs to pass. Whatever your goals, at any given moment you will have to give priority to one task or another.

If we just look at university work, your priorities will depend on: list of tasks with arrows moving them up and down in order

  • Is the work assessed?
  • What percentage of the module grade is the assessment worth? (Give more time to those with more weighting.)
  • Will doing this task make my assessed work easier/better?
  • Will doing this task make a tutorial or lecture more useful?
  • How much time will it take?
  • How urgent is it?

Sometimes just answering these questions can be enough to help decide what to put where in the free spaces in your calendar/diary - if you are still struggling, think of using a tool like a To-do list or a matrix.

Focus

Once you have decided what you are working on and for how long, you need to ensure you can focus on the task at hand:

Avoiding social media

Social media icons crossed outFor most students, focusing means removing distractions such as social media and text notifications. For his book 15 Secrets Successful People Know about Time Management, Kevin Kruse interviewed a group of 'straight-A students' and more than half of them talked about the need to limit social media use. Many used apps that block social media sites on laptops or phones for specified periods of time - try searching online for "social media blocker" and look as some reviews to find the ones that are best for your devices.

If you don't want to use a specific blocker, then at least turn off notifications (or even your whole phone!) whilst you are working on task - it will make the work quicker and allow you to enjoy social media guilt-free later on.

Environment

student working in the library

The other way to help you focus is to choose or create an environment that is free of distractions. Your own room can be full of interesting things that can easily catch your attention, consider working elsewhere when you are struggling to focus. 

The University Library has silent and quiet study areas and being in an atmosphere where other people are working can help you concentrate. With people around you, you will also feel guilty if you stray off your task to watch YouTube or Netflix! 

student working in coffee shopSome people like working in a coffee shop where there is free Wi-Fi and the hum of conversation and clinking of cups acts like 'white noise' and helps you zone in to your own work. You do have to buy a few drinks though so it make get pricey!


If you can't get onto campus or need to work later in the evening, then working in a different room to where most of your 'stuff' is can help - leaving your phone behind of course.

Student room with separated work zoneAlternatively, if your room is the only option, then think about how you can organise your space into a work zone and a relaxation zone. If you have to use the same computer or monitor, is there something you can do to signify work time and relaxation time. Clearing the desk, putting something different on the desk, changing the lighting or music - anything that is different can trick your mind into focusing.

Time of day

Students studying late at night and early morningDifferent people focus better at different times of the day. Some like to get up early and get straight on before other people are about to distract them; others like late-night working, with the room dark and a desk light illuminating their work and blocking out everything else. 

In reality, most people actually ARE morning people - no really! Unless you wake up regularly (and naturally) at lunchtime, the likelihood is that you are not using your most productive time of the day effectively. For most of you, the most productive time is the first two hours after you are fully awake (we appreciate the waking up process takes longer for different people). So if you can, use those two hours for getting the most important thing for the day done - reading a difficult paper, writing an essay, revising an important topic etc. Use hours later on in the day for catching up on social media, sorting your notes, housework, laundry etc. Don't waste the time when your brain is at its most receptive on tasks that don't require concentration.

Self-discipline

In the end, good time management comes down to self-discipline. Without this you can become prone to procrastination. Let's face it, there is nearly always something you want to do more than your university work. If you are working on a particularly difficult or uninspiring piece of work then even jobs you hate suddenly look appealing.

see-saw balanced with work and playSelf-discipline is all about balance. You need to build some me-time into your routine so that you do not feel like your life is all work and no play. This can be checking your social media at specific times a day; a daily work-out routine; a regular night out; or a couple of hours watching TV* or gaming* at the end of the day. When this is planned, it is easier to convince yourself to spend other times on your university work. 

*Gaming and watching TV (especially with full series available) are known time-sponges. You can start off thinking 'I'll just have a half-hour break" and end up still doing it hours later. If you are reasonably disciplined and merely forget the time, then always set a timer on your phone or watch to remind you to get back to work. If it is more problematic than that, then don't start this activity until you have finished working for the day. Consider it your well-deserved reward.


This video from Oxford University offers some good general time management advice:

Printable guide

Thumbnail of Time Management printable guide

 

A single page printable guide with our top 8 tips for time management.

Click on the link above or the image to download the PDF.